Time for Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool to flex muscles against Stoke City in League Cup

Liverpool's defensive deficiencies remain and the sense is that Klopp is discovering the job is bigger, and Liverpool’s problems are more entrenched, than he initially realised, writes Richard Jolly.

Jurgen Klopp has been called a 'soft German' when in reality he is a hard manager of a soft Liverpool side, writes our columnist. Sean Dempsey / EPA
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Jurgen Klopp’s message was as blunt as it was memorable.

When he was introduced to his Liverpool team, he told them he wanted them to be “mentally strong machines”.

A dozen weeks into his tenure at Anfield, the evidence is that Liverpool are physically weak and flawed.

Rather than the machine-like efficiency their manager envisaged, they have displayed human frailties.

Rather than the relentless consistency the most efficient teams exhibit, they have veered between extremes.

Liverpool can flourish as underdogs, as they did in their emphatic victories over Chelsea and Manchester City, and fail as favourites.

They can press but struggle when others put them under pressure.

A manager whose best teams have displayed a forcefulness has seen his current charges overpowered too often.

Liverpool’s inability to cope with physicality has been a recurring theme in their setbacks under Klopp.

They could not handle a towering target man, West Ham United’s Andy Carroll, in Saturday’s 2-0 loss. They were outmuscled by Watford’s “Bruise Brothers” in attack, Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo, in December’s defeat.

They were outpaced by Crystal Palace’s electric attacker Yannick Bolasie when the Londoners won at Anfield.

They have been found wanting time and again at set-pieces, leading Klopp to complain after the 2-2 draw with West Bromwich Albion that it felt as though 98 per cent of the goals Liverpool let in were from dead-ball situations.

Since then, they have shown a capacity to concede in open play instead. “We have issues with crosses,” Klopp said on Monday ahead of Tuesday night’s League Cup semi-final first leg at Stoke City. “Before that, we had issues with set pieces.”

When Sam Allardyce branded Klopp a “soft German” in a touchline row at Sunderland last week, the insult was misjudged.

He is a hard figure with a team that has a soft underbelly.

Besides confrontations in the dugouts, Klopp’s brief reign has been notable for a disarming honesty.

Few excuses have been made.

He has not sought to excuse Liverpool’s shortcomings.

An emotional character has retained his eloquence.

He continues to talk about the physical, not the technical. “We were passive [against West Ham],” he said. “That’s not good in life or in football. We have to be more aggressive.”

Liverpool have outrun teams in midfield at times, but they have to prove to their manager that they can stand up to a challenge.

Especially one they have failed before. Klopp’s first silverware could come in the League Cup.

It takes him to the place where his predecessor’s tenure unravelled. Brendan Rodgers was on borrowed time after May’s 6-1 capitulation at the Britannia Stadium.

Stoke could be tempted to rewind the clock.

Mark Hughes has reconfigured them cleverly, adopting the tactics that Klopp deployed to great effect in his wins at Stamford Bridge and the Etihad Stadium.

Deploying a front three of technical talents with Bojan Krkic as a false nine, coupled with outstanding wins over both Manchester clubs and Everton, has brought more mentions of the “Stokealona” nickname, referencing a transformation to incorporate more fantasy players.

The Stoke of stereotype, based upon set pieces, physical power and a battery of six-footers, may be ideally suited to facing this Liverpool team.

Because Liverpool have displayed too little fortitude.

They have too few machines. Klopp has been unfortunate in that James Milner and Jordan Henderson, two with the running power to suggest they are battery powered, are sidelined.

Yet flair players such as Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana have been more ineffectual recently.

Liverpool have stopped swarming all over opponents and they have not compensated with creativity.

Their defensive deficiencies remain and the sense is that Klopp is discovering the job is bigger, and Liverpool’s problems are more entrenched, than he initially realised.

Yet the League Cup offers the chance of just a second piece of silverware in 10 years.

That will be squandered unless Klopp’s team show that, particularly in the centre of defence and in goal, that they cannot be bullied.

Because there has been too little evidence of mental or physical strength from Liverpool of late.

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