Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool is not as similar as you might think to the gung-ho team that Brendan Rodgers built.
Any Liverpool trip to Selhurst Park is bound to conjure memories of 2013/14 and on the face of it, Saturday’s match was one that could have been beamed in from three years ago. The slapstick defensive mistakes, the glut of goals at both ends, the fleet of freewheeling attackers eventually proving decisive – Liverpool’s 4-2 win on the weekend had all the hallmarks of the team that came so close to the holy grail under Brendan Rodgers, and not least because it confirmed Jurgen Klopp’s side, a quarter of the way into the season, as genuine challengers for the title.
And at a glance, you’d think the German was mounting that challenge along much the same lines as his predecessor – by knocking together a giddily gung-ho side whose MO is to outscore all opponents. Various statistics attest to this: Liverpool’s goals scored and shots on target this season are both unsurpassed in the division, while the goalless draw against a desperately timid Manchester United remains their only clean sheet.
The team’s outstanding players are its attackers, while big, bold question marks hover over many of those tasked with keeping goals out. (Although this time round, some would say the defence isn’t quite as bad as it can seem.)
And yet, much as this team may resemble that side of 2013/14, the similarities are largely superficial. Yes, this is a top-heavy, thrill-a-minute side in the manner of its forerunner. But it is also one whose play is far more co-ordinated and deliberate than the class of 2013, which was largely founded on the improvisational brilliance of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.
This is not to denigrate Rodgers – there’s a fine art to building a platform on which a genius can operate at full capacity and rarely has that been practised more impressively than the way Rodgers ignited Suarez. (The Uruguayan scored 15 in 44 league games for Liverpool before Rodgers arrived and 54 in 66 thereafter, the sort of mark-up which doesn’t happen without expert coaching.) And the fact that Rodgers’ side made room for both Suarez and Sturridge – two bona fide attacking soloists – to flourish in tandem, and indeed to coax the best from each other, was a hell of a feat.
It’s telling that Sturridge, the most high-profile remaining player from the 2013/14 campaign and a decent embodiment of it in terms of playing style, cannot get a game in Klopp’s side. Because while the team of three years ago was founded on spontaneity and individualist exuberance, this one has its roots in a tightly synchronised setup that leaves little room for the sort of unconstrained ad-libbing in which Sturridge and Suarez specialised.
In place of that pair of unshackled strikers, this incarnation has a front four characterised by their hard yards. The quartet lacks a single true centre-forward, but all are united by the ability to fill and vacate space with a cohesion that’s quite clearly the product of many hours on the training ground.
Much discussion of Klopp’s forward line centres on the fabled gegenpressing that happens out of possession, but equally magnetic is the buzzard-like movement once the ball has been recovered: a frenzied variety of off-the-ball runs that has the appearance of madcap chaos but is actually anything but. Saturday was a note-perfect example of this, with each of the front four (not to mention Emre Can) presented with at least one clear sight of goal from near enough the penalty spot, having drifted into the space evacuated by a team-mate once the shapeshifting attack clicked into gear.
Three years ago, Sturridge and Suarez jointly scored 52 goals. This time out their Liverpool’s joint-top scorers are on course for a mere 15 each come May. The crucial difference is that four players hold that mantle (one of whom is the left-back), and while Sturridge and Suarez were once responsible for over half the side’s goals, now no side in the division can top Liverpool’s nine different goalscorers.
None of this is to suggest either side is superior – although Klopp’s blueprint, which is less contingent on any one player, certainly seems more sustainable. Both teams are fun, flawed and habitually electrifying; both are among the best in the country.
Part of the beauty of football is that there’s joy to be taken from both individualism and teamwork, and one doesn’t necessarily triumph over the other. Whether you prefer the high-octane lunacy of the Suarez-led outfit or the collectivist energy of the current one is essentially a matter of taste.
Ultimately, it’s the differences from its predecessor that will come to define this year’s side, not the similarities. A topsy-turvy goal-gala at Selhurst Park is common ground for both. But the fact that this year’s visit saw a title challenge cemented rather than slain is, for now, a promising divergence.