Champions-elect saw their hopes of an unbeaten Premier League season hurried at Watford but has to regain focus and aim to sweep the board.
Sunday was a day of recovery for Liverpool’s players, in more ways than one. It was a bruised but decided Reds squad that constructed at Melwood. With aching limbs and damaged pride, they sat and waited for their trial. Jurgen Klopp does not go for large dressing room addresses. Win, lose or draw, his post-match messages are generally brief and to the point. The inquests, rather, are stored for the ‘Matchday +1’ evaluation meeting.
From the Melwood media room, Klopp will run through a set of clips, prepared by first-team post-match analyst Mark Leyland, and invite observations and comments from players and staff. Sunday was no different. It lasted half an hour and followed the exact same format as usual. What was different, of course, was that Klopp was dissecting that rarest of things — a league defeat.
He’d watched the match back at home on Saturday evening. “It did not get any better!” he joked. “But I wanted to know what happened, and it was useful to see it again.” There will have been lots of players wincing as the supervisor conducted through the footage the next morning.
No Liverpool player, possibly substitute Adam Lallana excepted, emerged with credit. Dejan Lovren and Virgil van Dijk made mistakes, Trent Alexander-Arnold too. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino were as silent as they have ever been, on a day once the Reds managed only one shot on goal in 90 minutes against a team who began the day from the relegation zone.
“It can happen that I get angry with my players,” Klopp said. “But I did not get mad in this meeting. If I move in and yell at them like they have dropped the last 10 games in a row due to a poor attitude, then that would be really odd.
“I’m not interested after a meeting that I feel better, I’m interested that the boys receive the perfect information. The analysis isn’t really emotional, it is just taking a look at the facts. And we were simply not good enough.”
Liverpool’s players, to their credit, had taken their first league defeat in nearly 14 weeks on the chin. “We can only apologise,” said Andy Robertson, while Lovren revealed “it felt like somebody hit us in the face — and we deserve it.”
The Croatian added that there was a sense of shame among the group. Those players were greeted outside the training ground on Monday with a lone supporter with a message of encouragement. “You have got to have courage,” his banner, “because courage is the ability to get up when things are getting you down. You get up and fight back.”
There should be no doubts regarding the character and soul of the squad, obviously. Klopp coined them”mental giants” and his faith in them won’t be impacted by one defeat, however gloomy it was. At his Monday press conference, he bristled at a single question about whether his group has the motivation to pick up themselves.
“I find it somewhat disrespectful, to tell the truth,” he said. “How can I think these boys sit there and are happy that we lost?! Of course they would like to strike back. This is an exceptional group of players, that did outstanding stuff. Just not that evening.”
The great news, of course, is that an opportunity to”strike back” arrives almost immediately, with Liverpool heading to Stamford Bridge for their FA Cup fifth-round tie against Chelsea on Tuesday evening. It’ll be interesting to see Klopp’s approach to the match. He insisted that the defeat Watford won’t influence his group choice, and he was eager to give as little away as possible concerning a potential line-up.
There is, however, an increasing feeling among fans that, together with the league name all-but-won, and with a home match against Bournemouth to come on Saturday, the time might have come for Liverpool to field a powerful, possibly even full-strength, FA Cup side.
That hasn’t been Klopp’s manner, generally. Just against Everton and West Brom in 2018 has he actually done that. Van Dijk, Mane and Firmino all started both matches, while Salah scored against West Brom. Liverpool, however, lost 3-2.
More frequently, he’s opted for a mixture of fringe players needing moments, while blooding youngsters. Check out recent FA Cup ties reveals debuts for the likes of Curtis Jones, Ki-Jana However and Yasser Larouci, while moving further back, there were also looks for names like Joe Maguire, Harry Wilson, Sheyi Ojo, Ryan Kent, Tiago Ilori, Ovie Ejaria, Connor Randall and Jerome Sinclair.
In the previous round, clearly, Klopp and his senior team were absent, heading off to their mid-season break while Neil Critchley led an Under-23s team to a remarkable playoff win over Shrewsbury. Of that side, just Pedro Chirivella, Neco Williams and Curtis Jones will probably feature at Chelsea.
Harvey Elliott, Sepp van den Berg and Ki-Jana However were in the Under-19 squad that flew into Portugal on Monday morning before the UEFA Youth League last 16 tie with Benfica. Adam Lewis, Joe Hardy, Liam Millar and Tony Gallacher, too old for that competition, are available but it would be a surprise if any were chosen.
Klopp will welcome back Joe Gomez and James Milner, both of whom missed the Watford match, but will the likes of Alexander-Arnold, Van Dijk, Salah, Mane and Alisson be called into action? Or will he opt to give excursions to Divock Origi, Joel Matip, Adam Lallana and new signing Takumi Minamino?
Liverpool might have been denied an unbeaten league season, but they still stand on the cusp of history. Never before have they won the treble of league, FA Cup and Champions League, and only once before, in 1986, have they clinched a league and cup double. They have not won the FA Cup because 2006 and have attained just one closing and one semi in the intervening years.
The Premier League crown is practically guaranteed, but were they to lose at Chelsea and then don’t turn around a first-leg deficit against Atletico Madrid next week, then the last weeks of the year could practically become anti-climactic — as absurd as that seems given the longing for a league title.
How much more exciting to have a cup quarter, semi or final to look forward to — for Klopp and his players, as far as fans. Big teams need big games and big accomplishments. Chelsea, obviously, will provide stiff opposition. Frank Lampard has suggested they’ll field a strong side themselves, although the Londoners to arrive to the game in indifferent form.
Time, then, for Liverpool to take advantage. To strike back, as their boss says and to place themselves in the frame for another piece of silverware come May.