Champions-elect saw their hopes of an unbeaten Premier League season dashed at Watford but must 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 determined Reds squad that assembled at Melwood. With aching limbs and damaged pride, they sat and waited for their trial by video. Jurgen Klopp doesn’t go for big dressing room speeches. Win, lose or draw, his post-match messages tend to be short and to the point. The inquests, instead, are saved for the ‘Matchday +1’ analysis meeting.
In the Melwood media room, Klopp will run through a series of clips, prepared by first-team post-match analyst Mark Leyland, and invite comments and observations from staff and players. Sunday’s was no different. It lasted half an hour and followed the same format as usual. What was different, of course, was that Klopp was dissecting that rarest of things – a league defeat.
He had watched the game back at home on Saturday evening. “It didn’t get any better!” he joked. “But I wanted to understand what happened, and it was helpful to see it again.” There will have been plenty of players wincing as the manager ran through the footage the following morning.
No Liverpool player, perhaps substitute Adam Lallana excepted, emerged with credit. Dejan Lovren and Virgil van Dijk made errors, Trent Alexander-Arnold too. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino were as quiet as they’ve ever been, on a day when the Reds managed just one shot on target in 90 minutes against a team who started the day in the relegation zone.
“It can happen that I get angry with my players,” Klopp said. “But I didn’t get angry in this meeting. If I go in and shout at them like they’ve lost the last 10 games in a row because of a bad attitude, then that would be really strange.
“I am not interested after a meeting that I feel better, I am interested that the boys get the right information. Analysis is not really emotional, it’s just looking at the facts. And we were just not good enough.”
Liverpool’s players, to their credit, had taken their first league defeat in almost 14 months on the chin. “We can only apologise,” said Andy Robertson, while Lovren revealed “it feels like someone hit us in the face – and we deserve it.”
The Croatian added that there was a feeling of shame among the squad. Those players were greeted outside the training ground on Monday by a lone supporter with a message of encouragement. “You’ve got to have courage,” his banner read, “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 about the character and spirit of this squad, of course. Klopp coined them “mentality giants” and his faith in them will not be affected by one defeat, however dismal it was. At his Monday press conference, he bristled at one question about whether his team has the motivation to pick themselves up.
“I find it a little disrespectful, to be honest,” he said. “How could I think these boys sit there and are happy that we lost?! Of course they want to strike back. This is an exceptional group of players, that did outstanding stuff. Just not that night.”
The good news, of course, is that a chance 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 will be interesting to witness Klopp’s approach to the game. He insisted that the defeat at Watford will not influence his team selection, and he was keen to give as little away as possible in terms of a potential line-up.
There is, however, a growing feeling among supporters that, with the league title all-but-won, and with a home game against Bournemouth to come on Saturday, the time may have come for Liverpool to field a strong, maybe even full-strength, FA Cup side.
That has not been Klopp’s way, generally. Only against Everton and West Brom in 2018 has he really done that. Van Dijk, Mane and Firmino all started both games, while Salah scored against West Brom. Liverpool, though, lost 3-2.
More often, he has opted for a mix of fringe players in need of minutes, while blooding youngsters. A look at recent FA Cup ties shows debuts for the likes of Curtis Jones, Ki-Jana Hoever and Yasser Larouci, while going further back, there were also appearances for names such as Joe Maguire, Harry Wilson, Sheyi Ojo, Ryan Kent, Tiago Ilori, Ovie Ejaria, Connor Randall and Jerome Sinclair.
In the last round, of course, Klopp and his senior squad were absent, heading off for their mid-season break while Neil Critchley led an Under-23s team to a remarkable replay win over Shrewsbury. Of that side, only Pedro Chirivella, Neco Williams and Curtis Jones are likely to feature at Chelsea.
Harvey Elliott, Sepp van den Berg and Ki-Jana Hoever were all in the Under-19 squad that flew to Portugal on Monday morning ahead of their 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 selected.
Klopp will welcome back Joe Gomez and James Milner, both of whom missed the Watford game, but will the likes of Alexander-Arnold, Van Dijk, Salah, Mane and Alisson be called into action? Or will he opt to give outings to Divock Origi, Joel Matip, Adam Lallana and new signing Takumi Minamino?
Liverpool may have been denied an unbeaten league season, but they still stand on the cusp of genuine 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 haven’t won the FA Cup since 2006, and have reached just one final and one semi in the intervening years.
The Premier League crown is virtually assured, but were they to lose at Chelsea and then fail to turn around a first-leg deficit against Atletico Madrid next week, then the final weeks of the season could almost become anti-climactic – as absurd as that sounds given the yearning 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 much as supporters. Big teams want big games and big achievements. Chelsea, naturally, will provide stiff opposition. Frank Lampard has suggested they will field a strong side themselves, though the Londoners arrive into the game in indifferent form.
Time, then, for Liverpool to take advantage. To strike back, as their manager says, and to put themselves in the frame for another piece of silverware come May.