Liverpool 2.0: How Klopp plans to take Champions League finalists over the last hurdle

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The Reds came unstuck in last season's final against Real Madrid but they look better equipped to go all the way this time around

As selfie requests go, it could hardly have been timed worse.

A crestfallen Jurgen Klopp was making his way from the press room at the NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium, having just attempted to explain Liverpool ’s Champions League final defeat to the world’s media.

“I did the best I could and that was not good enough,” the Reds boss had said. “Sorry.” He looked how his fans felt; low, sore, empty. 

Then came a pair of enthusiastic locals, eager for their snap. Klopp, a gentleman, obliged but his face said everything. Not now, guys.

That was how Liverpool’s last European campaign ended, in tears, in disappointment, in regret. Now, 114 days on from Kiev, they are ready to go again. The hope, the glitz, the glamour, the dreams, the drama, the glory, the pain – bring it on. All of it.

"Champions League is back and we’re hungrier than ever," was the message posted by Trent Alexander-Arnold on social media on Monday. Paris Saint-Germain, the French champions and one of the tournament favourites, are the first obstacle to be overcome. Anfield, as ever, expects.

Those worried about a Champions League hangover needn’t be. Liverpool have started the new campaign by winning their opening five league matches for the first time since 1990. They passed a big test against Tottenham at Wembley on Saturday, and are ready for another on Tuesday night against a PSG side that, for all its investment, has underachieved on the European stage.

"Even if I was not the manager, I would watch this game 100 per cent!" Klopp said at his pre-match press conference at Anfield yesterday. He knows the threat the Parisiens carry with the likes of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, he respects the qualities of their manager, Thomas Tuchel, and he warned his side they will need “an unbelievable work rate” if they are to start their Group C campaign in a positive manner.

He knows, too, that the spotlight is very much on his side this season. Last season’s surprise package are a known quantity this time around, which brings with it its own challenges. Namely, can they maintain the levels of last season, and have they been able to fix the flaws which were exposed in Kiev?

Jurgen Klopp in Kiev

For the latter, Klopp turned to the transfer market in the summer. "We knew what we needed," he said, and he finished the window more than satisfied with his club’s business.

Of the four new recruits, Alisson Becker was the most significant, the Brazilian briefly becoming the world’s most expensive goalkeeper when joining from Roma. Liverpool believe they have landed one of Europe’s best, the kind of presence they have lacked between the sticks for too long, someone to calm them, as well as "save their lives".

Unlike last season, Klopp will resist the urge to switch his goalkeepers for European games. Bad news for Simon Mignolet, who must make do with Carabao Cup run-outs at best, but an understandable shift in policy from the manager.

The Premier League and the Champions League are the priorities, and that means Alisson plays. The 26-year-old reached the semi-finals of last season’s competition, of course, only to run into an Anfield whirlwind.

He will not expect to be quite so busy this season. Liverpool’s defending has often been their Achilles heel in recent years, but they appear to have made significant strides in the last six months.

In fact, since the low of a 4-1 defeat to Spurs last October, they have conceded fewer goals and kept more clean sheets than any other Premier League side. They are more compact, defend set-pieces better and have cut out a lot of the individual errors which had undermined their progress.

They still attack in numbers, using Roberto Firmino's guile and the pace of Sadio Mane and Mo Salah, but they appear less open, more controlled. The work 'in the transition' is better, more consistent.

Jurgen Klopp Liverpool PSG PS

Virgil van Dijk’s settling-in period has been seamless, while Joe Gomez has emerged as an outstanding candidate to partner the Dutchman at centre-back. Gomez, 21, spent last season at right-back, but was told in July that he would be moving inside this season. Both Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren, who is due back from injury at the end of the month, will have a job on their hands to displace the Londoner.

Liverpool’s full-backs, Andy Robertson and the 19-year-old Alexander-Arnold, perform key duties as attacking outlets, but have been challenged by their manager to do more. Klopp was critical of their positional play after the win over Crystal Palace last month, but few sides in Europe boast a more energetic, speedy pair. 

Crucially, Klopp has added to his midfield options with the signings of Naby Keita and Fabinho, giving him greater flexibility and depth in a key area. Keita has settled well, starting four of the first five games, while Fabinho has been made to wait, Klopp insisting the Brazilian simply needs time to adapt to Liverpool’s unique, physically-demanding style.

It means Klopp now has three choices for the ‘No.6’ role, with Gini Wijnaldum impressing in the opening weeks and captain Jordan Henderson working his way back to optimum fitness after the World Cup.

Keita’s arrival, a year after Liverpool agreed their deal with RB Leipzig for the Guinean, adds an extra layer of dynamism and aggression further forward, while James Milner’s performances seem to be getting better with age.

The Reds perhaps lack of a touch of ingenuity from the middle of the park – a Philippe Coutinho, if you wish - but, as shown at Wembley at the weekend, few teams will out-work them.

Alisson Liverpool PS

As for Klopp, there has been a subtle shift in his manner this season compared to last. Where once he pledged to turn “doubters to believers”, now he appears keen to control expectations. When told last week, for example, that Graeme Souness believes this Liverpool team to be the best since 1990, he was distinctly unamused.

“It’s obviously very positive,” he said. “But the problem is that legends want to say positive things but immediately put the pressure on us. Thanks, Graeme!”

Still, it is getting harder to keep a lid on things while his team continue to progress. Liverpool, by common consensus, have not been at their best during the opening weeks of the season, yet they boast a flawless record.  Imagine what will happen when they really find their rhythm.

For now, Klopp can be pleased at the way in which his side have found ways to win, and been able to see games out. Four of their five wins so far have been by a one-goal margin; they managed just nine such results in the whole of last season. 

Boxes are being ticked each week. Victory over Tottenham was their first away to a top-six rival in two years, while defensively they have made their joint-best start to a campaign in 40 years, conceding just twice thus far. And both of those goals, Klopp felt, were avoidable.

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“Our aim is to win things,” said Henderson on Monday. His team will need to go against the grain to do so; in the Champions League era, only two teams – Milan in 1994 and Bayern Munich in 2013 – have gone from beaten finalists to winners a year later.

Can Liverpool 2.0 do it? They have certainly started the season like a team with a clear idea, with the bit between the teeth. They look good.

And crucially, the best is yet to come.

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