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How Klopp-Ball: Merseyside Edition Was Launched by Liverpool at the Etihad

How Klopp-Ball: Merseyside Edition Was Launched by Liverpool at the Etihad

Friday, 10 July, 2020 - 04:30
Roberto Firmino scores Liverpool’s third goal, and his first for the club, away to Manchester City in November 2015. Photograph: Jon Super/AP
London - Sachin Nakrani

As Liverpool enter the Etihad Stadium on Thursday they will be greeted by the echoey weirdness that is part of playing football right now. But they will hear the birds sing as the champions baton is passed to them by Manchester City, and for Jürgen Klopp there will also be whispers from a game that took place there five years ago and which can be looked upon as the start of the glory he has brought to the club.


Saturday 21 November 2015 – Manchester City 1 Liverpool 4. It was a blitz as emphatic as it was unexpected. A rampant display by those in red and what was up to that point the undoubted high point of Klopp’s reign as Liverpool manager – perhaps not saying much given there had only been seven previous games and three of those had been draws while another was a home defeat to Crystal Palace. Nevertheless, it was the high point, partly because of the result but mainly because of the performance. The first, full-on display of Klopp-ball: Merseyside edition.


The visitors were aggressive and explosive, destabilising City with a concerted counterpress and moving the ball not only quickly and sharply but across various angles. Their play was bewitching, summed up by the opening goal, which arrived after only seven minutes and saw Eliaquim Mangala put the ball into his own net after making a mess (typically, some may say) of trying to keep out Roberto Firmino’s cross.


“Liverpool have been knocking the ball around with some confidence,” said Martin Tyler on commentary and that was especially evident in their next two goals as Firmino put another cross into the area, this time for Philippe Coutinho to finish, and then, on 32 minutes, the Brazilians switched roles to put Liverpool 3-0 up via the move of the game – patient, confident and studded with a gorgeous backheel by Emre Can. “That is absolutely brilliant,” said Gary Neville, also commentating. The praise was justified. Liverpool had a big lead in the blink of an eye, and while City responded via Sergio Agüero’s strike a minute before half-time they never did enough to reverse the tide that was overwhelming them. Indeed it was Liverpool who scored again via Martin Skrtel’s rasping shot on 81 minutes. Game well and truly over.


It was a stunning win. Sure, City were not the side they had been or would become, stuttering as they were through Manuel Pellegrini’s final season in charge, but they were still formidable opposition, especially at home. On this occasion however, in front of their own fans, they had been torn to shreds. “It was a complete disaster,” said Pellegrini after the final whistle, his expression more haunted and haggard than usual.


The manager felt that had been because of City’s sloppiness, in defence as well as attack. He had a point but the underlying truth was that Liverpool were just too good for them, finishing the game with less possession than City (42%) but having run further – 110.36km to 108.46km – and delivered more shots on goal – 23 to 14.


The hard running had been there in previous matches, most strikingly in Klopp’s first in charge – the goalless draw at Tottenham on 17 October. But what elevated this performance above the rest, including the 3-1 victory away to champions Chelsea on Halloween, was its quality and cohesion, and central to this, literally as well as figuratively, was Firmino.


The Brazilian went into the City game with his value to Liverpool clouded in uncertainty. Things had not been going well for the 24-year-old since his £29m arrival from Hoffenheim in June, mainly under Brendan Rodgers but also under Klopp. The German had twice started Firmino as a No 10 and once, in the win at Stamford Bridge, as a lone forward, and while he did OK his contributions were neither sparkling or potent. There had been no goals and little to write home about.


But that all changed at the Etihad. Firmino was again deployed centrally but this time as a false nine in a three-man frontline, given the licence to move into dangerous positions inside the area and also drift across the attacking line, all the while supported by, and supporting, the forwards either side of him. Sound familiar?


It was the start of the Bobbylution, and while Firmino wasn’t the best player on the pitch – that was Coutinho, who started on the left of the front three with Adam Lallana on the right – he was formidable, scoring the first goal of his Liverpool career, providing the assists for two others and generally tormenting City with his guile and swagger. His talents shone (as did those teeth), the first notable contribution from a fundamental figure in the team that has gone on to conquer Europe, the world and actually what mattered most: England.


Like the bulletin board in Kujan’s office at the end of The Usual Suspects, it turns out the clues were there all along on that cold Manchester evening. The intent, effort, tactical and technical expertise, and what Klopp has done since is build on those foundations, overhauling his squad to ensure it is capable of achieving the required levels of quality and consistency (Firmino aside, only three players from that matchday squad remain at the club), and fostering a sense of unity on and off the pitch that means Liverpool are not just a hugely successful club but also a happy one.


And it is fitting their first game after ending that three-decade yearning for the league title should be against City. The team that has pushed them the hardest and become their most intense rival during the Klopp era – and at whose home the manager’s brilliant fire well and truly burst into life.


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