Champions League: Liverpool's new-found fortitude in midfield sees them travel to Paris as favourites to qualify for knockouts
Liverpool have had to make superstars out of the likes of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Mohamed Salah with intelligent coaching and transfers.
Liverpool take on hosts Paris Saint-Germain on Thursday at the Parc des Princes in the penultimate group game of C. The name of the stadium (The Park of The Princes) unintentionally alludes to general narrative of this clash of classes. Liverpool fans and fans of those who belong to the working-class clubs/clubs who do not have their purses lined by billionaire benefactors, could be forgiven to make it a case of Us vs Them: the prim Paris bourgeoise vs the working-class lads from Liverpool. And it would not be historically incorrect. But things are different now, as much as they are not.
Underdogs No More, But Don’t Tell That to the Scousers
Liverpool fans draw their strength from being undermined and underestimated. It was one of the worst hit metropolitans during the second World War, and faced systematic government administrative and developmental neglect till the Thatcherite era as it was a considered one of the hubs of anti-conservative and socialist strongholds that side of Europe. In their disillusionment, people channelled their energies to football and music. This is partly the reason why Liverpool produced The Beatles and one of the most successful teams in Europe. Bill Shankly, the club’s most revered manager was the city’s messiah. His one-for-all philosophy was at the very heart of pass-and-move style gave English football it’s most identifiable blood-and-thunder brand of the game.
In recent history, Liverpool earned their way into the upper ranks of European football through scrupulous sincerity to sustainable net-spending, and slowly and surely scale up from being also-rans to European Champions League finalists. The process was a gruelling one that put Liverpool fans through bleak winter transfer windows. Lessons were learned from the Comolli era, where baseball’s moneyball techniques were implemented and the unwitting application of sabermetrics to recruitment occurred. Fans and owners John Henry learned it the hard way that buying average players to paper over the cracks, costs more, and takes longer to get rid of. The world record transfer for Virgil van Dijk was years in the making.
PSG, after their takeover, didn’t have to bat an eyelid with the signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Thiago Silva, Julian Draxler, Javier Pastore, Lucas Moura, David Luiz, Ángel Di María, Edinson Cavani, Neymar, and most recently, Kylian Mbappe. Liverpool, on the other hand, had to make superstars out of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, James Milner, Joe Gomez, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andrew Robertson, and Mohamed Salah. Where things have changed though, is on the pitch.
Napoli are on top of the table, level on points with Liverpool (6 from 4 matches, the Merseyside club have won two and lost two). Strangely, in their own backyard, it is a team that boasts the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Edinson Cavani, Neymar and Thomas Tuchel who are going in as underdogs. And if you are a Liverpool fan, you’re kidding yourself if you think differently.
Change of pace
In the pre-match conference, the questions levelled at Liverpool defender Joe Gomez were without imagination. He was asked what it meant as a defender at the prospect of coming up against the trio. The Liverpool libero wasn’t taken by surprise: “We just have to play our game. I know they have threats going forward — their strikeforce is something they are known worldwide for. But it’s not just down to us (Virgil van Dijk and him) as a pair but the whole team. Defensively this season the onus has been to start it (squeezing out space for opponents to pass the ball to) from the front. Our strikers relieve a lot of pressure, there is support all around for the defence, with (the goalkeeper) Alisson as well. We have the fundamentals that we stick to, the ones our gaffer (manager, Jurgen Klopp) gave us.”
Liverpool this season have been playing football at school-ahead speed of 30 miles/hour. Almost every pundit with a passing knowledge of English football is commenting on it, but with a bit of cheek. The takeaway is, “Of course, Liverpool are struggling. They over-achieved last year.” If that was the case, Liverpool wouldn’t be keeping pace with runaway leaders Manchester City in the domestic league. Something has intrinsically changed, but for the better.
Roberto Firmino has occupied a role farther away from goal following his most goal-laden season, while being involved in the most number of chances created than any Liverpool player in recent history. Sadio Mane, too finds himself functioning as a forward-playmaker, similar to George Weah of Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan. This is all in the name of balance.
The downfall to Liverpool’s last season were the number of goals leaked in the other end of the pitch, and the injuries. That matter is being addressed by changing up the tempo into something rather Italian in nature. This is not surprising as the German’s mentor, Wolfgang Frank, was influenced heavily by Sacchi's all-powerful AC Milan of the '70s. Jurgen Klopp is using the double anchor in midfield of Wijnaldum and Milner/Fabinho in the same way Sacchi did at Milan.
Jurgen Klopp admitted to relying on a different tactical approach in the pre-match conference, saying, “we have now at least one other system we can incorporate and line up in a few different ways.”
Last year, the challenge was significantly harder for Liverpool, as they competed in a high number of games with limited personnel. The double anchor combats this by doing two things: saving the energy of players and helping to maintain a greater slice of ball retention. This is also one of the reasons why James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum have been getting greater recognition for their work. As if the limelight has finally fallen on the stage hands and they are being asked to take the bow ahead of the actors. And it’s beautiful to watch the gears shifts of a team paraphrased into a sequence of pirouette turns.
In contrast, PSG’s recent years have been marred with in-squad ego wars and shirt-selling whims. Whether it was Zlatan vs everyone, David Luiz vs David Luiz, Lucas Moura vs Angel Di Maria; or Julian Draxler, Verratti, Javier Pastore, Lavezzi, Jeremy Menez vs the management; and more recently Neymar vs Edinson Cavani.
PSG fans, more recently have turned on their box-to-box midfielder Rabiot. While on paper PSG are ploughing through the domestic league, with their 100% record intact, and maintaining a 15 point gap between themselves and second placed Lyon; their right-back Thomas Meunier has admitted that being knocked out could be termed as “catastrophic,” adding, “some might say the Europa League would give us a real chance of winning a trophy but even that wouldn’t be so easy when you have the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea still involved.” The pressure is indisputably on them.
Jurgen Klopp summed up the spirit in the Liverpool camp by saying, “you have to enjoy the game and not let it frustrate you when PSG pass you by, you’ll always have to believe that you or your teammate will win the ball back. That’s how you beat them — playing with enjoyment. It’s unbelievably difficult. But if we are on our game, we are not a joy to play against.”
Both Neymar and Mbappe are deemed fit to play after being sidelined by international duty, playing for their respective countries. They scraped through the match vs Toulouse 1-0 without them. Dani Alves and Layvin Kurzawa are expected to be a part of the PSG squad.
For Liverpool, Joe Gomez and Sadio Mane will feature in some capacity. Oxlade Chamberlain will not make it back until the new year. Adam Lallana is back in training but match fitness evades him. Dominic Solanke is recovering from a groin strain.
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