EPL Notes: Jürgen Klopp era begins in Liverpool; Chelsea returns to form
Their eyes met across a crowded soccer stadium.
The suave German gave a lingering, assessing look through his designer glasses, a seductive smile played across his thin but sensuous lips.
This was only a first meeting, but the objects of his gaze were already smitten. They had his face tattooed across their banners.
When Klopp met the Kop, the first date on Saturday was held at a safe venue, White Hart Lane. Nobody scored as the match ended, 0-0.
On Thursday, it will be back to their place to meet the whole Anfield family and let the noisy passion rip against the tawdry background of the Europa League.
Jürgen Klopp’s first match as Liverpool manager showed that new managers can have an instant impact. According to the BBC, the Liverpool players, collectively, ran just over 72 miles, 2.5 miles more than in any other game this season. Clearly the Reds were energized.
For 30 minutes, Liverpool looked the part. The passing was slick and the movement smart. Tottenham could not escape its own half. Somewhere Brendan Rodgers watched and, perhaps, smiled. This was the type of soccer his Liverpool teams had produced, on good days, over the last three years.
“The first half hour was, I have not enough words in English for this, but not so bad,” Klopp told the BBC after the game, rather revelling in his inexact English. “I could enjoy the game of my team, the atmosphere in the stadium, what the Liverpool fans did.”
Klopp is famous for his “Gegenpressing” tactics. Almost every aspect of that approach was also part of the Rodgers’ playbook. Indeed, the pressing approach associated with Klopp, who took over at Dortmund in 2008, and Pep Guardiola, who became head coach at Barcelona the same year, is now part of the soccer landscape. Mauricio Pochettino, the Tottenham manager, made his name with similar tactics.
Klopp will need to adapt. He will also need to find solutions to a couple of problems that sunk Rodgers which were still starkly visible on Saturday.
The nearest Liverpool came to scoring was when Divock Origi headed against the bar after 10 minutes. That was the 97th time Liverpool had hit the woodwork in the last five seasons, 20 more than any other club. It would not have taken many of those to go in for Rodgers to have won some substantial silverware at Anfield.
Rodgers might also still be at Anfield if Daniel Sturridge had stayed fit over the last 18 months. In the summer, Liverpool paid $50 million for Christian Benteke, another striker who spent most of the previous two seasons injured. Perhaps Liverpool’s infamous transfer committee did not anticipate what would happen this season, but Klopp should not have surprised to arrive at Liverpool and find both Sturridge and Benteke hurt. Both were among the long list of missing players on Saturday. Worse, a third striker, Danny Ings has suffered a knee injury and is out for the season. That’s why Origi started.
Great managers are often created by great players, rather than the other way round. Liverpool’s decline under Rodgers began early last season after Luis Suárez left. At the same time, Klopp could not prevent an even more spectacular early-season meltdown at Borussia Dortmund after Robert Lewandowski left on a free transfer to Bayern Munich.
The weakness of the Liverpool squad and all the injuries sunk Rodgers, but they mean Klopp can demand time to deliver. Liverpool’s ownership lusted after the German, badly. The relationship was most tilted in his favor when the club came courting.
Klopp was no doubt restating his negotiating position when he said on Saturday “If anyone really cares about Liverpool then he knows that we need time.”
On Saturday, Klopp immediately showed that new managers can simplify things and manoeuvre out of situations that had become tactical or emotional dead ends for the previous manager. Rodgers seemed committed to playing Emre Can as a wingback. Klopp moved the German into midfield, where he instantly looked more comfortable. The switch did not improve the defense, which still looked just as shaky. Simon Mignolet made the two good saves from Harry Kane and a spectacular one from Clinton N’Jie.
The end of the Rodgers era had been mired in doubt and fear displayed by his anxious and uncertain team on the field and by Rodgers himself, increasingly shifty and defensive as he faced the microphones.
Rodgers’ relationship with his players, his bosses and the fans had grown complicated.
A passionate man who has come to Liverpool believing that passion will be reciprocated by the fans, Klopp is enjoying new love. He laughed as he talked after Saturday’s draw.
“We don’t have to talk about the past,” he said.
He said he had seen both bad and good in his new team. There were some rough tactical edges and wild play he could “work with.”
“Better a wild start than a boring start,” Klopp said.
No doubt the fans who form the Kop agree, but the evidence is that they are besotted. This might develop into a long and passionate relationship. But Klopp and the fans should remember the simple pleasure of their first meeting on Saturday. The first kiss is always the simplest and sweetest.
THREE GIFT WRAPPED POINTS José Mourinho described Chelsea’s performance on Saturday as lacking “confidence and self-esteem.” Yet Chelsea won, 2-0, largely because the opposition, Aston Villa, was even more fragile.
Mourinho showed his ruthlessness by starting Eden Hazard, last season’s Premier League player of the year, as well as Nemanja Matic and Gary Cahill on the bench. Chelsea does have a Champions League game in Kiev on Tuesday to plan for, but Mourinho rarely rest or rotates players. The benching was a message and one that is unlikely to build confidence.
Mourinho showed his ruthlessness again when he yanked youngster Ruben Loftus-Cheek off at halftime and brought on Matic. That might have been tactical, Chelsea was one goal up, but Loftus-Cheek’s lazy, lolloping style of play means that, for all his talent, he is always likely to drive his manager to fury.
Mourinho’s team showed its ruthlessness by the way it exploited Villa’s frailties after 34 minutes. Brad Guzan should probably not have rolled a short pass out to Joleon Lescott, but the American goalie might reasonably expect the defender, who is a professional soccer player after all, to be able to control the ball. Instead, Lescott let the ball run under his foot to Willian and then stood and watched as the Brazilian burst forward and set up a tap in for Diego Costa.
Villa went toe to toe with Chelsea, matching the home team for possession and shots. Yet Villa sealed the game with another gift when Alan Hutton deflected Costa’s cross past Guzan.
“Own Goal” is now Chelsea’s top league scorer this season, with three. Mourinho’s team needs all the help it can get. Villa was the perfect opponent at a difficult moment.
STERLING EFFORT Even without Sergio Agüero, David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne, Manchester City had plenty of firepower as it crushed visiting Bournemouth, 5-1, to stay top.
Wilfried Bony, making a rare start, scored twice. More eye-catching was the hat trick from Raheem Sterling.
The young Englishman has acquired a reputation for not scoring enough. Saturday suggested there is a simple solution. Sterling played in a more central position. His first and third goals were the sort of goals that fall to players who are spending most of the match hanging round the danger area. The ball rebounded to Sterling in front of goal and he coolly stuck it into the net. The other goal followed a dazzling, mazy run, which Sterling ended with a calm finish. He has done that in the past, only to then blaze his next five chances in random directions. Sterling is the poster boy for the old soccer adage “you have to miss them to score them.” But some chances are harder to miss than others, and Sterling’s role on Saturday meant those were the chances he was getting.
IN HOT PURSUIT Manchester United and Arsenal kept pace with City after 3-0 away victories.
United, blown away in the first 20 minutes at the Emirates in its last away game, dominated on Saturday and jumped to a two-goal lead after 22 minutes away to Everton. Perhaps the third goal, after 62 minutes, was the most significant. Wayne Rooney ended his 10-game drought by breaking clear and beating Tim Howard. Rooney almost added a second, again racing clear of 33-year-old Phil Jagielka, only for Howard to block. It was Rooney’s first goal at Goodison, where he started his career, since 2007 and it came on an emotional day for Evertonians. Howard Kendall, who won one league title as the hub of a great Everton midfield and another as the manager of a great Everton team, died at 69 on Saturday.
At Watford, Arsenal struggled at first against the pesky home team but eventually the Gunners’ policy of trying to walk the ball into the net paid off when Alexis Sánchez slapped the ball inform close range. Sánchez started the season slowly but has scored in a six consecutive matches for Arsenal and Chile. Olivier Giroud added a close range second. Then Aaron Ramsey added the third also from close range. The bad news for Giroud is that this was his third goal in his last five substitute appearances for Arsenal, which rather strengthens Theo Walcott’s grip on the starting role. The good news for Ramsey is that this was his first goal of the season with his 27th shot.
THIS IS GETTING SILLY With 25 minutes to play at St Mary’s, Southampton was two goals up and cruising. Leicester had the Saints just where it wanted them.
Once again the Foxes were cornered. Once again they escaped.
Jamie Vardy, all sharp-edged energy, scored first with a thumping header and then, in added time, with a sizzling shot to earn a 2-2 draw. Vardy, who was playing non-league soccer three years ago, has nine goals, the most in the Premier League this season. On Saturday, with Agüero out again at City, Vardy looked the best striker in the league.
Leicester has come from two goals down to salvage at least a point in three of its last five matches. In all, it has salvaged an implausible seven points from losing positions this season. Its ability to turn losing positions into draws explains why it is fifth in the standings. If only it could turn them into victories, it would be even higher.