A round-of-16 first-leg clash with reigning Champions League winners Real Madrid is never easy.
But Liverpool, facing the Spanish giants at Anfield first, had reason to believe, especially given that they would be playing at a ground that has seen so the tables turned in their favour so many times before.
If there was a time for dreaming, the 2022/23 campaign wasn’t it. The Reds were handed a 5-2 thrashing by Los Blancos on the night, as their season took yet another blow.
The subsequent reports decided not to offer a degree of pragmatism to Liverpool’s current state, but rather call out Jurgen Klopp and claim that his time was up – his era now over, as one said.
In football, we can all be reactionary, and there is not much use in pretending that the defeat to Real Madrid wasn’t a real kick as it effectively ended Liverpool’s campaign before the second leg – an embarrassing situation given Klopp’s dominance in the competition in recent seasons.
There were cries for Klopp’s departure from some quarters. There were talks of a seven-year itch – how, historically, the German had failed to keep the ship steady during this particular stage at his previous clubs, for whatever reason.
However, Klopp has earned the faith entrusted to him, and if this season is anything to go by, he has shown that he is not only a world-class tactician, that he can elevate players no one would have thought would become much more than moderate footballers into Champions League and Premier League winners, but that he is able to guide the club during uncertain times, through transition, into the new.
There is something to be said about holding on through transition. When the chips are down, that’s when a coach’s mettle is really tested.
Last season was something of a nadir for Klopp and his legacy. The club were legless, which a lot down to their playing a total of 63 games in 2021/22, the maximum available to them having reached every final possible.
This compounded by the rapid decline of ageing midfielders Jordan Henderson and Fabinho, previously two of the club’s main assets, was bound to have some knock-on effect.
The club opted to bring in Cody Gakpo in January, rather than any addition to the centre of the park. The quiet emergence of Stefan Bajcetic, another superb Klopp find, just about got them through the season, even if it was a Europa League spot this time around.
Unlike Manchester City and Chelsea, Liverpool – and Klopp – have to deal with a self-sustaining model, meaning that cash cannot be spent lavishly. It has to be done through precision and very much in mind of the philosophy and model Klopp desires. And the coach’s patience has proven to have won out so far this season.
© Proshots – Jurgen Klopp
As Anfield Watch’s Sam McGuire has rightly detailed, Liverpool have fine-tuned their attack to that of Premier League title challenging quality.
Even Darwin Nuñez, the personified blitzkrieg, is now shooting in the right direction, having been nurtured for an extended period of time.
The point to this is that Klopp didn’t panic. He opted not to go for a marquee signing in the winter window and now money has seemingly been spent on the right players five months or so later.
Dominik Szoboszlai, snatched from the gaze of Newcastle, appears to be the signing of the season so far, and now, in this short space at least, Liverpool are reaping the awards.
Ryan Gravenberch, too, has lots to give, and the moulding of the 2021 Johan Cruyff Award winner by Klopp is an exciting prospect indeed.
Even after missing out on targets Moises Caicedo and Romeo Lavia, Klopp’s side are excelling. Alexis Mac Allister has shown he is more than capable of playing a variety of roles, even pitching in as the ‘number six’ for now.
Klopp himself has described this new-look side as ‘Liverpool 2.0’, even rejecting the chance to take over the German national team to take this exciting project into the next phase.
Of course, this is all quite premature given where we are in the season, but the system looks sharp up front, the midfield looks reinvigorated, and the defence… well, January is only a few months away.