by Connor Dunn
There is not – and has never been – any suggestion Liverpool should cheat to win games.
However, over the last year there has been a certain change in attitude among Jurgen Klopp’s squad that may well have propelled them to the top of European and world football.
During the German manager’s inaugural years at Anfield there was a feeling that perhaps his side were too nice, when their world-class players would be seen helping up their opponents and smiling – even after being fouled.
It could, despite the tremendous levels of football the Reds were beginning to play under Klopp, be argued that it was their kindness and lack of nous on how to really go for the jugular and cleverly see out games that was stopping them from clambering onto an untouchable perch, the likes of which had been seen in yesteryear.
Back in November 2017 Klopp himself outlined that tricky tactics were not something he wanted his own side to ever employ on a regular basis.
“The day when somebody thinks like this, with not being a proper sportsman and being fair, then I stop,” he said.
“If it’s not OK any more that we try our best, then it is something wrong.”
Now though, things are somewhat different and without question this Liverpool side know how to shut out games and how to win while understanding exactly when to press, release and go for the kill at exactly the right time in almost any and every situation.
Take yourself back to gameweek 22 of the last Premier League season.
The Reds had just lost their proud unbeaten league record to Manchester City in the previous game, before being knocked out of the FA Cup by Wolves in the third round and then travelling down to Brighton to try and get themselves back on track.
Klopp’s men recorded a 1-0 win down on the south coast in what was a hard-fought match and one where Liverpool had to employ what is often referred to as the dark arts to come away from the Amex Stadium with the spoils of a domestic win.
It’s the side of football that is never admired by opposition fans and never really spoken about – particularly with this Liverpool team since they have finished top of the Premier League Fair Play table for the least accumulative points for fouls and bookings for the last three seasons running.
However, it is a tactic the Reds have now learnt and one that has been employed by even the greatest teams across Europe throughout history to win matches, trophies and competitions.
Take Barcelona against Liverpool at the Camp Nou for example or Real Madrid against Liverpool in Kiev in 2018 for screaming examples which of course include Sergio Ramos’ cynical tackle on Mohamed Salah and the constant effort to subtly influence the referee’s mindset from just about every player in either of the La Liga giants’ line-ups from the first whistle.
That experience in the Ukraine certainly has seemed to have taught the Reds a lesson and when they embarked on their task of seeing out the 1-0 lead against Brighton in January last year, there was first Mohamed Salah who scored his penalty before standing in front of the travelling Kop for so long after the goal the Seagulls had lined up and were ready to restart as the Egyptian sauntered towards the Reds’ own half.
There were slower goal-kicks from Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson were laboured with throw-ins while it was a similar story with free-kicks and corners, tactical fouling from different members of the Reds squad also played a part too as did Klopp’s substitutions that day of which there were three.
This was not necessarily a form of timewasting from Liverpool but more a way to let them play the game at completely their own pace and deny the home side any chance to build up a head of steam. It was clever and meant the Reds could up and down the tempo as they pleased to keep a more or less total authoritative control over the 90 minutes.
That too, is something the European champions have employed ever since and it is not difficult to think of major matches and examples in their favour which they have expertly displayed this tactic.
At the Camp Nou, James Milner put in a rough tackle on Lionel Messi to send him to the turf and Andy Robertson bared his teeth to show Luis Suarez he could give as good as he got during the first leg – something which may have stopped the Catalan giants adding to their 3-0 lead.
That in turn may have been a catalyst for Liverpool to mount one of the greatest comebacks in Champions League history back at Anfield during the 4-0 second-leg victory with the likes of Robertson once again showing Messi and Suarez the Reds were not to be messed with.
In the European Cup final win over Tottenham, Liverpool worked hard to consolidate their early lead in more ways than one and after that Salah penalty went in after just two minutes there was only ever really going to be one winner before Divock Origi slotted home late on to truly seal victory.
Against Flamengo in the Club World Cup, Liverpool were subjected to the underhanded side of the game on so many occasions, but in turn it was their fitness and ability to shut out the game with a 1-0 lead by controlling the play in every way and not allowing their opponents to build up any head of steam that told in the end.
Against Manchester City this season when Liverpool won 3-1, Klopp’s men made twice as many fouls as Pep Guardiola’s side – Joe Gomez was involved in a bust-up with Raheem Sterling and Fabinho made some cynical but important challenges on the likes of Ilkay Gundogan as the defending domestic champions looked to mount attacks.
The list could go on and on about the way Liverpool have a new ability to control games and whatever position and whoever the foe the Reds find themselves competing against they now have a really clear and structured ability to play the breathtaking brand of pure attacking football that the Anfield faithful have come to know and love while also possessing the capacity to do what fans might know as winning ugly.
And winning ugly is something their next opposition, Manchester United, did superbly over their own trophy hunting seasons under Alex Ferguson and it is something the Reds themselves can employ come Sunday afternoon to gain an advantage over the only team in the Premier League to have taken points from them in the domestic competition this season.