To win the club’s first league title since 1990, the Liverpool manager must stop his side being weighed down by it all, as happened to Steven Gerrard and co five years ago
With that kind of backdrop, perhaps it is just inevitable many people suspect the biggest problem for Liverpool might be themselves. That, however, is not entirely true: the biggest problem for Liverpool is the quality of the team that is directly above them. Yet it is fair to say the coming weeks will be a serious test of their nerve and, strange as it is, perhaps it might work in their favour that the current team does not have anybody with Gerrard’s tremendous sense of responsibility towards the club.
Five years on, Liverpool might have to win eight of their remaining nine fixtures, if not them all, if they are to remind themselves what it is like to be league champions. None of their supporters below the age of 35 will even remember the last time it happened in 1990, in the same week the Berlin wall started to come down.
It feels like an obsession. Of course there is going to be apprehension when Liverpool have lost a seven‑point lead and, as they keep being reminded, no team in the Premier League era has gone into the new year in that position and failed to finish the job. Of course there will be doubts and Klopp should realise he will not soothe those anxieties by taking out his frustrations on reporters, as happened in front of the television cameras at Everton last weekend, or blaming the various weather conditions and becoming involved in the sort of exchange with a ball-boy that evoked memories of José Mourinho doing something similar at Crystal Palace one time (including some paternal guidance from Mourinho to the tracksuited youngster that “one day somebody will punch you”).
Equally, let’s not overlook the fact Liverpool have already accrued 70 points when, to put that into context, that is more than Manchester United managed at the same stage in 11 of Sir Alex Ferguson’s 13 championship wins. Liverpool have lost only once all season and are eight points better off at the 29-game mark than the nearly year, 2013-14, when Luis Suárez was picking off opposition defences. Remember the Newcastle United side, aka the Entertainers, that led the way at this stage of the 1995-96 championship chase? Klopp’s men have scored nine more goals than Kevin Keegan’s team and taken six more points. Plus it is a remarkable statistic, for such an adventurous side, that Liverpool have let in only 15 goals so far.
Even in this difficult run, when they have been restricted to 10 points out of a possible 18 and one newspaper has superimposed Klopp’s face on to Keegan’s for his own “love it” meltdown, they have kept clean sheets in their last four league fixtures, and another against Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Indeed, there is only one manager who has made it to this stage of a Premier League season with a superior defensive record and that was Mourinho with Chelsea, in his absolute pomp. Only once, though.
The issue for Liverpool is more that their front players have not always found their usual sureness of touch. Mohamed Salah, for example, has not scored in his last four appearances. That might not sound a big deal but it will be his longest run for Liverpool without a goal if four becomes five against Burnley on Sunday. The reigning player of the year, for both the Professional Footballers’ Association and the Football Writers’ Association, has scored in only one of Liverpool’s away fixtures since the turn of the year and, most revealingly, only four games all season against top‑10 opponents, none involving the current top five.
Salah has been a great player for Liverpool, a truly great player, and it is not straightforward to question a footballer with his precious magic. There is, however, a difference between a great footballer and a footballing great. If Salah can bridge the gap from one to the other during the next nine games, Liverpool can still consider the league is open with all sorts of possibilities. The alternative, for the club where “this means more”, is barely worth thinking about.
Ince does himself a disservice by failing to credit Solskjær
By now, we can all assume Ole Gunnar Solskjær will be the next full-time manager of Manchester United. If anything, it was probably agreed even before the Champions League win in Paris, but it would be bordering on ludicrous if the club looked elsewhere now and no surprise whatsoever if it turned out the terms had already been settled behind the scenes.
What isn’t quite so clear is when Paul Ince is planning to abandon this increasingly grizzled line that a number of other former United players all had it in them to turn the club around the same way. “When I said ‘anyone’ could have done the job Ole has done, I didn’t literally mean anyone,” Ince now clarifies. “I’m not saying any Tom, Dick or Harry could have come in. I’m talking about players who have played for the club and gone on to manage.” And we all know who he means, first and foremost. Himself.
Since then, however, not so much. Ince lasted 17 games at Blackburn Rovers, winning only three of them, after getting his chance in the Premier League. He then went back to Milton Keynes but could not make it work the second time and has had five years out of the sport since undistinguished spells at Notts County and Blackpool.
More than anything, he doesn’t seem to appreciate that one of the reasons why Solskjær has made Old Trafford a happy place again, why the players are actively campaigning for the interim manager to get the job properly and why he is such a breath of fresh air compared to the last guy, is that the Norwegian possesses an old-fashioned quality that not everyone in this industry appears to have: humility.
A Spurs yes man?
A special mention today to the Twitter user who set up the account in the name of “Is the Spurs stadium ready yet?” some time last October (a little late themselves, admittedly) and has been religiously posting the same single-word update – “no” – every day since.
Only a few more weeks now and, though I doubt it is a Tottenham supporter behind the account, I just hope it has been worth the (very long) wait now that, finally, he or she can look forward to typing in the word “yes”.