Neil Humphreys: Liverpool have a week to save seasonavril 5, 2021
The stroll past Arsenal must feel like an act of masochism among Liverpool supporters. Out of nowhere, they have hope.
It’s always worse when hope appears from nowhere.
A week or so ago, the Reds were facing despair in the English Premier League and probable disappointment in the Champions League. At least the break between success and failure was going to be clean and swift.
Now, they are a week or so away from a potential turnaround. Two European games and a domestic fixture can resuscitate a dead season. Real Madrid, twice, and Aston Villa stand between Liverpool and the unthinkable.
The top four and Champions League glory are now images on the horizon, faint and distant images admittedly, but the fact that they exist at all is extraordinary.
Indeed, last weekend’s 3-0 victory at Arsenal was as decisive as it was unexpected, leaving the Anfield faithful with little time to adjust to a different kind of hope.
Ordinarily, there is regular, run-of-the-mill hope (see the Manchester sides, Chelsea, Leicester City and even West Ham United). Clubs with regular hope can prepare. They can check winnable fixtures. Bite fingernails. Get nervous and so on.
Then there is regular despair (anyone facing relegation, any Jose Mourinho club after a few years and, until last week, Liverpool).
Clubs dealing with regular despair do all of the above, but with an increasing sense of resignation. They know where the season is heading.
But what are Juergen Klopp’s men supposed to do with their sudden hope from nowhere? It’s an entirely new sensation.
Sudden hope is almost cruel, forcing a difficult mindset shift. Just when the Reds thought they were out, they pull themselves back in.
Only two points separate them from the coveted fourth spot in the EPL and the trip to Real tomorrow morning (Singapore time) arrives with impeccable timing as pieces slowly fit again.
Yes, perspective is required. First, Liverpool are off to the Spanish capital to face opponents enjoying a mini-recovery of their own (unlike Arsenal).
Even so, there was something in the way the Reds moved against the hapless Gunners. The pressing was crisp. The attacking performance was consistent, rather than patchy, which was hardly surprising.
Klopp has repaired a broken spine. Ozan Kabak and Nathaniel Phillips have established a working relationship that is stable enough to encourage Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, in particular, to do what they do best in their opponents’ half.
In the middle, Fabinho feels like a change of battery in a frozen clock. When he clicks into place, the mechanism works. Everything moves again.
Thiago Alcantara found his passing rhythm against Arsenal. When Diogo Jota joined him in the second half, Klopp caught a glimpse of what he must have envisioned when he signed them both.
Jota scored twice, making it six in four games. Thiago tweaked the tempo in a way that no one else in the Reds side can, a rare skill in the EPL, but a pivotal one in the Champions League.
And yet, Thiago and Jota have started just one league game together. Injuries made a mess of Klopp’s midfield, especially when Fabinho spent too much time alongside unfamiliar centre-backs.
Virgil van Dijk remains a huge loss, but a side regularly denied the varied talents of Fabinho, Thiago and Jota couldn’t conjure the goals that might have reduced the gap on the top four earlier.
But they are back. For the first time in a while, Klopp has options in both personnel and playing approach. His usual 4-3-3 pressing game with his preferred attacking triumvirate could also be modified, with Roberto Firmino perhaps giving way to Jota in Madrid.
Rested and revived players give Klopp the luxury of choice. Whether it was by accident or design, Alexander-Arnold’s unexpected axing from the England squad led to his most eye-catching showing of the season against Arsenal.
Like a homegrown barometer, the 22-year-old Liverpool lad elevates his teammates. The Reds usually lead through his example.
The international break also helped the Brazilians. With no games, Alisson, Fabinho and Firmino stayed and trained in Liverpool.
The core of Klopp’s line-up looks refreshed for three games that could possibly salvage a previously washed-up campaign. Confused and wary fans might need to adjust their expectations.
The Reds appear to have decided that their season is not yet over. They’ve got a week to prove it.