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In the absence of Salah and Mané, the Liverpool manager has become reliant on solidity at the back
Liverpool’s January always promised to revolve around African attackers. Just not Daniel Udoh, perhaps. And yet, should they keep a fourth consecutive clean sheet against Crystal Palace on Sunday, Shrewsbury’s Nigerian target man will retain his distinction as the only player to score against them while Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané were at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Liverpool could get through what threatened to be the most problematic period of their season unscathed. While Diogo Jota’s double against Arsenal booked their place in the Carabao Cup final and suggested the Portuguese had found a way of compensating for his fellow forwards’ absence, Jürgen Klopp argues that Salah and Mané have been replaced in part by stoppers, not scorers.
Udoh struck for Shrewsbury in the FA Cup but Liverpool allowed Arsenal and Brentford four shots on target in 270 minutes of football. Their defence has provided sturdy foundations that have assumed still greater significance.
“It’s the only way you can do it,” Klopp says. “When you lose key players for injuries or tournaments or whatever, then the solution is not that you will be flying in the next game. It’s not that you say: ‘OK, now we will score five or six and create chances like hell.’”
Liverpool’s reputation as adventurers precedes them, burnished by winning 7-0 on their last trip to Selhurst Park. Klopp believes his side are more cautious than kamikaze. “It was 100% clear that we need to be rock solid,” he says. “Maybe you don’t see it all the time but we are defending first.
“We have to be organised: that’s the basis for everything we do. And in this moment, I can see outstanding commitment to our defending. Everybody is 100% involved in everything because they understand it’s now more important than ever. That’s helpful that we didn’t concede then.
“It’s not that you fly through every period of a season with 3-0, 4-0 or 5-0 results; you have to win football games 1-0.”
The cornerstone of that defence has been the constant. Two years ago, it was unsurprising that Virgil van Dijk was ever-present. His campaign last season was curtailed by a cruciate ligament injury in October 2020 and Klopp spoke of the need to ease him back into action slowly.
But while he has rested the Dutchman in the Champions League and the centre-back missed two league games because of Covid, he has played every minute of the other 19 matches. Only one man has been on the pitch throughout all of Liverpool’s games since Christmas in all competitions: Van Dijk.
Klopp believes his season has been a triumph of Van Dijk’s intelligence and adaptability. “Virg had to learn a lot of things,” he says. “Some physical things are just not available like they were before; they came back but not from the first day. You have to adapt.
“I’ve had injuries myself and you cannot ignore that. When you are an intelligent person like Virg you can’t ignore everything or say: ‘Who cares?’ The way back to your best is a bumpy one and he did exceptionally well.”
It’s not that you fly through every period of a season with 3-0, 4-0 or 5-0 results; you have to win games 1-0
His forward line have also had to adjust. Liverpool were forewarned they would lose two of their front three. Yet that did not make it easier to prepare.
“While they are still here, do we train like they are not here?” Klopp says. “That makes no sense. So when they are gone we have three days until the next game: it makes it really tricky.
“Players of their quality, you don’t replace like this,” he says, clicking his fingers. “I look forward to when they are back but I like as well the response of the squad I was never in doubt that it was possible. I know we can do it without him. Do I want to always do it without them? No.”
A game Klopp has termed a final has a finality: the last without Salah and Mané. Even with them, Liverpool will be outsiders in a title race that has runaway favourites in the shape of Manchester City.
“We cannot influence a slip from City,” Klopp says. “If I sat here and said: ‘I can smell it, we’ll get them,’ that would be really crazy. If I sit here and say: ‘We don’t even try,’ that would be crazy as well.”
If some of Klopp’s most famous deeds have contained a hint of the illogical and the implausible, the master of chaos has embraced order and organisation as he emphasises the pragmatic formula of clean sheets and solidity.