Speaking after his Liverpool side had lost their penalty shoot-out in the Capital One Cup Final, Jurgen Klopp made an interesting and potentially revealing point when he said:
“I could be proud about a lot of things the players did today, but I expected we could do things like this so it’s not too easy to be proud of things you think are normal. But they did well in a lot of moments.”
When he says “it’s not too easy to be proud of things you think are normal” it is easy to imagine that he is talking about the basics of hard work, passion, commitment and endeavour.
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Core, basic qualities
Those are the core, basic attributes; the minimum standard expected of a professional footballer.
They are qualities that are often spoken of with pride, for the simple fact that when people watch sport, at any level, the least they expect to see is those attributes; players who compete and who ‘give their all’.
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Fans and managers regularly say, following a defeat, that they are proud that their team worked hard and there is a suspicion of that sentiment in the words of Jurgen Klopp.
Make no mistake, his Liverpool team showed those characteristics in abundance during 120 minutes of hard, physical, entertaining football and none in the Liverpool side embodies those qualities more than James Milner and the captain, Jordan Henderson.
One of the conundrums facing the Liverpool manager, however, is that all too often it appears those are the only qualities those two players are blessed with.
Liverpool were crying out for someone to control the midfield and orchestrate their play, just as Yaya Toure did, and they were equally desperate for an attacking option to rival what City had in Sergio Aguero and David Silva.
But they had nothing.
Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho tried and it was the latter who pounced to bring Liverpool level towards the end of normal time.
In truth, however, both players were trying to support a striker, in Daniel Sturridge, who is still probably a month or two away from being at his best, by not just playing alongside him up front but also dropping back deep into midfield.
The reason being to try and deliver the service that Henderson and Milner should have been providing.
Sadly, for Liverpool, without Steven Gerrard they have lost not just a captain, a leader and an icon, they have also lost their heartbeat and a playmaker who, so often, made a difference in matches such as these.
With a player of that quality in the Liverpool side, others such as Coutinho, Firmino and Sturridge would be able to concentrate on looking for space and running into it, knowing that the right ball would be delivered at exactly the right moment.
They would be able to focus on dragging defenders out of position, in the certain knowledge that, once that crucial gap appeared, so would the pass that would exploit it.
That quality was lacking on Sunday and so Coutinho, Firmino and Sturridge were left, all too often, to have to try and do the ‘fetching and carrying’ for themselves.
When Henderson played in a midfield alongside Gerrard and Lucas he was free of responsibility as, of his two midfield colleagues, one sat deep and ‘minded the shop’ while the other pulled the strings, allowing Henderson to run all over the pitch as Liverpool’s human dynamo.
In the Capital One Cup defeat however, they had two dynamos plus Emre Can, none of whom offer protection to the back four in the way that Dietmar Hamann or Javier Mascherano used to or Lucas Leiva still does when he is not playing as a central defender.
And just as crucially, none of them offer the control, orchestration or pinpoint passing accuracy of Steven Gerrard or Xabi Alonso.
And so, against Man City, Liverpool’s midfield was, as it often is, stuck in a footballing no man's land.
Not a midfield that possesses stubborn defensive qualities and hard to break down but no longer is it blessed with lock-pickers capable of undoing any defence either.
These days it is a midfield that simply runs around a lot and the question isn’t whether or not one of the world’s best managers, in Jurgen Klopp, has noticed that; of course, he has.
The question is: what he will do about it?
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