“Liverpool are Mentality Monsters,” Jurgen Klopp is fond of saying, often with some more colourful choice words sprinkled in as well. In what has been an absolutely unremarkable season thus far, on the heels of back-to-back wins including a 7-0 masterpiece over United, the words are ringing in the ears once more.
There have been several times throughout the season where the team seemed ready to kick into gear only to backslide into the malaise that has been hanging over the entire season. However, aside from the embarrassment against Madrid, Liverpool have quietly been building back their form and foundation over the last month or so. That all will be turned up to 11 now with the result on Sunday because of the stage, the opponent and the scoreline. With 5 straight clean sheets, Liverpool are starting to look once more like a team that can lock an opponent down in the midfield and defense which unleashes their killers up front.
Sunday against United was by far the best game so far for Cody Gakpo who put in a vintage Bobby Firmino performance, linking up play through the middle, dropping deep and running straight at players. Darwin Nunez continued his upward climb to elite levels and remains in utter chaos on the flank while Mo Salah only went and became Liverpool’s top scorer ever in the Premier league. Throw in Bobby coming on to begin his farewell tour with a goal and it was about as perfect and magical a game as could be imagined.
What has made the difference? It’s impossible to pinpoint just one thing but for me, it starts once again with confidence. Liverpool play such a risk-reward style of football that if they begin to doubt in their abilities or support, it can all fall apart and look a bit of a mess. The improved midfield play is a huge contributor for sure. Being able to trigger the press and retain possession takes the pressure off of the back 4, specifically the centrebacks who are often left in outnumbered positions because Robbo and Trent bomb forward so often. The communication and chemistry just seemed to be off when Liverpool were in the midst of their roughest patch earlier in the season, but perhaps a renewed sense of balance, of camaraderie and more energy and effort have shown. Time after time, they would hound their opponents and in the midst of it, some, like United faded and became petulant and emotional. That is often when Liverpool are at their best.
I made the comparison recently about Liverpool being much like the Golden State Warriors and matches like these are the evidence. Few things can feel more inevitable than when Liverpool are pressing in front of a roaring Kop or when Steph Curry is cooking and begins to shoot from anywhere on the floor. At both times, it almost seems like there is no opponent at all, just the building crescendo of excellence met with the rapt joy of the crowds. At their finest, Liverpool are a steamroller and can ride that wave of emotion and play to the very top of the world.
The talk now goes to two things: the first being Top 4, which seems not just like a hope but a very real goal now. They’ve sent a warning shot to the entire league that they are a wounded beast but not at all dead. Rather, they are ready to fight and are out for blood of their own now. There is a stretch of games coming in an April that will probably define what sort of position Liverpool end up in, with matches against City, Chelsea and Arsenal right in a row. Should Liverpool continue the form they are in now, with the budding chemistry of Gakpo and Nunez, the evergreen brilliance of Mo and a stronger defensive identity, they will yet have a say in where the title ends up.
Secondly, where despair had crept in against Madrid, now there is a defiant hope. Against literally any other team in the world, Liverpool would have a rising belief that they could erase a three-goal deficit, even being on the road. Such is the strength of their history, resolve and ability. That it is Madrid, perhaps the only team who can stake an even bigger claim of being mentality monsters makes the task even larger. As with the famous comebacks in the past, it must be built slowly, brick by brick, one goal at a time, one clearance at a time. And yet, and yet, what a difference a few weeks can make. With nothing to lose at this point and everything there for the taking, Liverpool might just fancy showing how much they have left, even against the very best. As with all things sports, you need to open yourself up to have a chance to taste glory. Don’t bury this season just yet. My heart is ready, for the agony and the ecstasy all over again.