In 1973, Frank Lane was Liverpool’s back-up goalkeeper. He was sitting behind Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley in the Anfield dug-out when in injury time, in the moments after Red Star Belgrade made it 2-1 during a European Cup first leg tie, Paisley leaned across and whispered something in Shankly’s ear. Lane could just about make out the word “change.”
Liverpool FC did change, of course – or rather evolve, winning the same competition three seasons later under Paisley who, by then, had introduced a more patient style of football. The game is always evolving in the sense that managers look at ways of beating the opposition. Some of these ideas can instead be described as devolution because they return to concepts of the past, ones that were successful then and could be successful now because modern trends have caught up with one another.
Perhaps this is in Jurgen Klopp’s current thinking? Anyone who was present at Liverpool’s last Champions League game rather than watching it from afar through the keyhole of a television camera would recognise that Napoli dominated and ultimately beat them operating with what was in basic terms a classic 4-4-2 formation, albeit one with classic Italian touch which encouraged fluidity in the wide areas and reliability through the middle.
There were some bad Liverpool performances that evening but there was also an inescapable feeling that tactically, they were also behind Napoli. The best managers recognise when there’s a problem and rather than revolution instead make tweaks to their own systems, incorporate the designs of others and ultimately come up with solutions.
Last night, Klopp told everyone that Liverpool had instead gone with 4-2-3-1 to accommodate Fabinho and it was a decision that led to a resounding and confidence-boosting 4-0 victory over an opponent that had taught the club’s management so many lessons all those years ago.
In real terms, Liverpool were a lot more like Napoli a few weeks ago but a bit more adventurous because they could be against an opponent they were expected to beat. In the opening 20 minutes, Liverpool overloaded in attack and were actually more of a 4-2-4 but in recognising they needed more of the ball to dominate, Roberto Firmino started dropping a bit deeper, with Sadio Mane making more in-field darts and Andy Robertson careering up the wing. With better finishing, the Scottish left back could have scored twice before half time.
The shape of the team helped Fabinho play a more natural game. And yet, within moments of him being announced as Liverpool’s in-house sponsor man of the match, a selective set of statistics – released by the club and subsequently lifted elsewhere – were all over the Internet and had already been received as conclusive proof that the decision was categorically the right one.
Fabinho had performed encouragingly but there is also a danger in taking what is close enough to being an official view, especially when a player has taken so long to make his way into the team having been signed for so much money, and running with it as an absolute truth.
He and Xherdan Shaqiri were in the “excellent” category according to Jamie Carragher. Though the person whose opinion matters most was not quite as praising, Fabinho was nevertheless “very good” according to Klopp.
Klopp has said before that statistics in isolation are “only part of the argument” rather than being the basis for conclusion. For anyone who wanted to believe that Fabinho already deserves a starting berth because he passes the ball forward 31 per-cent of the time and someone like Georginio Wijnaldum should drop out because this season his stats come in at 12.9 per-cent, it is worth remembering that against Red Star – the worst team Liverpool have faced this season - Fabinho completed 20 passes in the attacking third and the joint most active with him on that front was Wijnaldum. Not only that, a higher percentage of Wijnaldum’s passes had been forward in the first half when Liverpool were not quite as dominant and Fabinho was not quite as convincing in the things he did.
Klopp had warned in the earliest weeks of pre-season that Fabinho would take a while to adjust to the demands of the Premier League as well as his new manager’s expectations. “Everything was there,” Klopp assessed enthusiastically, knowing that he had not only changed the shape of the team to suit him but also maybe because of things he is learning by his own experiences, just as it had been in 1973.
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