“We have won a few games this year, but this was really special,” said Jurgen Klopp following the final whistle at the Bet365 Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Liverpool had just beaten Stoke City 2-1 in the Premier League, a result which on its own does not look particularly special.
However, it was a hugely important result for Liverpool in the quest to finish in the top four of the Premier League this season and qualify for the Champions League. Klopp could not hide his delight at the comeback win in his post-match interviews.
“You could feel it immediately in the dressing room. Everybody was like, ‘that’s very important,” enthused the German, before continuing, “Of course, we have to keep on proving it, but it feels outstandingly good in this moment. This was massive, it’s absolutely massive.”
He is right, this was a massive win, for several reasons.
The team showed great character to reverse the half-time score-line of 1-0 and win the match 2-1 in the second half. Things were going badly in the first 45 minutes and when the referee blew the whistle for half-time, it seemed like yet another defeat against a bottom-half club was on the cards. With just one minute left on the clock, Jon Walters headed home for Stoke City, meeting a Xherdan Shaqiri cross to put the hosts in-front.
Shaqiri found himself in plenty of space down the Liverpool left, following a poor challenge from Ragnar Klavan and floated a good cross onto the head of Walters, who could not miss from four yards out. It was a potentially devastating blow.
To sum up the first half performance, Liverpool did not register a single shot on target. It was another case of doom and gloom against a lower ranked team in the Premier League.
Klopp’s team selection was cause for much debate. His hand was forced in terms of injuries to Sadio Mane and Adam Lallana but the big surprises were seeing both Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino on the bench and another sighting of the 3-5-2 formation. Coutinho had missed training through illness and Firmino was showing signs of fatigue following a long run of games for both Liverpool and Brazil.
Ben Woodburn started the game, playing just off Divock Origi who was leading the Liverpool attack. Nathaniel Clyne played left wing-back, with Trent Alexander-Arnold operating the right side. Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip joined Klavan in central defence, with James Milner, Emre Can and Giorginio Wijnaldum playing in central midfield.
This was the same formation which was used in the home draw against Bournemouth, yet Klopp was happy to give it another go at Stoke. In the first half, the players seemed to lack any understanding of what their roles were in the team, especially defence.
Woodburn and Alexander-Arnold were sacrificed at half-time in a move which does not reflect on their performance. In truth, any of the ten outfield players could have been withdrawn without complaint and Woodburn offered more than anyone going forward and Alexander-Arnold was no worse than Clyne on the opposite flank.
Still, Klopp needed to do something drastic to change the game and that’s what he did, bringing on Coutinho and Firmino for the second half. Was this an admission of a mistake in the starting XI from the manager or was he always planning on introducing his two most creative players at the interval? Either way, the Brazilian duo possess the talent to turn any game on its head and that’s exactly what they did, in spectacular fashion.
With 20 minutes remaining, Coutinho guided home a lovely finish into the bottom left corner from close to the penalty spot. It was a moment of calm assurance from the Brazilian, something which had been missing throughout the game. Then, while the Liverpool fans were still celebrating the equaliser, Firmino struck a superb dipping shop over Lee Grant in the Stoke goal, to give Liverpool the lead. It was a sublime goal, worthy of winning any football match and it was enough to see the Reds claim maximum points in a match which seemed to be slipping away from them.
We can dwell on the negative from this game, which was the performance of the defence. Despite having an extra body in there, this group of players cannot keep things tight at the back for 90 minutes. Until the personnel changes, this is something which is not going to disappear and the best Klopp can do is try to minimise the problem until the end of the season.
However, there many positives to enjoy from the match. The character the players showed in coming back to win the game was excellent. It was a match which could easily have been lost and blamed on poor defending but the players did not want to live-up to the stereotype of losing to bottom half teams and it showed. Yes, it took two moments of magic to win the game but that’s why the club has invested in players like Coutinho and Firmino, to produce match winning contributions.
The victory was equally as important for the next match at West Bromwich Albion, as it was for picking up the 3 points. Heading to the Hawthorns is difficult at the best of times but following a defeat at Stoke, it would have been a horrible prospect. Now, with the Stoke victory plus the 6-point cushion over Manchester United and 9-point cushion over Arsenal, things are looking good prior to the trip to West Brom.
Looking back at the key moments in the Stoke game, Simon Mignolet produced a fantastic save to deny Saido Berahino and maintain Liverpool’s slender lead. The Belgian was also decisive in his punching under pressure and this will give him great confidence for the remainder of the season.
Daniel Sturridge, when introduced in the second half looked a threat and was involved in the equalising goal at the Bet365 Stadium. His performance could be the first of many as Liverpool aim to remain in the top four and to have Sturridge at his best until the end of the season would be a huge bonus.
It will be interesting to see if Klopp sticks with playing three at the back or reverts to 4-3-3 at West Brom. At this stage, it’s unclear but with Coutinho and Firmino fit and firing on all cylinders plus Mignolet and Sturridge looking ready for the run-in, it should be an exciting end to the season, the Reds finishing in the top four,