Cold midweeks in February are the true acid test for football teams, writes Steven Scragg.
It is here that we find out what clubs are made of; it is here where the true strength of character of a team is stress-tested to the outer limits. It is the time and place where campaigns sink or swim.
It is so easy to down tools during the winter months. The weather is awful, the nights are long, and if a team is out of form it tends to be difficult to pick out any light at the end of the tunnel. Throw an Africa Cup of Nations into the mix and there seemed to be plenty of reasons not to be cheerful, as we set out to ‘endure’ the last month or so.
Thursday night’s win over Leicester City was the product of Liverpool taking a stand against the vagaries of winter discontent.
I mean, this was an occasion upon which even Leicester seemed sick of being Leicester. Their supporters might well have trotted out the tired and tested formulaic songbook, but there was no feeling to it, it was all a bit half-hearted. They didn’t even try to encroach on the pitch and throw punches at opposing players.
By rights, as unlikeable as they have become in recent years – and they weren’t always like that -there should be much to like about Leicester. Their 2015/16 Premier League title success really was one of football’s most incredulous events, while they have won every major domestic trophy on offer since Everton last won any at all.
As blueprints go, Leicester’s is one for the ages. A dot-to-dot ethos that any club could copy and paste and thrive upon, to the full extent of their own bespoke limitations.
Let’s be honest, we’d adore their potential hipster status if they were German, Italian, or Spanish. They’re from the East Midlands though and celebrated that league title of theirs with clappers and plastic flags, the bad set of biffs.
Leicester’s defeat in the FA Cup at Nottingham Forest has basically broken what remaining spirit they had toward this season, bowing out as they did as holders. Winter is proving to be difficult for them.
Humiliated at Anfield in the League Cup, Brendan Rodgers’ side conspired against themselves in the Europa League when the destiny of the group lay in their hands, in a tournament they should have had their eye on winning, yet at least partially resented being involved in, given that they blew Champions League qualification on the final day of last season.
They’ve gone from having ambitions of dining at the top table, with the FA Cup already on the sideboard, to dropping way down into the Europa Conference League play-offs, as all the while domestic bliss turns to shit.
Being mentality monsters isn’t for everyone, and despite some admirably belligerent goalkeeping from Kasper Schmeichel, the rest of his teammates played very much like a side that managed just one effort on target for a very good reason. For every swing there is to enjoy when it comes to Rodgers, there is also a roundabout to be suffered.
In this one, there was only ever going to be one winner, and it was Diogo Jota who put himself front and centre, to be the headline act for Liverpool’s winning performance. A player who seems to multiply in maturity with each and every appearance, he snared both goals, one of which magnificently came from a Joel Matip assist, when on another day many of his teammates would have hit the target too.
A scoreline that flattered the visitors, in his half-hour Anfield reintroduction, Mohamed Salah could have had a hat-trick, Thiago Alcantara attempted the incredulous, and Andy Robertson literally struck the post, among a clutch of other chances that fell the way of Jurgen Klopp’s team.
This was a Liverpool who were greatly enjoying their task, despite the belated nature to their second goal, on an evening when we were given a first full airing of Luis Diaz, when it would have been easier to be more circumspect and at least partially have kept the new boy under wraps.
Beauty in the Diaz deal
There is a wonderful, channelled hostility at play with Diaz, that is deployed in an infectiously positive manner.
He plays the ball all the time, with no hint of the dark arts that our last significant South American Luis used to deal in. No shortage of skill, imagination, and intelligence, he is very much a Klopp type of player, and on initial viewings, he has everything at his disposal to follow the route of Jota, in becoming an increasingly integral part of the Liverpool manager’s thinking.
Just seeing Klopp push for a player like Diaz is a joy, as it doesn’t speak of a manager who has one eye on a projected 2024 exit from the club.
Managers with an exit strategy don’t tend to continue developing their team. They reach a point where they stick, rather than twist, and the arrival of Diaz is similar big picture thinking to that which led Klopp to purchase Ibrahima Konate.
The clues are all in the thirst of the man in charge of new music. Either Klopp knows he won’t be able to let the job go a couple of years from now, as he is due to do so, or he is within the process of putting together a magnificent team for his successor to run with, just because he’s basically an all-round beautiful human being.
More changes will come in the summer as, when it comes to that front three, we can’t make six fit comfortably, and we will likely be saying our farewells to a cult hero or two.
Next up, we head to Turf Moor to take on the bottom of the table Burnley, who are fresh off the back of taking a point off Man United. If we are to shrink that nine-point margin of Man City‘s then no errors can be afforded.
We will need to play every game like we are affronted by our opponents.
Up the reds.