Two English teams reached the semi-finals of European competitions this season; both faced Spanish opposition. On Wednesday, one provided a sleep-inducing performance in an insipid defeat, exiting the Champions League with barely a whimper. Twenty-four hours later, the other roared into the Europa League final with a convincing victory.
That, Manchester City, is how you approach a European semi-final. If Liverpool’s first-leg defeat in Spain represented a country music concert, the return at Anfield was the personification of the “heavy metal” football Klopp champions.
“He likes having the ball, playing football, passes… it’s like an orchestra,” Klopp once said of the passing style preferred by Arsene Wenger. “But it is a silent song. I like heavy metal more. I always want it loud.
“I like it. I love it but I cannot coach it because I am a different guy. If you watch me during the game I celebrate when we press the ball and it goes out.
“To enjoy football you have to do this. I don’t like winning with 80 per cent [of possession]. That is not enough for me. Fighting football, not serenity football, that is what I like. What we call in German ‘English’ — rainy day, heavy pitch, 5-5, everybody is dirty in the face and goes home and cannot play for weeks after.”
It was not quite 5-5 for Liverpool against Villarreal – the Spanish side were barely allowed to complete five consecutive passes – but Klopp will be delighted nonetheless. The 3-0 victory over the third-best defensive unit in La Liga was thrilling, compelling and mightily impressive. And it was all completed in Klopp’s vision.
The German implored the Liverpool fans to make the difference at Anfield. The message was clear, and it was most certainly received. The hosts were welcomed to the stadium amid vociferous support, deafening chants and a canvas of red smoke and flares.
The Liverpool fans relished their role, but each member of Klopp’s heavy metal band were excellent. Daniel Sturridge, the maverick lead singer whose vocals so often make a mockery of his critics. Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana, the irrepressibly effortless backing singers. Emre Can, the ever-reliable bass player. The brilliant James Milner – to whom I, among many others may owe an apology – can play every instrument at the same time at his peak. Dejan Lovren and Kolo Toure, the physically-imposing bodyguards. Even Alberto Moreno and Simon Mignolet had their moments on the triangle – although the former did threaten to trash the hotel room and get Liverpool kicked out on numerous occasions.
Linking it all was band manager Klopp. The German has been at the Anfield helm for just seven months, but his players are already pitch perfect in his desired style. Aggression. Tenacity. Pressing. Neat passing. Skill. Each trait was in abundance, and each was completed as a team. Inconsistency still plagues this side, but when they perform at their peak, few sare able to match them. This was Klopp’s ‘loud’ football in its purest form.
After facing justified criticism for the first-leg defeat to Villarreal, Klopp provided the perfect reaction. Many felt that Sturridge, who remained on the bench throughout in Spain, would again be overlooked for a crucial game. Not so. But instead of a straight swap for Firmino, the manager kept both in the starting line-up. Liverpool required goals, and the attacking selection said as much.
The difference with the England international in the side was palpable on Thursday evening. Sturridge provides a focal point when required, drops deep when needed and drifts wide when necessary, all while combining with each of his teammates. His desire – both to work and to play for Liverpool – has been questioned of late, but review his celebration at scoring the second goal for the emphatic answer. That is an outpouring of emotion from a man who cares.
As soon as Sturridge handed Liverpool the initiative for the first time in this semi-final, BT Sport’s commentary team made more than a few mentions of how one Villarreal away goal ‘would change everything’. It always seemed more of a gentle reminder than a stark warning. The Spanish side were harried from the first whistle to last, Liverpool hunting their prey like a pack of rabid wolves. At one point, Toure even Gegenpressed Alphonso Areola in the visiting goalkeeper’s own area. The French shot-stopper was noticeably shaky and error-prone as the Anfield atmosphere combined effectively with the Reds’ full-throttle style.
He was not the only one. Referee Viktor Kassai handed out four yellow cards to the Spanish side as their tempers boiled over. The final caution represented Victor Ruiz’s second, with the defender’s sending-off the only mercy afforded to Villarreal at Anfield. When played close to perfection, Klopp’s style not only elevates his side; it exposes the very real weaknesses of the opponent.
‘Loud’. The word Klopp used to describe how he feels football should be played was the theme for Thursday. It encapsulates the Liverpool support, it summarises the performances of the players, and it outlines the message this will send across Europe. This is what Jurgen’s Reds are capable of.