A cagey, fascinating European chess match. A wonderfully poised tactical scrap. After 90 minutes, Liverpool must have been confident that the 0-0 draw they sought was safe. They had survived their Spanish inquisition.
After the drama of Dortmund, Jurgen Klopp will have been more than satisfied with the vapidity of Villarreal. Some critics will insist that playing for a 0-0 first-leg draw with the secondary objective of ‘nicking a goal’ is counteractive. Heading into a match aiming to avoid defeat as opposed to securing victory is a thankless task, and one which can rely on fortune as much as skill. But when it works, it works.
On Thursday evening, it did not work. Klopp took his Liverpool squad to Estadio El Madrigal with the sole purpose of not losing. A goalless stalemate would have sufficed; a 1-1 draw would have represented success; a 1-0 away victory was the perfect result. Liverpool failed. Klopp failed them. The problem with playing for a 0-0 draw is that it leaves no margin for error. This current Reds side cannot afford that caveat.
Much has been written of Klopp since his appointment as Liverpool manager in October. The majority has surrounded his personality. I described Klopp as ‘a lucky man for a far luckier club‘ after Liverpool held Borussia Dortmund to a 1-1 draw in the first leg of the Europa League quarter-final in early April. The argument was that the German’s personality had reinvigorated a broken club.
Days after his unveiling, the 48-year-old was branded ‘the German Messiah’, ‘SuperKlopp’ and a ‘charismatic Indie Jesus’ by the national press. His media interviews, his touchline demeanour, his visibly close relationships with his players, each was a facet of a football manager wrapped up in an enigma.
The ‘football manager’ part is often forgotten. Over six months into his tenure, Klopp has not made many notable managerial mistakes. He added to that short list on Thursday.
In a game of few stand-out moments, the main talking point from the Liverpool camp once more surrounded Daniel Sturridge. The England international has been plagued by injury this season, but three goals in three games pointed to a striker recovering not only his fitness, but his form. To the surprise of many, Roberto Firmino was favoured as the focal point of the attack.
Firmino is no laughing stock. The Brazilian has scored ten goals in his first season in England, and has started as the centre-forward in many of the club’s most famous wins this season. Yet leaving a fresh, fit and firing Sturridge out was sure to create discussion.
When Owen Hargreaves, Michael Owen and Steve McManaman all reach a unanimous and sane conclusion, you know something is wrong. “He’s dropping too deep,” noted Hargreaves during the first half. “I’m not quite sure why he’s not in the box.”
Liverpool had 14 shots on Thursday evening; Firmino had one. The Brazilian forced Sergio Asenjo into an excellent second-half stop, but when your main forward has as many efforts as Dejan Lovren, Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen in his 89 minutes, questions must be asked. Indeed, they were before the game.
“It was a very difficult decision,” said the manager of his choice to bench Sturridge in favour of Firmino. “I had thought about a lot of things and in the end I decided for a little bit more stability in the 4-3-3. The 4-3-3 we haven’t played with Daniel until now. It can be a 4-5-1, sometimes a diamond, and it gives us more stability.”
Klopp’s reasoning for starting Firmino was obvious. Lucas (four) was the only Liverpool player to make more tackles than the 24-year-old (three), whose work-rate and pressing was crucial to the visitors’ game plan. The first line of defence is attack, after all. But tackles do not win games; goals win games. And goals are far more likely with Sturridge on the pitch than without.
Even upon Firmino’s removal with one minute of normal time to play, Sturridge remained benched. Christian Benteke, who has played 72 minutes of football since February 14, was entrusted with finding another route to goal.
Why Klopp waited 89 minutes to substitute a striker who had shown little signs of scoring, we will never know. Why Klopp replaced him with a striker returning from injury, who has scored once this calendar year – from the penalty spot – we will never know. Why Sturridge, Liverpool’s best forward, sat on the bench throughout, we will never know. Each decision in isolation can be explained. Klopp will face justified criticism for them as a collective.
The German’s spell at Anfield has seemed almost surreal thus far. He has led the club to a cup final and a semi-final within six months, has overseen dramatic turnarounds, has led the club to the brink of the top before suffering setbacks in their quest for Champions League qualification, and has endured disappointment. It almost feels as though this half-season has lasted three campaigns in itself. But the goodwill can no longer protect the Messiah. Humans make mistakes, and for once, Klopp showed himself as rather mortal.