Javier Manquillo, Kolo Toure, Lucas Leiva, Lazar Markovic, Fabio Borini; those five names were the epitaph on Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool gravestone. Each of them were picked by Rodgers to start in the Santiago Bernabeu in November 2014 against Real Madrid, the defending European champions. Rodgers lasted another 11 months before being sacked, but the bubble had burst.
“Our form this season has been nowhere near the level we set over 18 months so it’s probably hard to pick what would be our best team at the moment,” was Rodgers’ pretty miserable excuse. “I think we’ve got a strong team out. We’re certainly not forfeiting the game.”
The reason that Rodgers’ team selection did him such long-term damage is that, even three years into his Liverpool reign, he had displayed his lack of understanding at what the Champions League means to Liverpool. For all his sugary schtick about the ‘Liverpool way’, a walking, talking managerial meme, Rodgers still had plenty to learn.
This love of European football is not a question of arrogance, but romance. Reasonable Liverpool supporters do not expect Champions League participation every season, but at least expect to make the best of the opportunities that do arrive. Only Real Madrid and Milan have won this competition more often. Even an ultimately unsuccessful European Cup campaign, with the occasional moment of joy and triumph, sticks in the mind more than entire league seasons.
It is in the Champions League, therefore, that Klopp can truly surpass Rodgers. For all the deserved plaudits given to a manager who took Liverpool to second in the Premier League, should Klopp give Liverpool’s supporters a run into the knock-out stages of this competition then he will retain their goodwill even if they falter in the Premier League.
There are reasons to believe that this competition favours Klopp’s management style, too. Liverpool’s biggest flaw – in general rather than in individual moments of matches – is against weaker opposition. They sat top of a mini-league between the top six last season, winning five and drawing five of their ten league games, and yet still finished fourth. Klopp may struggle to generate consistency of performance, but has the inspirational qualities that provoke big-game displays. Ask any Borussia Dortmund supporter.
Against Hoffenheim, Liverpool evaporated any nerves by coming out of the blocks in striking manner. Trent Alexander-Arnold had already had a free-kick chance and Sadio Mane hit a one-on-one straight at Oliver Baumann before Emre Can’s deflected shot gave the home side the lead.
From that moment on, Liverpool swarmed forward in a manner akin to their 5-1 defeat of Arsenal in 2014. Then they scored four times before the break, but made do with three on Wednesday. The second and third goals were team moves of majestic quality, both including backheels timed perfectly to match the overlapping strides of teammates.
It is in these moments that you truly see Klopp’s vision for Liverpool, the high-intensity pressing as close to the opposition penalty area as possible, with full-backs the wide outlet when possession is turned over to create overlaps and thus chances. In the first 65 minutes, Alberto Moreno and Alexander-Arnold had the most and second most touches of any Liverpool players.
With both full-backs pushed high, Liverpool’s front three of Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino could dovetail at will in the middle third of the pitch, leaving Hoffenheim’s central defenders looking like a group of hungover fathers tasked with taking their children to a soft play centre, a weary band of worried looks, head-shaking and waves of nausea. This is the first time since September 2016 that Hoffenheim have conceded four goals.
Yet most impressive of all was Can, given licence to play in an advanced role with the security of Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson behind him. Can played in the position on the pitch that Adam Lallana or even Philippe Coutinho might occupy, and scored more than once in a game for the first time in his career. No Liverpool player had more shots.
If Liverpool’s attacking wowed, their defending left no supporters at Anfield surprised. Dejan Lovren was recalled to the starting line-up but gave the ball away carelessly for Hoffenheim’s goal, while Alexander-Arnold continues to impress more going forward than in defence – will a Liverpool full-back ever do anything else? Yet this is not the night to repeat the same old concerns. Job done and, importantly given Sunday’s assignment against Arsenal, job done early.
It is an odd thing to say about a game in August for a team with aspirations at the top end of the Premier League, but Liverpool have already achieved their most important ambition for this season.
Such is the Premier League’s dominance over the footballing landscape, the annual battle for the top four has become a competition in its own right rather than merely a conduit for Champions League participation. Not at Liverpool, though. Pass up your opportunity in this competition meekly, as Rodgers did, and the bread and butter begins to taste stale.
Klopp will be only too aware of how the memories of European nights can shape a Liverpool manager’s reputation.