“Sometimes I would really like to change my personality but I can’t forget this f**king loss against Crystal Palace,” said Jurgen Klopp in the build-up to Liverpool’s Capital One Cup quarter-final. “If we had won that, I would say it was okay.”
Klopp’s perfectionism may make self-praise impossible, but he’s earned the compliments. With seven wins in his last eight matches, Liverpool’s new manager is doing more than “okay”. Southampton weren’t just beaten but pulverised, squashed flat by the weight of Liverpool’s positive energy.
The Capital One Cup is clearly Klopp’s lowest priority this season. He responded to questions over a weakened team with a simple response: “I have to think who is a bit more fresh.” Liverpool are fighting on four fronts, and the manager’s demand for high-intensity football with and without the ball makes fatigue a concern.
Klopp’s alterations looked to have handed Southampton the initiative, particularly when Sadio Mane headed home the opener after 39 seconds, the quickest goal in this season’s competition. Right-back Connor Randall looked helpless against Dusan Tadic, while Mane ran rings around Alberto Moreno.
Yet such is the confidence in Klopp’s squad – something references by both Nathaniel Clyne and Adam Lallana this week – that early setbacks do not faze them. By half-time Liverpool had one-and-a-half feet in the semi-final. By full-time they had trodden all over the toes, fingers and Wembley dreams of their opponents. Divock Origi had also become only the eighth player in as many years to score a hat-trick for Liverpool. Members of the club’s much-criticised transfer committee might have poured themselves a large one on Wednesday evening. Maybe it just needed the right manager.
Klopp has a force of personality that inevitably attracts the camera’s focus, but for once he was not Liverpool’s star attraction. That came from the return of England’s best finisher. Forget the Vardy verve, Daniel Sturridge is back.
That last statement must now come with a caveat, of course. Sturridge has missed over 70 matches through injury since arriving at Anfield, and his recent absence from Liverpool’s Europa League game against Bordeaux led to a frank admission from Klopp: “With his injury history, someone who has had 20 injuries, you cannot be treated like a normal player.”
At St Mary’s, we saw further evidence to support that view. Sturridge is indeed not a “normal player”, though not quite in the way Klopp meant. He is a phenomenal finisher, one of Europe’s best forwards when fit. Southampton conceded the 43rd and 44th goals of Sturridge’s Liverpool career, and he’s only started 59 matches. As one wag pointed out, he’s also scored more domestic goals this season than Wayne Rooney, despite living in a hospital.
“Now I know what everybody was talking about with him,” Klopp joked after the game. “I’ve finally seen it live.”
The conventional wisdom is that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but with Sturridge it makes him easy to overlook. The quality of his goals and movement is startling, accentuated by his ability to click into fourth gear from a standing start after injury. Goodness we’ve missed him.
This is why Liverpool keep the faith. Sturridge is like the absent father who turns up once every two months but then takes you to a theme park, buys you three ice creams and lets you stay up past your normal bedtime. The potential highs are thrilling enough to take you through the void, no matter how bleak those lows seem.
For now, however, thoughts of bleakness in this midwinter could not be further from the minds of Liverpool supporters. Two months after the sacking of Brendan Rodgers, we already have emphatic vindication for twist over stick. Jurgen Klopp may have talked about long-term improvement over quick gains when he arrived, but Liverpool are the Premier League’s feel-good team. It already feels like something special is building.