EPL TALK: Why Liverpool must smash Southampton in tight title race
JURGEN Klopp returned to his happy place at Wembley. His sanctuary. The fine margins.
The Liverpool manager thrives in the fine margins, incubating his mentality monsters in the tiniest laboratory, knowing precisely where modern games are won and lost.
He needed penalties to beat Chelsea in the FA Cup final. He was ready. Just as he needed penalties to defeat the same opponents in the Carabao Cup final. He was ready then, too.
And he’ll need to smash Southampton in their penultimate English Premier League fixture, to get into Manchester City heads, to flourish in the fine margins.
Klopp is often compared to Sir Alex Ferguson, Brian Clough and Billy Shankly - Svengali-like, transformative figures who revitalised their clubs through the cult of their personalities - but the comparisons can be misleading. The managers defined their eras, certainly, but the different eras also defined vastly different approaches.
Previously, elite clubs could rise and fall on the charismatic strengths of the individual. Shankly’s tenacity, Clough’s charm and Ferguson’s reign of terror were enough to prevail. But today’s contenders are separated by goal differences and penalty shootouts. Those fine margins. And Klopp has mastered them like no other.
He cannot buy Jack Grealish for £100 million, and then add Erling Haaland a year later. So he hires Thomas Gronnemark, Dr Niklas Hausler and Patrick Hantschke instead.
All three perform important roles at Liverpool, with Hausler and Hantschke in particular helping to orchestrate the club’s cup successes.
The pair founded Neuro 11, a German firm that monitors brain activity to optimise player performance. They specialise in penalty shootouts. The fine margins. Klopp’s happy place.
So he called them. And in his FA Cup final press conference, he called them out by name.
In between, Liverpool went to Wembley twice and scored 17 of their last 18 penalties, despite enduring stomach-churning, bed-wetting levels of pressure. Was it really a coincidence? Could German scientists make Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta hit the post? No, but they helped to ensure the Reds profited from the unforced error.
In penalty shootouts, there are usually unforced errors. Except Liverpool. They didn’t miss (Sadio Mane’s saved effort was, ironically, a forced error, the only time that Klopp second-guessed himself and persuaded Mane to change the direction of his spot-kick.)
After the game, Klopp acknowledged the element of luck, somewhat unconvincingly. He doesn’t believe in good fortune. He believes in good German neuro-specialists to find an edge.
A fascinating Twitter thread explained the different processes of Klopp and Thomas Tuchel before the shootout. The Liverpool manager had made his selections and discussed strategy with every kicker within a minute. But his Chelsea counterpart was still revising his notes after two minutes.
By then, Liverpool had already gathered in a huddle. But Tuchel was still fine-tuning, giving the perception of dithering, whatever the reality, as Klopp cracked jokes with Virgil van Dijk.
All of which proves, apparently, that Klopp’s Mentality Monsters are not born, but made, ready to execute precise instructions. Their fate is not left to anything as fickle and puerile as dumb luck.
Or, Mason Mount fluffed his penalty and the thread was a classic example of confirmation bias in the binary world of football tribalism.
But then, Klopp also has Thomas Gronnemark. A few years ago, the Liverpool manager made a call to the obscure expert in a niche activity. Gronnemark is a throw-in coach. When he was hired, the old guard in TV studios mocked the appointment as another example of the modern game disappearing up its own behind.
Today, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are among the best throwers in the English Premier League, using their refined skills to increase the speed of Liverpool’s gegenpressing. In the FA Cup Final, Alexander-Arnold’s basketball-style launches were utilised to bypass Chelsea’s midfield.
Klopp is actually a minutiae monster, forever searching for any discernible advantage in the game's nooks and crannies. And the next may be found in the heads of Manchester City footballers.
They struggled against West Ham United. Pep Guardiola had to claim otherwise, obviously, but only a Hammers own goal and some wayward finishing from Michail Antonio prevented a City defeat.
Their usual domination of the ball was absent. Their patched-up defence was occasionally overrun, exposing their high line and allowing Jarrod Bowen to gallop behind. Twice.
City’s press was erratic. The jitters were obvious. And that’s when the EPL trophy was practically bedecked in pale blue ribbons.
So the Reds must turn Pep Guardiola's week into the multiverse of madness, whispering into as many Manchester City ears as possible about the infinite scenarios that await them on Sunday. Disturb them. Irritate them. Unsettle them by smashing the snoozing Saints.
The Reds must turn Pep Guardiola's week into the multiverse of madness, whispering into as many Manchester City ears as possible about the infinite scenarios that await them on Sunday. Disturb them. Irritate them. Unsettle them by smashing the snoozing Saints.
Southampton have recorded one victory in their last 11 games. From a neutral standpoint, they might as well play dutiful extras in a formulaic action movie and be dispatched in large numbers to ensure a rousing finale between the leads.
Liverpool’s trip to St Mary’s represents the last of their fine margins, in the EPL at least.
All they can do is put a psychological squeeze on City and hope that Guardiola’s men choke on their ambition.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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