27 Feb Ten-foot-tall-Hag looks to increase the pressure on Klopp’s regressing Reds
Football is a game which can change in the blink of an eye: slender leads often overturned in a matter of minutes; players being lauded as a hero at one end of the pitch before immediately turning into a villain ridiculed at the other. All the while, the managerial merry-go-round continues to spin at an alarming pace, and the hiring and firing of head coaches can decimate the career of a man once deemed as highly reputable and perfectly suited for a particular task in hand.
It is a game where the highs can be euphoric but the lows frighteningly unforgiving. Jurgen Klopp and his Liverpool team have become accustomed to experiencing the former in the masses during recent seasons, reaching the final of the Champions League three times in the previous five years – winning it in 2019 – whilst claiming the Premier League title in 2020.
The German has stamped his authority on a club in ways very few have managed to do before, with comparisons to only Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and Pep Guardiola at Manchester City the only partnerships where comparable levels of success have been emulated during recent history.
When Klopp joined Liverpool the club was a struggling entity in desperate need of revitalisation; a sleeping giant who had drastically underperformed in both the league and Europe for far too long. It took some time, but steadily the side began to improve and throughout the last five or six seasons they have rightly been regarded as one of the best in the world, winning top-level trophies which has enabled them to attract the marketplace’s best footballers.
But in life things happen in cycles, and while there is no suggestion that Klopp and Liverpool are now finished with tasting that level of success, this season it has started to feel as though the Reds’ time at the very top might just be starting to falter. A disastrous opening half to their campaign has seen Klopp’s side lose seven and draw six of their 23 matches in the Premier League and as a result they currently sit seventh in the top-flight table – nine points outside of the top-four.
Liverpool’s performances in the Champions League have left a lot to be desired, too. Following an opening day hammering by Napoli, they ended up improving throughout the group stages to finish second and set up a tie with Real Madrid in the last-16, but were thrashed 5-2 by Los Blancos in the opening leg at Anfield last week having initially put themselves two goals ahead.
The Reds’ adventure in Europe now looks all but over when you consider the level of opponent they are playing and the scoreline they need to overturn away from home, while it will take an extremely strong end to their season for them to cement a top-four finish and secure Champions League for next term given their sizeable points disadvantage.
Stranger things have indeed happened, though, and afterall, football is a game where circumstances can change within the blink of an eye.
On the other side of the coin, Liverpool’s biggest rivals Manchester United come to town on Sunday and under Erik ten Hag their fortunes have taken a huge upward turn in the opposite direction.
Fresh from claiming their first piece of silverware since the 2016/17 campaign following a 2-0 win over Newcastle in the EFL Cup final, United will make the short journey to Anfield full of confidence and eager to continue their fine form in the Premier League.
Ten Hag has made an immediate impact since arriving at Old Trafford last summer and is, much like Klopp did when he joined Liverpool back in 2015, truly making his managerial mark on a club who have been missing such guidance since the departure of the legendary Ferguson a decade ago.
United still remain in contention to win three more trophies this season – the Europa League, the FA Cup and, while their chances are slim, they cannot be completely disregarded as title contenders with Arsenal currently eight points ahead of them at the summit at the time of writing.
Sunday’s performance in the cup final victory over a Newcastle team – who themselves have enjoyed a positive transformation since Eddie Howe took over as manager almost 18 months ago – symbolised just how far United have come in recent seasons and players like Bruno Fernandes, David de Gea and Marcus Rashford are playing some of the best football of their careers under the 53-year-old’s stewardship.
The acquisition of seasoned winners Casemiro and Raphael Varane has only strengthened this Red Devils side and, for the first time in a long time, they will travel to Liverpool on Sunday as the favourites to win in many people’s eyes.
With so much high-class talent and one of history’s best managers in the opposing dugout, form can often be discounted for these types of superstar-infused matchups. Liverpool know that they need to win this game to stand any chance of retaining their dwindling position in the race for the top-four while the significance of these two sides’ historic rivalry should never be underplayed as a determining factor for the full-time result.
Anfield will host a tale of differing circumstances on Sunday as the towering Ten Hag visits the wavering Klopp. The bragging rights are up for grabs; quite who will catch them, though, remains to be seen.