Problem-solver Klopp presses reset to propel Liverpool into another final | liverpool
LThen Díaz revved the engine, priming the afterburners. He blazed on the left, taking Villarreal right-back Juan Foyth with him. He slowed down and then started purring away from him. The Liverpool winger had just come on as a half-time substitute in his side’s Champions League semi-final second leg at the Estadio de la Cerámica and he was testing his marker, determining if he had been beaten. The answer was categorical. He did.
Diaz knew it. Everyone did the same and, as Liverpool prepared to start Tuesday night’s draw – albeit 45 minutes late – it was as if something had been plugged in, with the power returning.
For Jürgen Klopp, however, the catalyst was elsewhere, in a detail closer to his heart, more fundamental. The Liverpool manager had seen it all go wrong in the first half, his side’s 2-0 first-leg lead was shattered – and it could have been worse.
Alisson had been lucky not to concede a penalty just before Francis Coquelin netted Villarreal’s second goal and it was one of those challenges that no matter how many times you watched the replay it was hard to say which the keeper took first – the ball or Giovani Lo Celso. It was messy, much like Liverpool’s performance; framed by doubt, the benefit of which probably saved Alisson in the eyes of the VAR jury.
“The whole world thought the game was more 3-0 than 2-1,” Klopp said, later revealing he wanted to show his players a half-time clip of a positive moment to give them a shot. inch. His assistant Pete Krawietz would tell him there was nothing available. There was no build-up play, no momentum, Liverpool scrambled by Villarreal’s quick start and Boulaye Dia’s third-minute opener. “We had 11 problems in the first half,” Klopp added, referring to each of his players.
But Klopp felt the tide turn when Naby Keïta did the same for a pass into a seam of space. The midfielder had Sadio Mané ahead of him, with others including Díaz and, finally, Liverpool eagerly waiting.
“We rotated and we were running with four or five players towards their last line,” Klopp said. “Honestly, when I saw we could turn the ball and for the first time get through their line, I knew we had a good chance to turn around.”
It felt like a relatively short moment – not as catchy, say, as Díaz’s threat. But when a team has a style as racy as Liverpool’s, a way that works, that they all know works and will continue to work, it doesn’t take much for certainty to return.
This is what makes Liverpool formidable opponents. Even when they look down there is always a way back and what was noticeable before they scored their three unanswered second-half goals to progress to the final in Paris on May 28 was clarity of thought processes, calm after the first half-storm; easy recalibration of angles.
Klopp spoke of dealing with a “football problem” at half-time, in particular how Villarreal scored man-for-man and how his front three – Mané on the left, Mohamed Salah on the right, Diogo Jota in the middle – had been too static.
“You give the ball there [to the forwards] and Villarreal win the challenge,” Klopp said. “We couldn’t keep a ball in the front row in the first half because of the bad movement.”
And Liverpool couldn’t build in midfield either for similar reasons. When Thiago Alcântara fell deep, he was under huge pressure and couldn’t see the options he wanted.
“But if you press like Villarreal, you open up other spaces,” Klopp said. “It wasn’t that Luis was the solution, it was that we moved more. The difference was what I was talking about [to the players about] at halftime – that we started doing what we wanted to do in the first place.
“The first goal we scored from Fabinho…it was a situation where he offered a run into an area he had never been before in the game. Being right in the half-space, offering that run behind. We passed the ball and he has a bit of luck with the finish [the shot going through the legs of the goalkeeper, Gerónimo Rulli] but we had to break their lines.
It wasn’t a classic Klopp return to rival those against Borussia Dortmund in 2016 and Barcelona three years later because Liverpool weren’t exactly behind in the draw. That’s what the players said to each other during the intermission; it was 2-2, with the next goal crucial. And it wasn’t particularly wild either – relying on, say, a moment of individual magic as some clubs have done this season.
Liverpool simply reset themselves mentally and believed victory would be theirs when – and not if – they played the way they wanted to play, moved the way they wanted to move. “To be honest, it was calm,” left-back Andy Robertson said of the mood in the dressing room at half-time. The football solution was structured, coherent. This is what the insurance of a champion looks like.