Winning with style and substance: Klopp moulding Liverpool into a team for all occasions - by Jason Harris
It has been a question that has puzzled many a Liverpool fan and manager over the years. Why do the club seem to struggle so much against the teams in the second half of the table?
It surely is not a talent factor, but more to do with rolling up the sleeves and getting a bit dirty.
Too many times over the years, the Reds have turned up their nose at the challenge, quite often having dominated the general play but lacking the patience and guile to claim the victory.
In the early stages of Jurgen Klopp's managerial reign at Liverpool, the German cut a bemused figure when he was asked how he would cure the Reds woes in this regard.
At first he struggled to understand how a team of Liverpool’s stature could struggle so much against these type of opponents, but over time he learnt that it was a serious issue that needed addressing but it wouldn’t be a instant fix.
Liverpool have clearly had no issue in turning on the style this season, with the team playing some of the best football they have in years.
There had also been some incremental progress against the “battlers” this season winning at Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough, but the issue reared its ugly head again when suffering humbling defeats at Hull and Leicester City and at home to Swansea.
With the season drawing to a close and still so much to play for, the away fixtures against Stoke and West Brom had a fair bit of trepidation attached to them.
Stoke had become more of a "footballing" side under Mark Hughes but still possessed many areas of their game that had been a issue for the Reds over the years.
With three key players missing for the clash, and a couple of others unable to play from the start, it had all the makings of a heavy defeat.
The starting lineup contained the surprise inclusions of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ben Woodburn. Both are supremely talented youngsters who have made great progress this season, but a fixture against a seasoned Stoke outfit seemed to be the wrong place for them to show their talents at this stage of their careers.
Going a goal behind hasn't phased the Reds this season and it proved to be the case against Stoke after a substandard first half display. The manner that they responded in the second half, in many ways with the season on the line showed that the drive to succeed was still high among the group.
However, another challenge was awaiting and this one was even more formidable against the battle hardened West Brom side with long time nemesis Tony Pulis at the helm of the Baggies.
A sign of a good team is adapting for what may be thrown at you. Liverpool produced an extremely professional performance, starting with the way they specifically prepared for their opponents with a barrage of long throws and high crosses at training last week in tricky weather conditions.
The defence which has been a well known weak point, managed to deal with West Brom's direct game with aplomb, while Simon Mignolet's continuing renaissance in goal is very pleasing to see.
Roberto Firmino played the type of selfless game you love your front players to play away from home. The Brazilian is having a very impressive end to the season (three goals and three assists in his last six games) after a slight dip in form in the early part of 2017.
So the question can be asked what exactly has changed since the abject defeat to the Foxes at the end of February?
From the outside, it seems like the mentality has changed. Instead of fearing these games, they are willing to face the challenge head on, just like what they do against their top four rivals.
The absence of key attacking players in Sadio Mane and Adam Lallana has seen Klopp willing to sacrifice a bit of flair when playing away from home for a more pragmatic approach at a crucial point of the season.
In the last two games, there have been a couple of unsung heroes who deserve some recognition.
The midfield duo of Georginio Wijnaldum and Emre Can are not what you would call a “star studded pairing”, however they do not lack any grunt and determination which is exactly what is required in games against physical opponents.
Wijnaldum has been somewhat of a talisman in the big games, but seemed to be one of the biggest culprits in going missing against the lower tier opponents. To the Dutchman's credit, he has really stepped in this regard in the past month. As well as his overall play, his smart clock management in the last few minutes of the game against West Brom was very good to see.
Meanwhile for Can, it has been a bit of a hit and miss career at the Reds for the German, not helped by a run of injuries and being played out of position by the former manager Brendan Rodgers. He is arguably in his best run of form since arriving at the club.
The most important thing about Can is that he has a physical presence in the heart of midfield and is not going to be bullied by any opponent, which is something the side has missed since the days of Sissoko and Mascherano. As well as the defensive side of his game, Can has the ability to be an attacking threat as well.
The third individual that has to take a share of the credit is the manager.
It was undoubtedly a horror start to 2017 and Klopp was copping it from all angles for the first time since arriving at the club. His style of frenetic "heavy metal" football looked to have run its course, and there was a lack of January signings when injuries were beginning to take hold of the squad.
The decision to let Mamadou Sahko go out on loan to Crystal Palace was certainly debatable, and then there were the terrible results in the domestic cups as well as the league.
The ability of Klopp to pick up the morale of the players after that poor run of form and make them go to another level despite the key injuries and overall thinness of the squad is full of merit. If we achieve our main goal, there is little doubt that he should be in the discussion for manager of the season.
The Premier League is in its final stages with a couple more hurdles for the Reds to clear to claim that all-important top four berth.
The ‘must win’ mentality is a fascinating sporting study. Every season you see a side go on an incredible run to secure Premier League safety. Sunderland did it a number of times, and Leicester and Fulham come to mind over the years as well.
With the pressure on for Champions League qualification, Liverpool know they need a ‘must win’ mentality to keep the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal at bay. In some ways it has parallels to the 2000/1 season when the Reds were battling it out with Leeds and Ipswich for the third and final Champions League spot.
To finish that season, they went on a six game unbeaten run to edge out their rivals by one and three points respectively.
After what the team have achieved of late, there should be no fear for what lies ahead, instead there should be a level of continued focus for the job at hand.
You don't get any beauty points for wins. When it comes to beating the middle to lower ranked teams, the uglier the win the better the feeling, as it means you have won the battle of attrition with the teams fighting for their survival.
Despite being a small sample size, these two performances have put a clear marker in the ground for future growth.
The squad now has an opportunity to become a side able to consistently produce a high level of performance no matter who the opponent may be.