Liverpool are starting to do the mid-season disappointment thing all over again. They hit a fantastic high with seven goals against Spartak Moscow, only to be held by Everton in the next game and then by West Brom three days later. Both those drawn games were at home, both were against opponents who had struggled to the extent of changing their manager, and both looked like straightforward routes to three points on paper. Except Liverpool – and this is a pattern that has established itself over a longer period than a single season – tend not to do things that way.
“Nine days ago we were flying,” Jürgen Klopp says, revisiting a theme he has explored several times before. “Now I see from your expressions we have problems once again.”
The Liverpool manager understands criticism and a level of despondency are bound to follow two underwhelming performances – “that is normal,” he says – but before his side can take on Arsenal on Friday, the sort of test that normally brings out the best in his players, they have Sunday’s visit to Bournemouth.
There is scarcely any need to point out this is exactly the sort of fixture Liverpool supporters have learned to approach with trepidation, since Klopp’s side managed to lose it 4-3 just over a year ago after leading 2-0 and 3-1.
“A club like Liverpool has to win games on an average day,” Klopp says. “I don’t think there is too much expectation surrounding the team. I think people should expect us to be good, they really should. And we were good against Everton, we were just unlucky with the penalty. West Brom was different, we did not deserve to win and we have to accept it.
“Those games are over and we cannot get the points back but in football you cannot take offensive fluency for granted. Look at Manchester City. They are a fantastic team playing fantastic football but they don’t always win 4-0. In a couple of previous games they had to work hard for 2-1 wins with goals in the last seconds. That’s what football is like.
“You put in the work behind the scenes and hope it comes out in the games. Sometimes is does, sometimes it doesn’t. Winning 7-0 against Spartak might have looked like a 90-minute holiday but there was crazy pressure on us during the preparation. Two games later we are not playing all that well but I cannot judge the season on two games. We have to be ready to show we are in a good moment at Bournemouth.”
City running away with the league is not helping Klopp’s situation. Every other manager is in the same boat but this is Klopp’s third season at a club with a passionate desire to end a 27-year wait for a title, and each time he has seen a different rival build up an unstoppable momentum at the top of the table.
Each breakaway since Leicester has been stronger than the last, though Klopp does not believe he has been unlucky. “I think all the three teams deserved their success and it shows this is a league where you can make it happen for yourself,” he says. “I’m not the kind of guy who is disappointed because it always happens to other teams. It only shows me it is obviously possible so you should try to do it by yourself.”
At least Liverpool, up and down as they are, can rely on one performer to be consistent and influential. Mohamed Salah has emerged as the star of the first half of their season, and despite not being signed or deployed as an out-and-out striker the Egyptian has been hitting the target more regularly than Harry Kane, Sergio Agüero and Romelu Lukaku.
“We were in the market for a very offensive-minded midfielder who can play as a striker if necessary but also has the ability to make and set up goals,” Klopp says of the player signed from Roma for an initial €40m (£35m). “That was the package we wanted and the scouting department did a fantastic job because that’s what we got. There were a few questions raised because Mo had played in the Premier League before and had to leave to get opportunities but the scouts didn’t get out of our ears. They were sure, they were 100%. He was ready and that’s how it looks now.”
Klopp feels Salah was young and not fully developed when he joined Chelsea, where he found first-team opportunities hard to come by. “He was just a kid,” he says. “We all need confidence, especially a young player in a foreign league that’s very strong and demanding.
“Chelsea had a fantastic team at the time, there was no one to blame, but the important thing is that Mo did not start to think he might not be good enough. He went to Italy to prove himself. That is another difficult league for a striker but he did well and proved everything.
“We watched him in a lot of games to make sure he was sturdy enough for the Premier League; if you watch him only on television he looks quite skinny, but as you can see he is now ready. He still misses chances, he does not have a 100% strike rate, but he now has much more composure in front of goal. We are really happy we could convince him to come here.”