Football is and always has been a team game. The greatest players do still have the capability of elevating their teams beyond their apparent means. After all we witnessed this first hand for years with captain fantastic Steven Gerrard transforming an often fairly mediocre side into something resembling the top side in Europe. However, football typically isn’t like basketball for example where the team which has Lebron James is near guaranteed a run to the NBA finals. You couldn’t realistically expect to drop Lionel Messi off at the Hawthorns and see West Brom be Premier League or Champions League winners in the years that followed. The team makeup just matters too much.
When asked how 'fun' it is to play with Salah and Firmino: "Everyone is talking about the three but without the team we are nothing."
— The Anfield Talk (@TheAnfieldTalk) February 14, 2018
The above quote from Sadio Mané after the dismemberment of Porto this week in the Champions League perfectly summed up why this current Liverpool squad is a very dangerous one. There seems to be a very evident sense of togetherness within the squad. This could be because at least from the outside looking in, it appears to be a squad that doesn’t possess any over inflated egos. For example Mo Salah is having a season comparable with any in Liverpool’s storied 125 year history, and yet he seems as humble as ever and you can see that in his play on the pitch. He takes opportunities when they come to him but he is still ultimately a team player looking always to play in his better placed teammates.
Mané’s statement was important for another reason though. You only had to watch and listen to any recent game to see that misconceptions still exist about this team. I think it is fair to say that we have had our defensive inconsistencies over the past year (and beyond). There have been numerous blown leads and too many nervous moments to list. It was always clear that the balance of the team was a work in progress but few outsiders seem to be acknowledging that progress is indeed being made at quite a rapid rate in the past couple of months. That defensive mould is starting to set and the benefits are paying off.
The thought is that the turnaround began with the arrival of Virgil van Dijk but the real jump start began a few weeks earlier when Andy Robertson became a regular in the starting eleven. Alberto Moreno had bounced back brilliantly from a difficult year but Robertson has still been a serious upgrade. I have heard Robertson described as a right footed Steve Finnan and I emphatically concur with that description. He has been absolutely brilliant. He contributes offensively while showing the required nous at the back to create a sense of trust at the back which wasn’t apparent earlier in the campaign. Most importantly Robertson seems to know his limits and capabilities and plays to that potential without ever trying to do too much. That sense of self awareness cannot easily be taught.
By the time van Dijk arrived the signs of a defensive improvement were already well underway. However, as great players do, Virgil has taken the team to yet another level again. His presence has only enhanced the trust that is now evident between the players at the back. Surely the biggest benefactor of this newfound confidence in each other at the back has been Loris Karius who has looked a lot more at ease in his latest audition for the role of starting keeper for the Reds. The early indicators are good for Karius but there is a long way to go. You have to feel for Simon Mignolet who never even got an opportunity within the current more solid environment. Goalkeepers more than most can be sheltered by a well organized and confident backline so it all bodes well for Karius or whoever plays in goal from here on.
Dejan Lovren and Jordan Henderson can to some degree be placed in the same category. Both are typically integral to the success of the team but when they have the rare off day, the blame is magnified strongly and unfairly in their direction. Lovren in particular has had a very good season overall. He had a poor game at Wembley against Spurs but was solid before that and has been great since. Once again, van Dijk has helped Lovren’s game but the wheels were in motion long before the big transfer. They have the makings of a top partnership as everyone now appears comfortable in their defined roles. This allowed all the defenders plus Karius to play within their limits and feel relaxed doing so.
The possibilities of this defensive chain reaction now appear to have huge potential. Trent Alexander-Arnold is growing in stature which each game. He is no longer just the offensive option at right back as he is starting to hold his own against high quality attacking players in the defensive third. We also have Nathaniel Clyne finally back in training after a very lengthy and mysterious spell on the sidelines. It is easy to forget that Clyne has been one of the best right backs in the league over the past few years and his return can only be seen as a positive for this side.
Players have come and gone over the years but the philosophy has always remained the same. No player is bigger than the club. This has been proven to be true time and time again. The current squad perhaps defines this philosophy better than any team has before at least for as long as I have been watching.
There is no Steven Gerrard, no Fernando Torres, no Luis Suarez and no Philippe Coutinho and yet the collective unit might be as strong as it ever has been. The chain reaction of what each players brings to the squad in turn makes his teammate better which is the most essential ingredient in building a successful squad. We have some truly top class players at the moment but it is how they impact those around them which ultimately defines their value to the team. And the glue that pieces all this together on a weekly basis? There is nobody better for us right now than Jurgen Klopp!