Did United Match Show Why Klopp Struggles In Finals?

Most Liverpool supporters were left with a funny feeling after the full-time whistle at Old Trafford yesterday. Ahead of kick-off the majority of us were adamant that we’d take a draw, which was enough to see us return to the top of the table by a point after playing the same number of games as Pep Guardiola’s side. Adding that to the fact that Liverpool seem to have something of a mental block over playing at Old Trafford in a similar way to Everton at Anfield and you can see why a draw seemed like a good result before a ball was kicked. So when Michael Oliver called time on proceedings, we should theoretically have been happy enough. It’s testament to how poor Manchester United were and how much the game’s moments went our way then, that we were all disappointed that we failed to take all three points.

There are numerous reasons why that was the case, of course. Quietly, Ole Gunnar Solskjær has got Manchester United playing even more defensively than José Mourinho did during the big matches, with the only major difference being that the players seem to be doing what the Norwegian wants whereas they had essentially downed tools under his Portuguese predecessor. For all that he’s receiving praise for his more attacking football, he played eight men across the box against us yesterday, stifling our attackers and disrupting our rhythm. It didn’t help matters that we didn’t play well at all, failing to take advantage of going up against one of the poorest United performances I can remember since the days of David Moyes. Yet I also found myself wondering if the manager got the big decisions wrong and whether this was an indication of why it is that he has such a poor record in finals.

Jürgen Klopp & Finals

Jürgen Klopp is a brilliant football manager. I wouldn’t have anyone else at the club and I’m still firmly of the belief that we will win the league this season. One of the German’s chief abilities is to know how to do what is needed, as evidenced by our Champions League qualification for the past two seasons running. Whilst everyone else was losing their heads over the fact that we drew with Everton, West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City, the manager knew that a win against Brighton & Hove Albion at Anfield on the last day of the season would secure our place in Europe’s elite competition. He didn’t put more pressure on those games than needed to be there and didn’t lose his head when we failed to win them, knowing that everything was still in our hands. When it comes to league performances, then, he can see the bigger picture and will likely be quite happy with our draw at the weekend.

In cups it’s not dissimilar, in the sense that he’s very good across two legs as he knows what needs to be done to help us progress. The problems come when it’s a one-off match that he needs to get the most of his team for. It’s no coincidence in my opinion that during his time at the club we’ve crashed out of the FA Cup in the Fourth Round three times and the Third Round once. It’s also interesting that he’s lost so many cup finals during his career, considering he’s obviously an exceptionally good tactical manager. Here’s the list during his career to date:

  • 2012 German Cup v Bayern Munich – W
  • 2013 Champions League v Bayern Munich – L
  • 2014 German Cup v Bayern Munich – L
  • 2015 German Cup v Wolfsburg – L
  • 2016 Capital One Cup v Manchester City – L
  • 2016 Europa League v Sevilla – L
  • 2018 Champions League v Real Madrid – L

One thing that’s worth pointing out as that his team has been the underdogs in every final apart from the 2015 German Cup against Wolfsburg and the 2016 Europa League final when Liverpool took on Sevilla. Even that, though, saw us going up against a side that had won the tournament two years running and with a squad that he was making to do with as opposed to had built himself. So part of the manager’s cup record is as much to do with the teams that should have won winning, with his sides often considered to be lucky to be there in the first place. Yet does the way the match panned out against Manchester United indicate there might be something more to it than that?

He Got The Milner Decision Wrong

I’ve written before about how I’m concerned about the manager’s unswerving loyalty to certain players, with James Milner coming close to the top of that list. The former Leeds United man has plenty to offer in terms of experience, so Jürgen Klopp likes to get him onto the pitch for the bigger games. The problem is that that sometimes comes at the expense of the overall shape of the team. Milner didn’t start against Bayern Munich and was sent off against Crystal Palace, meaning that his absence for the Leicester City game was enforced. His rhythm has been disrupted accordingly and he hasn’t looked as though he’s been as sharp as he was at the start of the season for some time. That played out as I expected it to at Old Trafford, with the former Manchester City man genuinely poor for the first-half and barely recovering in the second.

The manager couldn’t have known that the midfielder was going to be below par, of course, but his desperation to get him into the side meant that we had no natural right-back on the pitch and one of the most exciting ones in the league on the bench. Many people think I’ve got some sort of problem with James Milner and that’s simply not true. I think he’s an excellent squad player and I love the experience that he brings, but I think we’re weaker when he plays because of who he comes in to replace. We’d have offered far more threat to Manchester United with Trent Alexander-Arnold on the pitch yesterday and our midfield was much more balanced without Milner in there, so I don’t see what playing him adds to the team. His experience wasn’t useful yesterday, picking up a booking early on and arguably being fortunate to escape a second yellow later on. Klopp got his starting eleven wrong by opting for experience over excitement.

The Manager Got His Subs Wrong, Too

The fact that James Milner started the game was, in my opinion, the incorrect decision from the manager. Yet that is as nothing compared to the fact that he also finished the ninety minutes. He was one of the worst performers in our team on a day when few players played very well, yet Jürgen Klopp never seemed to consider taking him off. We were controlling the midfield and keeping Paul Pogba quite quiet until the German decided to take Jordan Henderson off, at which point his French rival began to have more influence on proceedings. Might it have been wiser to take Milner off for Trent, giving us an actual outlet down the righthand side? Certainly the removal of the captain didn’t add anything to the way we were playing, suggestive of the idea that Klopp got his call wrong.

The Henderson substitution was a mistake in my eyes, but not as big an error as the decision to send Daniel Sturridge on to replace Roberto Firmino when the midfielder went off injured midway through the first-half. I will always have a soft spot for the England man, but he’s no so far away from what this Liverpool team needs from a forward that it’s depressing to watch. Replacing the most active, pressing and closing down striker we’ve got with one that can seemingly barely run any more was just an odd decision from the manager that I think he probably regrets today. Given that Divock Origi has been Klopp’s first-choice to turn to when he’s needed to mix up the front three lately, I can see no reason for the Sturridge substitution other than a feeling of nostalgia that he might be able to score a worldie like he did at Stamford Bridge. Every change the German made made us weaker.

Too Much Pressure To Get A Result

Yesterday the manager got his starting line-up wrong and then weakened the team with every substitution. Worse, he didn’t do anything to ask questions of Manchester United once they had used all three of their subs and couldn’t do anything to counter a change in shape or tactics had we made one. If Jürgen Klopp had moved his formation to a 4-4-2 diamond, what could Solskjær have done to counter that? Without being able to make a change and with an inability to communicate properly with his team on the pitch, it would have been interesting to see how things panned out in the second-half. Instead, we removed the player most likely to produce a moment of magic in Mo Salah and allowed Sadio Mané to keep playing, even though his decision making was dreadful on the day.

With Manchester United essentially down to ten men because of the injury sustained by Marcus Rashford, the manager didn’t do enough to ask questions of them and the goalkeeper barely had a save to make. The German has long been on the receiving end of questions around his in-game management, but yesterday was the first time it’s been laid quite so bare for all to see. He’s a very, very good manager and it is important to remember that we’re only in the position we’re in in the league because of him, but I do wonder if yesterday showed us signs of why he’s lost seven of the eight cup finals he’s been in. When it comes down to a one-off game that needs to be won, he opts for experience over excitement in spite of the fact that the reverse decision is often what gets his teams into the finals in the first place. Add to that a lack of ability to change things mid-game and you can see why there’s an argument that that’s the case.

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