Liverpool's hot-and-cold form makes Capital One Cup final unpredictable
One of the oddities of Liverpool's season, beyond Jurgen Klopp's remarkable perseverance with the erratic Simon Mignolet in goal, has been the rather up-and-down nature of their performance levels.
The majority of their matches have been rather flat but, on a few occasions, they've been utterly brilliant. That can happen to a team, but what's been most confounding is how there's been no in-between, no gradual build-up to these greater displays. It's as if they've suddenly just clicked, going from flat in one match to flattening a team unfortunate enough to stand in their way the next.
It happened in the 6-0 against Aston Villa in the league. It happened in the 6-1 against Southampton in the League Cup. And it happened -- most conspicuously and most relevantly -- in the 4-1 win away to Manchester City. The wonder is why they can't be like that more regularly, and whether they will be like that this Sunday against City in the Capital One Cup final.
In some ways, the League Cup itself is symbolic of all of this. The trophy could put a huge shine on Liverpool's campaign. It could also represent a tangible sign of progress under Klopp, even if still feels like that would be ahead of schedule, with the German still just assessing things.
Developing teams that lay such markers, after all, are usually further along their path. When Manchester United won the trophy in 2006, for example, Alex Ferguson had spent almost three years putting the team in place -- assembling that defence, getting in younger attackers like Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.
It was similar with Nottingham Forest in 1977-78, when they won the League Cup to trigger three years of brilliance, and even to Chelsea last season -- despite the problems that were to come.
Klopp's Liverpool does not feel at that stage yet. For one, he hasn't even made concrete decisions on any of the players, and sources say he still wants to give them until the end of the season before properly deciding who will be a key part of the future and who will not. He hasn't even brought any players in, other than Steven Caulker on loan and the signings of Joel Matip and Marko Grujic, who are both yet to arrive.
That is undeniably one factor in why they have often been so flat. There is a natural disconnect, if only just, between a manager and a squad that is not yet truly his. Klopp is trying to impose a system and mindset onto a team who may not be completely suited to it. That will not change until he has more players he knows fit his approach, or until the message sinks in to more of the players now. The links and trust between goalkeeper and defence, and then defence and midfield, certainly don't feel complete.
None of this to blame Klopp, of course. It is the natural process any new manager goes through, especially when attempting to undertake the complete overhaul of a team and club. Sources say that the Liverpool squad do love him and he makes "a huge difference" to predecessor Brendan Rodgers in terms of his man-management. Klopp is seen as more personable, and gets involved in everything, with that investment only encouraging the enthusiasm for his longer training sessions.
All of that is rightfully why he hasn't been criticised yet. As regards the little criticism he has received, that would look even more rash and short-sighted if he does win a trophy on Sunday.
So, can they win on Sunday? Can they do what they did to City at the end of November? Can they replicate the level of that performance?
The more germane question, however, is how it was that performance against City even came about. Some of Liverpool's best displays have felt a little circumstantial. They did play a hugely pliable and pitiful Aston Villa team in that 6-0, and the 6-1 over Southampton seemed one of those nights when everything clicked -- most of all Daniel Sturridge.
The City game was a little different. It was a rare occasion when a side played in an unusually open manner, effectively facilitating the type of pressing game that Klopp favours most. He admitted this afterwards.
"We had to try to find some ways to cause them problems and that's what we did," Klopp said. It's almost an understatement. The darting nature of Liverpool's counters overwhelmed City. Again, it was the kind of cohesion and quickness that looked like it had been built up for years.
"If you win a ball [high up the pitch], then it's not the longest way in the right direction and that's very important of course. We try to do similar things but not always the same."
The other question, then, is whether City will do things the same.
If they are as open against Liverpool, it might be the kind of spark that Klopp's side need. That seems to be the key to these performances. If Liverpool sense early on that something different is on, it is as if a full belief in what they're doing is engendered. It is as if the manager's vision suddenly, if only temporarily, becomes crystal clear, and it might yet lead to silverware on Sunday.
The problem is that it's almost impossible to tell. In some respects, this is a match between the two most unpredictable sides in the country in terms of their performance level. With the way Manuel Pellegrini's side have oscillated, Liverpool are a City-lite in that sense.
It will no doubt be weighing on Klopp's mind in the build-up.
Miguel Delaney is a London-based correspondent for ESPN FC and also writes for the Irish Examiner and others. Follow him on Twitter @MiguelDelaney.