Liverpool showing mental toughness along with attacking class
There has been something different about Liverpool in recent months. Under Jurgen Klopp, they always had the ability to stun opponents with a spell of brilliance but when things went wrong, a flaw would be exposed.
It did not take much to unnerve Klopp's side. Doubt crept into their thoughts at the merest hint of resistance. Mistakes preyed on the team's mind. They could be a soft touch. Yet three games against Manchester City in 2018 illustrate Liverpool's change in mindset.
At Anfield in the Premier League back in January, the Reds stormed to a 4-1 lead with 21 minutes remaining but ended up clinging on for a 4-3 victory. No lead felt safe even three months ago.
In the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal in front of the Kop, Man City were again blown away by a sublime half hour of attacking play. Liverpool protected the lead against sustained pressure from Pep Guardiola's side. The Premier League leaders were not at their best and were without Sergio Aguero but even so, the home team's resistance in the 3-0 win was as impressive as it was unexpected.
The real test came at the Etihad in Tuesday night's second leg. Liverpool started quickly at Anfield but once home, City proved that they have an overdrive switch lesser sides can only dream about. Klopp's team were pinned back for almost the entire first period as waves of attacks threatened to engulf the defence and claw back the initiative. A goal in the second minute ignited the crowd. Only a debatable offside decision denied City a second goal on the cusp of half-time. As the teams trooped off at the break, the visiting side seemed to be in deep trouble yet the expected onslaught never arrived. With more than 20 minutes remaining, the tie was dead and Liverpool were on the way to a 2-1 victory and the Champions League semifinals.
What has changed? Tactically, they were much the same in all three games. One of the criticisms Klopp faces is that he lacks a Plan B and that this isn't a team that can switch gears tactically.
The personnel remain largely the same. The addition of Virgil van Dijk has strengthened the defence but his arrival in January was balanced by Philippe Coutinho's departure to Barcelona. The squad is arguably weaker but the team has much better balance.
The main difference is the mindset. Liverpool's mental toughness is growing by the week, though it is not yet perfect. Van Dijk, whose leadership skills have helped foster the growing resolution of the team, was badly rattled in the early stages at the Etihad after suffering a robust challenge by Raheem Sterling in the run-up to the opening goal. Yet across the side there is a developing maturity.
Loris Karius has grown as a man and a goalkeeper in the second half of the season. The 24-year-old took over from the flaky Simon Mignolet and at first did not seem to be much of an upgrade. The German is still a long way from joining the elite rank of goalkeepers: his punch that led to Leroy Sane's disallowed goal was an example of when bad decision-making and poor execution collide. Karius is learning to talk to his defenders. Communication is vital between the back four and the goalkeeper, and Liverpool's defence is growing more vocal.
The effect on Dejan Lovren, though, has been remarkable. The Croatia international has seemingly been on the edge of a psychological chasm ever since he arrived on Merseyside four years ago. The slightest shove from an opposition attacker could send the 28-year-old into a downward spiral. There were games when he was a complete liability. In the away match against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley in October, the defender's disintegration was so pronounced that Klopp withdrew him after just 31 minutes of the 4-1 defeat.
Lovren has begun to show a hint of the form that made him such a hot property at Southampton. Van Dijk provides a reassuring presence inside him but when City targeted Liverpool's right side, hoping to exploit Lovren's skittishness and Trent Alexander-Arnold's inexperience by setting Sane loose, the centre-back was solid.
Klopp wasn't pleased with his defence in the first half at the Etihad. He was infuriated that they sat too deep and invited City to attack. The manager spent much of the opening 45 minutes waving his arms to indicate that his back four should move up. Every time they surrendered possession, he gesticulated in frustration. The midfield were sucked deeper, too.
Ultimately, Liverpool bent but did not break and in the middle of the park, two players have grown in authority in recent weeks. James Milner is finally performing the role he came to Anfield to play. The 32-year-old spent too long at left-back, a position he adopted with gritted teeth and never really felt comfortable playing wide in the defence. Last summer, Liverpool touted him around on loan but although there were plenty of admirers, no club was prepared to pay his £150,000-per week wages. Back in midfield, Milner can influence matches. He has a calming manner and is finally in a position where he can use his experience to help teammates when things are going wrong.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is relishing life on Merseyside. He was lost and confused under Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, where the manager would publicly claim the 24-year-old's best position was in the centre of the park before shunting Oxlade-Chamberlain wide whenever there was another option available. Klopp's deployment of the England midfielder has bolstered the player's confidence massively.
Right now, Plan A is to get the ball up to the front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. When it works, few opposition sides can handle it. What Liverpool are learning is to hang in during the spells when their attackers are squeezed out of games or misfiring. They know that if they avoid a collapse, the forwards will get chances. It is not a new tactical approach. It is a matter of mental robustness.
It shows with Klopp, too. Perhaps his worst moment as Liverpool manager came in the Europa League final against Sevilla two years ago. His team threw away a half-time lead to lose 3-1 and when the Spanish side scored the third, the German turned and tried to rouse the crowd. The 50-year-old is a passionate and emotional manager but that gesture sent the wrong message to his team. Instead of organizing a comeback, Klopp was playing to the gallery. It looked like he had run out of ideas.
The Liverpool boss has learned a lot since then. His focus is on the pitch. His methods are working and players are buying into them, which inspires the crowd as Klopp's team generate the atmosphere. Belief breeds confidence and confidence creates a winning mentality.
Players and manager know that they are not the finished article. They will be tested severely in the Champions League semifinal regardless of the draw. Any cracks in their temperament will be found and driven wide open by top-class opponents. Yet this is an increasingly different, purposeful Liverpool. A winning mentality is blossoming at Anfield under Klopp.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.