Jurgen Klopp mistake may have cost Liverpool Champions League as Chelsea difference huge

Liverpool: Klopp admits team must improve to make top four

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Jurgen Klopp was honest in his post-match assessment of Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Newcastle on Saturday. “Now definitely we have nothing to lose any more. We [next] play Man United away, they are in a good moment, it all [the top four] doesn’t look likely,” he said.

And so was Andy Robertson, the left-back admitting: “What we were based on [last season] was that we were so good at seeing out results and we can’t do that just now. It’s as simple as that.

“Teams always have a chance against us, they always build in confidence the last 10 minutes and believe they can get something. That’s not like us.”

The Liverpool squad will still be reeling now, having slipped to back-to-back draws to Leeds and Newcastle courtesy of late Diego Llorente and Joe Willock equalisers.

Had the Merseyside outfit managed to grind out victories in both games, having been renowned for grinding out results in last year’s title-winning season as Robertson said, they would be level with Chelsea on 58 points.

Even if they had beaten Newcastle, they would be just two points behind the Blues, and one point clear of West Ham. Instead, Liverpool sit sixth on 54 points, four off Chelsea and one behind the Hammers, and can be usurped by Everton if the Toffees win their game in hand to join West Ham on 55.

With just five matches remaining, Liverpool need the kind of winning consistency that has eluded them throughout 2021 and also need several slip-ups from their rivals.

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The draw to Newcastle may prove the day the top-four pursuit died. Klopp frankly admitted as much after his side’s wastefulness against Newcastle: “I didn’t see that we deserved to play Champions League next year.”

Yet while much was out of the German’s control – given that he cannot score the chances for his players, with Sadio Mane, Diogo Jota, Roberto Firmino and goalscorer Mohamed Salah all guilty of profligacy – there is also significant blame to apportion to the manager.

Liverpool were in control of proceedings for much of the second half with Thiago Alcantara enjoying one of his finest performances since a summer switch from Bayern Munich. Yet Klopp hooked the Catalan with 13 minutes of normal time to go, bringing on Curtis Jones in his place.

At the same time, Newcastle brought on the man who would score the leveller for them, the on-loan Arsenal midfielder Willock.

And without Thiago on the pitch, the match became far scrappier, with Newcastle increasing in confidence in the closing stages, to the point that their equaliser even felt inevitable.

BT Sport’s Steve McManaman, the former Liverpool forward, named Thiago his man of the match before Willock’s equaliser and said: “I thought his overall play was excellent today. Hardly gave a pass away. He started Liverpool’s good movements off, really decisive passing at times.”

That ball retention was exactly what was missing in his absence as Jones, making his first top-flight appearance March 4, failed to get into the game.

Klopp admitted: “We don’t keep the ball and dominate in the way it was possible to dominate today. We had 70 per cent of the ball but we should have had 80 per cent.”

Yet he was the one who hooked the player best at keeping the ball. Liverpool’s possession with Thiago on the pitch was 71 per cent while it dropped to 59 per cent in the final minutes where the 30-year-old watched on from the sides.

At the time Thiago was taken off, the Spain international had the most successful passes, the most final third passes and the most successful tackles of any Liverpool player on the pitch.

Though Thiago played 90 minutes on Monday against Leeds United, he had only come off the substitutes’ bench against Real Madrid in the match before that. And Liverpool knew they had more than a week between facing Newcastle and their next match against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Surely then, fatigue was not the reason for his curious withdrawal?

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Perhaps the Liverpool manager thought Jones might create another opening or score himself to put the game to bed, with Thiago rarely directly involved in goals.

But it was a decision that changed the course of the match as Liverpool surrendered their grip on the game and succumbed to pressure in the dying stages.

The difference between the soon-to-be-dethroned champions and rivals Chelsea is stark, with Klopp’s side managing only four clean sheets in their last 17 league games (almost half a season). They have conceded 19 times across that stretch, winning just six times.

Chelsea, by contrast, have kept 11 clean sheets in their last 17 league matches and despite only scoring 20 times in that run, their defensive resilience under Tuchel has made them the favourites to seal fourth spot.

It was that stubbornness at the back that helped them to a massive 1-0 win away at West Ham just hours after Liverpool’s draw to put themselves in pole position for fourth spot.

It is also the same defensive steel that has Chelsea in the FA Cup final and 180 minutes away from a first European Cup showdown since 2012, when they beat Bayern Munich in their own ground to win the compeittion for the first time.

Chelsea have a two-legged Champions League semi-final to think about against Real Madrid, and some tricky league fixtures, in the coming weeks but their squad strength and sublime defensive record under Tuchel suggests they should get themselves over the line.

How Liverpool must wish they had the same backbone to rely upon. A good start for Klopp and co. to be more defensively sound in the final five games would be to have Fabinho back in defensive midfield, rather in central defence, but quite simply the damage may already have been done with the draw to Newcastle.

If they miss out on a top-four finish, Klopp taking off Thiago against the Magpies may be seen as a defining moment – and a critical mistake – in Liverpool’s season.

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