Eighteen-year-old Rafael Camacho and 17-year-old Curtis Jones started for the Reds, and 16-year-old center back Ki-Jana Hoever was called into the fray after just six minutes thanks to an injury to Dejan Lovren.
Klopp said he would’ve been vilified had he started Hoever in addition to Jones and Camacho, accused of “not respecting the competition.”
Klopp said Lovren has a hamstring issue.
"I asked everybody – no signs, nothing, out of the blue. That's the decision you have to make. If from beginning it is Fabinho and Ki-Jana then probably a few smart people would tell me that I don't respect the competition or whatever."
“After the City game we had players who weren’t fit. Pretty much all the players here today had a few problems. We had to make late changes. Lallana and Henderson were in our plans. Dejan Lovren was not. We had to change it. Second half we wanted to start a new with a positive approach.
“We brought on Mo and Bobby and looked a bit different. The intensity of the last few games, it’s not possible to start with these up front. Only Lovren has played all the games the last few weeks. The situation is not too cool.”
Not cool at all. Klopp led Liverpool to a pair of deep League Cup runs in his first two seasons but is one-and-done the last two, and has not advanced past the fourth round in any of four FA Cup tournaments.
Raul Jimenez and Ruben Neves scored for the hosts, with Divock Origi scoring for Liverpool.
It was an even-enough match in terms of chances. Liverpool started the match with Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, and Roberto Firmino on the bench, the latter two emerging as subs with Liverpool trailing in the second half.
*record scratch* You’re probably wondering how I got here. Let me explain.
The first tweet above refers to a goal Jermaine Defoe scores for Sunderland (remember them?) on the opening day of the 2016/17 season. Manchester City won the game 2-1, but it wasn’t Stones’ best moment since arriving at Manchester City just four days prior. Jack Rodwell receives the ball about 23 yards from goal, and Stones steps to close him down, leaving acres of space behind him. Bacary Sagna (remember him?) does poorly to stay with his man Defoe, but the Sunderland poacher immediately occupies the space vacated by Stones and scores on the through-ball which the England defender fails to prevent.
Mistakes like this were all too common for Stones, who cost a heaping $64 million from Everton. He was still just 21 years old at the time, and looked completely lost. He was billed as a defender who could play with the ball at his feet and thus would fit perfectly into Pep Guardiola‘s system. Man City’s own club release announcing the signing referred to him as “one of the world’s most promising centre backs” and specifically mentioned “Stones has built a reputation as a ball-playing, 21st century defender, equally adept at neutralizing opposition attacks as launching the first key pass out of the defensive third.”
None of that was evident at the start. I jumped to conclusions.
Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The middle features just two words: Pep Guardiola.
Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The end of this story is not yet written, but there is an outline for sure. John Stones, the bumbling 21-year-old who made countless positional mistakes and looked hopelessly lost in Pep Guardiola’s system, is now one of the world’s best central defenders. No, that’s not a hyperbole. He’s a strong Team of the Season candidate and one of the first names on the teamsheet of one of the Premier League’s best-ever constructed squads. Adding to the resume, he was a critical member of England’s World Cup squad that made the semifinals.
Case in point, his performance against Liverpool, which was fabulous. First, the obvious: Stones completed 94/99 passes, was a perfect 9-of-9 clearing the ball, won both his aerial duels, was not dispossessed once, and helped keep Roberto Firmino to a generally minimal threat, with the Brazilian’s goal only coming while he was marked by Vincent Kompany.
To dig a little deeper, here’s just one more fine-tuned reason why Pep loves Stones. This astute find from Statsbomb writer Nico Morales shows how his vision has not just improved, but taken a leap of faith.
The line from Stones to Laporte is pretty telling. Salah did somewhat of a bad job shutting off the pass behind him and Stones is at least part god. https://t.co/zeXz6novwR
Nico is exactly right. Stones connected with left-back Aymeric Laporte seven times in the game, all switches of play from Stones at RCB to Laporte on the left flank. That pass is vital to Manchester City as they look to break Liverpool’s press. That pass is meant to be taken away by the high positioning of the striker (in this case, as Morales points out, Salah), but Stones managed to find it anyways. In addition, Stones found Leroy Sane on the left flank three times, an even more difficult alleyway to navigate.
In addition, Stones no longer makes the positional mistakes we became so numb to his freshman year at the Etihad. Last year during their dominant title run, Manchester City conceded a league-low 27 goals through the 38 matches, and while Stones struggled that campaign with injuries, he put in nine full-90 minute performances in Premier League play, six of which finished in clean sheets.
Stones’ most notable play of the Liverpool match was a perfect encapsulation of his career path at Manchester City. After being admittedly beaten by Sadio Mane, he put enough pressure on the Liverpool winger to (together with a charging Ederson) force him into hitting the post. Stones then attempted to clear the ball by clattering it straight into Ederson’s body, looping the ball towards his own net. He then rushed back to clear the ball off the line, literally millimeters (11 of them, to be exact) from the game’s first goal.
He’s not the sexiest player on the field. In the win over Liverpool, Bernardo Silva got plenty of (deserved) plaudits for running his absolute socks off (he ran the furthest distance of any player in any Premier League match this season). Sergio Aguero scored a ridiculous(ly important) goal. Leroy Sane’s winner came from a moment of far-post ingenuity. Even Vincent Kompany was lauded for his hard work, his clearing ability, and his physical tenacity that nearly netted him a sending off. Stones, on the other hand, plods along doing the little things that help the Man City Machine continue to churn. It’s not even dirty work – which often earns recognition in its own right (see: Silva, Bernardo) – it’s just plain old work.
While many consider Raheem Sterling‘s development as Pep Guardiola’s most impressive individual coaching job at Manchester City – and there’s a good argument to be made there – it is of this writer’s belief that Guardiola’s crowning achievement thus far at City is the building of The Stones Wall. From 21-year-old project (a “poor buy” as one nameless dope put it) to 24-year-old superstar, John Stones has truly developed into one of the world’s best central defenders, and there’s still room to grow.
Asked by Pro Soccer Talk after the game if he was concerned about how his team would handle the pressure of the gap being reduced and losing for the first time this season, Klopp said he has “so much faith” in his players, but then said this.
“If we would have won the title five times in the last 10 years, then we could go 100 percent, but we don’t have the experience. Why should we behave like somebody who won all the time?” Klopp said. “It is true the club hasn’t won it for a long time. We never won it as a team, that is how it is. We want to finish the season as good as possible. We can do that. We are still in a pretty good position, so it is all fine for us. Not in the moment, it feels really bad, but it is only a moment. Then tomorrow morning, we wake up and still feels average, then we have an opportunity to work on it and work on it for the next game.”
Klopp pointing to Liverpool’s lack of title wins (29 years and counting, as it stands) suggests that he is a little concerned about the road ahead. And he acted concerned ahead of the game at City, with a conservative lineup choice in midfield and he was barking orders to Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino throughout the first half as they weren’t closing down City’s defenders in the manner he wanted.
January has always been a tough month for Klopp at Liverpool, with the German coach losing 10 of his 25 games in all competitions in January since he took charge in October 2015. But if you look at Liverpool’s schedule coming up, at least in the Premier League, they should be just fine. In their next five PL games they play Brighton, Crystal Palace, Leicester City, West Ham and Bournemouth.
Liverpool know they are still in a very strong position and Klopp added: “If someone had told me after both games after Man City we were four points up, I would have paid money for it like you cannot believe.”
But the fact they were a few minutes away from keeping their seven point lead, and a few lucky breaks away from moving 10 points clear of Man City, will have a huge psychological impact on Klopp and his players.
They must dust themselves off and acknowledge how close the margins between defeat and victory were against City, but also realize that Pep Guardiola‘s side seemed hungrier, and more controlled, in the heat of battle.
Now we are going to find out if this Liverpool team are championship material and if they can learn to turn a season of immense opportunity into a trophy.