Norwich City welcome champions-elect Liverpool to Carrow Road this weekend for Saturday’s Premier League fixture.
To understand how Jurgen Klopp’s era has gone from strength to strength and to identify whether there are any weaknesses Norwich can try to exploit on Saturday, we spoke to The Athletic’s Liverpool correspondent James Pearce.
canaries.co.uk: It’s been an outstanding season for Liverpool so far. How would you sum it up?
JP: Unprecedented. It’s surpassed everyone’s wildest expectations. There was a certain degree of optimism of course going into the season on the back of winning the Champions League, but I don’t think anyone believed that we’d get to the middle of February and Liverpool would have dropped two points all season. Their consistency has been absolutely remarkable.
canaries.co.uk: After Norwich on Saturday, Liverpool play Atletico Madrid away on Tuesday. Do you expect Jurgen Klopp to play vastly different sides?
JP: I think he’ll play a similar side in both games. The benefit for Klopp is that his players have had two weeks between matches with the winter break and the way he stuck to his guns with fielding the kids in the FA Cup replay against Shrewsbury Town.
All the senior players should be refreshed and ready, so I don’t think he’ll hold anyone back on Saturday with one eye on Tuesday. He might freshen up one or two positions on Tuesday, but I think it will be a similar team that faces Norwich to the one that faces Atletico because the message from Klopp all along has been that the players can’t take their foot of the pedal. There’s no room for complacency, despite the huge lead Liverpool have got at the top of the table. I think that message will remain the same.
canaries.co.uk: How about the fringe players like new signing Takumi Minamino and Xherdan Shaqiri? Where do they fit in?
JP: Minamino is still finding his feet having only joined at the start of January. It’s unlikely that he will make the starting lineup. Shaqiri is still injured so he won’t be involved, but the great thing for Klopp is that the injury situation is probably as clear as it has been throughout the entire season.
James Milner and Sadio Mane are back in full training this week. He’s got great options in every single department at the moment, so they’re in good shape.
canaries.co.uk: Salah, Mane, and Firmino make all the headlines, as do Trent, Robertson and Van Dijk, but is there a sense that people are starting to realise Jordan Henderson’s importance even more?
JP: I think so. For me, he should be the PFA Player of the Year. We’ve still got a significant chunk of the season to run, but in terms of consistency and what he’s given to the team, he would be my pick. I’ve always felt that he was very much under-rated by both a section of Liverpool fans and the wider footballing community.
He’s always been one of those players who is forever trying to silence doubters and win over people, which I think has been unfair. You only have to look at the managers he’s played for at club and international level and there’s a good reason why they have all consistently picked him.
There’s a very good reason why, when Klopp came in, Henderson was the captain. People questioned whether he should have the captaincy and people questioned when Van Dijk came in whether he would take the armband, but he’s an immense leader for Liverpool.
He’s a key part of what Klopp has created, and he’s taken his game to the next level. The belief that he got on the back of lifting the Champions League was a massive step forward for him and the team. He’s been absolutely pivotal to this title push.
canaries.co.uk: In the past, Liverpool have lost key players like Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez to their detriment, but it seems like Klopp has built a squad that can deal with someone like Philippe Coutinho leaving better than previous managers could. Is that fair?
JP: Definitely. Shrewd recruitment has been at the heart of Liverpool’s resurgence under Klopp. They never panic. It’s very much a long-term plan that they keep to, both in terms of the players that they’ve brought in and the kind of fees they’ve received for the players they’ve sold.
Coutinho was a remarkable piece of business, getting £142million for him. Even lesser players - they’ve sold players like Christian Benteke, Mamadou Sakho, Jordan Ibe and Dominic Solanke for significant fees.
Klopp’s net spend in the last four and a half years is only about £80-90million, which is crazy when you think of the cash that’s banded around. The Coutinho money is a perfect example of that because that effectively bought Van Dijk and Alisson Becker.
Those two signings transformed Liverpool from being a top four team to be the absolute juggernaut they are now. They gave them what Liverpool had lacked previously, which was real defensive strength and a world-class goalkeeper.
canaries.co.uk: It seems strange to even discuss weaknesses, considering where Liverpool are now, but is there anything you think Norwich could exploit this weekend?
JP: It’s very difficult! The problem that so many teams have found this season is that this Liverpool team can win games in so many different ways. If you try to park the bus they’ve got enough weapons, they’re not one dimensional – they don’t just rely on the pace of the front three.
They’ve got two of the best full-backs in football whipping in quality deliveries. There’s the threat of Van Dijk from set-pieces, runners from midfield with Oxlade-Chamberlain in decent form. They’ve won games with a swagger and when they’ve had to dig deep and grind it out.
Earlier on in the season, you’d have said they are leaking goals because they did go quite a while without keeping clean sheets, but in the last couple of months with Van Dijk and Gomez at centre-back, they’ve tightened up so much, so it’s very difficult to pick weaknesses.
It’s not a weakness as such, but the only doubt going into this one from my perspective would be that, while it’s great they’ve had a rest, sometimes when you haven’t played for two weeks there can be a lack of fluency or rhythm.
The big thing for Norwich to have any chance is to start the game well. Carrow Road, when the fans are right behind them, could be quite a difficult place to play, but if they let Liverpool dictate the game from the start it could be a long night for them.
canaries.co.uk: If it’s half as eventful as the 5-4 here in 2016 we should be in for another dramatic game!
JP: That was unbelievable, but the style has changed a lot since then. That was the first sign of Klopp’s impact in terms of putting that never-say-die spirit into them. It wasn’t always the most disciplined or mature of performances, but they never threw in the towel.
You can follow James on Twitter @JamesPearceLFC.