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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Liverpool, capable of beguiling brilliance and frustrating off-days, continue to confound under Klopp

Elimination from the FA Cup against struggling West Brom followed a defeat in the Premier League to bottom side Swansea. A trip to Huddersfield Town is up next.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp watches on during his side's defeat in the FA Cup fourth round to West Bromwich Albion. Phil Noble / Reuters
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp watches on during his side's defeat in the FA Cup fourth round to West Bromwich Albion. Phil Noble / Reuters

It is a friendship where David Wagner has been both best man and junior partner. When Huddersfield Town host Liverpool on Tuesday night, the gaze will be diverted to the touchline, to the sight of close friends in competition with each other.

The Huddersfield manager has often been overshadowed by his Liverpool counterpart, but he can claim one distinction to elude Jurgen Klopp: he has won at Wembley.

Huddersfield were promoted at England’s national stadium in May. In contrast, Klopp has lost there in a Uefa Champions League final, with Borussia Dortmund, a League Cup final, for Liverpool in 2016, and a Premier League game, in October.

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That wait will go on: Saturday’s FA Cup defeat to West Bromwich Albion means that, barring an improbable Champions League triumph, Klopp will end his third season at Anfield still without silverware.

Perhaps the serial FA Cup winner Arsene Wenger did not have the German and Mauricio Pochettino in mind when he complained that the media “celebrate some teams who have not been in a final for 25 years and yet kill us,” but it seemed a pointed comment.

If it reflects what he sees as lesser expectations at clubs that lack a recent trophy-winning pedigree, it also shows the realignment of goals amid the primacy of Champions League qualification. Liverpool against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday is the battle for fourth place in microcosm.

Progressive managers have brought progress. Sustaining it is a challenge. Another is addressing shortcomings. A new year has brought the unwanted sense of history repeating itself at Anfield.

Last season, an energising victory over Manchester City preceded a slide. This year, Liverpool became the only English club to defeat Pep Guardiola’s side and, in different competitions, promptly lost to the Premier League’s bottom two teams. They have only failed to score twice in 22 games in all competitions: against Swansea City and, in December, West Bromwich Albion.

Wagner knows Klopp’s character better than anyone. His friend’s team remain prone to the kind of off-days which have curtailed Cup runs and prevented them from displaying the consistency of Premier League champions.

Their last two matches have showcased different failings: in attack against Swansea when Liverpool had 72 per cent of possession and 21 shots, but just four on target, and in defence as West Brom scored three times and had two more goals chalked off at Anfield.

Swansea’s shutout highlighted how opponents who defend deep and in numbers have an occasional tendency to nullify a side who can overwhelm more ambitious sides with their pace on the break.

On such days, the departed Philippe Coutinho’s superb long-range shooting and capacity to conjure something out of nothing may have been invaluable. In such fixtures, they require the pragmatism of a scruffy goal.

In his absence, it showed the Daniel Sturridge dilemma: can one who often strips Liverpool of fluency when he starts be accommodated as a bit-part player, super-sub and penalty-box poacher?

And West Brom illustrated Klopp’s defensive difficulties. Schadenfreude means the £75 million (Dh389m) signing Virgil van Dijk was blamed. In reality, there were structural and personnel issues before his arrival.

The Dutchman could only ever solve a maximum of one. Set-piece problems have been a recurring theme. Both full-backs, Alberto Moreno and Trent Alexander-Arnold, struggled against West Brom, indicating why Andrew Robertson and Joe Gomez should be preferred.

Klopp’s loyalty resulted in a recall for Simon Mignolet. Perhaps Liverpool’s FA Cup exit will mean it was a final Anfield appearance for one who has been granted too many chances.

But a faith in his charges is one of Klopp’s quixotic qualities. He eschews orthodox wisdom in an era of knee-jerk reactions, takes the long-termist view and never signs for the sake of it.

He has a team of beguiling brilliance who can frustrate. Liverpool’s best is very good, their worst strangely bad. Perhaps Wagner will understand it better than most outsiders, but 27 months into his Anfield reign, there is still an enigmatic streak to Klopp’s entertainers.