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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Klopp, Can and gegenpressing: A distinct German feel to Liverpool's win over Hoffenheim

Liverpool's Champions League campaign has begun on a bolder, brighter and better note than previous two campaigns.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was ecstatic about Champions League qualification. Phil Noble / Reuters
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was ecstatic about Champions League qualification. Phil Noble / Reuters

There is a temptation, when hosting visitors from home, to make an extra effort to forge a fine impression. Jurgen Klopp’s compatriots have retreated to their native Germany with ample evidence of his prowess.

The Bundesliga’s previous representatives at Anfield, Borussia Dortmund, were dramatically ejected from the Europa League by a barrage of three goals in 25 minutes. The next, Hoffenheim, were condemned to the Europa League by a 21-minute onslaught that yielded three goals.

Liverpool progressed to the Uefa Champions League. “Yippee,” Klopp said. “It is 14 months of the hardest work and it feels amazing.”

Last season’s exertions were not in vain. This has begun with a bang.

There was a German feel to proceedings. Klopp’s beloved gegenpressing produced Liverpool’s fourth goal, holding midfielder Jordan Henderson robbing the last defender, Kevin Vogt, to set up Roberto Firmino. The Germany international Emre Can had never previously scored more than once in a game, but got two goals and should have had a hat-trick.

But then there has long been an international flavour at Anfield. The first English club to win the European Cup, the only one to win it five times, they savoured their return to the competition. Hoffenheim were made to look the rookies they are on the continental stage. They were outclassed although, when Liverpool are at the top of their game, many can be. This was a reminder of their capacity to raise their game for marquee matches.

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There are times when they look irresistible, when their understanding seems instinctive and the pace of their play unstoppable. An electric start was reminiscent of last autumn when they seemed to overwhelm opponents. Now, as then, the probing of Firmino and the pace of Sadio Mane were crucial.

“What an impact Roberto Firmino had,” Klopp said.

There was a sense that justice was belatedly done when the Brazilian scored Liverpool’s fourth goal. Even, perhaps, when he set up the third. He is a player whose contribution is not always reflected in the statistics. He is the selfless striker, the team player in a position normally reserved for individualists. He had the assist to the assist for the first two goals, making the initial incision for others to profit. He was involved in all four.

Klopp’s Liverpool, who are prolific without picking a true striker, abound with paradoxes. Mane provided another. They advanced thanks to the Senegalese’s backheels, which led to two goals. Can was the beneficiary on each occasion. Mane’s 17 Anfield appearances have yielded 10 goals and five assists. This was proof he can be devastating even when he does not score.

He highlighted the naivety of Julian Nagelsmann, Hoffenheim’s 30-year-old wunderkind of a manager. “Absolute suicide,” the watching Steven Gerrard said of his tactics.

Hoffenheim’s high defensive line was exploited by Mane, in particular. “You can’t try to be as fast as Mane,” Nagelsmann added.

His players were slower and short of answers. The selection of Havard Nordtveit as Mane’s immediate opponent backfired. The Norwegian was so hapless he was replaced with three-quarters of the game remaining, having inadvertently turned the ball into his own net in both legs. His replacement, Mark Uth, promptly found the Liverpool goal.

So, later, did Sandro Wagner on a night of awesome attacking and dodgy defending.

It was the sort of anarchic affair Klopp has almost copyrighted, fast, fantastic and flawed. “This game was crazy and could have ended 9-7,” the German added.

That was a reflection of Liverpool’s excellence at one end and their issues at the other.

Klopp’s full-backs push so far forward that there can be room outside the centre-backs. The elusive Serge Gnabry, in particular, found it. Alberto Moreno’s capacity to leave space behind him was apparent. Uth’s goal was notable for a sliding attempt to stop the shot from the Spaniard, which should not camouflage the fact he permitted it.

Wagner’s header, meanwhile, offered reminders of a frailty against the aerial ball. Over 180 minutes against Hoffenheim, it mattered not. Klopp could conclude the tie with a trademark fist pump in front of the Kop.

“You could find a few people who will say it’s only Champions League,” the manager added. But he was not one of them. His enthusiasm should serve them well. Liverpool’s last two Champions League campaigns have been timid affairs. This should be bolder, brighter and better.

Especially if they face German opposition.