A run of tough December fixtures for Jurgen Klopps' side kicks off with a match against their neighbours on Sunday
Merseyside derby: Liverpool have gone from cavalier to cautious just as Everton have made the opposite journey
From the moment the fixture list was released, December was always shaping up to be a huge month at Anfield. Liverpool have nonetheless contrived to make it bigger. As defeat to Paris Saint-Germain means last season’s runners-up flirt with an early exit from the Uefa Champions League, Napoli’s visit becomes a final of sorts.
It comes in a period when Liverpool also host Manchester United, Arsenal and, first, Everton on Sunday. If the temptation is to see them as a group of games where ambitions could be dented on two fronts, Jurgen Klopp stressed the uniqueness of the local rivalry.
“This game is isolated from the season: it’s a derby, it’s at home,” he said. “Everton are doing really well this season. They’re a completely different cup of tea to the last few years so it will be a tough one.” As Everton have become more enterprising and more attack-minded, Liverpool have made the opposite journey.
Klopp’s cavaliers, the side who blazed a trail in Europe last season by scoring a record number of Champions League goals, have become misers. The advantage of their pragmatic revolution can be seen in England, a defence that has been breached just five times underpinning an unbeaten league start. Liverpool have gone from exciting to efficient, dropping no points against the bottom 15 sides.
Yet the downside of their new-found caution has been apparent in Europe. James Milner’s penalty in the Parc des Princes was Liverpool’s only goal in three away Champions League games that produced just five shots on target.
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If it illustrates the way their feared front three have been stifled and subdued on their travels, and Roberto Firmino in particular looks tired, some of the focus has fallen on another trio. Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and Milner were Liverpool’s worthy overachievers last season, an industrious trio whose characters propelled them into Champions League final starting berths in midfield.
Yet a quest for solidity has come at a cost. Liverpool have only scored two goals in the last five games Wijnaldum and Milner have started together. If the midfield is yet to recapture the dynamism that was lost when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was injured in April, it is also notable that the old guard are preferred for the more demanding tests after a summer when almost £100 million (Dh470m) was invested in newcomers.
Fabinho’s slow start has been well documented and Klopp only tends to trust the Brazilian with the insurance of another holding midfielder, even if a swap to 4-2-3-1 has the benefit of accommodating the inventive Xherdan Shaqiri. Naby Keita was always expected to bring more adventure but, four months into his Anfield career, his brightest performance remains a sparkling debut against West Ham United.
“Naby Keita will be – and he is – an outstanding player,” insisted Klopp on Tuesday. “The situation after he got injured was average because he has to get fit again, but the start was brilliant. He will be a massive player in the future for LFC and he is already.”
Wednesday was just the second game of his comeback and if more reliable figures have been trusted to start ahead of an unpredictable presence who can seem a player designed for five-second clips that are shared on social media, there is a case to unleash Keita against Everton.
“At a club like ours, sometimes you have to wait a bit longer for the moment,” Klopp said. Oxlade-Chamberlain, Andrew Robertson and Fabinho can testify as much. In contrast, Virgil van Dijk’s moment came straight away. Rewind 11 months and his debut came in a derby. The Dutchman headed a late winner against Everton.
“It was an amazing night so I am definitely looking forward to it,” said the defender. “These games we have, everyone in the world will want to play them. We are in a fantastic moment in the league, still unbeaten. We will be up for it. We want to bounce back from this.”
And, despite that excellent league record, a response is required.