Praise from opposition managers has flooded in for the Premier League leaders, but Jurgen Klopp places more value on his squad’s opinion of themselves.
Walter Mazzarri was unequivocal; Liverpool – not Chelsea, Manchester United nor Arsenal – are the best team Watford have faced this season. The Italian, powerless to prevent the attacking gust of Jurgen Klopp’s side in a 6-1 blitz prior to the international break, declared the Merseysiders “No. 1 on my list for winning the Premier League.”
Two months earlier, Antonio Conte’s description of the division’s pacesetters was opposite yet equal. Before Liverpool authoritatively swaggered to a 2-1 victory at Stamford Bridge, he correctly predicted they were “the worst possible team to play now.”
Preceding that statement, Arsene Wenger had admitted the Gunners were “completely shocked” during a 15-minute period on the opening weekend of the campaign when Klopp’s men had their backs up and boots on Arsenal’s throats.
Jose Mourinho, meanwhile, didn’t need to detail his admiration for Liverpool to the press given it was obvious in his tactical design. The most expensively assembled United squad in history arrived at Anfield on October 17 with a focus on frustrating the hosts, but not the ambition of flooring them.
As flattering as opposition managers have been on Liverpool’s imposing start to 2016-17, Klopp believes the real gold is what his squad think of themselves.
“Of course, it’s better that they think something like this, than they say ‘thank God it’s Liverpool at the weekend, so quite an easy game.’ But in the end it’s not a big value for us, what other teams think about us – it’s good and it’s positive but not too important,” the Reds boss told Goal exclusively.
“The main thing is that we actually think about ourselves, ‘yeah, we are quite a good team.’ We have big expectations on ourselves and I’m not pessimistic, I’m really optimistic but I don’t like to make these positive assessments all the time and say ‘we are really good – my god, how good are we?’
“I know about the problems we could have in the future, and we need to stay in the race. It’s not about celebrating each time like ‘my god, that was so fantastic!’
“It’s a kind of sign and a kind of confidence we need to have that we celebrate it in the moment, then we accept this is normal – this is our quality and what we expect.”
Sitting atop the league standings, having broken a 121-year scoring record over their first 14 games across all competitions – unbeaten in 13 of them – the players have not simply bought into Klopp’s blueprint, but also the German’s continual message about their limitless capabilities.
This collective conviction has been core to the team’s evolution – Liverpool are not primarily a side built for the counter, nor are they only an attacking juggernaut. They conquer the ball, they strangle opponents with patient build-up, they are a threat from set-pieces, they are dogged in duels for the second ball, they are unyielding in and out of possession, they are incisive and expansive.
Liverpool can nip and tuck their approach based on what is required – starving West Brom of fouls that could hurt them one matchweek, before probing and pulverising Watford on another.
The Reds have also refuted the theory that they are ruffled by deep defending. “We knew even before we came here that this is Liverpool FC and that means a lot of teams play a specific kind of football against ‘big names’ so you need to create plans for these different games,” Klopp explained.
“The longer we have the ball, the less can happen against you. Then you lose it and you need to get it back, I thought it’s a good idea to get it back immediately, because it makes life easier.
“That is why we think counter-pressing is really important, but it doesn’t work all the time, so then you have to defend in a different way.
“That’s how football works – you close one hole, unfortunately you open another one. It never ends, it never ends!
“I was never part of the perfect game – I never saw it. It’s always about handling the problems the game gives you in specific moments, and to try and prepare for them.
“The problem is there are a lot of good teams out there, who want to win the games, to collect the points, to climb up the table and to fight for a specific position.
“That’s what we are working to do as well and along the way, you have so many different things to do, to play different teams with different types of plans.
“Nobody is born saying they’re a real competitor, you get it on the way as you grow up, and we want to be a real competitor together in the Liverpool shirt.”