For the opening 20 minutes of their Champions League clash at Estadio do Dragao in Porto, Liverpool were treated to a barrage of shots and pressure. Porto came at their opponents with spirit, intensity and a direct approach that left the visitors with plenty of defensive work to do.
You could be forgiven, having watched those early exchanges, for wondering what all the fuss is about when it comes to Jurgen Klopp’s men this season. Well, 70 minutes later, as a shrill blast of the referee’s whistle beckoned Liverpool to their third European semi-final in four seasons, any lingering skepticism should well and truly have been put to bed.
When this tie was drawn, Liverpool fans would immediately have been transported back to their clash with Porto last season. That last 16 meeting saw Liverpool arrive in Portugal with the chaos of Klopp’s high press still in full flow.
A thumping 0-5 win that night saw the Reds in rampant form. They had scored a shed load and could have a few more as they savaged a brittle Porto rearguard at will.
Fast forward 12 and a bit months though and it’s a very different Liverpool that we now see strutting their stuff on Europe’s elite stage.
As they rode that initial wave of Porto heavy artillery in the Dragao, Liverpool slowly began to hit back and assert themselves.
Porto had managed a staggering 13 attempts in the opening 25 minutes. Klopp’s side had barely played two forward paces in that time, but as you watched their defensive unit face up to Porto’s aggression their composure and quality levels were never in doubt.
True, Porto’s final ball and finishing left a lot to be desired, but Liverpool were able to call on their defensive line to concentrate and see out a difficult start with the knowledge that they would not be let down by Van Dijk and his crew.
This faith in their newly found defensive resolve has arguably been the standout feature of Liverpool’s improvement this season. It has allowed for a new approach to winning games which has been paying dividends.
As Liverpool emerged from that early spell, they were ready on the counter. It took them just one foray into Porto’s box and a little pinch of VAR to give them the lead, courtesy of an onside Sadio Mane.
They had absorbed the pressure with poise before ruthlessly exposing their hosts with superior firepower and composure. This has been a hallmark of their rampant good form this season. The fabled heavy metal stuff is still there in flashes, but there is far more control and poise on display by this Liverpool team now, than at any other time during Klopp’s tenure.
Victory over Porto, may well have yielded a similar, massive margin as in 2018, however, the route to the result was less frenetic, more methodical. Liverpool were able to absorb the pressure and trust in their ability to see out a result, rather than go gung ho as they have done previously with Klopp.
It was a similar story in their 2-0 victory over Chelsea last weekend. Confidence in their capacity to defend and calm efficiency in front of goal. Yes, there were moments in that game as well when Chelsea had chances, but as Liverpool endured the pressure they reasserted a calm control over proceedings and were able to see the game out in relative comfort as their opponents huffed and puffed at arm’s length.
Klopp has been criticized for, at times, being a little conservative this season. Namely in the draws with Leicester City and Everton, where dropped points could still end up being costly in their title bid. However, the German’s comments after the Merseyside Derby hinted at his new found desire to see his side play with far more calm, composure, and control in matches.
Playing for a draw is simply not in the former Dortmund Manager’s DNA, that endless, restless desire to win football matches still simmers away beneath the surface. The pressing and demanding work rate is unlikely to ever disappear entirely from his battle plans either, but for now, this is Klopp’s Liverpool Mark II. Klopp has found his new groove; a touch more classical than German thrash metal.