- ‘We’re doing better than we expected but no one is celebrating’
• Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain training and could return this season
Paul Wilson– The Guardian
Jürgen Klopp has just had the best Christmas imaginable. Not only are Liverpool six points clear at the top of the Premier League but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is back in training. Yet, despite everything looking sunny at the halfway point of the season, the manager insists his side can improve.
“I don’t think we have been seen at our very best yet,” Klopp said before Saturday’s visit of Arsenal. “We have had very good moments but overall we have not been as spectacular as we were at times last season. We don’t concede as often but people ask what has happened to the free-flowing football. It’s like a kid getting a nice present for Christmas then asking where’s the other one. You can’t always have everything; sometimes it is best to be grateful for what you’ve got.
“People will always want more but we had to develop from last season, to step aside a little and start again. We had to score a lot of goals last season because we conceded so many but we have worked on our defending since and I am pleased with the result.
“I loved the way we played against PSG and Napoli, for example. Faced with strong opponents we still went for them. You cannot play like that against everybody – when we came to play Manchester City we had to be careful not to give anything away in case they hit us on the counter – but sometimes a team comes along, like Chelsea, and you know that both sides are going to go for it. That’s brilliant, I love games like that.”
Pep Guardiola has just suggested Liverpool will begin to feel more pressure now they are out in front but Klopp feels it is still too early in the season for mind games and league tables. “I have to say 51 points at the halfway stage is better than we expected but no one is celebrating yet,” the Liverpool manager said. “The players are mature enough to know that. The time to get excited over a six-point lead is when there are only four or five games left to play.
“I didn’t feel any different when I came in from the last game and someone told me the City result, and I certainly didn’t when I heard the Tottenham score. It is important to consider who is in the bunch of teams around you. We are in a good position but it’s silly to talk about points gained and lost when you have Arsenal next followed by City.”
Klopp’s caution is understandable, though in each of the past three seasons he has seen the eventual champions emerge early and build up an unassailable lead. “That is true but those champions never had City at their back or a Tottenham side growing stronger every year,” he said. “When I came to England Harry Kane was 21 or 22, Dele Alli was just a kid from the lower leagues. It was a completely different situation to the one at present.”
Even though City have lost three of their past four league matches and Tottenham have still to come to Anfield Klopp refuses to acknowledge that the title is Liverpool’s to lose – a footballing cliche he greets with a slight grimace – insisting instead that the best way for his side to keep up their unbeaten record is to keep concentrating on the next match.
“We are not the hunters who have turned into the hunted. We are just a football team trying to play the best season of our lives,” he said. “Although actually that was the plan last season as well. We have brought in some fantastic players and created an atmosphere here where we believe in our own ability. We can handle difficult situations. We learn and go again.
“We know if we only play an 80% game against Arsenal we will lose, so we must try to be ready for a tough match. We must also keep up our concentration, because Unai Emery will not be coming here looking at the points totals. He will be doing his best to win a game of football.
“I know some of his players very well indeed, particularly Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. He is an outstanding player and a proper goalscorer who can do a lot of damage. He has a pretty rare combination of speed and finishing skill, and on top of that he’s good at heading. It all adds up to a pretty nice package.”
But the prospect of meeting up with a former Borussia Dortmund player does not animate Klopp as much as the anticipated return of Oxlade-Chamberlain. The Liverpool manager was distraught when the midfielder damaged knee ligaments in last season’s Champions League semi-final and, though prepared to be without him for the whole of this season, is now being told the player could be ready in February or March.
“That would be the best, best news,” Klopp said. “He started back and from the first step he took it looked completely normal. Right away it looked like Ox and that was really nice. Then we had to wait for the reaction – and there was no reaction, which is even nicer.
“I don’t want to pre-empt the medical department but we now have hope he will be back this season. It actually looks like he could play tomorrow, though of course we will not be doing that. There is a long way to go but it looks good. It is a boost for the whole dressing room because Ox is such an important part of that and it’s great to have him around with a smile on his face.”