IF Jurgen Klopp could have written the script for Liverpool’s first leg Champions League quarter-final against Manchester City, the scenes that played out at Anfield would have remained almost identical.
After just 31 minutes, the German’s game plan had rocked Pep Guardiola’s team with three extraordinarily swift and well-crafted goals and showed off all the best aspects of his unwavering philosophy.
Klopp’s ‘gegenpressing’ tactic had starved City’s big money stars of the time and space they crave in executing their boss’ equally beloved style, before a quick counter attacking masterclass hit them where it hurt.
However, just a week earlier, Everton’s awful showing against the league leaders had shown the Reds exactly how not to tackle a clash against Guardiola’s dangerous midfield.
The Toffees’ midfield four were set up to sit deep and invited their opponents to attack in the hope of punishing them on the counter – in reality what they had done was give De Bruyne and co free reign to create and set the tempo.
It provided a clear lesson for their crosstown rivals, and one which was clearly followed intently by Klopp.
The Reds’ insanely effective first half blitzkrieg didn’t so much revolve around the storied attacking prowess of rampant front three Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino – as has often been the case.
But rather, stemmed from the exploits of two often maligned veteran English midfielders in Jordan Henderson and James Milner.
Faced with the unenvious task of shutting down the creative avenues of De Bruyne and David Silva, who along with teammate Leroy Sane are the only Premier League players in double figures for assists this season, the duo exacted their manager’s orders with remarkable precision.
While City set the tempo for the opening ten minutes or so, from there Milner and Henderson harried their opponents with aggression and quality, turning over the ball time and time again to kickstart the Reds’ devastating counter-attack.
Every time De Bruyne, Silva or their midfield general Fernandinho looked to move forward and create, the duo – often both of them in fact – stood firmly in their way, quite literally, and moved with sublime strength to restore their side to possession.
This was precisely the opposite tactic to Sam Allardyce’s misguided plan which saw his side swept aside convingly – as City have done to so many other Premier League sides this season.
It was seen clearly in the lead up to the second goal, as Milner won the ball in a tight space in midfield before finding Oxlade-Chamberlain who rocketed an astoundingly powerful drive into the back of the net.
The midfield battle, and the duel across the park, was won via a blistering intensity – the Reds pressed and exerted themselves to set a tempo that appeared to stun the visitors, and shirk them out of any potential rhythm.
Again, creating a serious point of difference from Everton, who seriously lacked pace across the centre of the park in their weak showing.
Klopp’s side were more alert, and rode the electric atmosphere of yet another incredible European night at Anfield, to push themselves to another level.
It was epitomized by local talent Trent Alexander Arnold, who, even at 3-0 up in added time, gestured passionately to his teammates to keep going with a two-fisted call to arms and an emotional battle cry.
A 3-0 victory, a clean sheet and another victory in his impressive record against his coaching rival, it was an amazing night for Klopp – who had essentially masterminded one of the biggest boilovers in this season’s Champions League from his clipboard.
While Guardiola had opted to tinker with his personnel, worried about the potential threats to be deployed by his opposite number, the German remained focused on his own strategy and his players implemented it expertly to pull off a result which puts them one foot in the final four of Europe’s top club tournament.
It’s not over yet, although a three-goal deficit and a lack of away goals appears a mountain too far even for this outstanding City team, although it does shape as a watershed moment for Liverpool Football Club – set to end their exile from the very top of the game.
Not since the 2007-08 season have the Merseysiders made an appearance in the final four of the Champions League, but under Klopp they’ve come on in leaps and bounds and earned their redemption.
In fact, it’s almost fitting that they make their statement in this manner, and against this opponent.
This first leg victory was remarkably reminiscent of one of Klopp’s first victories at the club – a 4-1 thrashing over a Mauricio Pellegrino led Manchester City in November 2015.
On that day, three first-half goals silenced the Etihad and showed Liverpool fans a first real glimpse of what they could expect under their new boss in a landmark outing.
After the game, Klopp had this to say:
“What we had to do was disturb their build-up play. Because, if you let them play how they want then you have no chance. So, that’s what we tried to do and these were the first steps in this game.
“But, when we got the ball our counter-attack was not too bad. It was really good. And we made these three goals – these wonderful goals.
Those comments apply almost perfectly to their quarter final win, and reflect Klopp’s reliance and trust in his system – one which today played a massive role in outwitting and outplaying their opponents.
This stability and steady progress is again in stark contrast with the state of play on the other side of Merseyside. Since David Moyes’ departure in 2013, the Toffees have had three bosses, none of whom have managed to instigate any real long lasting improvement at the club.
Under Allardyce, Everton have been inconsistent and underwhelming this season, they sit ninth in the league – 26 points behind their crosstown rivals.
And as the pair meet in Premier League action on Satuday night AEST, the Reds are huge favourites – and are good value for the title – owing to their manager’s trusty game plan, a well drilled set up and a clear sense of direction.
The last time the Blue side of Merseyside tasted any joy in this fixture was in October 2010 – on that day they earned a 2-0 victory at Goodison Park, with Tim Cahill on the scoresheet.
But despite this clash sandwiching the Reds’ crucial Champions League meetings with City, and somewhat of an injury crisis at Anfield, it’s still tough to see that drought breaking.