Klopp’s science and rigour pave way for Liverpool to win a game of inches | Jonathan Wilson

FA Cup was decided by the width of a post but Chelsea were beaten by a side that ensure tiny margins make the difference

Imagine, for a moment, you are the goalframe at the east end of Wembley. Last summer you watched as Marcus Rashford, at the climax of that sulphurous July night, took a straight run-up, stuttered, and then, as Gianluigi Donnarumma fell to your left, dragged his penalty to your right.

You like the young man, his obvious decency, his stance on various social issues – and you are an English goalframe after all. You wanted him to score. You tried to just stretch a bit further, to widen your stance, but your feet were rooted and the ball cannoned off the base of your post and away. If only he had struck it three inches more centrally you probably could have helped it in and, if you had, England would probably be European champions and Rashford might not have had such a miserable season; Manchester United might not feel like quite such a faded force in need of desperate reconstitution.

On Saturday César Azpilicueta’s penalty clipped the outside of your left post and went wide, and immediately Thiago Alcântara’s effort nudged the inside of your right post and went in. If either had been three inches the other way, the outcome would have been different and Édouard Mendy’s save from Sadio Mané – the great psychodrama between international teammates who have won two key penalty shootouts against Egypt this year, which Jürgen Klopp acknowledged he had needlessly complicated by telling Mané not to go with his usual approach – would have won the final for Chelsea.

And had that happened, how different the aftermath would have felt, how different the emotions on Sunday morning. What a sense that goalframe must have of the arbitrariness of human destiny, how life can teeter on a knife edge before taking a decisive plunge in one direction or the other.

César Azpilicueta’s penalty bounces off a post
César Azpilicueta’s penalty bounces away after striking a post. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Observer

If Chelsea had won, we would now be talking of a spirit born of adversity – albeit an adversity characteristic of football’s age of high decadence, the crisis of oligarchal funding being turned off when the invasion of a sovereign state on the other side of the continent finally persuades people that merrily lapping up cash from this highly litigious associate of a brutal authoritarian leader might not quite be on.

(As the Cup celebrated its 150th birthday with a bizarre kick-off time, the booing of Abide With Me and a DJ set that obstructed the view from part of the press box, you wonder what Charles W Alcock, the Sunderland-born Old Harrovian whose idea it was, might have made of it all. “Look, Charles, there’s some really good news: your competition will still be going on in 2022. But I have to warn you, it’s moved on a bit – not really a giggle for public schoolboys any more, more a theatre for soft-power gameplaying between petro-states and American capital.”)

There might be some grumbling about another duff performance from Romelu Lukaku and the weird striking dearth that meant a 14-minute cameo as an emergency centre-forward from Ruben Loftus-Cheek: how bad must he be at penalties that he had to be withdrawn? And how bad must Ross Barkley, who Thomas Tuchel said was brought on for Loftus-Cheek because of his penalty record, now be in open play that he could not be risked for 14 minutes?

But there would have been a sense that the storm had passed, that the foundations remained for the Todd Boehly-led consortium to build on.

For Liverpool there would have been a nagging sense that this season, which could yet in terms of trophies won be the best enjoyed by any English men’s club, might end up like a typical Don Revie season at Leeds in the late 60s and early 70s: fatigue-induced near misses, great memories and not much in the trophy cabinet.

Klopp acknowledged that winning the league looks unlikely now and, with injury doubts over Fabinho, Virgil van Dijk and Mohamed Salah, the buildup to the Champions League final must have been pessimistic.

Just a League Cup? After playing every possible game this season, after keeping the possibility of a quadruple alive longer than any side has before? However great the achievement to have come so close, that would have been an extreme disappointment.

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Liverpool came within inches of defeat – and yet the truth is the final never felt that close. Liverpool may have drawn four times with Chelsea this season, but they are very obviously a better side. In part that is down to Klopp, to his charisma, his organisational skills and the belief he instils. But he also credited neuro11, a German neuroscience company that has been working with Liverpool for more than a year, for the penalty success: the team’s record of 17 scored from 18 attempts in shootouts this season suggests he is right to do so.

That is the other side of Klopp. His personality tends to draw most of the attention but he is also extremely receptive to specialists who can offer a competitive advantage, from neuroscientists to data analysts to throw-in coaches. That is one of the reasons Liverpool have not really made a poor signing since Christian Benteke in 2015. The mentality and the thrilling football have an advanced scientific underpinning.

The goalframe, with its awareness of angles, may understand how contingent everything is, how dependent results can be on the fractional movement of a piece of leather. But behind all that lies a great science that helps tweak those margins. Preparation plus luck equals destiny.


Jonathan Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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