March 11 marks one year since the last time Jürgen Klopp’s side walked out in front of a packed stadium, when they and Diego Simeone’s team played out a thrilling – but, from the Liverpool perspective, ultimately disappointing – Champions League Round of 16 second leg on a wet and windy Merseyside night.
They’re far from the only ones, but the Reds – especially in recent weeks – have almost certainly been hit by the absence of supporters. So how do we go about considering the influence of something almost intangibly big?
Just 24 hours after that game, it was announced that Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta had tested positive for Covid-19 and, by Friday lunchtime, the Premier League had been suspended. Until early April, at first, before further extensions and adaptations eventually brought about the mid-June restart.
It was, though, a restart that had to be sanitised in almost every sense of the word, of course. Barring a handful of limited attendances in December – which, in itself, was a wonderful sight and sound – Premier League grounds have remained without supporters since.
This May, we hope, will see a few more thousand inside Anfield and elsewhere for the final matches of the campaign. Then, if things go well, there’s a chance we may begin to work towards filling grounds out again. A big ‘if’, but a potentially exciting one.
The length of time we’ve gone without the living masse of full stadiums has, it seems, made us appreciate them even more.
No longer are they simply there – a guaranteed factor. They, at times, feel like the completer of the wonderfully shaped emotional jigsaw that is football and its matches. That means, at present, that there is a sizeable gap in what makes the beautiful game tick at full capacity – quite literally.
As Klopp said in his press conference after the brilliantly intense, bone-shudderingly atmospheric 4-0 win over Barcelona in May 2019: “We know this club is the mix of atmosphere, emotion, desire and football quality. Cut one off and it doesn’t work – we know that.”
As form has largely disintegrated and six successive home defeats have been registered by the Reds in recent weeks, that is a quote that has arguably become all the more pertinent.
That’s because it feels almost painfully accurate in the current context. It does look as though the absence of a crowd, a single factor, has contributed considerably to the wider machine – one which previously worked so consistently and effectively – breaking down.
But is it a single factor? Probably not, in truth.
“Atmosphere, emotion, desire and football quality”. Supporters contribute considerably to three of those – many would argue all four.
Several injuries do throw another spanner into the proverbial works as well, of course. Not that we need reminding.
The context was very different this time last year, of course. Liverpool were runaway leaders of the Premier League – just six points from that first title in 30 years, in fact – and the squad wasn’t far off full health.Embed from Getty Images
Not that there weren’t parallels. A muscle issue for Alisson Becker saw Adrián make his third consecutive start in the Atlético second leg and collective form had actually dropped off a little over the previous three or so weeks.
Including the 1-0 first-leg defeat in Spain, the Merseysiders had lost three and won two of their last five games. Both wins – 3-2 and 2-1 home league victories over West Ham United and AFC Bournemouth respectively – had been ground out.
The Atlético return leg, though – at least for the opening 95 minutes or so – was the best display of the early weeks of 2020, in the minds of many.
The Kopite Podcast’s Jay Pearson was there, and remembers how the atmosphere compared with other memorable continental contests over recent years.
“Whenever we get the second leg at home, anything can happen and usually we go through. That has been proven in the past so many times. Chelsea in 2005, Chelsea in 2007, Inter Milan and Arsenal in 2008, Real Madrid in 2009, Dortmund in 2016 and obviously Barcelona in 2019. All great examples of ties that were right in the balance and needed the power of Anfield,” Jay said.
“Being one-nil down to Atlético meant that this atmosphere was right up there. We knew the power of the 12th man could help this team overturn the first-leg deficit and pull us through and right from the moment the Champions League anthem finished, the roar was electric!”
With the help of that wonderfully raucous Anfield, Klopp’s side put in an intense, attacking but well-balanced display which kept the brilliant Jan Oblak busy in the Spaniards’ net, while giving Simeone’s men little joy going the other way.
That eventually led to Georginio Wijnaldum’s 43rd-minute opener when his header – from a superb Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain cross from the right – skidded off the turf, beyond Oblak’s dive and into the top-left corner.Embed from Getty Images
Wijnaldum, as it happens, gave his thoughts on the impact of the absence of crowds in Tuesday’s pre-Leipzig press conference.
“It has affected us a bit – not a lot. I believe the things that are happening to us right now would not happen if there were fans in the stadium. Because the fans, as you know, help us a lot through difficult times. When you have difficult times during the game the fans are there to help you to get over it, to give you even more energy than you have in that moment,” said the Dutchman.
“If it really affects us in a way that we cannot play without fans or get results without fans – I don’t really think that way. Of course they make us stronger than we are at the moment. I think everyone can see it, no one can deny it either. But, yeah, I think we can do better – even without fans in the stadium. But I’m sure and I think everyone’s with me that the situation we are in right now would not happen if fans were in the stadium.”
The fans and the team stepped it up further in the second half of the Atlético second leg – almost in tandem with the weather whipping itself into that bit more of a storm.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s low long-range attempt was pushed wide by Oblak less than nine minutes after the restart and – before the 70th minute had been reached – Andy Robertson, on his 26th birthday, had hit the bar with a close-range header, while fellow full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold had stung the palms of Oblak with a long-ranger of his own.
In amongst all of that, Atlético had also threatened. João Félix’s deflected 60th-minute effort was parried by Adrián but the Spaniard dived in bravely to block Ángel Correa’s attempt to convert the rebound – and Saúl Ñíguez even tried his luck from his own half.
The latter minutes of normal time brought another flurry of opportunities. Sadio Mané sent an 85th-minute overhead kick a little too high and Mohamed Salah whistled an effort just beyond the top-left corner two minutes after that.
Then, in the third minute of stoppage time, it looked momentarily like Atlético had sealed the tie when Saúl headed home Renan Lodi’s free kick. The flag was rightly raised for offside, though.
The second – potentially decisive – goal that the hosts had been after throughout the second half, then arrived in the fourth minute of extra time.
A brilliant Wijnaldum run down the right ended with the midfielder delivering an inch-perfect cross for Roberto Firmino. His downward header – almost a carbon copy of the opener – struck the left-hand post but came back to the Brazilian, who duly sidefooted into the open net on the volley for his first Anfield goal of the campaign.
It gave the Reds a very well-earned 2-1 aggregate lead. Protecting it proved the problem, though.
“The performance was brilliant. We out played Atlético in every way possible. We dominated them from the start. Because we knew we had to get the first goal to settle us, reset the tie and push on, on our own turf. It was just unfortunate that a couple of mistakes cost us the tie,” recalls Jay.
Just three minutes after Firmino struck, the visitors had retaken the lead in the tie – this time on away goals.Embed from Getty Images
Adrián could only clear Alexander-Arnold’s backpass as far as Félix, whose clever reverse pass gave Marcos Llorente the chance to capitalise on the goalkeeper not being fully set and he swept a 20-yard shot into the bottom-right corner.
Then, as the first period of extra time ticked into two added minutes, Llorente found the same corner again from similar range – this time after Álvaro Morata had led a break into the Liverpool half and squared to the midfielder.
The roles would be reversed at the end of the second period when, after exchanging passes once, Llorente sent Morata through and the former Chelsea man sidefooted coolly into the near left-hand corner to seal a 4-2 aggregate victory.
It may have ended frustratingly, but Jay could feel the boost that the supporters had given the Reds throughout so much of the night.
“The crowd absolutely lifted the team. On European nights you can feel the energy. There may have been a nervous energy as we were playing a very good side in Atlético, but the noise was electric to help the team push for those vital goals needed.”
Alongside that, he is in little doubt that the team have been knocked – especially at present – by playing in behind-closed-doors fixtures.
“Absolutely. Anfield is famous for the passion the fans bring to the game and it is not a ‘fairy story’ that the crowd helps the ball go over line. It’s no coincidence that Liverpool perform miracles at that ground. It’s happened far too often and the players get that.
“They miss us just as much as we miss them, maybe more so at the minute, because they probably feel lonely. I know that sounds strange, but imagine if you’re having a bad game and you don’t have those fans close to the pitch shouting words of encouragement? It absolutely has an effect.
“Not having 54,000 people screaming “into these, Reds” or “c’mon Redmen” if we go a goal down. Those elements can definitely have an effect.
“It’s not just Liverpool that are suffering. It’s proved throughout the league with everybody picking up shocking results.”Embed from Getty Images
Klopp was asked for his view just a few minutes before Wijnaldum was within that Tuesday press conference, and he offered a similar outlook – particularly when it came to supporters’ impact in the testing moments.
“I said it 5,000 times, football would not be the game we love when nobody would be interested – like nobody would want to watch it in a stadium, so yes of course we miss them,” said the German.
“We miss them much and, especially as Liverpool, of course we miss them because we have the most special atmosphere probably in the world of football so it’s clear that it makes a massive difference.
“It’s no excuse for anything. So we dealt really long, really well with it – playing without supporters. But, in difficult times obviously, then that can be really helpful especially. So, yes, I can’t wait for the day when people are allowed again to go to the stadium.”
It is evidence of the pick me up that supporters can offer to those involved on the pitch or on the sideline.
The value of moments in football is again, seemingly, highlighted here. A response to adversity or jeopardy with a positive chant or a determined roar can – unsurprisingly – be powerful. And a source of power to players and coaches alike.
“No excuse,” as Klopp says. Solutions will need to be found without the help of such support in the weeks and months to come.
It’s doable. Additionally difficult? Perhaps. But doable because it’s already been done – both in the earlier months of this season and even in moments over recent weeks.
It’s a process that can perhaps be aided by the knowledge that, hopefully, it shouldn’t be too long until a few more Reds are there to help.
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