Theories abound about the current underwhelming form of Liverpool two years into Jurgen Klopp’s tenure as manager. Failure to recruit the right quality playing staff is cited by some. The German’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for instilling a more defensive shape in his side is pointed to by others. Identifying the individual errors of players is proving a popular alternative.
While Klopp has not entirely escaped criticism in recent weeks, he has, to a large extent, been confined to the role of contributory factor rather than primary cause.
A strong personality is required to be a football manager. Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, Pep Guardiola and Klopp are all forceful personalities in their own inimitable ways. The one attribute that could be said to be common to this diverse group of managers is their obsession with football.
The manager is a figure head for the club he represents and having one that is clearly obsessed with football is considered necessary to withstand the demands of the job. The obsessed football manager also appears to stand a better chance of motivating players than the well-balanced, mild-mannered manager.
Klopp arrived at Anfield just over two years ago to take over at a club which was failing to weather the storm of losing its talisman in Steven Gerrard and its only world-class player in Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan was infamously replaced by Mario Balotelli. The blame for Balotelli’s acquisition was laid squarely at the feet of the mysterious ‘transfer committee’. Committees of course are notorious for delivering camels when a horse is the objective. The bumbling transfer committee conspired to permit Klopp the use of an easy explanation for a slow start.
The German appeared to enjoy a free pass in his first truncated season in charge. A quiet January transfer window in his first year was explained away by stating that the squad of players he inherited from Brendan Rogers deserved an opportunity to show their worth. Show me what you got was the message.
A more cynical view of Klopp’s first season might conclude that his wait and see approach was employed to demonstrate the paucity of the playing resources he inherited to the club’s owners.
Klopp’s second season in charge produced a top four finish which it must be said represented progress. The quality of recruitment in playing staff, however, could only be described as mixed. Gini Wijnaldum, Joel Matip and in particular Sadio Mane contributed handsomely to the fourth-place finish while others notably floundered. Marko Grujic was not deemed ready for first team action. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery Loris Karius appears to be very fond of Simon Mignolet.
Karius paid homage to the incumbent goalkeeper by producing a series of goalkeeping gaffes which relegated him to the bench for the most part of the season. Ragnar Klavan never appeared to adjust to the frenetic pace of the Premier League. All things considered the 50-year-old produced a mixed bag in the transfer market. Klopp, to his credit, did assume responsibility for transfers stating he has the ‘final say’ on Liverpool’s transfer activity.
This summer’s transfer market was a chastising experience for Liverpool. Two primary targets were identified. The club were prohibited from signing Virgil van Dijk for alleged tapping-up offences and the other target Naby Keita signed an agreement to join the club in twelve months’ time. It is also interesting to note that all Liverpool’s prospective transfer dealings last summer appeared to be widely reported. Whether this was a deliberate tactic is unclear but if so it spectacularly backfired.
Although Mohamed Salah is proving to be an exciting addition to the front three, reinforcements at the back, defensive midfield and goalkeeper remain top priorities. There was also the small matter of Philippe Coutinho being unsettled by interest from Barcelona. It is difficult to think the Catalan giants will not ultimately get their man if he remains on their wish list. Andres Iniesta has a lot of miles on the clock and will need to be replaced.
Klopp is undoubtedly a charismatic and inspirational leader. This intensity can be both a blessing and a curse. His famous burning intensity influences not just the tactics on the pitch but sometimes aspects of his management that would benefit from a more cold, detached approach. Liverpool’s pursuit of Van Dijk proved to be too intense. A mantra of ‘Van Dijk is the central defender Liverpool need, no other central defender will do’ appeared to prevent Klopp from identifying an alternative centre-back.
Similarly, the Reds’ pursuit of Keita during the summer was determined to say the least and while the 22-year-old will be joining the club next season that is of little comfort in this spluttering season.
Klopp maintains an admirable commitment to developing his brand of football but the intensity he demands is unlikely to be delivered if players do not trust the manager. Cracks began to emerge following last Sunday’s heavy defeat to Tottenham.
The former Borussia Dortmund boss (perhaps unwittingly) threw Dejan Lovren in particular under the bus by claiming that he would have done a better job himself. As likeable as he is, if Klopp persists with post-match press conferences in which he seeks to evade responsibility for his part in the team’s recent poor run of form, it is conceivable that he could well make his position untenable.
It remains to be seen if Klopp can adapt. Greater flexibility in approach would likely go some way to fixing some of Liverpool’s problems. Without the playing resources or perhaps the athletes required to successfully employ the gegenpress, the Klopp recipe may need to include a pinch more pragmatism.
With a hit and miss record in the transfer market maybe it’s time for Liverpool’s manager to take a look at something else to turn things around.
Rory MacEneaney, Pundit Arena