By Paul Tomkins.
With no magic wand, why are we even bothering with Jürgen Klopp? Wasn’t he supposed to have fixed everything by now? What’s he waiting for? As I saw on the BBC website, some Liverpool fans are saying that the football is even worse than under Brendan Rodgers; indeed, someone said it to me on Twitter.
Clearly Klopp has overstayed his welcome, and wasted too much money on players. He’s had long enough to sort this all out. He’s been found out. Or something.
It’s hard to write a simple, short piece on what’s going wrong at Liverpool right now, as not a lot is going right (therefore this is by no means a simple, short piece – although I did try, I promise). But it’s been that way for 18 months. An instant remedy under Klopp would have been nice, but there are several problem areas that the manager inherited.
From what I’ve seen, I’ve no doubt that Klopp is trying to win every game. He has that obsessive, ruthless desire for victory that top managers possess – or at least for his team to put in the requisite energy. But for me, anyone expecting a top four finish, or even a challenge for the title, is not helping themselves – even in what has been an “open” league.
Someone noted on Twitter that Klopp is just observing his squad, which in its context was a fair sentiment; but of course, he is learning about them whilst trying to win games. He is not “throwing” games, or treating this as a preseason, even if he didn’t get to have one of those. But equally, he cannot focus only on the here and now. He cannot just aim to win games, because he is both a teacher and a student right now.
In order to learn we all need to experiment and take chances, and indeed, experience some failure. We need to try things out, to see what works and what doesn’t – whilst noting that in football, what works some days may not work on others (and therefore it’s about building up a bigger body of evidence, over time, without knee-jerk assessments; sticking with players that we, as fans, might not have the patience for, because you, as the manager, have greater insight and greater access to assessing their ability and character, and you know what you’re working on with them – even if it’s not yet showing).
And right now Klopp is on a massive learning curve, trying to work out who fits in where, how they react to pressure (on the pitch, off it, how they do when games are repeated, how they react to victory and defeat, etc), as well as understanding the opposition (always easier once you’ve faced them once or twice) and the many styles of play his team will encounter.
For a while, when Liverpool were briefly on song and bouncing under Klopp, I wrote that the title might be possible; mainly because the Rich Three were struggling, Arsenal weren’t totally convincing and Leicester, I felt, would almost certainly fall away like Southampton did last season. That hope soon passed, but into the West Ham game it still looked like top four might be doable.
However, in that article from late November I concluded that: “… the basic components are there for a strong season – not least the inspirational manager, and his knowledge of what it takes. But it’s still hard to see Liverpool winning the league, from the position Klopp inherited, and with the weaknesses in the squad.”
There was no leeway once Klopp arrived; and when you can’t afford to drop points without dropping out of contention then you need to achieve better than title form (i.e. win every game) just to stay in contention. How does a mid-table team upon a manager’s arrival transform into something that special that quickly? After all, it wasn’t last season that Liverpool finished 2nd; the Reds finished 6th, and started this season poorly, which ramped up the pressure.
When you’re 2nd you just need one team to fall short; when you’re 7th or 8th you’re left requiring too much help from other teams, and have no room for error. You will get closer to the top four when you win, but any defeat can potentially leave you stranded.
What I overlooked in that November piece – when, high as a kite, I dreamt that performances like the one at Man City could be the norm – was that while Klopp knows what it takes (i.e. to win major honours), he doesn’t know his squad as well as someone in their second season would; or even someone whose first season also consisted of those vital two months of summer planning, recruiting and training. He doesn’t know his squad as well as someone who had any kind of input whatsoever in assembling it.
He also has to learn what it takes in English football, something I touched upon here. It’s a brutal, varied league, and to expect a manager to know enough about the opposition based on a few days’ video examination (because there’s only a few days for anything with so many matches) is expecting a lot.
To expect his ‘genius’ (or whatever you want to call what top managers possess) to outweigh the obstacles – learning the league; learning about his squad of 25+ players (none of whom he signed, or had managed before); overcoming too many injuries (especially to strikers); recovering from playing every potential cup game so far with a squad thinned by absentees; integrating a lot of new players; and so on – is unrealistic.
No team is ever as good as its best performance. So what Liverpool did at Manchester City was not the norm; and never will be. Even Barcelona don’t play that well every week. No one is that good every week. Liverpool didn’t always win 4-1 at Old Trafford, after all, or beat Arsenal 5-1 at home.
Similarly, to use Divock Origi as an example, the young striker was never going to be as good as he was in the cup game at Southampton every week. But as with the Reds at City (and Chelsea), it showed what he was capable of.
These are high watermarks, and just as Alan Shearer scored an early hat-trick for Southampton before barely adding any goals over the next five years, these can seem like mere sighters for what can potentially – if not automatically – follow. Shearer scored that top-division hat-trick aged just 17, making him the youngest player to ever do so; a special talent. But he then scored just seven league goals in his next 75 appearances. Then, at 22, he went from what was a worse than one-in-ten ratio to almost a goal a game for the next decade. You can never say for sure that potential will turn into fulfilment, but in football you can never say anything for sure; even if you spend £60m on a star from Real Madrid.
I would much rather Liverpool recruited a top-class manager who needs time to get to know English football (i.e. Klopp, like Benítez before him) than a mediocre one who knows it well, but whose knowledge of the league is arguably his strongest suit. Learning about the league is easy enough for a fine footballing mind – it just takes time. Knowing the league because you’re from that country is not such a big deal.
It’s why moderately successful British managers should not be let near big clubs based on being pretty good in the Premier League, when elite overseas coaches can easily match them once they know the league, and then outstrip them with their greater footballing knowledge and experience. Sam Allardyce, Tony Pulis and Alan Pardew will only ever know about English football; in a year, Klopp will know all about English football, German football and several seasons in the Champions League. That’s a broader education. (At least David Moyes went to Spain, unlike all the other mid-level British managers plodding along with scrappy underdogs.)
Right now, Klopp probably knows less about English football than any other manager in the top division. But that will change.
It’s the same with players – I’ve written many times that, historically, a greater percentage of the best Premier League signings have come from overseas than from within English football; but players like Robert Pires, as an example, took until his first Easter to look remotely good enough, and by then he’d said that the English game was too physical. (Imports, like young players, need time to adjust and grow.) Arsenal gambled on Pires when, during that first season, people might be wondering why they didn’t buy some mediocre Brit who was, at that time, playing better. I mean, come on Wenger, why didn’t you buy Lee Bowyer?
The upside is that, after getting just four league goals in his first season after belatedly finding some form, Pires scored nine the next; then 14, 14 and 14 – league totals many strikers don’t even manage.
Thierry Henry also started slowly (both at Arsenal and as a goalscorer in general), as did Dennis Bergkamp; and while Bergkamp was known to be a world-class talent, the same wasn’t true of Henry when he arrived, having ‘failed’ at Juventus (just three goals), and having, by the age of 22, never even reached double figures in the league (with 11 his best all-competitions total prior to joining the Gunners).
Mesut Özil’s time at Arsenal has had a similar trajectory to Pires’, albeit more with assists than goals – except it took Özil two years to fully adapt and find consistency. Only now does he really look the part.
And while we were wowed by Luis Suarez from the start, and could see he could physically hack the game, it took him 18 months to become as prolific as he was in Holland and as he has gone on to be in Spain; remember, he got just 15 league goals in his first season-and-a-half with the Reds (44 games), before netting 23 and 31 in the next two seasons. He went from one-in-three to almost a goal a game. Within three years of arriving he was three times the player – in terms of output, at least.
And what about Gareth Bale, a 17-year-old signing by Spurs who only really clicked in his fourth season, but improved further in his fifth, and further still in his sixth. He became their best player; a Footballer of the Year who moved to Spain for £86m. Many would have given up with him, and Harry Redknapp almost did. Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United was a low-scoring show-pony at 18.
These are/were all great players, and yet, initially, none was anywhere near as good as they would go on to become in English football. If it takes time for many of the greats to actually become greats, then why can’t we accept a need to be patient? Why can’t we have a sense of something being built, rather than just wanting the finished building all the time?
While any manager can end up failing in any given job (see Mourinho second time around at Chelsea for evidence of shocking struggles in a situation where everything is in your favour), Klopp is no flash in the pan; he built his reputation by massively improving both Mainz and Dortmund – yet neither was a quick fix. He spent seven years at each, and peaked in the mid-period, with three or four really strong years; before, like Benítez and Houllier at Liverpool, and Mourinho in almost all his jobs (as well as most managers), tailing off at the end.
As I said last week, it seems that fans wanted his Dortmund form, but only the part where the form was sensational – not the years it took to make Dortmund sensational.
Mauricio Pochettino said it took a long time to get the pressing game working at both Southampton and Spurs. I’m not sure that Spurs have a better squad than Liverpool (although they do have a better goalkeeper and a fit-and-firing goalscorer, while Dele Alli looks top-class), but they are certainly a more cohesive unit, thanks to time and coaching. (Of course, take out Dele Alli and Harry Kane and you might get what Liverpool are like without Henderson and Sturridge.)
Like Spurs, Liverpool are a young side, but right now the Reds are a jumble of ideas – not least with Christian Benteke as the one fit striker, when he doesn’t seem to suit the manager’s style. Right now, Klopp has the pieces to other men’s puzzles, and it’s his job to figure out how they all fit together, and indeed, to work out if he even has the right pieces. If that takes time, then it takes time.
Gérard Houllier’s first season at Liverpool saw him take sole charge around the same time of year as Klopp (late autumn), by which point he’d had ample opportunity to study the team, having been at the club as joint-manager since July. Even then, it wasn’t until the summer of 1999 that he began to overhaul the team, from which point it was a further year – 1999/00 wasn’t great – before things clicked (2000/01).
Houllier didn’t prove to be a truly outstanding manager, but he made Liverpool an excellent side between 2000 and 2002. (His final two seasons were poor, although he did win another League Cup in 2003.) Right now most of us would take something like what we had in 2001.
My opinion is that Rafa Benítez made Liverpool better, and did so for longer, than Houllier ever did, as evinced by his superior win percentage, higher maximum league points totals (86 and 82 outstripping 80) and more coveted trophy: the European Cup. We’ll never forget Istanbul, of course, and yet that wasn’t a great side – more a great achievement (precisely because it wasn’t a great side). Seriously, for all the talk of people like Sam Allardyce saying that Liverpool got lucky in the final, could you imagine any other manager taking such a mediocre side to the Champions League final, let alone win it?
However, between 2005 and 2009 Liverpool were consistently strong, and as well as often making the latter stages of the Champions League (finals and semi-finals), averaged a 60% Premier League win-ratio in those four seasons, with two of them 80-points-plus. (Liverpool have tended to average around 50% over the past 20-or-so-years: roughly the figure for Roy Evans, Gérard Houllier and Brendan Rodgers.)
And yet the league win percentage of Rafa’s first season was just 45%, with the Reds particularly brittle on the road (just five wins from 19 games). In my first book, started in late 2004 and covering that season as it unfolded, I wrote about the “crisis” that the BBC debated live on radio (almost 11 years ago to the day), when the Reds crashed out of the FA Cup at Burnley, and were 5th in the table.
We all remember how Benítez was labelled as a European expert who couldn’t hack the league here. Yet he did better than anyone else in the Reds’ hot-seat has terms of winning football matches in England since the game was rebranded in 1992. It just took him a year to suss it out and make the necessary adjustments. His league win percentage then started to mirror his European win percentage: up towards 60%.
And while on the subject of coaching, organisation and the time it takes to implement system, Rafa’s zonal marking from set-pieces was not an instant hit; Liverpool conceded from a fair few in his debut season. Taller signings in 2005 helped, but practice made it near-perfect. By 2005/06 the Reds had the league’s best defensive record from such situations (not that this stemmed the criticism, bizarrely enough).
For all the talk of title challenges, I’d just like for the Reds to be competitive in the way they were between 2000-2002, and 2004-2009; and indeed, were in 2013/14. No trophies were won in 2002, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2014, but a lot of games were, and there were some close misses in terms of silverware. Most of those seasons mean more to me than 2002/03, when Liverpool won the League Cup. In each manager’s case – Benítez, Houllier and Rodgers – the first league season was no indicator of what was to follow.
The same was true of Roy Evans. His first full season, having taken over late in 1993/94, led to a trophy, but that 1995 League Cup team wasn’t as good as the one that won nothing in 1996, nor the one that went on to make a title challenge in 1997, his third full season.
Both Houllier and Benítez retained a core of what they inherited. But they also quickly got rid of quite a lot of players, too – some of whom didn’t appear to be the worst in the squad (David James, Paul Ince, Jason McAteer; Danny Murphy, Stephane Henchoz). Both managers were unable to stop the exit of players who had previously seemed vital: Steve McManaman and Michael Owen, both using contract issues to move to Real Madrid.
Benítez also found that one of his best players, Harry Kewell, was never fit and therefore not what he once was. And Djibril Cissé, the one striker Houllier had banked everything on before his sacking in 2004 – a £43m signing in today’s money (after Transfer Price Index inflation), to replace the departing Heskey and Owen – suffered two compound fractures in two seasons. (And even when fit, although his pace could be useful, he didn’t seem to understand the offside rule.)
Similarly, Houllier had injury and fitness issues with Robbie Fowler, who played well in 2000/01 but was never quite the same as the phenomenon of the ‘90s; ditto Rob Jones, who simply barely played again, and retired aged 27. Indeed, even McManaman limped his way through Houllier’s first season before emigrating.
Go back to 1997 and you would have said Fowler, Jones and McManaman were absolutely vital to Liverpool’s future (and maybe even Jamie Redknapp, too, who also later fell foul of injuries). Yet none was a key part of the improvements Houllier made from what had started to seem a dire situation by 1999. Three of them played no part at all in the treble of 2001, and the other – Fowler – was only the 3rd-choice striker. None of the quartet were still at Liverpool by the time the Reds finished 2nd in 2002.
Benítez initially built around the inherited core of Didi Hamann, Sami Hyypia, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, with good full-backs in John Arne Riise and Steve Finnan. But he also inherited Djimi Traore, Igor Biscan, Florent Sinama-Pongolle, Anthony Le Tallec, Neil Mellor and Milan Baros (all of whom had their brief uses in 2004/05, but were mostly poor or unremarkable), as well as the total wastes of space that were El Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou. In terms of wingers, there were the inconsistent and injury-prone Kewell and Vladimir Smicer. Neither of Liverpool’s two goalkeepers, Dudek and Kirkland, was reliable.
My point here is that both overseas managers – who went on to win trophies in remarkable circumstances, as well as taking Liverpool close to the title (in their 4th and 5th seasons respectively) – took time to adjust, having inherited squads with a fair bit of promise, but also with a fair amount of deadwood and gaping holes in the XI; and that, to compound matters, they’d lose, to transfers or to injuries, many of what, at the time, were the brightest hopes.
If we are not prepared to go through this transition (and never is it more of a transition than when there’s a managerial change) then we will just suffer anxiety, dread and disappointment. And if we think that this is Klopp’s team when, in truth it’s his predecessor’s, then we are missing the point; just as, in Rodgers’ first season, it wasn’t his team – but by the time of his 4th, last August, it most certainly was.
Just as Djibril Cissé wasn’t what Rafa Benítez needed from a striker, Klopp currently only has one fit option, and he is not what he really needs. For the time being this presents a big challenge to the manager.
Benteke is a good striker, with almost a one-in-two ratio in the Premier League. He is not one-dimensional, as his spectacular goals over the years show. However, while no lumbering giant, he is not the most mobile, and is perhaps even less so after an achilles injury (indeed, if Benteke has lost pace, in the way that John Barnes did after the same injury, then this should have been identified through scouting).
Klopp’s teams have tended to play better without Benteke, although the big Belgian has grabbed a handful of goals (with a few as a substitute) and on certain days can look to have his uses. But Origi works harder at pressing the opposition, is more inclined to run in behind, and has better technical skills when facing an opposition defender (which then allows him to either go for goal or drive to the byline) – all of which help the rest of the team. He’s obviously raw, but both he and Ings offer much more of what Klopp would be after from attacking players: pace, movement, dribbling ability and the desire to work hard.
And of course, while Daniel Sturridge may be like Benteke in not pressing much, he can at least make devastating runs on and off the ball, beat defenders with skill and score at a more impressive rate. It just remains to be seen if he goes the way of Kewell and Owen, or if the muscle problems which dog him can be overcome in the way that Gerrard and Ryan Giggs ‘grew’ (or were treated) out of them.
To my mind there’s a strong chance that, all being well, Klopp will make good use, for years to come, out of most of the following players: Henderson, Can, Origi, Ings, Coutinho, Clyne, Moreno, Ibe, Sakho, Gomez and Lovren (based on more recent form, with the assumption that he’s now settled into the team); and if fit, Sturridge.
These all have sufficient qualities and age on their side; none is over 26 (with 25/26 usually being only the start of a reliable top-level career for centre-backs). If there’s to be another overhaul – which would itself present its own risks after the mass turnovers of recent seasons – then to my mind these should all be retained; roughly half the squad, but more than half of the best first XI. (As with any of my analysis, this obviously changes with form – as we all try to distinguish longer-term consistency and quality from short-term fluctuations, and obviously any player can be sold if the circumstances are right.)
I also believe that Firmino probably has what it takes, but like Özil just needs to adjust to having less time on the ball (when he finds time he tends to make things happen). He may never be as gifted as Özil, but should score more goals. I’d certainly give Firmino the chance to adjust, and he takes up the 13th spot on my ‘must keep’ list, based on age and potential.
His fellow Brazilian, Coutinho, is of course the really interesting one at the moment. (But more on him a bit later.)
The next important thing to state is that not everyone omitted from the 13 ‘must keeps’ is therefore surplus to requirements; at least, not all at once.
I would expect at least half of Lallana, Milner, Lucas, Allen, Toure, Mignolet, Skrtel and Benteke to stay beyond next summer, and to play some kind of role. (Enrique is toast, mind.) Indeed, I’d hope that at least half of these will stay, as these players can be helpful almost as a kind of glue that holds together a group with numerous new signings.
The same applies to players like Brad Smith, who at 21 is in the squad as a wildcard right now, but may turn into a really useful player under Klopp; or he may go the way of youngsters like Jay Spearing, Martin Kelly and Stephen Warnock, who were good enough to fill in for a year or two, but never quite good enough for a long-term career at Anfield.
And obviously teenagers like Cameron Brannagan and Jordan Rossiter look to have bright futures, but it’s hard to predict how they’ll develop in the crucial years between 19 and 22, with hardly any senior football under their belts. I really like the look of Sheyi Ojo, 18, currently on loan at Wolves, and along with Rossiter and Brannagan, he should be looking to edge out some of the fringe senior players next season. It’s just risky for a manager to shift out too many senior pros at once.
I’ve argued for two years now that keeping Lucas makes sense. He has had some poor games under Klopp, but also some excellent ones. He may not represent the long-term future of Liverpool FC, but he is someone who can come in and do a job – and even if that’s successful only half the time, that’s better than nothing, especially if others are struggling to impose themselves.
All teams probably need the kind of long-term clubman that the Brazilian now represents; even if he’s not someone to build the side around. (And while you’d try and keep such players, it wouldn’t be at all costs – i.e. if they demand excessive wages or regular football, or if someone offers crazy money for them.) Equally, I’d be happy for Skrtel to be a 3rd-choice centre-back; I’m just no longer convinced he’s the answer to the first team, and at 31, is still just about in the peak years for a centre-back, but likely to start melting soon.
I have no great problem with Lallana or Allen being on the bench as part of the squad. And indeed, while I’ve included him in the doubtful pile, I have to therefore give James Milner some benefit of the doubt, based on what he was at Manchester City – although interestingly, he was more like their version of Lucas (reliable and unspectacular experienced clubman who fills in); whereas at 30, on high wages and as vice-captain – both given to him as a new arrival – his role at Liverpool involves greater pressure.
Still, like Lucas he can be a good influence in the dressing room, and while some fans scoff at this kind of rhetoric, it remains an area that we don’t get to truly understand, and where the benefits can’t be measured or shown on slow-mo replays. Managers know who they can rely upon, and who helps the mood (and who harms it, Mario). And Milner, for all his technical shortcomings, sets the tone by running more than anyone in the Premier League, and that can help lead more technical players to follow suit. (The same is true of any striker: if he presses, the rest tend to follow. If he doesn’t, it all breaks down.)
Benítez used to talk a lot about mentality, and Rodgers referred to it as ‘character’ – but whatever you call it, it’s hard to be successful without it. It’s just debatable if Liverpool have enough of it right now.
Problems to solve
While fitting Benteke into the style of play represents a problem, it’s one that, if necessary, can be solved once everyone else is fit: Klopp simply doesn’t play him.
More pressing, and perhaps more of a long-term issue, is that the German needs a reliable, commanding goalkeeper. Simon Mignolet is like Jerzy Dudek, David James and Sander Westweveld, in that he can be really good but isn’t consistent enough. (Dudek was amazing in his first season, but lost his confidence – in part due to Diego Forlan – and regaining it only briefly, in Istanbul.) Pepe Reina, between 2005 and 2010, represents the level of keeper Liverpool could do with finding, although even he lost his mojo as the team struggled and successive managers came and went. It’s not easy to find the perfect keeper, but I’d make the search a priority.
Mignolet has the raw talent, but like James and Dudek (and in the end, Reina) I think he’s too shellshocked from too many mistakes to ever feel invincible. Most keepers have the occasional iffy phase, but Mignolet has made too many mistakes to be able to trust. His nervousness spreads. Making some great saves is not enough.
Another fairly major problem is the full-backs, both of whom are diminutive. Moreno is great going forward, and excellent at covering back with last-ditch tackles – he has pace and energy to burn – but is not the most natural defender in other situations. Clyne, by contrast, is a natural defender, albeit one who is mediocre on the ball. But when your tallest full-back is 5’9” then you know that you will have a problem in English football, where most teams will be fielding tall attacking players, from strikers to wide midfielders and onrushing central midfielders.
Under Benítez, Liverpool used to target Patrice Evra with long diagonal balls towards Dirk Kuyt, who was three inches taller and better in the air than the United full-back. Even so, Kuyt over Evra is hardly the kind of height mismatch Moreno might find himself in with anyone approaching six-feet, let alone taller. But United had just one short full-back, and he was as tall as Liverpool’s tallest right now; on the other flank a centre-back like O’Shea (6’3”) would often fill in, once Gary Neville (5’11”) faded. And of course, United were a successful side, full of confidence, who attacked more than they defended, as the best team in the land at the time.
Right now Liverpool have two short full-backs, which means that when a cross comes in from one side, the far post is almost impossible to cover. If the centre-back drops to help cover that far post, it can leave the centre open; if he doesn’t, the full-back is likely to lose the header against someone taller, especially if that player has a run on him.
Both of West Ham’s goals came from such situations. Clyne can’t help being only 5’9” (just as Moreno can’t help being 5’7”), and of course, the crosses need to be cut out at source – as Klopp rightly said after the West Ham defeat. But this isn’t always possible (and is logically harder if you have a player down injured on that side of the pitch, having just been kicked from behind).
Watford also scored with an almost identical goal to make it 3-0 last month, while Southampton’s lone goal in the 6-1 victory came from a cross from the Reds’ right-side – that time Alberto Moreno couldn’t stop against a taller attacker who had a run. Ditto Moreno against Ramires at Stamford Bridge, albeit on that occasion the defender didn’t help himself by not even making a challenge, having been caught cold.
Wijnaldum, meanwhile, scored for Newcastle with a deflected cross, with Liverpool doing the finishing for the opposition on this occasion. The goals conceded against West Ham, Chelsea, Southampton and Newcastle were all the opening goals of the game.
Watford’s opener also came from a cross, albeit a corner Bogdan should have easily caught; just as Mignolet fluffed a corner to gift West Brom their opener, while the Baggies scored their second from a corner, and also had another set-piece goal ruled out. Crystal Palace took the lead at Anfield from a low cross (no height issue there), but their winner came from yet another corner into the six-yard box.
On two occasions Liverpool recovered from these set-backs to win, but it’s an uphill struggle every time. Many of the goals have been directly down to the short full-backs getting out-jumped on the far post, whether or not the cross should have been allowed in the first place; but those conceded from corners could also (logically) have been better dealt with if there wasn’t a general lack of height in the team.
This leads nicely in the height/pace/intensity/quality/strength/stamina quotient of Liverpool players, which is perhaps more relevant in England than anywhere else.
Barcelona can get away with small full-backs and even a small centre-back (Mascherano) because not only are they so good on the ball that it’s less of an issue, but also because Spain isn’t as physical as England. You can of course still have small players in England, such as David Silva and Santi Cazorla, but you can’t carry too many, unless they are of exceptional quality. And you certainly can’t carry many in the back four.
And this is where Klopp, in addition to injuries (mostly hamstrings), has been hamstrung. Liverpool do not have enough players who meet what I’d call the height/pace/intensity/quality/strength/stamina quotient.
You will always have players with weaknesses, and managers tend to pick players based on what they can do, and not omit those on account of shortcomings; Alonso wasn’t dropped for being slow, or Mascherano for being small, and so on. But teams are built around a fine balancing act. Liverpool could get away with Alonso lacking pace because players like Gerrard, Torres and Mascherano (and previously, Momo Sissoko) had it in abundance. And many of these players were exceptional in other areas: for example, Mascherano’s lack of height was also counterbalanced by his utter bastardry.
Right now, how many Liverpool players are big, quick, committed, gifted, strong and have natural stamina? I’d say just Jordan Henderson, Emre Can (once he gets running he’s quick) and Divock Origi, who while not yet supremely strong, still has a good physique for his age.
That’s just three players you can pick where you know there’s a mix of qualities that you don’t have to compensate for in other areas. And of course, Origi is still adapting and far from the finished product (he has all the tools, it’s just a question of maturing as a player). I would guess that Joe Gomez could also tick all six boxes, but a lot depends on how he recovers from a serious cruciate injury, and like Origi is still young and raw.
It may be no coincidence that the two recent victories – and clean sheets – came with a midfield two of Can and Henderson. And even then, Can isn’t yet as consistent as you’d expect a central midfielder to be by the time he reaches 23 or 24. Having more physical presence seems vital, especially when the opposition are big and strong, and if you’re not having the best day in terms of quality on the ball. At 6’3”, and only 19, Marko Grujić’s signing, if it happens, makes sense based purely on his physical stature, before taking into account that he’s a fine young player, too.
Now, maybe teams rarely get to have lots of players with all six attributes: Man City at their best had a few (Kompany and Toure, before he slowed down, were their main examples), but even someone like Aguero only ticks five of the six boxes (he’s short). Still, five out of six ain’t bad, as Meatloaf once almost suggested. (I’d also suggest that Sterling has five of six, and like Aguero only lacks height.)
But in many cases Liverpool are struggling to field players with even half of the six attributes. Or, where the players maybe have three or four, there are too many with the same shortcomings (with shortness being one of them; lack of pace another).
None of the centre-backs have any great pace (I used to think that Sakho was quick but he seems mid-paced at best). None of the full-backs are of even average height.
In just the defence alone, it requires centre-backs to compensate for the full-backs in the air (not always possible) and the full-backs to compensate for the centre-backs in catching a quick attacker (not always possible). These weaknesses are always going to be more exposed than if one of the centre-backs had genuine pace, and one of the full-backs was taller than a hobbit.
Two of the central midfield options lack height (Lucas and Allen). Both are committed players, and Lucas is strong in the tackle, but neither has amazing stamina, nor exceptional quality on the ball. Allen isn’t especially quick, but when on form can look good in possession; Lucas has little or no pace at all. Both are tidy recyclers of possession rather than creative.
Lucas is the best tackler and reader of the game (maybe tactical intelligence could be a seventh attribute), and quite good in the air, but his weaknesses are accentuated when others in the team share the same failings. If you also include Milner as a central midfield option – which he was acquired for – then he’s strong, committed and has incredible stamina. But he’s mediocre on the ball, lacks pace and is only 5’9”. Of the trio, Lucas is the tallest, at 5’10”. So if a midfielder ever has to drop into defensive areas, there’s a chance he’ll be beaten in the air, too.
The team’s best creative player (Coutinho) is 5’7”, and will therefore normally start games. And so, in addition to a central midfield containing one or two smaller players (particularly in the absence of Henderson), and with two diminutive full-backs, there will inevitably struggles with set-pieces and in aerial challenges in open play. Liverpool have a glaring weakness here, through no fault of Klopp, and everyone is exploiting it.
Add that Adam Lallana (5’8”) also tends to start, and it leads to a team that can be bullied. Jordon Ibe, an alternative, is listed as 5’9”, though he may still be growing. (Lallana is committed, and has a type of great stamina – he runs a lot, but runs himself to a standstill by 70 minutes. He is pretty good on the ball, but not quite good enough on the evidence so far to mitigate for his lack of pace, lack of height and total lack of strength. Ibe lacks height, but has strength, ability and pace, so I think there’s hope there – although I’m not yet sure how good his stamina is, and he can be a little lacking in intensity. But that can be worked on.)
Up front, and obviously when fit, Sturridge has height (6’2”), pace and more than enough quality to make up for a lack of intensity and stamina, but too many of the other players aren’t exceptional enough to mitigate against their shortcomings. (And of course, Sturridge isn’t someone to put himself about at set-pieces at either end, so unlike Benteke, even his height isn’t even helpful defending corners.)
Benteke has height (point 1) and strength (point 5), but his pace (point 2) isn’t quite what I was expecting, and he lacks intensity to his game (point 4). He also has little apparent stamina (point 6), and his quality with the ball (point 5), while better than many totemic strikers, has dwindled with his confidence, to the point where it’s hard to know if he is “good enough”. I think the raw ability is there, but the price tag, and the challenge of settling into a new club that doesn’t play to his strengths, isn’t helping. (It could be that, like Olivier Giroud, it just takes time to settle, adapt, adjust, and also, to alter people’s perceptions of what he offers.)
The problem with Benteke is that playing to his strengths means totally adjusting the way the Reds’ play. If Klopp does that he won’t be true to his own methods, but also, the squad isn’t really set up to feed Benteke, with no wingers (bar Ibe) and no great crossers of the ball, bar Henderson, who plays centrally. And even if it was, there’s no way of knowing if Benteke can cope with the pressure of everything being based around him at a high-profile club, especially if off form. So in many ways, Klopp is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
The Coutinho conundrum
Weirdly, right now I wouldn’t be too opposed to losing Philippe Coutinho if he wanted out, although the message it sends (another high-profile departure) might do more damage than the loss of his contribution, which though occasionally brilliant, remains fitful.
Obviously I’d like to see Klopp try to get the best out of him, but the Brazilian has resorted to ludicrous long-shots, perhaps out of frustration (and lack of passing options), but also perhaps out of a desire to catch suitors’ eyes with the kind of goals that get noticed – ‘shop window goals’, if you will.
One thing I noted earlier in the season was that Coutinho had to ditch the long shots and start scoring goals in the box. Klopp came in, and that immediately started happening: four goals – two versus Chelsea, one versus Man City and one against Palace – all notched from much closer in than his one goal this season up to that point (the stunner at Stoke). Then injury struck, and since his return he’s been abysmal.
Perhaps the presence of Benteke is now hindering Coutinho, on top of hindering the Reds’ entire approach. Though better at it than Mario Balotelli, Benteke doesn’t run in behind with any great effectiveness, and when he does he tends to end up being caught by defenders on one-on-ones. He can just about do it (get in behind), but it’s not something his team-mates can rely on – although Firmino has managed to set him away on a few occasions. But half the time he doesn’t even make the run.
However, Coutinho resorting to potshots doesn’t really help. Shooting from 18-20 yards is fine; even more so if there aren’t many defenders in the way. The occasional shot from 30 yards is fine, especially if you’re winning and don’t want to commit many men forwards. Sometimes they go in, of course, as seen occasionally last season, and on the opening day at Stoke; but what of all the potential goals not scored from the 50 that sail into the stands?
Every now and then a long-range shot offers something different for the opposition to think about; defenders won’t step out to close you down if they know you will always pass sideways or back rather than shoot, and it can be one centre-back stepping out that can open things up.
However, continual long-range shooting is not something I can imagine Klopp actively encouraging as a tactic.
(Indeed, I’m not a fan of it, and listed it as being the reason Liverpool lost to Chelsea in 2014; Gerrard’s slip was costly, but it was made worse by his overambitious shooting policy in the second half, with eight poor attempts and no apparent understanding that he no longer had the old thunderbolt in his repertoire. This is when the player puts blinkers on, and becomes obsessed with getting the goal, rather than playing for the team – a mode Coutinho appears stuck in.)
I would definitely limit any player to just two long-range shots per match, unless he is frequently testing the keeper with them, in which case he can keep going as those shots add to the pressure on the opposition and can get the crowd buoyant; and which of course may lead to corners, and in turn, even more pressure. But just three of Coutinho’s most recent 17 long-range shots have even been on target. If less than 20% of the shots are on target, then the conversion rate is likely to be appalling. Rather than building pressure on the opposition, it kills your own attacking momentum.
Right now, Coutinho isn’t getting ahead of the ball (perhaps because Benteke won’t chase back for him if the move breaks down?), and without great movement ahead of him, he is resorting to hit-and-hopes. Liverpool, and Coutinho, need to be better than this. Sturridge being fully fit can’t come soon enough.
Sum of its parts
Teams can of course exceed the sum of their parts. But this is harder to achieve if there are glaring weaknesses to mitigate against. Also, it probably takes time for a team to exceed the sum of its parts; both Arsenal and Leicester added very little to their first team this season and probably benefited from settled squads. Spurs have done better with just Toby Alderweireld and Dele Alli added to the team, rather than the mass turnovers of the recent past (although some of those players are now part of that improved team; Lamela, for example, is doing better in his third season).
Chelsea also added very little, and yet they suffered; but there was an issue of burnout and of hunger after winning the title, which led to the manager throwing them under the bus, which led to a kind of downing tools; they needed new blood, to shake things up and overcome fatigue. Last season, by contrast, Chelsea integrated two key new players (Costa and Fabregas) to what was otherwise a settled team, and were full of hunger and understanding.
Southampton added a lot of players last season, so it can be done; but adding more than a couple each season generally seems a stretch. The vast majority of this Liverpool squad (including those out on loan) only signed within the last 18 months, and it is not yet a well-oiled machine.
Indeed, of the outfield players starting against West Ham, only three (Sakho, Coutinho and Lucas) had been at Liverpool when they finished 2nd in 2014 (or in Ibe’s case, a regular part of the squad), and no one in the XI was older than 28. The team is new, the manager is new. While Klopp’s football requires youthful exuberance and stamina, the team wasn’t as full of running as it needed to be.
The cost of all six attributes
While Jordan Henderson wasn’t exactly cheap, the £20m maximum payment (£27m after TPI inflation) works out at excellent value.
The interesting thing here is that the players I feel have all the necessary basic attributes – Henderson, Can, Origi and Gomez – were signed between the ages of 18 and 21, for reasonable fees. Buying such players once they are fully established is usually too costly; getting them young is the key.
It seems increasingly vital to me that players are bought at this age, when they have all the attributes but have yet to be picked up by bigger clubs, or have been but are on the fringes of their plans (like Can and his relationship with Bayern Munich, and indeed, Patrick Vieira at AC Milan, if you want to go back a couple of decades.)
Once these players get physically stronger – often between the ages of 20 and 22 – and gain more experience, they naturally improve by quite large margins. Of course, injuries and a sense of having “achieved” everything (or feeling too good for where they are, Raheem) can still stifle their progress, but the same is true of fully established, older players, too.
Introducing them at a young age often means they can be drip-fed into the team, in the way that the very best academy graduates get blooded in small doses; and as with academy graduates there is usually no big fee to justify. They adjust, adapt and in time grow comfortable with their role.
Of course, if Liverpool can procure big, quick, committed, gifted and strong athletes who are older than 22 for fees that aren’t ludicrous then that has to be considered, too; as does the right smaller, or slower player. But the squad needs balancing in varying ways. There needs to be an overall picture.
Klopp made Dortmund great by working and coaching the players, to the point where, after a few seasons, they were much better. But he didn’t build a great side using just the players he inherited; he overhauled the squad, but didn’t dispense with everyone.
The same was true of the players Dortmund bought: no established stars, but promise, aged 20-22, who would then be coached to improve. Robert Lewandowski was a virtual nobody when he arrived aged 22, and didn’t break into double figures in the Bundesliga in his first season; but never hit less than 20 in his other three seasons at the Westfalenstadion. By contrast, the biggest name Dortmund bought was Ciro Immobile, and he flopped badly in what became Klopp’s final season; but by then Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, bought aged 23, had improved season upon season to become highly prolific, having struggled for goals as a youngster with AC Milan.
It seems that Milan had the right player all along in Aubameyang, whom they bought when young, but they weren’t patient. Instead they are still messing about with Mario Balotelli, a “star” name now 25, whose hunger has gone.
Fifteen years ago we didn’t see the treble coming. Eleven years ago we didn’t see Istanbul coming. We didn’t see 2013/14 after Rodgers’ first season. We foresaw none of it, at least until it got within sight.
We didn’t see Sturridge being even half as prolific as he turned out, or that Suarez would suddenly learn not only to hit a barn door but blow the bloody doors off. We didn’t think that Torres could be replaced, or indeed, that he’d even arrive in the first place; or that he could score more than 13 goals a season without penalties. We never knew that, in 1999, the answer to our defensive problems was an unknown Finn with two ys in his surname playing for Willem II.
We didn’t know, in the summer of 1998, that Steven Gerrard was destined for greatness – we’d probably have taken Paul Ince over him, if told we could only keep one, because you keep the England captain over a promising lad who hasn’t even played for the club? (That’s a no-brainer, right?)
The psychological phenomenon known as negativity bias means that we’re five times as likely to find fault than see benefit. While things that benefit us are important, they are not usually a case of life or death; things that can harm us, by contrast, can kill us in an instant, and that edginess is hardwired into our brains. Evolutionarily, we could survive a day, even a week, without food or sex, even if we needed them eventually to succeed as a species; but we couldn’t survive for a minute once locked inside a lion’s jaws.
So there’s a good chance that you’re unduly obsessed with the dangers – Liverpool will fail! Liverpool won’t qualify for the Champions League! Coutinho will leave! No good player will want to join us! We’re doomed to mediocrity! This will never get any better! – without realising that all of these are survivable.
Liverpool have been here before, often enough in the past 20 years, and it turned out that having a good manager was sufficient – sufficient, at least, to bring back some excitement, and have some memorable seasons. (If you want the league title, and only the league title, I understand the frustration, but I feel that you’re making it harder to enjoy being a Liverpool fan by narrowing your scope for pleasure and satisfaction.)
I expect that Klopp will give us some exciting times too, in due course. But that too will eventually come to an end, and a new cycle will begin. And we’ll be back here, wondering why there’s so much deadwood in the squad, and why the goalkeeper keeps dropping the ball, and why…
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