By Paul Tomkins.
First of all, apologies for the tabloid headline. I thought it would be best to get it out of the way now. Let’s hope he doesn’t flop, hop, or go pop.
It seems nailed-on that Liverpool will announce Jurgen Klopp as their boss – possibly before the end of this week. After three boringly-named British managers (not that Dalglish isn’t anything other than special in its own way), it’s refreshing to have to work out whether or not to use a umlaut when typing Jürgen, just as I had to get used to the é in Gérard Houllier, and the special í in Benítez.
Truth be told, I prefer foreign bosses. And I prefer them because, as with foreign players, there are a lot more of them. I don’t prefer any old foreign boss. But I loathe the idea, as touted in 2010 – and something the club has struggled to recover from – that it has to be an English boss.
English football is specialised, in that we have a fairly unique way of playing, in a part of the world that differs from many footballing hotbeds (the Latin countries), but Britain houses less than 1% of the world’s population. That means that more than 99% of the pool to choose from exists outside this tiny island – an island that is far too insular in its outlook.
It’s the same with limiting the focus of talent to Liverpool itself – it’s just too small in this big, wide world, even if you want to see the best from the city in the squad, and maybe making the team. What you don’t want is tokenism – as was the case in 2009/10, when Rafa Benítez was accused of picking Lucas Leiva over Jay Spearing, when the manager knew that Spearing simply wasn’t as good. Give me a Lucas over a Spearing any day of the week, although we’d all want another Carragher, Gerrard or Fowler.
There are good British managers, just as there are good British players. But now that Ferguson has retired, are there any great British managers still working in the game? How many are testing themselves abroad? The British media champion British managers, and British managers demand the top jobs, but they just aren’t good enough.
Brendan Rodgers may be the best British manager working today. But his experience, like so many others from the UK, is limited to British football. There are always lots of promising young British managers, but they rarely get the biggest jobs these days; and part of the problem is that when they do they fail – or in Rodgers’ case, fail to succeed quite enough. At least he wasn’t the car crash that was Hodgson at Liverpool and Moyes at United, and to a lesser extent, Mark Hughes at Man City.
By the time he’s 50, Rodgers should be a much better manager (eight years is a long time; in 2007 Liverpool were in their second Champions League Final in three seasons – yes, that’s how long). But at 42 his experience is limited. Excluding Europa League qualifiers, he won just a third of his games in Europe, and while all but six of those games were in a competition that is hard to take seriously in its bloated group stage format, it shows a possible gap in knowledge. Of course, he wasn’t sacked for not being very good in the Europa League, although last season’s Champions League campaign was a black mark. (A big tick for getting there, mind.)
Right now Liverpool need to punch above their weight in the league, but over the past 46 Premier League games (38 last season, eight this season) it’s been below that. At some stage there had to be a cut-off point. Go back another season and we were close to heaven. But this season, rather than be in the hell that was Hodgson, it was a kind of purgatory – neither here nor there; dull, uninspiring, unremarkable.
I will state again that Brendan Rodgers did a good job at Liverpool, as I’ve been saying for the past 18 months. But it was starting to go stale – indeed, just as it does for most managers; often after three years, but sometimes five or six. It went stale for Klopp in Dortmund. But it’s vital that we can differentiate between the end of a cycle and the notion that the manager wasn’t actually that good after all, or that he got “found out”. Cycles end when the turnover of players falls short (the best players leave or retire and the new ones stop being good enough), and also when the coach runs out of ideas or energy.
Indeed, I was told that someone in the media was spouting off about Klopp getting ‘found out’ at Dortmund in his last season – which was also his seventh. He got ‘found out’ after winning back-to-back league titles and reaching the Champions League Final. His Mainz team also got relegated – what a failure! – but this was only after he took them into the top flight for their first ever time (in his first ever job), and into European qualification.
Again, after seven years the cycle ended. There’s no shame in that. He stayed with them after relegation, to show his loyalty, but he’d run out of steam. Still, it’s not bad to have had two jobs with clear success achieved – incredible highs – and been in both for seven seasons. You have to go back to Bob Paisley for the last Liverpool manager to go more than six seasons (although there is more pressure, nay hysteria, surrounding Liverpool than Mainz and even Dortmund; certainly on social media).
Like Rodgers, Klopp lost many of his best players to richer rivals, although in his case he was losing them to Dortmund’s major domestic powerhouse; imagine if Suarez had gone to Manchester City along with Sterling, instead of overseas, and it was Liverpool’s job to finish above them.
Bubbles burst. The important thing is to be able to blow the damn thing up big and fat in the first place. And in fairness to Rodgers, he did just that. But whatever it was that combined to such great effect in 2013/14 (and it wasn’t just Suarez) had started to get lost 18 months ago.
According to his agent, “Jürgen doesn’t like to speak to players’ agents or to carry out a transfer.”
This is perfect for what FSG are trying to do, and one way of avoiding the mixed-up messages of the transfer committee – which, to me, was flawed not by its selection of players but by the fact that the manager was asking for his own players, and them getting them …in addition to the committee ones. Too many players arrived, with Rodgers’ insular focus on Premier League talent a needless narrowing of the potential field.
After all, Liverpool couldn’t afford the best players in the league – they were already at least five clubs, who wouldn’t sell to a rival (plus there are always a couple of gems at Everton, who are also off-bounds), so what was left but to overpay for what was at the 13 remaining clubs?
I don’t think that buying a player from Swansea or Sunderland makes them limited to being a Swansea or Sunderland player; Jordan Henderson proves that. But you can’t keep shopping in that market.
The purchases Rodgers drove were from Swansea, Aston Villa and, famously on four occasions, Southampton – a club, incidentally, which were using much the same methodologies as Liverpool’s data and scouting gurus, and bringing undervalued talent into the country. To buy one or two players from these clubs is fine; to buy so many was concerning.
Southampton also have banks of data analysts hooked up to computer and video screens – but the difference is that they don’t then ignore that work to go out and buy overpriced Premier League talent on the manager’s say-so; and of course, the south coast side are bringing players into a lower-pressure environment, but where they were helped by English-speaking continental managers.
The manager at Southampton, and other clubs that operate that way, is not then looking to play his own signings; and while I don’t think there’s any proof to suggest that Rodgers ignored committee signings in favour of his own buys to prove a point, he was always going to choose them first, and therefore the committee buys were starting off at a disadvantage. Rodgers also bombed out his own signings, but possibly gave them more of a chance.
For me, Rodgers’ downfall was due to this inability to work with what he was given – not a failing exclusive to British managers, but something British managers seem unable to adapt to. As I noted in yesterday’s piece, and indeed, as I’ve said many times, the best players in Rodgers’ Liverpool sides have all been either inherited or foist upon him. None of the best players were ever the ones he brought to the club.
Klopp will work with what he’s given. He may not like everything he’s given, but he will be free to choose the best players, with no agendas (subconscious or otherwise) clouding his thought processes. He will work with young players, and not make a big deal of it.
A few years ago I worked out that Bob Paisley’s signings averaged just 22 years of age at the time of purchase; and while they weren’t being thrust into young teams, they back up my research that 20-23 is the best age to sign players – not just for potential resale value, but in terms of them becoming great players for your team. Yes, you can sign successful older players too, but they offer no greater odds on success, but often cost more in fees and wages.
The 10 players that I think Rodgers was most keen to bring to the club average out at 26, and yet almost all failed to deliver – when, at the peak stage of their careers, there’s less time to wait. (The whole point of buying players in that age-bracket is the perceived idea that they will be more instantly successful.)
Whoever is manager, the club has to try and hold onto those players who are worth keeping and who are full of experience – the good players aged 25-30 – and keep bringing in 18-23 year olds, as well as promoting the best youth graduates. New signings have to be given until their second season before being judged, unless they are utterly awful or totally disruptive. Some kind of continuity is required, as the turnover has been too rapid. It also hasn’t helped that Rodgers’ approach seemed to change too rapidly, and how do you buy for that? Was he adapting to the players he was given, or was he changing systems before they’d had a chance to adjust?
Maybe one or two older purchases could be necessary early on to make up any shortfall in experience (Gerrard has gone, Kolo Toure isn’t much use these days), and to compensate if several senior members suddenly ‘fall off the cliff’ – but the committee are without doubt aiming in the right age bracket for signings. We can all debate the quality, but overall it hasn’t been as bad as portrayed.
German football expert Raphael Honigstein is as good as anyone to discuss the merits of Klopp, and this is what he had to say to the Fanscorner website a few weeks ago:
“I think Klopp would fit in at Liverpool in the sense that it’s a club full of emotions, a club that lives on the interaction between the crowd and the players. I think Klopp has learned to utilise that very well. He’s a passionate guy, he’s a motivator. He also has his tactical knowhow, but I think he thrives on the energy that he manages to create in the dressing room and inside the stadium.”
“What he would need though, and this goes for any club he goes to as well, is a Director of Football. Sometimes there’s a flawed view of managers, from an English perspective, as the guys who buy and sell players. He’s never bought or sold a player, apart from maybe one or two from Mainz … I don’t think he would want the responsibility of signing players. I think you need a great partnership between him and a guy who manages to bring players which fit into the system.”
“The way Liverpool have been buying and selling players has been… well, it’s hard for any coach to really understand what he’s doing. It’s especially hard for Rodgers who doesn’t seem to have a clear direction and changes his philosophy every six months. First it was possession, where they had to keep the ball at all costs and they got a hundred 0-0’s. Then the next year they played counter attacking football which nearly won them the league, and the year after that was when they crossed the fine line between being flexible and being all over the place.”
“I think perception is very important. As a player he needs to feel that the coach knows what he is doing, even if he changes 3 or 4 times a game like Guardiola. If it was Claudio Ranieri players would be looking at him and thinking that this is a joke, but because it’s Pep they appreciate it. With Rodgers, I’m not sure that’s the case. There’s a lot of change going on, maybe because he doesn’t really know what idea works. But yes, it would be hugely exciting to see Klopp come in.”
Klopp would arrive after a short sabbatical, and that’s always better than going straight into a new job, especially given that he’s admittedly a very emotional man (he cried for a week after leaving Mainz).
Ideally a new man would have been appointed in the summer – that’s the obvious time. However, I think it was fair to give Rodgers a chance – but it had to be a special start, not a mediocre one – and it may be more beneficial to get Klopp now than straight after the end of his Dortmund tenure.
A few months isn’t a long time, but in football it’s an eternity; especially when managers can’t genuine take holidays whilst in charge of a club, without thinking and thinking about every last detail. (Although Ferguson’s longevity seems in part due to his other interests, and maybe an ability to switch off – although he was only a part-time manager, rarely on the training ground in later years.)
Of course, had Klopp signed in the summer we may not have had the latest round of tit-for-tat signings (Rodgers apparently only agreeing to the signing of Roberto Firmino if he could have Christian Benteke).
Then again, I have a lot of faith in both Firmino and Benteke – with the former a clear talent who Klopp would know well from their time in the Bundesliga, and the latter a hugely underrated player, albeit one who may not be suited to what Klopp wants to do. (Firmino seems more up his straße.)
The problem Rodgers had was that he didn’t seem to know what to do with Firmino, who arrived late due to international duty, and whom he didn’t seem to have planned a starting position for; nor how to get the best out of Benteke in the brief experiments he tried, even if the results were initially good. Both players were injured after just a few games. It remains to be seen if either is worth c.£30m, although these are not astronomical fees in 2015, even if they aren’t exactly cheap to a club run on its turnover and not dodgy oil money.
However, as with Lazar Markovic, who was bought at the same time as Adam Lallana to play in much the same role, and Dejan Lovren, who was bought as a left-sided centre-back when Liverpool had Mamadou Sakho – making for four players at c.£20m each, only two of whom would usually start – there appears to have been no provision for what would happen with Firmino. This is where the transfer system broke down, because of the manager’s vested interest in those he believed in, at the expense of those he perhaps needed to be more open-minded about. Rodgers may have some valid gripes about players given to him, but it never once seemed like everyone was working to the same end goal.
At least FSG will now know that whoever gets picked has nothing to do with any type of bias – something I sense they felt wasn’t the case under Rodgers – and given that Klopp clearly knows what he’s doing (even if it doesn’t end up working), we will know whether or not the committee are supplying duds or not.
Also, Klopp can help Liverpool tap into the undervalued German market – something done with Emre Can for just £10m, although Firmino’s fee was fairly full-on. It’s the ideal league to import from, due to the similar work ethic and weather conditions; and Bayern Munich aside, it’s not full of elite clubs that can definitely afford to hang onto their best players. Klopp’s reputation is also global, so that will help in any market.
What Will He Find?
So, let’s take a quick detour around the squad as it stands.
Klopp will find a lot players he can build a strong team with, even if there isn’t an abundance of elite talent. The aim has to be to get the side to be greater than the sum of its parts, something that Rodgers briefly did.
The giant German will find Coutinho, who has been looking disillusioned this season, and in need of a lift. And he will find Sturridge, whom I’m sure he’ll love, if he can be kept fit. (Although Klopp likes wild team celebrations more than wiggly arms.) And he will have Jordan Henderson, a player it’s impossible not to love, if you have more than two brain cells.
He will have Benteke – a player who can be unplayable on his day, and has scope to improve, at 24. And he will find Firmino, who may fare better under the German. What he will struggle to do is form a team with all of these aforementioned players, but he will want a strong bench, too.
There’s James Milner – who may have to revert to utility man, now that he is no longer tied to Rodgers’ promise of central midfield. There’s Lucas, who, like Henderson, is hard to dislike if you know your football. Both Milner and Lucas are, at worst, very solid squad players; at best, experienced internationals. What you might not want is both in the same XI, especially at home, unless fielding several very attacking players around them.
There’s Emre Can, a massive talent – and German, to boot – but one whose versatility currently makes him a jack of all trades and master of none. I’m so glad that Liverpool have him, but I have no idea what should be done with him. At 21, there’s time to shape him into something special. Will he be a midfield lynchpin, or could Joe Allen yet find full fitness and consistency?
My guess is that Klopp will really like the pace of Origi – who had his best game a week ago, when he tore past Sion defenders – and Ings; the latter having more heart and energy, and having hit his goalscoring stride, while the former, though barely used, possesses the change of gear to leave defenders for dead. After a great loan at Derby and bright period after returning from loan, Jordon Ibe, still only 19, is having the kind of dip you’d expect, but maybe Klopp can help lift him out of the slump. He’s another quick, exciting attacking talent, albeit like Origi, still very raw. Klopp will also find Lazar Markovic on loan in Turkey, which won’t be a lot of help, and the promising Sheyi Ojo doing well at Wolves.
There’s Mamadou Sakho, a defensive lion whose ability on the ball is inversely related to what most pundits see (he rarely gives it away, he passes forward more than Liverpool’s other central defenders – including Agger, when he was at the club – and his average distance is 20 yards, not three or four). And there’s Martin Skrtel, as reliable as he is unreliable – but at his best, one of the standout centre-backs in the division (it’s just a shame that it’s only half the time, and that when he’s bad, he’s dreadful). Both could benefit from better protection. Even Dejan Lovren has looked a good defender when afforded some protection – but without it he’s a total liability. (Oh, and there’s the bloke in the corner, with a big smile on his face – Kolo Toure.)
There’s Joe Gomez, Nathaniel Clyne, Alberto Moreno and Jon Flanagan – four young/youngish full-backs, with a real mix of abilities. Moreno is currently starring as a wing-back, but it’s debatable whether he could thrive at full-back in a country where long diagonal balls are used to exploit anyone under 6ft tall – but his pace is great when going forward, and in recovery challenges. Gomez is a thoroughbred for his age, but almost no big clubs risk 18-year-olds at centre-back, so full-back may remain his position for a good while yet. Clyne is quick and strong, and defensively solid, but average on the ball. And Flanagan is hopefully going to return at some point with all the guts he showed in the past. There’s enough to work with here, if not the ideal all-round full-back.
In Simon Mignolet he will find an improving goalkeeper whose shot-stopping can reach the elite level, and whose command of his area has improved since being dropped last season, but who still doesn’t inspire confidence. He’s poor with the ball and not too quick off his line. With Mignolet you feel it really could go either way.
What’s left? Adam Lallana – talented, but featherweight. (If Klopp rates him highly enough to make him a regular, then we can all accept that Rodgers wasn’t showing bias.) There’s João Carlos Teixeira – now 22, and clearly a talent, but in need of a boost or a move. There’s also 18-year-olds Jordan Rossiter (who looks like a cross between Spearing and Gerrard, falling in between the two on the spectrum) and Pedro Chirivella, who looks like a world-class midfield recycler in the making, but who still has a long way to go.
So as I said, a surplus of very good players, but a shortage of truly outstanding ones. There’s enough to build a strong team, and have seven strong substitutes, but it could indeed be teamwork that gets results, rather than relying on individual brilliance – especially if Coutinho isn’t at it, and Sturridge isn’t fit.
A lot will depend on how the vast majority of players – still not at their hypothetical peak – improve in the next year or two. What we won’t want is another mass turnover of players, after three such summers – quality, rather than quantity, should be the aim in January, if the market permits, and certainly next summer.
Klopp has the aura of a winner, and while it can seem meaningless to say that the manager must have that trait – great managers turn into winners somewhere along the line – it seems important at Liverpool, at this point in time, where a track record of success is lacking in all areas of the club right now.
And FSG need it too, to add credibility to what they’re trying to do, after 18 months of doubts about their credentials and intentions. To appoint another relative rookie could prove a gamble too far, at a time when things haven’t been going well. (It would also stop them being deluged on Twitter with cries of #Klopp.)
Klopp would represent a massive coup, and guarantee an injection of belief into all aspects of the club, when most of us are getting used to Liverpool being a B-list club in the oligarch age. The Kop might even start rocking again – although its atmosphere these days falls well short of what Klopp was used to at the Westfalenstadion, where 82,000 would attend games, with few of them tourists and jaded punters, and when they weren’t paying a lot of money for the privilege.
But if he could get just some of the old passion back – something that Rodgers managed two seasons ago – then Liverpool would have one extra weapon in the aim to push beyond the ‘natural order’ limit of 5th as par.