Two years of Jurgen Klopp: the big picture

It’s now been two years since Jurgen Klopp arrived as Liverpool manager back in October 2015, famously pledging to turn “doubters to believers”. At his two year anniversary, however, he finds himself arguably under the most pressure and scrutiny he has experienced during his time at Liverpool. While still a small minority, it would be fair to say that the doubters are beginning to emerge.

While it’s easy to get bogged down in the here and now and look past all that has gone before, it’s worth looking back to the situation Liverpool found themselves in when Klopp took over. In all honesty, Brendan Rodgers ought to have been replaced at the end of the 2014-15 season after that game against Stoke.

After coming as close as any Liverpool manager has to securing number 19 in 2013-14, Rodgers had lost his way and Liverpool had lost their identity. The £32 million signing of Christian Benteke never felt quite right and was symbolic of a man who eventually buckled under the strain of the job.

It felt very much as though Liverpool were slipping back into mid-table obscurity, with 2013-14 representing an isolated anomaly rather than a platform for a new era of success. And so by the time it became apparent that Klopp would be replacing Rodgers, the decision was met with unanimous support and enormous optimism from a fragmented fan base desperately in need of a figure to bring them back together.

Perhaps the deification of Klopp from the very beginning and the heightened expectations that came from his Dortmund legacy was a dangerous thing. He was built up as a Messiah-like figure from day one and it would not be an exaggeration to say Klopp felt like the last chance saloon at the high table for Liverpool under Fenway Sports Group. The owners had secured one of the most sought-after coaches in Europe. If Klopp couldn’t deliver success under their tenure, who could?

And so Klopp has carried the huge weight of hope and expectation since the day he walked in the door at Anfield. Liverpool fans read and saw what he achieved at Dortmund and craved to see that success replicated here. It seems apparent, however, that fans have yearned for the success itself and not necessarily the journey towards that end goal.

Klopp was brought in with the big picture in mind. This wasn’t the short-term fix or the easy option- that would have been Carlo Ancelotti. Klopp is a project manager whose entire career has been based on building and developing- the very opposite of what one might call a “cheque-book” manager.

He has never shied away from voicing his distaste for the fetishization of transfers as the best solution to fix a problem. Klopp will always look to the tools at his disposal first and look to improve the talent that he has available, before splashing megabucks on a big name signing.

Klopp’s approach to transfers has arguably been the biggest point of contestation with Liverpool fans throughout his two years so far. On the one hand, most of the deals he has done have backed up the belief that he has an excellent eye for talent. Many balked at the £34 million price tag for Sadio Mane, for instance, which now looks like a phenomenal piece of business for who is arguably Liverpool’s best and most influential player, possibly bar Philippe Coutinho.

More recently, the £36.9 million acquisition of Mohamed Salah already looks like another bargain in the hyperinflated state of the current transfer market with the Egyptian having already made a major impact in his first few months at the club. There have been several other smart buys too, along with a couple of iffy ones.

The key sticking point, however, has been Klopp’s absolute stubbornness in refusing to budge and accept second best. In his first transfer window at Liverpool he point-blank refused to sanction paying the £40 million asking price for Alex Teixeira, despite the player having publicly spoken of his desperation to join the club.

This summer, of course, there was the whole fiasco around Virgil van Dijk whom Klopp had identified as the key missing piece to fix up a leaky defence which has proved highly problematic throughout his tenure. Having convinced the Dutchman to join Liverpool ahead of other high profile suitors, the deal, of course, fell through in embarrassing circumstances.

From the moment Southampton filed an official complaint against Liverpool, it always seemed virtually impossible for a deal to be concluded despite Liverpool’s persistent interest and apparent willingness to meet the astronomical asking price. Yet not a single alternative centre-back option was pursued throughout the entire transfer window as Klopp ultimately decided to settle with the options he already had rather than compromising and looking elsewhere.

It was a bold decision which has already come back to bite Liverpool numerous times this season and looks set to continue as a recurring theme so long as the likes of Joel Matip, Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan remain at the core of Liverpool’s defence in a tactical system which already leaves the back line highly exposed. But that is all Klopp’s choice.

Two years in, therefore, the defence is still an issue. There have been times when the organization and structure has been much improved- such as the run in to secure a top four finish last season- but glaring weaknesses still remain. That much is abundantly clear and Liverpool under Klopp rarely ever look like a side capable of killing a game when on top, or grinding out a 1-0 win when not at their very best.

Klopp’s two title-winning seasons at Dortmund are evidence that he is more than capable of organising a solid defence when he has the right individuals to play in his system. He hasn’t found that balance yet at Liverpool and will almost certainly need to do so before a sustained title challenge can be mounted.

With the way Liverpool play, defending is as much about dominating the ball higher up the pitch and restricting the number of shots opponents have- a high-risk brand of football which has to be executed perfectly in order to work, or else any error will more than likely be punished, as has proven the case on numerous occasions already this season.

There are still no trophies in the cabinet under Klopp, of course. Having come within a penalty shootout of securing the League Cup in 2016, followed by defeat in the Europa League final in his first season, it could all have been so different. Those feats, while disappointing that Liverpool didn’t get over the line, are worthy of recognition and should not be discarded when analysing what Klopp has managed to achieve so far with a squad he inherited from Rodgers in poor condition.

The 8th place league finish of 2015-16 can, however, almost be written off as a conscious decision was made to field a second-string side for the last three months of that season in order to fully prioritise the Europa League. In his first full season in charge, however, with no continental football to focus on, Klopp saw Liverpool over the line to finish in the top four- the minimum requirement for what can be considered a successful season, but also an achievement worthy of praise.

During the first few months of 2016-17, Liverpool played some of the finest football Anfield has seen in the Premier League era. Klopp found a system which perfectly suited the personnel at his disposal and the results where a joy to watch as Liverpool dismantled sides with consummate ease on a weekly basis.

With Adam Lallana setting the tempo, reinvented as a central midfielder, Klopp’s pressing machine was in full force and the fluid attacking trio of Mane, Coutinho and Roberto Firmino was devastatingly effective. By converting Jordan Henderson into a holding midfielder, James Milner into a left-back and Firmino into a unique kind of “false nine” Klopp showcased his tactical intelligence in creating a side which had established itself as Chelsea’s main tital rivals after beating Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City on New Year’s Eve.

The season almost entirely fell off the rails during January and February, compounded by the absence of Mane at the African Cup of Nations, as expectations were adjusted and sights were set on Champions League qualification as hopes of a sustained title challenge rapidly dissipated.

Yet Klopp found a way to get the season back on track, even when Mane was ruled out again, this time with a knee ligament injury sustained in the 3-1 victory against Everton. Without his most influential figure and only genuine source of pace, Klopp adopted a more pragmatic approach, drawing on the likes of Lucas Leiva and Emre Can to help grind out a series of narrow victories in an ugly but effective manner to pick up the points required to shake off Arsenal’s pursuit.

Fast forward to this season and a return to the Champions League was secured in emphatic style as Liverpool dispatched potentially problematic opponents in Hoffenheim with a 6-3 aggregate victory. Last season’s work had paid dividends and the new season appeared to be gathering momentum after a frustrating opening day draw against Watford, with a 4-0 hammering of Arsenal laying down the blueprint for the ultimate “Klopp performance”- scintillating, counter-attacking football at its very finest.

It was difficult not to imagine what Liverpool could achieve this season, especially with the then-impending return of Coutinho and the eventual return of Lallana, both of whom were so influential last season. Instead, excitement has ebbed away only to be replaced by bitter frustration at the manner in which September unfolded.

From the humiliation at the hands of Man City, to the crushing sense of lost opportunity in several tedious draws in games where Liverpool have utterly dominated without being able to take their chances, the season already feels somewhat on the brink. Perhaps that’s a slight hyperbole, with over seven months of the campaign still to play, and things can, of course, change very quickly in football.

It’s more fact that old failings have reared their ugly heads’ once again. We’ve seen this all before. Sterile possession without truly threatening, at times. In other moments, the chances have been carved out but the composure hasn’t been there in the finishing. Familiar frailties at the back have proved costly. The same scenario plays itself over on loop.

Liverpool’s intensity and pressing- the very hallmarks of Klopp’s philosophy- appear to have dramatically dropped off. That’s more likely a conscious decision rather than the failure to implement the brand of football the manager wants, but at the moment Liverpool look somewhat lost- confused, even- at their current predicament.

The fine margins haven’t gone Liverpool’s way, either. Watford’s opening day stoppage-time equaliser is offside. There’s the dubious Mane red card against Man City- the kind of challenge numerous other players have made this season without receiving the same punishment. There’s Firmino’s penalty hitting the post against Sevilla. Solanke hitting the bar against Burnley and Salah getting denied two credible penalty claims. Joselu’s goal being slightly offside and then deflected against Newcastle. Etc. etc.

Of course, that’s how the sport goes from time to time but it is hard to escape the feeling that Liverpool have been receiving their disproportionate share of the misfortune of late. The flip side to that is that you don’t have to rely on luck if you play well enough to win games more comfortably. Liverpool haven’t been doing that.

With two massive games coming up against Manchester United and Spurs, the picture could look very different, very soon- for better or for worse. The season could be hanging by a thread, or Liverpool could be right back in the mix near the top of the table.

In terms of Klopp’s project, it probably hasn’t gone quite to plan as much as many had hoped for. In terms of realistic expectation, however, Liverpool are probably about on par in terms of their trajectory for Klopp’s second season in charge, especially when considering the superior financial power of several main rivals (i.e. Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola effectively given blank chequebooks to sign whoever they like).

Back in the Champions League, with a very strong chance of progressing to the knockout stages (albeit they should have won both of their group games so far). There has been undeniable and significant progress from when Klopp first arrived.

Some might say Liverpool are still miles of challenging for the title. Right now, that’s a fair argument. It might change, of course, but if we’re measuring the success of this season purely on winning the league then that’s not a realistic stance to take. This has to be about building on last season and establishing Liverpool’s place in the Champions League consistently, rather than as a one-off. Some silverware would also be very much welcome and would take a significant weight of Klopp’s shoulders- although in all probability that rests on the FA Cup now.

Liverpool are surely better than what we have seen in the past month. The nature of being a football fan means perceptions and reactions are based on the most recent results, but any claims that Klopp’s job should somehow be under pressure now are neglecting two years of marked progress. Flaws still remain, of course, and there is undoubtedly plenty of scope for the manager to do better at addressing these.

Every manager has strengths and weaknesses, and with Klopp the weaknesses are by now pretty well acknowledged. Questionable use of substitutions, stubbornness in the transfer market and keeping faith in players who repeatedly make the same mistakes are all sources of frustration. Most of us would probably ship Lovren out at the first opportunity, for example, yet the man who works with him every day still starts him whenever fit. We’re not going to agree with Klopp on everything and it’s perfectly legitimate to debate these judgements.

It’s worth taking a step back and looking the highs Klopp has produced in his time thus far, though- not just the current situation. Beating Chelsea away, twice. Knocking Man United out of Europe. Thrashing Man City away. Battering Arsenal, several times. A perfect record in Merseyside derbies. Villarreal. Dortmund. Nights which will go down in Anfield history.

I look at Klopp now and I see a manager who isn’t perfect, but one who understands the club and the city and the fans. He still feels very much right for Liverpool. He gets it. He’s improved several players, he’s bought some brilliant ones and he’s given an identity back to a club which had lost its way. Back in the Champions League after one full season in charge. Liverpool have played some stunning football over the past couple of years.

Still on an upward trajectory- but progress isn’t linear and there will be bumps along the way- as Klopp is experiencing now.

Picture the alternative: who else do you want in charge of Liverpool? Is there currently a better fit who is both available would guarantee long-term success, more so than Klopp? If you go down that route, you end up in that nonsensical spiral of rebuilding and transition which makes continued progress almost impossible. Like Crystal Palace. The likes of Bill Shankly and Alex Ferguson went through long barren periods before reaching the holy grail. That isn’t to say Klopp will replicate their achievements but that arriving at any knee-jerk conclusions after a difficult period is misguided and premature.

Klopp is still building something at Liverpool. It is a work in progress and there are areas which need fixing. But two years in, the club is in a far superior state compared to when he signed his contract and took the job. My overwhelming sense- and I could be wrong- is that Liverpool have not yet reached their peak yet under this manager and that despite all the recent frustrations and nagging feelings of doubt and concern, Klopp still has this club heading in the right direction.

Every year that goes by without winning the title builds up more impatience among the fanbase, which Klopp is finding out right now. He’s contending with the heavy weight of the club’s history and former glories- a reputation which is becoming ever harder to maintain the longer the wait goes on.

Whether Klopp will ever deliver that elusive title, who knows, but I’d like to see him given the time to go as close as he can and take this project of his to its natural conclusion, whatever that may be. It’s all part of a process, a journey- this one feels like it still has many chapters left.

 

 

 

 

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