Crunch time for Klopp

DAN BILLINGHAM ex­plains why the com­ing sea­son is a big one for the Liver­pool man­ager– and asks whether he has a Plan B…

Late Tackle Football Magazine - - LIVERPOOL -

THE Premier League is one big Ber­muda tri­an­gle for man­agers. At the lower end, there’s plenty who dis­ap­pear with­out a trace, like Wat­ford’s Wal­ter Maz­zarri.

At the up­per end, we’ve seen sup­posed ge­niuses like Manch­ester City’s Pep Guardi­ola and Jose Mour­inho (Chelsea/Manch­ester United) strug­gle.

If we all had to choose one cap­tain to ex­pe­ri­ence the league’s choppy wa­ters with, I’d guess for sheer en­ter­tain­ment value most of us would opt to be in Jurgen Klopp’s boat.

The Liver­pool man­ager was sport­ing his Cheshire-cat grin as the sea­son ended with fourth place and a spot in the Cham­pi­ons League. The Reds’ fans are happy with that, and are hop­ing Klopp can build from there to take the club to greater things again.

His in­tense hot and cold per­son­al­ity de­mands suc­cess.You can al­most see the en­ergy jump from Klopp to his play­ers when he is in full flow. Hell, he even gets James Mil­ner an­i­mated.

It’s why fans and neu­tral foot­ball fol­low­ers love him. To keep that kind of swag­ger in foot­ball is re­ally tough. It re­quires win­ning loads of matches to stop doubts in the dress­ing room or me­dia sur­fac­ing.Which is why I think Klopp will be de­ter­mined to have a much bet­ter sea­son next time. He’s a man hunt­ing for his mojo.

Klopp didn’t bother with tac­ti­cal di­a­grams in one of his very first Liver­pool team meet­ings. In­stead he wrote the word ‘ter­ri­ble’ and said that is how he wanted op­po­nents to find play­ing his side.

His ap­proach to the game is a mir­ror im­age of his per­son­al­ity. Press till you drop. It’s been that way ever since his days as a scruffy util­ity player for Mainz in the Ger­man sec­ond di­vi­sion.

As pleas­ing as Liver­pool’s fi­nal po­si­tion was, the in­ten­sity Klopp lives and breathes was lack­ing for large parts of the sea­son.

Liver­pool scored a mod­est 32 goals in their fi­nal 19 matches of the sea­son – down from 46 in the first half of the cam­paign, and less than the 42 they man­aged in the last 19 fix­tures of the 15/16 sea­son.

There have been many the­o­ries as to why Klopp’s drive has been missing from his play­ers at times.

The packed fix­ture list in Eng­land was a pop­u­lar one – un­til Liver­pool’s cal­en­dar cleared due to their cup ex­its and they still strug­gled.

Klopp him­self has blamed the weather and a dry pitch for poor per­for­mances at times – which makes a change, I sup­pose, from just slag­ging off the refs like most man­agers.

How­ever, Klopp’s tac­tics are what have held Liver­pool back, in my view. And I say that as a mas­sive fan of press­ing.

When it works well, there’s lit­tle more thrilling than waves of play­ers charg­ing af­ter the ball, hus­tling teams out of pos­ses­sion and at­tack­ing with all the speed of Usain Bolt late for a bus.

As an ap­proach, it al­lowed Klopp to work won­ders with Dort­mund at a time the pre­vail­ing strat­egy in Ger­many was to build from the back and tiki taka was idolised around Europe.

Borus­sia Dort­mund’s 4-1 de­mo­li­tion of Real Madrid in the 2013 Cham­pi­ons League semi­fi­nal first leg was peak press­ing.

But as more teams started to em­u­late Dort­mund, they soon got more ac­quainted with the best way to set up against the tac­tics – stop pass­ing out from the back and hit­ting it long in­stead.

Soak­ing up pres­sure and play­ing long balls is, of course, not some­thing Premier League clubs have ever been afraid of do­ing.

That goes a long way to ex­plain­ing why Liver­pool had a great record last sea­son against the rest of the top six, who tend to pass the ball around, and strug­gled against many teams lower in the table.

Klopp him­self seems to have no­ticed the

de­fi­cien­cies in his ap­proach. Af­ter Liver­pool’s crazy 4-3 de­feat at Bournemouth was fol­lowed with a 2-2 draw at West Ham in De­cem­ber, he dropped goal­keeper Loris Kar­ius for Si­mon Mig­no­let and adopted a more re­strained and cau­tious shape for the rest of the sea­son.

Klopp fa­mously prom­ises to play heavy metal foot­ball, but this was more like Me­tal­lica in Noth­ing Else Mat­ters.

To go away from the ‘haha, look at this big name from Europe com­ing over here and mak­ing a fool of him­self’ nar­ra­tive, it’s worth point­ing out what Klopp con­sis­tently does very well. His man- management and mo­ti­va­tion is su­perb.

Watch­ing him sprint­ing onto the pitch af­ter vic­to­ries to bear hug his play­ers makes you al­most want to hug your TV set to join in, even though you kind of get the feel­ing that Klopp’s mas­sive hugs might be on the painful side and won­der if any­one in the dress­ing room has got­ten around to telling him that. No­body wants to see him ac­ci­den­tally as­phyx­i­ate Philippe Coutinho. The warmth he shows for his play­ers is all part of him be­ing a man­ager who helps hard-work­ing play­ers to thrive, which you can see in the de­vel­op­ment of the likes of Adam Lal­lana.

Klopp’s beloved press­ing should work well on Euro­pean nights next sea­son, which could pro­vide some of the en­ergy and mo­men­tum needed to launch a se­ri­ous ti­tle bid.

Some bet­ter luck with in­juries wouldn’t be bad either, nor would a deeper squad.

But the big chal­lenge that will de­fine next sea­son for Liver­pool is, in my view, com­ing up with a Plan B.

Klopp, who turned 50 in June, will con­tinue to con­cen­trate on in­ten­sity and drive to suc­ceed. You’re more likely to see Klopp fall asleep on the side­lines than see him park­ing the bus or play­ing the cagier counter-at­tack­ing foot­ball that has won the Premier League the last two sea­son. He used to dis­miss con­ser­va­tive tac­ti­cal play in Ger­many as ‘lawn chess’. He needs to re­fine his tac­tics, though, to be sure to get the bet­ter of sides who are shut­ting up shop against Liver­pool.

More width could help, and the prospect of Mo­hamed Salah, signed from Roma for £34m, and Sa­dio Mane on op­po­site wings is an ex­cit­ing one.

A greater con­cen­tra­tion on the flanks might re­quire more of a fig­ure­head cen­tre-for­ward. The fact Klopp se­lected Daniel Stur­ridge for the vi­tal last two Premier League matches seems to in­di­cate that the Ger­man has come to the re­al­i­sa­tion he needs a goalscor­ing num­ber nine.

He clearly doesn’t see a place for Stur­ridge in his press­ing sys­tem, which makes it all the more sur­pris­ing to me that there were no big links made be­tween Liver­pool and strik­ers early on in the trans­fer win­dow. Per­haps the club are qui­etly tar­get­ing a striker.

An ex­cit­ing op­tion could be to give newly ac­quired young­ster Do­minic Solanke a chance to shine af­ter his con­tri­bu­tion to Eng­land’s Un­der-20 World Cup win.

Klopp likes to give young­sters a chance, and he might feel he can mould the for­mer Chelsea young­ster, 19, into the kind of hardrun­ning striker he wants.

With the Manch­ester clubs both set to spend big again, Tot­ten­ham con­tin­u­ally de­vel­op­ing and Chelsea re­in­forc­ing their ti­tle-win­ning squad, Klopp needs a plan that works right away.

It is no co­in­ci­dence, given his in­tense per­son­al­ity, that when things went wrong for him in his last sea­son at Dort­mund, they went dis­as­trously wrong and he took the club into the rel­e­ga­tion zone for a while.

If he hits on the right for­mula, though, his in­fec­tious en­thu­si­asm will be on dis­play, his trade­mark grins will spread to his play­ers and the world of foot­ball can look for­ward to the joy of full throt­tle Klopp. And Liver­pool might move one sea­son closer to adding his name to their il­lus­tri­ous list of man­age­rial leg­ends.

Penny for them: Klopp in more con­tem­pla­tive mood

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