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…
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