Klopp is at a great club with ordinary players
Souness is typically forthright in his opinions on club where he has legendary status
There are some famous people who, upon actually meeting them, it becomes instantly obvious that public perceptions are disconnected from reality. That can be both a pleasant surprise or a rather disconcerting revelation.
There are others, though, who are so reassuringly themselves in any circumstance that, even if you hardly know them, it still somehow feels like meeting an old acquaintance. Graeme Souness falls firmly into the latter category.
On the field, he was intense, fiercely competitive, demanding and, yes, a little scary. In the dugout, he was intense, fiercely competitive, demanding and, yes, a little scary. In the television studio, he is still intense but that fierce competitiveness has since manifested itself in a certainty, crispness of thought and charisma that has made him one of football’s outstanding television pundits.
He also remains just a little scary. The firmest of handshakes is followed up by fixed eye contact and it is quickly obvious that any question he deems stupid or pointless will be dismissed. Yet there is also not even the slightest attempt to temper his opinion on a variety of subjects, not least Daniel Sturridge, Roberto Martínez, Steven Gerrard, Jürgen Klopp and the importance of the Capital One Cup semi-finals this week.
Of Sturridge, who has played in only 17 Premier League games during the past two seasons, Souness says that it has reached the point where he simply cannot be a part of Klopp’s main plan. “Without being too cruel, you just can’t rely on him,” Souness says. “His history would tell you that he misses too many games.
“When he is on the pitch, he is star quality but he doesn’t play. If he plays it is a bonus instead of someone who is first name on the team sheet. That’s a shame for the boy but that is a fact.”
So how do you handle that? “You go and buy other players who will be fit for most of the games you play,” he says. “He’s not Plan A. He’s the bonus plan.”
The wider point about how Liverpool’s squad has been diluted not just by Sturridge’s injuries but the departures of Luis Suárez, Raheem Sterling and Gerrard is obvious. “You don’t need to ask that,” he says.
“I said at the start of the season that, for Liverpool to get into the top four, [Christian] Benteke has to get 20 plus goals. That ain’t going to happen. They haven’t got a freescoring midfielder and, on top of that, they leak goals.
“I think Steven Gerrard went a year too early. He could still change games with one pass, with one goal, take penalties at important times. I’m a great believer that you will never have a successful football club unless you have good senior pros, down to simple things like timekeeping. I would have fought tooth and nail, fallen out of the board, to keep him.”
It is a situation that leads Souness to believe that Klopp needs two years before assessments can be made. “You get the job because there is a lot wrong,” Souness says. “He will need time to fix that. I like him; passion personified.
“He would appear to be the perfect fit. He has endeared himself to the Liverpool public. He has walked into a fabulous football club with a ridiculous history but an ordinary group of players. The time to judge him will be in a couple of years.”
Will the owners be so patient? “They, first and foremost will be commercially minded,” Souness says. “They will see Liverpool as an asset. They will think the brand of Liverpool out there is in the top five in the world. The brand of Liverpool will enable them to take Liverpool into a billion-pound company in a very short period of time. Whether they have fallen in love with the passion, in terms of the club or indeed football itself, time will tell.”
The springboard potential of the League Cup is something that Souness knows from personal experience. He was in the Liverpool team that won the competition in four consecutive years from 1980-81 until 1983-84 and always followed up that first trophy by also lifting either the league title or the European Cup. “It can give you that special momentum and I think the big clubs are taking it far more seriously than four or five years ago,” he says. “Liverpool are hot and cold. For them it could be the confidence boost they need.
“If they could get into the Capital One Cup final, that will go a long way. If they win, it would go even further. Then he will be thinking, ‘Kick on from that and maybe make a run to get into the top four’. Everton need to kickstart their season. Being 12th is not good enough for that group of players.”
To the suggestion that Everton have been “patchy”, Souness visibly grimaces. “You are being kind there,” he said.
“They are struggling – I think they have got one of the worst defensive records in the league. Everyone today wants to play like Barcelona, whether pressing high up the field or playing too much football on your 18-yard line. I think that’s Everton’s problem. Too near their own goal. If you lose it there, it is a shot on goal. But that’s not new for Roberto Martínez’s sides, is it? It’s every year.”
The statistics do largely support that thesis. After finishing fifth and conceding 39 goals in 2013-14, they let in 52 last year and have already conceded 34 this year. Wigan Athletic also conceded 73, 61, 61 and 79 goals in four league seasons under Martínez.
Souness clearly also finds the debates about supposedly revolutionary coaching methods irritating and suggests that people watch a video of Ian Rush or Ray Kennedy and Phil Neal if they think it is somehow new to play with a more advanced striker or attacking full-backs.
Managers giving complicated touchline hand-signals are another bugbear. “Several managers do that,” he says. “Do you think a player is looking at a manager giving it the signs? Ever seen Fergie, Wenger or Mourinho do that? It has no interest to the players on the pitch.”
He then lets off another audible grimace, tells me that football is a much simpler game than people think and departs with another vicelike handshake.