THERE’S been quite the scramble to make arrangements for White Hart Lane tomorrow. Trains booked at the last minute and plenty who wouldn’t have gone near the fixture two weeks ago suddenly calling in favours to lay claim to tickets. Those who watched the recent Merseyside Derby with ambivalence have swiftly rediscovered their lapsed fervour for the Reds now there is a new man at the head of affairs. Everyone it seems wants to be in at the dawn of a new era for Liverpool under Jürgen Klopp.
What seemed like the longest international break in history has given Liverpool time to appoint a manager and a fan base the opportunity to fawn over the new arrival. The traditional news conference unveiling and first pre-match press briefing have brought only gushing praise from journalists and supporters alike before a ball has been kicked. If anything I’ve found it a bit sickly; a little unseemly because the same people will be the first to turn if things go wrong.
Klopp can’t help that his magnetic personality has won over one and all. Uniting the Liverpool support in one fell swoop is a feat not to be underestimated and his obvious charm in front of the cameras has already added to his lustre. However, Klopp will be relieved, and he has admitted as much already, to leave all the celebrity behind and get on with the actual football.
This is where the real job starts and the size of his task should not be underplayed. Press conferences, for all that they are played up by the media and lapped up by a new generation who pore over every sound bite, matter little in the grand scheme of things. If we start thinking a press briefing is more important than a team talk then we really are losing sight of what matters in the management of professional footballers.
Such is Klopp’s reputation it’s difficult to assess the worth of this new Liverpool in a sub-standard Premier League. The Reds currently occupy tenth place but that can change quickly such is the congestion in the upper reaches of the table.
However, with the players at his disposal a mix of the unproven, inexperienced, injury-prone and in some cases already exposed, the manager’s standing outstrips the status of many of the current squad. Amid the excitement of Klopp’s arrival, Champions League qualification and talk of trophies is the least of supporters’ ambitions but expectations need to be tempered. An opening salvo of away league fixtures at Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City could easily shorten the Klopp honeymoon.
Now that Brendan Rodgers has gone, the previous benchmark of the 2013-14 season becomes a complete irrelevance. Luis Suarez and many of the cast of that particular drama are now either departed or diminished so although Klopp inherits some of those still scarred by missing out on that mirage of a title and the flotsam of Rodgers’ errant final campaign, the German’s claims that the beginning of his reign represents a “restart” are entirely justified.
The injury situation has left the squad absolutely thread bare. To lose two players in the same week to season ending knee ligament injuries is barely credible. Danny Ings in particular had shown the willingness to run all day and seemingly fitted the description of a player who would thrive in Klopp’s much heralded gegenpressing style. Klopp also professes to enjoy working with young players so to lose his “young gun” Gomez is another big blow. The assurance Gomez showed playing left-back at Arsenal back in August suggested he would offer far more than just cover across the back line as the season wore on.
Compounding matters of unavailability is the continued absence of Jordan Henderson for an extended period. Like Ings, the captain’s inexhaustible energy in midfield is a prerequisite of Klopp’s preferred approach to the game, especially without the ball. It is unlikely that the same lung-bursting efforts will come as easily to the more pedestrian James Milner. Milner runs and forages as well as the next man but seldom with the intensity required of a central midfielder charged with recovering the ball. Too often this season, when Liverpool have surrendered possession, Milner has resembled a man running for the bus only to arrive at the stop a fraction too late.
Lucas Leiva, too, while remaining a savvy operator as a shield to the defence, lacks the pace to pressure the opposition in more than the occasional, albeit well-timed, burst. It remains to be seen whether Klopp wants to operate long-term with a traditional holding midfielder but for the moment Lucas’s experience, character and nous should see him feature with the “full-throttle” element to Liverpool’s game charged elsewhere.
It is possible that the hurry scurry of Joe Allen, the forgotten man of Liverpool’s midfield now recovered from yet another injury, might prove suited to Klopp’s desired approach. It would ironic if Allen was now to flourish having arrived as a flagship Rodgers signing only to largely disappoint. With the squad so stretched and a jammed fixture list over the coming weeks, Allen should get the chance to stake a claim.
The supremely talented Emre Can remains an enigma and it will be fascinating to see if his compatriot can unlock his obvious potential. Thus far, it is Can’s inconsistency in midfield as much as his adaptability that has seen him recruited to defensive duties in Rodgers’ troubleshooting back three. While Can occasionally looks a dynamic player surging forward, he influences matches only intermittently and there are big question marks over his fitness. If Klopp, as he suggests, is a fan of more intense, twice-daily training sessions then a fitter Emre Can might begin to thrive in the more influential position intended for him.
Roberto Firmino and Christian Benteke are intriguing options for the manager when they return to full training next week, having both been linked to Klopp while he was at Borussia Dortmund. It has been hugely frustrating to see so little of the two summer signings on whom Rodgers’ remaining hopes were pinned. Unavoidable as it is, £60million worth of investment sitting on the treatment table is no good to any manager.
Firmino was advertised as the type of all-action midfielder-cum-striker who would flourish in a high pressing style, while the more static Benteke as a focal point is more of a conundrum until Klopp’s preferred attacking formation becomes apparent. Until both are fully fit, the onus remains on Daniel Sturridge for goals while he too strives for match sharpness. Whichever way you look, Klopp’s baptism as Liverpool manager seems compromised by concerns over the fitness of his players.
Defensively, Alberto Moreno and Nathaniel Clyne seem certain to play as full-backs and it is hard to imagine Klopp, even in the short term, persisting with three centre backs. If Liverpool revert to a conventional four at the back, despite claims that Dejan Lovren would be more suited to a front-foot defensive approach his propensity for misjudgements should see the aggressive, underrated Mamadou Sakho retained alongside Martin Skrtel. In the absence of a capable deputy, Simon Mignolet will continue in goal and has the chance to build on a better showing at Everton a fortnight ago.
What Klopp can bring though on his Liverpool debut, goes way beyond picking a team and deciding on a formation from the limited numbers available to him. Without so much as appearing on the one stage that matters, he has already lifted the spirits and expectations of supporters through his sheer presence. What we’re looking for tomorrow is that the players who line up in red exude that same personality and belief on the pitch.
It will be fascinating to see how he greets the thousands who will be travelling to the game and how that sets the tone for the afternoon. Klopp’s unique selling point is a charisma that unites everyone behind him. If he can impose his will on players and supporters alike in the way he did at Dortmund then we can expect to see a more exuberant Liverpool FC right from the off.
Everyone is with you. Wilkommen, Jürgen.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda-Photo.Com & PA Images