DESPITE the initial enthusiasm brought by the arrival of Jürgen Klopp at Anfield, there remains a sense that this is a football season yet to ignite any real passion or excitement.
This can be said not just of proceedings at Liverpool, but nationally too, as the competition marketed as “the most exciting league” fails to inspire with more than a quarter of the campaign gone. Could this be the most boring Premier League season ever or can it still spark into life?
With international breaks a consistent feature of the opening months, the modern football season often fails to gather any early momentum but the lack of quality and personality on show so far across the league has been stark. Manchester City and Arsenal supporters may disagree, with their teams vying for top spot, but you would be hard pressed to cite a fixture played out by the usual title “contenders” so far that has stirred the loins. Torpor hangs over the English game; a gentrified audience not the sole reason for mute stadiums.
As tough as it is to admit, the standard bearers for the Premier League’s advertised brand of helter-skelter attacking football over the years have been Manchester United – or at least they were under Alex Ferguson. Their latest incarnation under Louis Van Gaal is quite the opposite; a slow-paced, controlling unit that bores Old Trafford romantics to tears, as evidenced in a first-half showing against an anaemic Liverpool earlier this autumn and again last week in the soporific stalemate with their Manchester neighbours – themselves denied by injury the guile of David Silva and thrust of Sergio Aguero.
For United, a fading Wayne Rooney is shackled by Van Gaal’s system while the expressive younger talents of Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial have also regressed over the past month as the slog and grind of English football takes its toll.
As Liverpool fans perhaps watching the Reds, either side of Klopp’s appointment, play out a seemingly endless run of uninspiring, identikit draws and languish in mid- table paints a duller picture of the season than is the case elsewhere.
However, if the story of the term so far, other than the surprise exploits of West Ham and Leicester City, has been Jose Mourinho’s ongoing Chelsea breakdown, then there really is very little on the pitch to get us excited.
That the reigning champions, expensively assembled and with a collective wage bill that all but guarantees a perennial title challenge, lie 15th in the table after ten games is a remarkable tale, yet the column inches devoted to Stamford Bridge always seem to focus on the plight and ramblings of the tiresome Mourinho.
There’s a decent football story in there struggling to get out, but while the written press continue to obsess over their supplier-in-chief, there is curiously little scrutiny of what’s gone wrong on the pitch for the erstwhile creative talents, Costa, Hazard, Fabregas and co. Where is the comment on why a previously well-drilled defensive unit suddenly ships on average two goals per game? Or, does the scarcity of observation on players’ form dropping off a cliff say something about the modern football consumer’s appetite for the actual game versus the cult of personalities (principally the managers) involved?
Similarly, at Anfield the talk all season has surrounded the manager; first the clamour for the removal of Brendan Rodgers, followed by the media hype brought by the advent of Klopp. Such is the charisma and appeal of the German; his antics on the touchline and his demeanour in front of the cameras never leaving you short of a smile, it is only natural that the honeymoon focus should be on the new manager.
So renowned is Klopp for his preferred style of play; whether you want to opt for counter-pressing, gegen pressing, or heavy metal football as your descriptor, there has been examination aplenty of Liverpool’s increased work rate and reaction to losing the ball. Even after just four games in charge, for the seasoned observer there is clear evidence of drills on the training ground being played out during matches.
However, pausing for a moment to cast off the cloak of a result-obsessed fan, would it be too much of a moot point to ask, where is the entertainment?
It is very early days in Klopp’s management; before any venture into the transfer market to source men in his own expressive image and in the midst of a farcical injury crisis that denies him a plethora of key players. Staid, characterless football pre-date his arrival by a good 12 months and more, but it is clear that Klopp’s first intended mission is to shore up Liverpool’s defensive frailties before adopting a more expansive style of play.
Density has been added to the formation, with a noticeable shield of three hard-working midfielders operating in front of the traditional back four. Liverpool suddenly look narrow and compact in the centre of the pitch. From being easily exposed under Brendan Rodgers, the Reds have become harder to play against but arguably harder to watch – at least in the short-term. Goals are still at a premium but genuine chances and thrills are too. Under Klopp, a recognisable 4-3-2-1 shape has emerged but it is a Christmas tree without baubles.
Until confidence returns to a line-up scarred by too many heavy defeats under the previous regime, we might have to wait for more self-expression and entertainment. Klopp has called for calmness in front of goal, but he also referenced the need for bravery. Liverpool consistently rack up a high tally of shots without ever being dominant; shooting from distance the opt-out symptom of players being frightened of ceding possession in the final third. Conversely, when a decent sight of goal emerges the bolder option to pull the trigger is often passed up, in favour of making sure with the unnecessary extra pass.
Entertainment has been in short supply, so within a rigid, pragmatic structure it was refreshing to see Roberto Firmino add a little stardust to Wednesday’s Capital One Cup win over Bournemouth. Jamie Carragher, in his post-match analysis, was right to conclude that a fit-again Firmino has shown precious little to justify a £29m price-tag thus far, but against the Cherries there were signs of the player Klopp recognised for a spell last year as the “best in the Bundesliga”. Occupying space between the lines, always with a hint of a dipped shoulder to beat a man and a head-up style with an eye for a pass or a raking shot, Firmino can offer Liverpool some much needed goal threat while fitness issues up front continue to undermine Klopp’s plans.
While the manager strives to move Liverpool closer to his Dortmund ideal, praying in the meantime for Christian Benteke and Daniel Sturridge to enjoy a prolonged clean bill of health, combining Firmino with a currently out of sorts Philippe Coutinho is critical to Liverpool staying in contention in all competitions. Jürgen is clearly an arm-round-the-shoulder manager and maybe a warm word in the ear of Firmino’s compatriot is needed to pull Coutinho out of his present malaise.
It is an easy assumption to suggest they are too similar to operate effectively in the same team. As Klopp says, Firmino potentially offers versatility as well as the vital currency of goals and assists: “He was in the Brazil national and I think he played as a number nine, but usually he plays as an offensive midfielder or second striker. He can come in from the wing. He can play in the centre. He’s a pretty skilled player.”
Maybe Stamford Bridge on Saturday can be the spark that ignites the season and brings some delight to a hitherto joyless campaign. Yes, let’s be calm, let’s be brave but above all let’s be expressive.
For Liverpool and for Jürgen Klopp perhaps a signature result and a performance is in the offing that consummates the honeymoon, while ending the unedifying Mourinho’s second marriage with Chelsea.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda-Photo/Press Association