AFTER excitement, goals and a late fightback against Arsenal on Wednesday night, Liverpool were swiftly sent back in time with a vengeance on Sunday. Brendan Rodgers was back, as was talk of the mysterious transfer committee and various players the club have missed out on, and then the Reds were harshly beaten by Manchester United.
I was half expecting Christopher Lloyd to be spotted in a funky-looking car on Breck Road after the game.
The whys and wherefores of the defeat to the old enemy will continue to be discussed, but as annoying as it is, especially when United have the temerity to not even be particularly good in beating you, I want to look at a bigger problem that could well be Jurgen Klopp’s most crucial puzzle to solve.
As I’m sure you will be aware by now, former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers made an appearance on Goals on Sunday ahead of the United clash, and unsurprisingly, didn’t hold back when asked about how transfers worked (or didn’t) during his time at the club.
He mentioned missing out on Alexis Sanchez, having to settle for Mario Balotelli, and most interestingly (for me at least) that he thought he had current Spurs and England prodigy Dele Alli signed, sealed and delivered as a Liverpool player, before the North London club nipped in and took him away.
There’s been a lot of fume among Reds fans for missing out on Alli, especially when you consider the tens of millions spent on other young prospects who turned out to be nothing particularly special, and here was a talent who was not only coveted by Liverpool first, but who was practically begging to come here, being that he himself is a Reds fan.
Rodgers told the Sky Sports show: “We thought we had him at Liverpool. The manager of MK Dons [Karl Robinson] actually drove him down to us. They played a game on the Saturday and we were playing West Ham on the Sunday.
“We’d had contact with Dele, it was all above board, I was speaking with Karl Robinson and I spoke to Dele and his adoptive parents. Karl did really well with him and he came to me and said, ‘I’ve got a really exciting player, I’d love to see him at Liverpool’.
“I spent a couple of hours in a hotel room with him and he wanted to come to Liverpool. It was all about getting the deal done with the club but unfortunately it never got done. On Saturday evening we thought it had got done but eventually he went to Tottenham, which was frustrating and disappointing. He’s done really well there.”
The exact reasons why the deal was not done have not been divulged, but the insinuation appears to be that the money men at the club could not agree a fee with the then League One side. That sounds bad, but in fairness, they were hardly to know that the kid would be this good, jumping up two divisions at his age.
The biggest shame about that deal not happening is that Alli appears to be everything Klopp looks for in a player. High work-rate, confidence on the ball, creativity, movement and a fantastic gnarliness that comes from being raised by League One football and not being cradled gently in the soft Under-21s Premier League. In fact it very much suggests that if you’re looking for young players coming through, it would be more sensible to look at players at Football League clubs, or at least ones who have had plenty of loans down there. See also what it did for Harry Kane.
Missing out on Alli does raise a much bigger issue though.
It was clear that under Rodgers, for all the criticism of his tactics, his man-management, his teeth, his choice of words in press conferences, his shirt and tie combinations, that the main issue with him and the club during his tenure was that the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing, or perhaps more to the point, didn’t seem to care.
This resulted in Rodgers signing some players and the ‘transfer committee’ signing other players, and now we are left with the squad we have. A squad that is so imbalanced you could throw 30 darts blindfolded at a Panini sticker album (they still have those, right?) and probably get a more suitable group of players.
It’s not that the current squad doesn’t have talent, which is an accusation that has been levelled at it in recent months. There is a lot of ability in most of these players, and we saw plenty of it against Manchester United. It just isn’t spread out enough.
At the moment we have four centre halves who all have different characteristics. Two regular full backs, one of which is very attacking, the other is very defensive.
We have one specialist ball winner in midfield in the entire squad. We have one central midfielder who makes runs into the box. We have an Emre Can. We have one winger with pace who tries to beat his man and we have two attacking midfielders in Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana, one who tries to move the ball with passes, the other who tries to move the ball with dribbles.
We have a player in Roberto Firmino who still doesn’t really know what he is, we have strikers in Divock Origi and Danny Ings who like to make runs and have the ball played ahead of them, and a striker in Christian Benteke who demands the ball to feet/head/chest and refuses to go anywhere near the six-yard box.
To put it more bluntly, Liverpool can’t change their personnel at the moment without asking pretty much everyone in the team to change the way they’re playing to accommodate those changes.
It has been advertised as “having options for different scenarios” but all it really appears to be is having a team that can never produce any consistency because it is, by its own definition, an inconsistent team.
Rodgers on one hand is right to blame the club for not sanctioning deals like Alli, and as a result it appears that the club has missed out on an absolute gem who seems to be everything we currently lack in our own midfield, but one thing he can’t really escape from is that he let it happen.
A strong manager puts his foot down and says “we either sign these players or you might as well bin me as I’m not winning the league with Balotelli and Markovic” and while you can understand why Rodgers might not have been willing to rock the boat given that he was very fortunate to get the job in the first place, I am absolutely certain that anyone at the club trying to tell Jürgen Klopp who he can and can’t buy will soon be hanging by his underwear from an L4 lamppost.
The mood of Klopp in his post-match press conference was concerning. It was the first time you saw him with an almost helpless expression. Perhaps he’s finally accepted that as long as this is the squad he has to work with, there’s only so much he can do.
The ceiling is very much the limit.
The January transfer window is still open and hopefully he heads into work this week with a spring back in his step and a list of demands to give to Ian Ayre.
First and foremost, this team is screaming out for a striker. Perhaps that alone could work as a bandage to take us through to the end of the season, but it can’t be a half-arsed approach as before. Liverpool very much need to use their whole arse, and so whatever money is there now needs to be spent on a good striker — a very good striker. I suppose the definition I’m after is “not Shane Long”.
Come the summer more extensive work will be needed. One of the great things about the Borussia Dortmund squad that Klopp put together was that it was impeccably balanced — so much so that he could introduce practically anyone into the team and they would fit seamlessly. This current Liverpool squad is about as balanced as Miranda Hart hopping on a single stilt across an oily glass floor.
Everything now needs to be aimed at building a squad with a clear identity — a specialised way of playing — and to make them all experts at it. At the moment you have to wait for the starting line-up to be named before trying to figure out how we’re going to play.
I’m hopeful that Marko Grujic is Klopp’s Dele Alli, and that his capture is a sign of a shift in the right direction from the powers that be at Anfield.
What is for certain is that for Liverpool to have any chance of becoming competitive in the Premier League under Klopp, they are going to have to do everything that the German tells them, from the owners, to the midfielders, to the lads and lasses in the Melwood canteen.
If they don’t make Jurgen’s coffee right, it could be years before we’re back in the Champions League.