“SPINELESS. Shithouses. Where are the leaders?”
The dust has firmly settled on the misery of that second half in Basel last week, but the familiar refrains, which have accompanied each defeat last season, still ring in the ears. An eighth place finish and anaemic defeat in two cup finals have seen fans rush to validate their opinions on the backbone of the squad bequeathed to Jürgen Klopp.
However, the Sevilla reverse, while confirming the need for upgrades in several positions doesn’t tell the whole story. Cup final losses are heartbreaking but you have to be in them to lose them, and there was plenty of character on show in despatching Manchester United, shocking Borussia Dortmund and overwhelming Villarreal.
Each of the ties won in reaching the Europa League final brought their own vestige of pressure, and the respective burdens — putting a deadly rival to the sword, defending a first leg lead, riding waves of Anfield hysteria, outfighting superior opposition, and coolly overturning a delicate deficit — were carried valiantly by at least some of the men who will fight the fight for Liverpool next season.
So, having honeymooned extensively across Europe, who are the personalities whose temperament, spirit and fibre can identify them as Klopp’s captains as we knuckle down to domestic “bliss”?
Their leadership lights might currently remain hidden under a bushel but who can Jurgen rely on to inspire new recruits and the foot soldiers that remain? Who is the manager, after the hectic nature of 2015-16, looking to coax, nurture and develop as his voices on the pitch?
When it comes to leadership who can be Klopp’s Magnificent Seven?
Solid as a rock during his debut season; his durability allowing 50 appearances and notable, admirable consistency. When Clyne had a bit of a wobble during the Europa League second leg match at Old Trafford — at the hands of the slippery Anthony Martial — it was remarkable for its novelty value.
The England right-back might appear quiet on the surface but he has an organisational role to fulfil in a reshaped rearguard; as a now established defender likely to play in every game. Klopp will be aware of the need to add a measure of solidity to the recent improvements seen in hitting the back of the net. The redoubtable Clyne can build on a great start to his Liverpool career if he’s encouraged to take responsibility for a meaner defensive approach and, being the definition of roundhead over cavalier, can also be an emerging voice among the English contingent.
After a comeback of Istanbul proportions, Degsy Love (as TAW funny-man, Ben Johnson calls him) looks captaincy material already. Lazarus would be proud of him, but would struggle to match the leap that gave the season its signature moment during the last knockings of that epic Dortmund night.
Given that he’d spent the best part of 12 months making misjudgement his stock in trade, his redemption as a centre–half is now complete. Interceptions are now better timed than the perfect boiled egg and tackles made with aplomb. He’s finally allowed me to make sense of the phrase “defending on the front foot” as he relentlessly gets ahead of his man but now with the ball at least somewhere in proximity. With his burgeoning assurance, Lovren has grown more vocal and seems the obvious commander of the defence as he contemplates a new partner in Joel Matip next season.
I spent half a season making cruel jokes about the “yeoman”. Eventually “Millie” rightly admitted to his own dourness and likened his midfield shifts in midfield to a miner labouring in heavy boots. The thing about Milner though is that he has a certain stealth to him. Without me realising it, the po-faced Yorkshire bastard has, as is his want, ground me into submission and won me over.
The “Boring James Milner” Twitter account might have legions of followers but by all accounts he’s a good laugh off the field. Other players like and look up to him, and when legs are tiring between 70 and 90 minutes, there he is still chugging away; with his jutting jaw, our very own version of Desperate Dan.
On a more serious note, he came to Anfield because he wanted to play, and play he did, not always in his preferred central midfield. Not the loudest captain but his influence is measured more in deed than decibels.
It was a shock to see Coutinho go missing in the final month of the season. Whatever illness forced him off at half-time in Villareal, it apparently stripped Phil of all his devil at the season’s business end.
Coutinho’s flair and grace mask a fantastic work ethic. It’s hard to fathom that he’s still only 23, and has time to grow in stature. Last season he added crucial goals at key times, the majority of those marvels of aesthetics; the lame finishing of his early career a distant memory.
Klopp will be looking to Coutinho to kick on again; to influence games consistently over 90 minutes but also to puff out his chest and set an example to others. Little Phil, individual LFC awards falling out of his every locker and cupboard, is capable of a metaphorically bigger presence. Klopp needs to get in his head and offer him a promotion — “Director of Creativity” or “King of Futsal” or something would do.
The stand-off between Sturridge and Klopp has been a fascinating vignette amid the story of the season. On the face of it, if it has been a duel, Klopp has won. Getting a crocked footballer on the pitch, scoring goals, bears out that result. Getting a player with a perceived laconic style fighting for all he’s worth to scream joy and vindication (at Anfield against Villarreal) is quite the feat.
There is though a chance to build on a hitherto terse relationship and foster something more lasting through added trust. If Klopp is convinced of Sturridge’s durability (to withstand pre-season and remain fit) then he can exhibit through Daniel the true measure of his man-management. Converts often become your greatest advocates.
If Klopp can continue to win the mind games and distinguish between Sturridge’s apparently flimsy, selfish demeanour and instead recognise the traits of a winner in pursuit of perfection, he might not just uncover a compliant leader of the line, but a disciple laden with goals.
Klopp faces an ongoing battle with the identity of the Anfield crowd. The manager has seen already — thanks to Europe — that the Kop can be not solely a 12th man, but actually his best player. But, and it’s a big but; the European crowd, drawn from a local catchment feeding off lower ticket prices is vastly different; hugely more hostile than the acquiescent weekend League crowd.
Once the season begins, unless the Reds are on a massive roll to begin with, bums will return to seats, and the roars of the spring Anfield nights will be strangled in throats. The demographic will ensure more “tea parties” than the raucous support required to mount a title challenge. It’s no time to be a complacent about the return of the old Anfield atmosphere.
Perversely, Klopp needs to understand and challenge the supporters to recreate the distinct advantage Anfield can bring; and fans who come through the turnstiles should have it drummed in that attitude, swagger and character in the stands means far more than holding a scarf aloft during You’ll Never Walk Alone.
“Where are our leaders?”
Well, Kloppo is the leader of this merry band that is Liverpool FC; on and off the pitch. A man of huge personality and unrestrained emotion; his job, now that the honeymoon period is over, is to build character and unity among the individual and the collective.
Part of his remit, now that he has time to get his feet under the table, is to cut through the morass of self-serving middle management which has apparently held the club back in the wake of the Hicks and Gillett years. Liverpool FC needed a plausible figurehead and it now has one in Klopp. However, the impending departure of Ian Ayre, regardless of his capability, creates a vacuum but also opportunity. Does Klopp have the power, desire, or indeed the astuteness to bring in an ally at director level, but with greater football acumen?
Klopp, of course, is also charged with instilling gumption into players through the spine of the team, whether new or old, so that when we reflect in 12 months’ time, we can address any failings without constantly questioning backbone or temperament.