AS we limber up for a new campaign, with players back in training and the first friendly tonight, last season remains something of a head scratcher.
No season when Liverpool finish eighth in the league should be allowed to pass without questions being asked, regardless of mitigating circumstances.
There is some merit in the argument that Europe took precedence in the final month and cemented league mediocrity but an inconsistent pattern had well and truly bedded in by then.
If we were perplexed, it was because under the new manager so many players had improved and yet the team’s results (at least in the league) showed no lasting upturn. Roberto Firmino, Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana, Mamadou Sakho, Emre Can and Divock Origi, to name but a few, seemed like new men under Jürgen Klopp. Nathaniel Clyne was a model of consistency throughout, Phil Coutinho added an extra layer of goals, and Daniel Sturridge’s body held up. Despite all this, we never really threatened to challenge for the top four.
At one point I wondered, and then concluded, that in Klopp’s debut season, players were playing for themselves. Contracts and futures were on the line and footballers, like anyone else, have self-preservation lurking not far from their prevailing mentality. On the face of it a burgeoning team spirit, but beneath the surface everyone fighting for their own place in the manager’s future plans.
In a sense there is nothing wrong with that — motivation is always key, but I question whether a real willing team ethic was ever truly forged. The lads seemed to like each other, but they wouldn’t die for each other.
Ultimately, the season defined Klopp’s inherited squad as nearly men. Lads who had “nearly won the League”, nearly qualified for Europe, nearly won the League Cup, nearly won the Europa League. The newer recruits, unstained by the mishap of 2014, quickly fell in line with the concept of glorious failure.
Despite players playing for their own futures, Liverpool’s ability to flatter and deceive comes down to more than selfishness on the pitch, and resides as much in naked fear. The storied “weight of the shirt”, the pressure to perform in front of the Anfield crowd and, ultimately, the anxiety to be a Liverpool hero was never more evident in those two cup finals.
We simply didn’t perform against Manchester City in the Capital One Cup final at Wembley. Simon Mignolet, a culprit all season and in that game, paradoxically kept the Reds in the match before Philippe Coutinho’s late equaliser. With the momentum of that leveller, there wasn’t the gumption to press on and win in extra-time. When it came to penalties, Emre Can’s cool, dinked effort aside; it was limp, weak-minded surrender.
Against Sevilla, Daniel Sturridge’s world-class strike preceded a poor opening quarter, and with the exception of a brief period in the wake of the goal, Liverpool were average throughout the 90 minutes, and abject in the second-half.
In neither final, despite Klopp’s fabled motivational strengths, did Liverpool come out the traps firing. If all guns were meant to be blazing, someone failed to keep the gunpowder dry.
Liverpool fans have been sold a vision of a team that works its socks off under the new manager (heavy-metal football and all that) but when it really mattered the Reds were acquiescent and lame. In the opening stages of both those cup finals, Liverpool came out came our cagey and indecisive.
Ultimately, they were frozen by fear. Players and manager have to face that one up when August comes.
So, what is to be done? It is way too easy to label relatively young footballers as chronically weak in the head. They haven’t got to this level of the sport by being shrinking violets. Klopp, it seems, has greater faith in their ability grow, as individuals and as a team, than many supporters.
All managers have their own vanity projects — when they occasionally get the “stubborn” tag — and Klopp, complete now with new six-year contract — would be no different in believing he is the one to erase the conditioned failure habit. Ultimately, that is his job; to bring out the best in his players and the starting point with many elite athletes is upstairs. The key for Klopp — what would set him apart as a Liverpool manager is to reverse the psychology and empower the Red shirt. It should never ever be a burden.
The weight of history is something behind which we’ve hidden for too long. A recent debate on the Anfield Wrap surrounding the club’s identity had me thinking that we’ve become too embroiled in romance, history and heritage. If we do have a modern identity it is of the plucky, glamorous loser; and one content to be viewed and marketed that way.
At the mid-point of last season, there was much talk of a new-found ability to come from behind; never more beautifully illustrated than at home on that riotous night against Dortmund. However, and if footballers are anything like me, I’m always a bit more relaxed when we’re trailing. I’m shitting bricks when we’re winning. To an extent, the pressure is off when you’re losing.
Perhaps that’s when the footballer takes over and the mental patient takes a back seat. At 2-0 down against Borussia there was nothing to lose. Liverpool broke loose from fright and it was Dortmund who were the rabbits in the headlights.
Conversely, we showed a remarkably similar and frequent ability to buckle when faced with other teams intent on a fightback. Sevilla and Southampton spring readily to mind. Once our opponents got a sniff of vulnerability we absolutely caved, were unable to fight and react on the pitch and — if we’re being hyper-critical — in the dug-out, too.
Suffice to say we need to improve in terms of quality in key positions and mental strength this season.
The trusted sources on the transfer rumour merry-go-round and the acquisitions thus far suggest Klopp shares the obvious thinking of most fans. We’ve signed a new keeper (Loris Karius), we already have a new centre-half (Joel Matip), we’ve addressed a lack of pace and width (Sadio Mane) while we still seek a cerebral left-back and energy in midfield. Despite the relatively humble names, it appears to be strategic planning at odds with the last few Liverpool windows.
The recruits and targets aren’t the household names being stockpiled by Manchester United, Manchester City, and Chelsea. It’s early days in this transfer season, but with TV money sloshing round the Premier League to the extent Crystal Palace have Alan Pardew shimmying round a wad of notes amounting to £30m, the likes of Spurs, Arsenal, even Everton will signal their intent before the first balls are kicked.
If there is a sense of disillusionment among Reds’ fans, it is that what we’ve seen — what we are seeing — is classic FSG. Buy low, buy young, develop, potentially sell high. Many fans thought Klopp would come in with his lustrous CV and sweep away all the “yes man” baloney, cut a swathe through the nonsense of scouts and transfer committees and attract big names commensurate with his reputation.
In reality though, what we are seeing is also classic Klopp; a modus operandi that worked superbly well for him in the Bundesliga. Whether it applies in an ultra-competitive Premier League remains to be seen.
Leicester have proved you can win the unfair game and it is hats off to the miracle worked by Claudio Ranieri but it is an achievement that seems the very definition of anomaly.
It would appear Klopp, for whom loyalty and empathy are more of his renowned traits, trusts the bulk of the squad that came in for periodic abuse from fans last season. The same lads whose character was constantly called into question will — in the main — be lining up in Red again come August.
Now that the free-pass of 2015-16 has expired, “Klopp’s team”, with a few tweaks and inserts, will largely be the nearly men of last season.
The challenge for the manager over the summer, as he embarks on his lusted pre-season, will be to do more than to coach, plan, and instil insane fitness levels. A bigger feat will be to remove the fear factor, to build characters, embrace emerging leaders, create a siege mentality, laud consistency and forge a team that offers more than the sum of its modestly assembled parts.
Klopp has form for this and Liverpool fans will back him to deliver the goods.
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