AS if Leicester City winning the Premier League wasn’t bizarre enough, it has become quite clear of late that 2016 is simply not a normal year in the football sphere (and otherwise, for that matter).
The usual rules do not seem to apply any more. Iceland and Wales have both shocked and inspired the continent with their performances at the Euros. Well deserved, but no less staggering considering their meteoric rises from relative international minnows to the centre of the European spotlight. It’s almost as if we’re living in some parallel universe.
So what relevance, therefore, does this have with regard to Liverpool ahead of the new season? None directly, perhaps. Indirectly, however, there are some encouraging parallels to be drawn from these unlikely success stories, which can, if nothing else, provide a source of inspiration and a healthy dose of pre-season optimism ahead of the 2016/17 campaign for the Reds.
Marquee signings? That’s not the Jürgen Klopp way
If you’re worried about Manchester United signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, that’s understandable. These are two world-class players joining our rivals under a proven top-class manager in Jose Mourinho.
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have already secured deals for Ilkay Gundogan and Nolito. Arsenal have signed Granit Xhaka. Chelsea have signed Belgium striker Michy Batshuayi for a reported £33.2m
You get the picture. Teams that we would like to regard as our rivals at the top end of the Premier League are all strengthening. They’re all signing big names.
Meanwhile, Liverpool are in a seemingly perpetual quest to land 19-year-old left back, Ben Chilwell, from Leicester, and Piotr Zielinski — Udinese’s Polish midfielder. They’re hardly household names — I’d suspect most of us hadn’t heard of them until Liverpool were linked to them.
Yet when you look at Klopp’s transfer record at Dortmund, it’s clear to see that this is how he likes to operate as a manager. Klopp doesn’t go for the big names. He finds promising young talents and nurtures them into the finished product. Mats Hummels, Lukasz Piszczek, Ilkay Gundogan, Jakub Blaszczykowski, Shinji Kagawa and Robert Lewandowski formed an integral part of Klopp’s iconic Dortmund side — but none were superstars when they first signed.
This isn’t to say Chilwell and Zielinski will become world class — if they do indeed sign for Liverpool. The Premier League is also a different kettle of fish to the Bundesliga. The key point is that this is a new era for Liverpool under a new manager who has a different way of working — a way which has brought him huge success in his career so far.
We were all ecstatic when Klopp became a Red — so now we must trust him to do things in his own way.
Who could have seen N’Golo Kante become the finest box-to-box midfielder when he first joined Leicester? Riyad Mahrez, reigning PFA Player of the Year, was originally signed from Le Havre in the French Ligue 2. His magic set the Premier League alight last season — further evidence that big name signings are not the only means of achieving success.
If Klopp wants to sign a young, promising left back, like Chilwell, let’s get behind that. The same goes for Zielinski, or any other signing he decides to bring in. As with Sadio Mane, this was a player Klopp was personally very keen to sign. A fee of £30million may seem extortionate but FSG backed Klopp to secure a key transfer target and that’s what matters here.
The business done has been good so far
Let’s also not forget the very shrewd business we have done already. Joel Matip, widely spoken of as one of the best centre backs in Germany throughout his time at Schalke, on a free transfer.
Loris Karius, voted second best goalkeeper in the Bundesliga behind only Manuel Neuer for £4.7m.
Marko Grujic is more of an unknown quantity, but was coveted by a whole host of top European clubs for just £5.1m. He has the potential to become a key player for Klopp in the future.
Several individuals are on an upward trajectory
It’s also worth remembering the return of both Joe Gomez and Danny Ings after recovering from their respective ACL injuries.
Gomez showed great promise in the early days of his Liverpool career, initially displacing Alberto Moreno at left back, and with Martin Skrtel on his way out and with Kolo Toure having been released, Gomez has the chance to step up as a viable centre back option for Klopp.
Ings, meanwhile, looks to have the kind of attributes ideally suited to a Klopp team — pace, work rate and energy in abundance. Both will seem like new signings for Klopp, adding further quality and depth to the squad.
Roberto Firmino and Divock Origi have now had a full season in England to adapt to the Premier League and are well placed to kick on to another level after their relatively impressive — albeit inconsistent — debut campaigns at the club.
Emre Can is another player who looks set to make further strides under Klopp’s guidance, while we can also look forward to watching Dejan Lovren continue his impressive resurgence. Daniel Sturridge, meanwhile, could prove a key factor if he can stay fit for the majority of the season after regaining close to his best form in the latter stages of last season.
Relatively low expectations
Back to the original point about dark horses — no-one expects Liverpool to win the league next season. Few even expect us to even challenge for the title. This lack of pressure or expectation could prove to be of great benefit to Klopp’s side — along with the lack of European football — allowing the focus to be solely on finishing as high as possible in the Premier League. Last time we had that luxury, we all know what happened.
Pre-season is key for Klopp
It is a cliche these days, but cliches tend to have an element of truth in them — football is not played on paper. There are several sides who, player for player, are considerably stronger than Liverpool in the Premier League. Our rivals may well be making marquee signings, while Klopp looks to unearth hidden gems. Liverpool’s success, therefore, is likely to hinge upon other factors.
With a full pre-season for Klopp to prepare his squad, we can expect the players to be at maximum fitness levels for the start of the season. He has a full six weeks to implement his tactical ideas and ensure every player knows their role inside out. Team shape will be crucial, as will defensive discipline.
Klopp didn’t have the luxury of pre-season to work on these vital elements when he first joined. He walked into a busy fixture schedule, plagued by injuries, with a squad inherited from his predecessor. He had to make do with the tools he had.
Team spirit and unity with the fans
Now, Klopp has his own tools at work and is constructing his long-term plan for success. Team spirit, unity and a strong emotional bond with the supporters is perhaps what makes Klopp unique from the majority of managers today.
We saw this in action last season, most impressively before the Europa League ties against Manchester United, Dortmund and Villarreal at Anfield. The atmosphere was electric. The supporters proved to be the proverbial 12th man for the Reds.
The importance of the supporters, and of the team spirit and positive mentality, cannot be underestimated. This played a crucial part in Leicester’s title-winning success under Ranieri. It has been visibly evident in the performances of both Wales and Iceland at this summer’s European Championships.
To achieve success in the modern game, it is not simply about having the very best individuals. It’s about fitness. The tactical system. Team spirit. The fans. All these factors, combined, contribute to the winning formula. Good players are essential, of course. Liverpool have several of these.
Let’s stop worrying about who our rivals are signing, then. The platform for a positive and richly successful 2016-17 campaign is already in place for Liverpool. Because we have one thing no one else has. Klopp. It’s the start — the proper, official start — of a new era. Let’s enjoy the ride.
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