I CHANGED my mind on something this week.
I know it’s not the done thing these days to think about something then change your mind. The trend seems to be that we should all pick an opinion on something then stick to it rigidly, closing our eyes and sticking our fingers in our ears while screaming “la la la la la” as loud as we can to block out any information or experiences that could change our viewpoint.
I’ve never been one for going with the crowd, though, so you’re likely to find me openly changing my opinion on all kinds of topics from one year to the next. The topic in question in my mind this week is whether or not I am bothered about Liverpool winning a trophy, any trophy, as opposed to putting every last drop of its collective energy into winning the league.
After the near misses in 2009 and 2014 and the subsequent, predictable, ‘typically Liverpool’ falling off cliffs, I’d decided that everything else can do one. I’m not interested in any other trophy until we win the league.
I’d started to question my own thoughts on this after we spoke to Stephen Warnock a few weeks ago on the Pro View show, and the fascinating podcast with Damian Hughes yesterday has tipped me over the edge.
If you haven’t listened to the free podcast with Damian yet I’d highly recommend that you do. It’s a long chat covering lots of specific points so I’ll leave you to absorb the details yourself, but there were a few points that resonated with me, in particular in relation to the culture of an organisation which, for our collective purposes, is a football club.
Culture is something that we often hear spoken about. Whether it’s at another of the world-famous football clubs (like the focus of Damian’s book, Barcelona) or huge companies such as Apple or Google. From afar it’s another mythical concept that organisations seem to have or not, with most of us on the outside having no idea where you’d start to build a culture or, more importantly, to build a culture that you’d want.
It’s that part that fascinates me in particular.
I’ve started a few things from scratch in my life, beginning with a blank piece of paper and a pen, then slowly building each idea into something tangible. It’s a strange feeling when you do that and look back in the knowledge that it all started with an idea and a blank piece of paper. It’s why I love seeing things like the JK Rowling notes that were doing the rounds this week, or the first draft of the lyrics of what turned out to be a timeless, legendary song. Each of them starting in the same way: an idea and a blank piece of paper. The mind bending thing is that it’s the same with little ideas as it is with big ideas. It’s the same with planning your wedding as it is with writing out the blueprint for a world-famous book selling millions of copies that’s eventually made into a movie franchise. And it’s the same with deciding what culture you want to run through your football club and planning it out.
I was already thinking of that concept after listening to a show last week in which the mythical ‘Liverpool Way’ was discussed, considering what I would do if I was the new CEO of the club, whether I’d codify the ‘Liverpool Way’ once and for all and, if I did, what would it involve.
Lots of things ran through the intricate networks inside my head as I pictured myself running the show from Chapel Street and leading our great club to a new era of dominance, the likes of which the world had never seen, and there was one thought that kept jumping to the forefront of my mind.
Whenever I stop and consider the culture of the club, the arguments that go on among supporters, what we stand for and what we’re all in it for, all paths lead back to that one word. Winning.
It’s a bit of a conflict even in my own mind. I’ve discussed the point in the past in relation to international football and had an interesting conversation with Neil Atkinson on a show about how only one team can win each tournament so there needs to be more enjoyment along the way for everyone, otherwise the whole enterprise becomes a horrible affair but, ultimately, whilst I am in full agreement with life being a fun journey and football, in particular, being something that should bring us pleasure, I’m not in this to be a plucky loser having a great laugh as we go.
Only one team can win? Fine, that will be us then. And we’ll have a laugh while we’re doing it. Give me the odds of anything when I’m CEO and I’ll tell you we’ll beat them. A one in a million chance of winning, you say? Sound, we’ll be that one then. Someone has to be, don’t they, so why not us?
It’s a combination of all of these thoughts that led me to change my mind about the cups. You see, I’d said earlier this season (only a few weeks ago, in fact) that I didn’t care if we won the League Cup or not. I don’t care about Wembley and I just want to win the league.
But that’s what’s been running around my mind, conflicting ideas smashing into each other – one thought banging a drum saying it just wants to win the league, another chasing after it with a hammer screaming about the culture of winning and how that starts by winning something. Anything.
The chat with Damian has convinced me of the latter.
If I was Jürgen Klopp and I started with a blank piece of paper setting out my plan for this team and this club, I would write at the top of the page “win the league” and go from there. It only takes a second to know that the path I’d chart to reverse engineer winning the league would start with a whole host of details which lead to winning football matches and winning other competitions. I’d want to drill into my squad and the club at large (including the supporters) that everything we do leads us to one inevitable conclusion. We win, and we win in a style envied by the rest of the world. But to develop a culture of winning I’d need to convince everyone that what we’re doing on a daily basis leads to winning, which is why I’ve changed my mind on the cups. Most of the lads who give their everything for Klopp have never won anything, so to see his process validated with photos of them lifting a cup among fireworks and confetti, with a shiny medal to display at home as a daily reminder that the process works is, in my mind, a step along the way.
I would hazard a guess that Klopp doesn’t need to win the trophies to know that his process works. As I’ve touched on in the past, the great coaches don’t necessarily see winning and losing football matches or cup finals as the ultimate judge of whether their processes work or not, they know that many things happen that are out of their control so they focus on the things in their control in the knowledge that if they do that consistently enough they will ultimately win trophies anyway.
In the debate about Fenway Sports Group, I very rarely see anyone mention when saying that we’ve only won one trophy in 10 years that we’ve been the toss of a coin away from winning far more. We lost the FA Cup final to Chelsea after a second half performance that should have seen us win (only a spectacular Petr Cech save from an Andy Carroll header stopped the game going our way), we’ve had a penalty shoot-out loss to Manchester City in another League Cup final, an unexpected second half capitulation against Sevilla, and the nearest of near misses in a league title charge. In a parallel universe somewhere there are Liverpool supporters lauding FSG as those finals and that league challenge all went our way and history looks very different.
We can debate the whys and wherefores of those occasions another time, but what the current universe and this version of history is likely to tell our owners and, now, our new management team (despite what some supporters think), is that things are moving in the right direction. We as supporters might be impatient to win, but those in charge of organisations that most of us don’t have the knowledge or experience to run know that things usually take time.
Barcelona did not build their winning culture overnight. Nor did Manchester United. Facebook and Twitter took years to become overnight successes.
And, as United have seen and Barcelona might be on the cusp of seeing, building a culture is tough enough, but maintaining it through the passage of time and changes in personnel is another thing entirely.
So much of what Damian talked about on the podcast can be seen through the relatively short time that Klopp has been in charge. Did you want Mamadou Sakho brought back into the team because on paper he is a better centre-back than those who have been stepping into his place? It’s not going to happen. Sakho could be the greatest centre-back the world has ever seen, but by playing him when he has repeatedly disrespected the rules that Klopp has put in place to build a culture that we need in order to be successful would destroy everything else. Think of the message that sends out to the youngsters in the squad. His Snapchat game is of no importance to Klopp.
Listen to Damian’s story about Pep Guardiola dropping Ronaldinho because his attitude wasn’t good enough.
Some of you might be too young to have seen him play live, but I can assure you he was just a little bit better than Sakho. And Guardiola dropped him because it would have been too damaging to the overall project to keep him in the side because of his talent alone. Ditto Samuel Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, both of whom are also not bad at all at kicking the round thing in the rectangular thing, as Zlatan is still displaying at 134 years old in the most difficult league in the world™.
The problem with these principles is that it takes unbelievable courage to stick to them during the bad times. It’s why managers need the support of the club owners during the initial period otherwise it’s a flawed idea from the start. It helps, of course, when you’ve got the record of Guardiola and Klopp to get through those bad patches, because you can point everyone to your previous results to prove that your process works. It’s much harder for the likes of Brendan Rodgers, which is what we saw first-hand when the wheels fell off. Self-doubt more than anything else was his downfall. Rather than sticking to what he believed in, he started to meddle and tinker. Where we’ve seen Klopp stick rigidly to what he knows will work sooner or later, taking the stick that comes his way in the meantime, we saw Rodgers switch formations time and again. It pleases the crowd initially to see the manager making changes that they can understand, but greatness is very rarely achieved through crowd mentality. Usually it’s one individual with a vision that they stick to through the good times and bad, in spite of what the majority of people tell them.
We’ve seen it with all of the top coaches at some point this season. My favourite Guardiola press conference (and there have been a few contenders) was when he was asked the age-old line about not having a ‘Plan B’ and he responded in Rafa Benitez style with a spiky “Plan A has won me 27 trophies in nine seasons so I think I’ll stick to that”. As an aside, it always makes me laugh that the media and football fans don’t expect Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce to have a ‘Plan B’: “Tony, now that Plan A of launching the ball up to a big man and putting everyone else behind the ball has stopped working, are you thinking of invoking “Plan B” and passing the ball around like Barcelona?”
Gareth Roberts made a great point during the podcast, though, and it’s something that clashes with most of what I’ve written so far. One of my favourite quotes of all time is that the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again expecting different results. I’ve had lots of personal experience of taking a step back and realising that I’ve been repeating the same old mistakes over and over again expecting different results and, in hindsight, I agree with Einstein, it’s madness. (It’s good of me to agree with Einstein, I know, he can rest easy now that he knows he has my support.)
So how does that fit with great coaches repeating the same thing over and over again until it works?
I think the answer is that it’s all about what you’re repeating, and the skill lies in being able to identify which are the mistakes that lead to insanity and which are the virtues that will lead you to greatness. The reality is that there’s a fine line between genius and madness, and it’s that tightrope that all great leaders walk every day of their lives. Is what we’re doing a mistake? Klopp knows from experience that the way he runs a football team, squad and, ultimately, football club, leads to success with time and repetition. He also knows that he needs more players who buy into his process 100 per cent and will walk the line with him. I’ve seen people question why Adam Lallana is being given a four-year contract even though it will likely take him beyond his peak years, but Lallana, like James Milner and Jordan Henderson, offers more to Klopp than what we see once a week. He provides a senior point of reference in the dressing room and on the training pitch every day, showing to the younger players just what it takes. Work hard, be a team player, look after each other. It’s why I expect Milner to continue to be a part of what we do for the next few years, despite his age. Klopp has already made reference to him being one of the top five professionals he’s ever worked with. Stop and think about how big a compliment that is. And Klopp knows he needs the likes of Milner to bring everyone else with them to the promised land.
On the flip side, Damian made a really interesting point about the players’ reaction to Sadio Mane being away for the AFCON. Klopp will have been watching his boys carefully to see which of them used their star winger being away as an excuse for their own performances to drop. Noticeably, we had Georginio Wijnaldum coming out and saying it’s not all about Mane. Expect him to be part of what Klopp continues to do going forward, but it’ll be interesting to see which of the current squad depart unexpectedly in the summer.
So, no drum beating or fist clenching this week, just a calm reminder that great things tend to take time to build. There are exceptions, and we should always strive to be one, but building solid foundations that will last for years is arguably the most important thing Klopp and his team will do for us as a football club.
After all, if we’re going to build the club up and up to being a bastion of invincibility, we’ll need to make sure that the foundations are strong enough to hold.
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