“IF he was not good and a few others were not good then we could not win against Tottenham.”
The words of Jürgen Klopp during his pre-match press conference for the Leicester game when answering a question about Gini Wijnaldum and how well he had played against Spurs. His response was effectively that, yes, Gini played well, but they all had to play well for us to win.
There has been lots of chatter on TAW podcasts, in corridors, in bars and in Whatsapp groups recently about this very point, so it’s interesting that Klopp said it out loud before the game. I said a few weeks ago that the idea of having a winning team in its truest sense is beautifully idyllic. We were asked on the first AFQ Football show a few weeks ago whether we thought the 2005 Champions League winning team was better or worse than the current full strength team, and my response was that the current bunch of lads is clearly better, as a team, than the 2005 version.
But the 2005 team had something that most of our rivals have now and that we’ve been missing for a few years since the demise of Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.
I’ve been laughing to myself recently about the memory of people criticising us for being a “one-man team” or a “two-man team” on so many occasions in the past. It was largely when Gerrard and Fernando Torres were seemingly ripping teams apart single-handed but, before then, it was also mentioned at times when we had the likes of Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler winning games with moments of pure magic. I always said back then that that’s what good football teams do. They have one or, hopefully, a few more, star players who are capable of raising the level of those around them or, usually, digging their team-mates out of trouble when they’ve underperformed.
Look at our major rivals this season and the comparisons are clear. To play like Arsenal, Manchester City and us you need most of your players to click at the same time. But to play like Chelsea, Manchester United and, to a lesser extent, Spurs, there’s less reliance on the entire team working like a well-oiled machine because you have a few lads knocking around who will just win you a game when things aren’t going as planned. People talk about Chelsea as though they are the best team to have graced the Premier League in years. Don’t get me wrong, they’re clearly a very, very good side, but what sets them apart from us is their solidity and the ability of the likes of Eden Hazard, Pedro and Diego Costa to just win them a game out of nothing when they’re not playing very well.
Look at United in the cup final on Sunday. Outplayed and outfought for most of the match, but they won 3-2 with two clinical goals from a centre forward who contributed little else to the game. Jose Mourinho doesn’t have Zlatan Ibrahimovic in there for his hard work, he has him there because he’s a serial winner who he can rely on in big games and in big moments to bail the rest of the team out. I also included Spurs in that group because of the presence of Harry Kane in their team. Where would they be without their star striker winning them points every other week?
Phil Coutinho has shown flashes in the past of becoming that player, but it’s faded away in recent months since he came back from his injury, leaving us only with Sadio Mane as a player capable of winning a match on his own, but neither of them are the gnarly winners that we’ve seen in the past.
The problem, then, with having to rely on everyone to click at once in order to win football matches is exactly what we’ve seen in recent months. When it does click you look like absolute world beaters, capable of blowing teams away because it’s coming at them from all angles. But as soon as one or two players dip in form, intensity or commitment, that has a knock-on effect around the rest of the team who aren’t able to carry their team-mates because the system relies so heavily on everyone doing their bit. When they don’t, huge holes appear which are easy for the opposition to exploit.
Last night we were only two players short of what is generally seen as our first choice 11, yet we seemed all over the place. Imagine if I’d told everyone before the season started that Jordan Henderson being announced as having a foot injury hours before kick-off would have led to the depressed reaction it did, everyone would have thought I was mad – especially when learning that the outpouring of “oh no” was with him playing in a deep-lying midfield role. It speaks volumes for Hendo that he’s developed so much in that position, but equally speaks volumes for the quality of our squad that an injury to one midfielder leads to such chaos, as it has done all season.
Which brings us on to the next, obvious flaw in the current set-up. With two first team players injured last night we were left with an outfield bench of Alberto Moreno, Ragnar Klavan, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ben Woodburn, Divock Origi and Kevin Stewart. Granted that Daniel Sturridge was also injured, but given that he hasn’t had a look-in recently even when we’ve appeared desperate for a change I’m not sure it would have made much difference.
Compare that bench to United’s on Sunday: Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick, Daley Blind, Ashley Young, Marcus Rashford, Marouane Fellaini.
I watched the final with my father-in-law and we were both shocked by the quality of that bench. Think of the options available to Mourinho if he needs to change something. Pace, experience, height. He had so many options we even saw him briefing subs then changing his mind about who he needed to bring on as the game progressed. It’s worth bearing in mind as well that Luke Shaw, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Phil Jones, Matteo Darmian and Henrikh Mkhitaryan weren’t in the squad, which brings the differences between the investment in our two squads into sharp contrast.
I’ve said and written before that buying and investing in youth is clearly part of Klopp’s plans, so this is not necessarily a criticism that can be labelled solely at the club’s owners. I read a few weeks ago that of his league-winning squad at Dortmund, something like seven were bought when they were under 21 and four came from the youth set-up, with most of the successful purchases being bargains (Shinji Kagawa — free, Lukasz Piszczek — free, Robert Lewandowski — £3.33 million, Mats Hummels — £2.94m, Ilkay Gundogan — £3.85m). Even Marco Reus and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang didn’t break the bank.
Perhaps the biggest differences between Klopp’s Dortmund and the current Liverpool set-up, though, is that when Klopp took over at Dortmund they were in dire straits which gave him the time needed without too much focus to develop those players, and the expectations were therefore far lower than they are at our crazy club. Sean Rogers has mentioned on past Review shows that the likes of Emre Can will inevitably have to go through a learning curve and the big question is whether we want to watch players going through that process. I’d say the overwhelming answer to that question among supporters is, no, we don’t, but equally supporters turn a blind eye to the fact that all of the Dortmund players named above will have been through that same process before becoming world-beaters, we just didn’t have to watch them go through it before noticing them as the finished articles.
So where does that leave us? Klopp’s post-match reaction last night was one of a man let down by his players. A man who came back from a really positive mid-season training camp expecting us to win 13 games to the end of the season ready for an assault on the title next time out. The reaction of the players was so far from that expectation that it was frightening to watch. But all blame can’t be laid at the players’ feet either (not that Klopp ever seeks to shirk responsibility for defeats).
There have now been repeated question marks raised about the team’s shape, especially in the absence of Henderson. Haven’t we seen enough to tell us with certainty that no other member of this squad is able to play that role in his absence? So why do we persist with it at the risk of exposing our makeshift centre-back who was always going to be tested in that set up against the pace of Jamie Vardy? Hopefully this is a question Klopp and his team will be focusing on in the days to come.
I think we can all agree that Lucas Leiva is a fantastic lad and has been a very good player for Liverpool. His performance against Spurs was right from the top drawer against a side lacking in outright pace. But he simply isn’t good enough to be what is effectively our third choice centre-back and to play every week in that position, bearing in mind that he’s still learning how to play there himself so any criticism needs a huge caveat attached to it in the interests of fairness.
My biggest disappointment in last night’s performance, though, was a timely one given the Pro View show that we did with Stephen Warnock last week. We discussed at length with Stephen the ‘dark arts’ side of the game and how it’s something we’ve seemingly lacked for years now. We were all pleased with the appearance of what looked to be clever game management against Spurs (my personal favourite being James Milner wasting a whole minute by taking a throw in that didn’t even come into play and had to be re-taken). But that all disappeared again last night.
After two minutes Vardy took advantage of the unofficial ‘you can’t get booked in the first two minutes’ rule by leaving his studs on Mane, with little reaction at all from our players. They should have been straight over, in Vardy’s face and around the referee, making it clear in no uncertain terms that you cannot do that to us and, if you do, we’ll give it back to you 10-fold. But we didn’t. We didn’t try to upset their rhythm or rough them up in any way. For the first goal, there are plenty of mistakes to talk about in the middle of the pitch, but Lucas should be positioned next to Vardy to make it impossible for him to make that run so easily or, at the very least, be close enough to just pull him down if he sees him about to run clear. Lucas and Joel Matip both know that they don’t have the pace to win a foot-race with Leicester’s centre forward, and the naivety with which they dealt with him was worrying. Can you imagine United or Chelsea allowing that to happen? Christ, Chelsea had Willian standing over every free-kick at Anfield like he was playing five-a-side, that’s how savvy they are. He got booked for it around the 70th minute and got subbed shortly after, job done.
We need more players who are willing to push the boundaries of the rules. We need more lads who will leave one in on the other side in the first two minutes to let them know what we’re about, and we need more lads willing to take a yellow card for the benefit of the team. In short, we need more cheats.
I also said on the AFQ Football show mentioned above that this summer will tell us everything we need to know about Fenway Sports Group. I know that there are plenty of you out there that don’t think enough TAW contributors criticise their ownership of the club enough, and I’ll argue with you all day long about how well I think they’ve done as owners in the wider scheme of things. They took over a club in disarray with poor internal structures and rife with in-fighting and they’ve steadily re-structured the entire set-up while building a fantastic new Main Stand. We can discuss net spend all we like, but an Evertonian friend of mine once said something poignant when I was defending Rafa Benitez using the net spend argument. He said if he were us he wouldn’t be too arsed about defending the manager based on net spend, he’d be more bothered about the money that has been spent being spent in a better way. There has been plenty of money spent since FSG took ownership of the club, yet we’re left with that bench last night.
Let’s be clear though, I’ve defended the owners based on the circumstances they inherited and their own steep learning curve that they’ve been on, but this summer is a completely different story. They have their own internal structures in place, including last night’s announcement of a new CEO to complete the jigsaw puzzle. They’ve got their own manager on a six-year contract with a back-room team of his choosing, and they’ve got harmony throughout the club.
Everything is set for them to spend whatever money the manager wants in the next transfer window. I don’t expect Klopp to ever want to buy a Paul Pogba (mainly because he’s said himself that it’s not his style), but I do expect for us to make a series of Mane-level signings to improve the overall quality of the squad and make sure that the obvious weaknesses of this season are addressed in emphatic style.
Even if we don’t make the top four, there can be no excuses this summer.
Over to you, FSG.