“WE are all trying to improve. Improvement sometimes means to change something; sometimes it just means to wait.”
Jürgen Klopp has spoken a lot about young players and their development during his time as Liverpool manager. The quote above from October 2016 when speaking on the same subject probably represents a general summary of an array of quotes since his arrival at the club. It’s what he perceives as the right, the best and the only road to long-term success wherever he’s been. However, given Monday night’s debacle at the King Power Stadium, which has become all too frequent in the precarious infancy of 2017, the question must be how long do we have to wait for a noticeable change?
Klopp’s mantra is to improve players of all ages, but he most definitely feels an added responsibility for the young players under his wing at Anfield. He has a burning desire to improve them as people as well as football players, to tap into their impressionable youth, exuberance and innocence that he finds so relatable to his own outlook on life and work. Klopp is clearly a man who feels the need to have an everlastingly positive effect on the path taken by anyone he comes into contact with who has the desire to work and be the best they can possibly be.
Since his arrival at Liverpool we have seen an unwavering loyalty from Klopp towards the group he inherited, with the exception of those sold in the summer to make way for new arrivals and also the castigated Mamadou Sakho, all of which justified. He had the opportunity when he came in to throw the collective under the bus in a Roy Hodgson-like exoneration of responsibility as to buy himself some extra-time to turn things around. Instead, he fronted every member of his squad and offered them the chance to go on a journey with him, with the only desideratum being to work harder than they’ve ever worked before and embrace the inevitable change. All the time backing them with a smile on his face and telling anyone who would listen this is a group he is more than happy to work and go places with.
For the most part we have seen an improvement from the squad as a group and as individuals since Klopp’s reign commenced. The likes of Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana have been propelled to a level of player they wouldn’t have been expected to reach under anyone else and Klopp, for the most part, is fundamentally living up to his mantra of improving and developing footballers and trying to enjoy and learn with them every step of the way.
But sometimes, improvement means to change something, sometimes it just means to wait. And surely that faith in waiting is now wearing very thin.
This for me feels like Klopp’s ‘wait and see’ season. His ‘go and show me how much you’ve developed’, ‘give me something back’ season. From the summer training sessions in Palo Alto to the collective togetherness he has installed around Melwood, the members of this squad have had all of the manager’s time and energy fully invested into them to improve and positively impact Liverpool Football Club. Klopp has had to step back and observe, with the intention of hopefully seeing his efforts bear fruit. Who is doing everything they possibly can to improve themselves and the team? Who is showing qualities developed or learnt through the manager’s guidance? Who, most importantly, isn’t?
It will be debated long into the light hours of Liverpool’s glorious summer nights just who is the right type of player to come into the squad and what positions need to be filled and backed. There is no doubt the manager is playing the waiting game, just like last season, on whether European qualification can be achieved to see the level of player he can attract. Regardless of this, Liverpool will look to buy pace, buy goals, buy width, buy technically and mentally equipped players to elevate and develop us to the next level again. The concerning caveat for every Liverpool fan is the squad sizes of rivals which undoubtedly will also be bolstered by the best that can possibly be acquired, which can leave you with a feeling of being languished in some form of purgatorial top eight limbo.
Liverpool need a massive improvement beyond the preferred first 11, as the shambles of Leicester and many other games proved, the problem in its primacy has been the inability to rely on one or two changes to the side. Those on the fringe simply haven’t delivered; maybe this begs the question as to why the manager hasn’t compromised on the position of players like James Milner when required? But the fact remains Liverpool do not have a Willian as their number 12, or an Olivier Giroud as their 13, or even a Daley Blind as 14.
There are prosecuting arguments against the bleak looking future of the likes of the experienced Daniel Sturridge and Simon Mignolet given what we have seen this season and before, however I think that the future of a particular quartet of young players will give us all a pivotal insight into how much Klopp actually rates the chances of this current squad taking us to any kind of next level, and how long he is willing to let patience preside in line with his enduring philosophy and vision.
First is Alberto Moreno. Ah, Albie. Quite where to start with the excitable Spaniard? Moreno has unfortunately fitted all the criteria of Liverpool’s left-back problems for the best part of 20 years, with the exception of the elegant Fabio Aurelio. The perception of a problematic position has never been eased with the presence of Moreno, who it could be argued provided the sternest test of Klopp’s ability to transform a footballer, given the fact he has looked so error prone throughout his Liverpool career.
It is hard to argue that there has been any sign of development from Moreno this season, although he has looked slightly more in tune with the team’s shape and slightly more comfortable in possession, we have only seen small cameos of him and a feeling that he has cut a far more untrustworthy figure the longer this season has prevailed maybe shows Klopp’s patience is finally withering. Although it can be argued, rightly or wrongly, that Klopp has committed to Milner at left-back and therefore Trent Alexander-Arnold was the natural understudy on the right, it felt like a massive call to deny Albie a starting berth at Old Trafford in January, and perhaps signified his time at Liverpool coming to an underwhelming end.
Another player I wouldn’t mind asking whether he anticipated life in the Premier League to be quite this difficult is Loris Karius. It would have to be in some formal capacity because he’d be an awful pint, wouldn’t he? Anyway, I would want to ask this because during his first run in the team from mid-September, it looked as though playing in goal was the most surprising and scariest thing in the world to him, making him give away corners from goalkicks and the like, it was excruciatingly painful at times. We have seen a marked improvement in his cup cameos since he was dropped for Mignolet pre-Christmas and he looks slightly more hardened to the demands of this league, but a massive question mark still remains over his ability to be the long-term option for such a pivotal position.
Klopp needs his ‘keeper to play on the front foot, sweeping up all that comes within 20 yards of his own box as well as taking care of matters inside it, given the advanced and jeopardous manner the manager wants his team to play. Karius has had to bear the brunt of a lot of Liverpool fans anxieties born from the uneasy and indecisive years of Mignolet between the posts. This coupled with our increasing angst from Karius’s own underwhelming form means that the environment he has come into is not the most encouraging for a young player to develop in and he probably deserves more time. However, although unlikely, Klopp may see it as a cutting of losses and adopt a ‘rip it up and start again’ approach in the same way Gerard Houllier did with Sander Westerveld in 2001.
Emre Can is another, and is increasingly looking like a man without a country. The longer the 2016-17 goes on, Can is cutting an ever more frustrating figure in this Liverpool side which seems to demand all the qualities he is finding the most difficult to process and execute, with his sometimes ponderous and languishing style making him a prime target for criticism among fans. More concerning is the lack of identity Can has developed. As an established German International midfielder at a young but progressive age, Can should at least have an idea which position he currently sees himself nailing down for club and country over the coming years, however, there is nothing to suggest the midfielder is more suited to either the deep-lying or advanced midfield roles that are cemented into most current formations used at the top level of football, he looks uncomfortable and not particularly suited to either of those roles.
There has also been a slight shift in the relationship between Can and the Liverpool fans over the past 12 months. From the vigorously ecstatic memory of him running down to The Kop with his ankle on ice after Dejan Lovren’s winner against Dortmund, to the level of pietism that was bestowed upon him before the fixture with Villarreal, last season was one where Reds everywhere felt Can was now an established and pivotal cog in Klopp’s machine. However, this season has seen him embark on a significantly backward trajectory in his Liverpool career. He has increasingly looked like a player who has not had any kind of pre-season, which is partially true given he was the last player back after the European Championships. This coupled with the speculation over stalling contract talks as he enters his final year suggests nothing is certain about Can’s Liverpool career.
Divock Origi is another player’s whose future at the club has been cast into doubt. It may come as a surprise to some given his obvious potential, but the level of drop off in performance from the Belgian forward this season has been deeply alarming. Origi has set the bar at the level he showed towards the back end of last season, giving the team an added dimension with his pace, power and composure beyond his years in front of goal. When he returned to the side in late autumn, his goalscoring form continued and the crest of the wave Liverpool were riding somewhat masked his overall contribution to the team. Unfortunately, the combined lack of points and goals since the turn of the year has left all players culpable and Origi has certainly been found wanting.
Liverpool have clearly needed more from Origi this season, a case in point being the Goodison derby where he was handed the responsibility of being Liverpool’s lone frontman. Liverpool needed a massive first half from the Belgian that night, someone to make it stick and stretch the channels, however, Origi looked like he wanted to be anywhere but a football pitch which was massively concerning. He certainly looks like a player who needs to regain his own self-assured persona on the pitch. Like Can, Liverpool’s fluid 4-3-3 system may not be the most suited to how Origi prefers to play, but the Origi of last season post-February could fit into any of the front three positions and provide a major contribution to Liverpool, displaying all the attributes needed. Whether Klopp is willing to give the 21-year-old the time to rejuvenate and re-discover himself remains to be seen.
In the aftermath of the Reds’ disappointing defeat to Leicester, Klopp said: “The thing is, we are all playing for our future – myself included. We get judged every day, especially on matchdays, especially on performances.”
While it may be the case that quite a number are playing for their futures, the four players mentioned above have the increased pressure of being classified as Klopp’s type of player; young, clearly talented, and in need of development.
While it could be argued each are of the age where it could still be seen as acceptable to keep them around but not necessarily in the first 11, the shortcomings we witnessed in this side beyond the first 11 once again on Monday make it abundantly clear Liverpool are falling massively short when there is not a full quota of players at the manager’s disposal.
Whatever happens, Klopp can have no doubts that he has stood by this current squad, a lot of whom he inherited and did not ask for, and has been let down by a minority when they’ve been called on. Whether that means he will go back to the drawing board or continue to trust the current group, only time will tell. One thing that is for certain is that there aren’t many more Leicester aways he will be willing to take, and nor should he.