In the wake of Liverpool’s draw-that-felt-like-a-loss with Bournemouth last night I wondered what I could write about today. I considered talking about how the two Merseyside derbies at Anfield appear to have bookended Divock Origi’s year, with the injury he suffered at the hands of a talentless thug 12 months ago dashing his confidence before the goal last weekend seemed to restore it. I wondered whether conversations about our plans in the summer needed to be had, but given I don’t know much about any players that don’t play for Liverpool I decided that wasn’t a job for me.
Instead, something that came up on The Pink after last night’s game got me thinking. I made the point that it is widely accepted that managers need three summers to get their squad exactly the way they want it. Nowadays, of course, the men in the dugout are lucky to get three months before questions are asked of them, let alone three years. I said that Jürgen Klopp will be learning all of the time and that he’ll have learnt significantly more from this season than he could’ve last time out.
When his players struggled in the closing stages of the 2015-16 campaign, was it because they were concentrating on the Europa League? Was it because he hadn’t had a chance to have a pre-season with them and were having to learn his methods on the job? Or was it because the previous manager’s way of doing things was too deeply ingrained in them? Whatever the answer, Klopp needed to give those who he felt could be redeemed an opportunity to prove themselves.
Whenever you suggest that the manager needs time one of the immediate replies is something along the lines of “Antonio Conte didn’t need time”. The fact that the Italian has walked into Stamford Bridge and led the Blues to a certain title is, in the eyes of sum, proof positive that any man should be able to do it. “Why does Klopp need three summers? Conte hardly bought anyone at Chelsea and even the players he did buy have barely got a game.”
When the West London club inevitably win the Premier League in May it will be their second title in three seasons. It will be their fifth in 13 years. That’s better than a one in three ratio for title wins. Since Carlo Ancelotti took the title to Stamford Bridge in 2010 the Blues have finished second, sixth, third, third, first and 10th. Liverpool, meanwhile, have finished eighth, seventh, second, sixth and eighth. The reason that Chelsea finished 10th last season is that the players all but downed tools under José Mourinho, not because they weren’t good enough.
The reason we’ve consistently finished outside the top four, on the other hand, is because our players haven’t been good enough. Taking away Chelsea’s financial power just for a second, Klopp doesn’t get to walk into a dressing room full of players who know what it takes to win titles. He doesn’t have a squad filled with winners who can grind out results. His team is mentally fragile and has been for years. You don’t get to erase that overnight simply by willing it to be the case.
I know I have a reputation for being a Simon Mignolet hater but I’ve actually eased off on that a bit lately. I think Neil’s point about the fact that the majority of goalkeepers in the league are worse than him is an entirely fair point. He’s not the ‘bottom half’ ‘keeper I may have declared him to be in the past. The problem is that he’s also not a title-winning ‘keeper. In fact, I’d even suggest he’s not a top four one. Which of our rivals for the Champions League places would come and make us an offer we can’t refuse for Mignolet’s services if their own shot-stopper was bought by Real Madrid or Barcelona?
When he does things like the drag-back he performed 30 yards from goal last night, that sends panic into the hearts of defenders, to say nothing of what it does for The Kop. He spreads uncertainty throughout the defensive unit and while he might be perfectly good at the goalkeeper stuff like stopping shots and saving penalties, giving your defence and supporters heart palpitations is something that can’t be so easily quantified by stats.
It’s not just Mignolet, of course. As I said on The Pink, we had seven defensive players on the pitch last night and yet not one of them could deal with getting rid of a ball in our penalty box. Bournemouth had two shots on target last night and scored two goals. They are not the first team to do that and unless something dramatic happens between now and the end of the campaign they won’t be the last. That suggests that the problem is systemic and the fact that it has been going on for so long is surely indicative of the fact that it’s a much bigger problem than Klopp can sort out in just one and a half seasons.
In the last six seasons, starting with 2010-11, we have conceded 44, 40, 43, 50, 48 and 50. We’re on course to concede over 50 again this year. Klopp will have felt heading into the campaign that he’d made moves to stop that from happening. He signed Joel Matip, who most agree has been a classy addition to the side, and he brought in Loris Karius. The issue is that Matip’s season has been plagued by injury while Karius got off to a rocky start and the manager felt it best to take him out of the limelight and allow him to adjust. I think we’ve rushed to judgement on Karius and believe he could still come good, but the Matip situation is problematic.
How many times has Conte been unable to field his first-choice defence this season? Compare and contrast that with how many times Klopp’s had to chop and change at the back and you can see a big part of the problem. You’ve got a goalkeeper who spreads panic throughout the crowd and the team matched up with a centre-back pairing who rarely appear on the pitch together because one or the other is injured, ill or in a fight with Cameroon. Teams don’t have to work hard to score against us and a big part of that is because our centre-backs have no idea who will be dealing with what and when. No wonder there’s confusion at the back.
Klopp’s Dortmund side conceded 37 in his first season and 42 in his second. It got worse before it got better. The good news, for those that like to read the runes, is that they conceded 22 in season number three and 25 in season number four. Coincidentally, they’re the two years that they won the Bundesliga under his management. The bad news is that they conceded 42, 48 and 42 in his remaining seasons at the helm, so there’s an argument that leaky defences are more typical of Klopp teams than solid ones.
The point of all of this is that you can’t simply look at a manager’s arrival at a club as a new beginning and assume that nothing that went before it matters. Conte inherited a team of winners, Klopp is trying to build one. Which of the players in his side does he believe has the right mentality? Which does he think he can trust? Trust not only to do the business on the pitch but also to get onto the pitch in the first place? Fans don’t like to hear it, but we have been a side that finishes outside the top four for close to a decade. We haven’t been defensively solid since Rafa Benitez’s days and that is a club-wide problem.
Klopp made a mistake with his substitution last night, but it was the players on the pitch that failed to deal with a relatively simple defensive scenario, not the manager on the sideline. Building the right mentality takes time, patience and knowledge. Only a select few get to inherit a team with all of the building blocks already in place and even all of the money of a rich sheikh and two titles in the bank doesn’t guarantee a football club can shake off its former mentality easily.
We’re on the road to success, but there will be setbacks before we reach the holy grail.