AT some point between the advent of the Premier League and today, it was decided that footballers in England’s top division weren’t human. Obviously they’re human in the sense that they’re made of flesh and blood, yet somehow they’ve ceased to be seen and judged in the same way as you or I.
As with most things, a lot of that has been influenced by the mainstream media. The tabloids use words, phrases and headlines that desensitise us from the more outrageous claims and remarks that are out there and over the years the unacceptable has slowly become the norm. You can see it in the way certain people use the word ‘cockroaches’ to talk about others, or how big-gobs for hire tell us that we need to ‘man up’ instead of talking about our feelings.
Some of you may be wondering what the hell any of this has got to do with Liverpool Football Club and it would be an entirely fair question. The truth is that I couldn’t help thinking about the way we judge footballers when I saw a piece from the BBC comparing Brendan Rodgers and Jürgen Klopp’s record. Basically whoever wrote the piece had noted that, after 65 games, Rodgers and Klopp had both gained 117 points thanks to 33 wins, 18 draws and 14 losses. They went on to say that Rodgers won his 66th game while Klopp drew his against Southampton at the weekend.
The suggestion is clear: Klopp isn’t an improvement on the Northern Irishman, but is it a fair comparison? Are the numbers enough to suggest that not much has changed between the two managers? Most importantly, is it a stick to beat the German with, as some seem to be suggesting?
Rodgers arrived at Liverpool in June of 2012, becoming manager in time for the 2012-13 campaign. That means that the figure of 66 games (if you include his win and Klopp’s draw at the weekend) took in the 38 games of that season as well as the first 28 games of the 2013-2014 campaign. For a brief second I’m not even going to mention the players that the two managers had available to them, instead concentrating simply on the numbers.
In 2012-13 Rodgers helped Liverpool rack up 61 points, finishing seventh. We got knocked out of the FA Cup and League Cup in the fourth round of each, as well as departing the Europa League at the last 32 stage. In Klopp’s first partial season we finished in eighth on 60 points in the league, got knocked out in round four of the FA Cup but made the final of both the League Cup and the Europa League. For my money, one point difference in the league combined with a same stage exit in the FA Cup and two cup finals means that Klopp had a better first season than Rodgers. Even more impressive when you consider he only had two-thirds of a campaign to do it in and no pre-season to get to know his players and bring in some of his own recruits.
The second 28 games that we’re counting the points from for Rodgers’ first 66 came during the 2013-14 season. That is the year that we amassed our second-best points total of the Premier League era. It is the season, I’m sure you don’t need reminding, that we nearly won the league. It’s the year we scored over 100 goals and played some of the best football that Anfield had seen since the 1980s. This piece is not knocking Rodgers at all precisely because of just how good we were under him in 2013-14, for which the manager deserves an enormous amount of credit.
A big part of the reason why we were as good as we were that year was a man named Luis Suarez. Having been an OK but hardly lethal player the season before, the Uruguayan developed under Rodgers’ training and became one of the best players in the world. That he was playing alongside a fit, firing and lethal Daniel Sturridge certainly didn’t harm our chances of success. Nor did the re-invention of Steven Gerrard as a deep-lying playmaker, breaking up opposition attacks and putting us on the front-foot immediately. Even the least observant will have noticed that Klopp hasn’t been able to turn to Suarez, Gerrard or even Sturridge during his second season in charge.
I like Rodgers a lot and agree with every word of Ben Johnson’s recent piece about him on The Anfield Wrap. I take nothing away from his management at all when I say this, but would a manager in his second season at a club prefer to work with Suarez, a fit Sturridge and a re-invigorated Gerrard, or Divock Origi who’s still learning the ropes, Sturridge who’s lost his pace and a chronically injured Jordan Henderson? That Klopp managed the same number of points as Rodgers after 65 games isn’t a stick to beat him with, it should be used to sing his praises.
What’s all that got to do with us not seeing footballers as humans? Well, I think we forget how long it takes managers to turn the ship around when they arrive at a club. Some believe that change should be instant, that a manager can come in, have a quick word with the players and they’ll go out and batter everyone just because they’ve been told to. It’s the Big Brother/X-Factor generation as a football fan, wanting everything right now and not understanding that success based on talent takes a while to come by.
Rodgers arrived to take over a team that had reached two cup finals, winning one and narrowly missing out on the other. The league form wasn’t great, but a winning mentality had been established and players like Suarez had had time to settle at the club and get a taste of what it was like to lift some silverware. Klopp came in at a time when the previous season had ended with a disappointing loss to Aston Villa in the FA Cup and a disgraceful capitulation away to Stoke. He arrived to find a dressing room that was disillusioned and fractured, failing to get any kind of rhythm together and struggling to beat Carlisle at Anfield in the cup.
Robots could be reprogrammed, turned off and on again and asked to recalibrate to their current situation. Human beings don’t work quite like that, as anyone who’s been in a difficult work environment will tell you. We might have been persuaded by the less reputable tabloids that the money they earn means that they don’t suffer in the same way as the rest of us, but that’s simply not true. Rodgers took a team that was playing well at some points and not at others and nurtured it, managed it well and turned it into a winning machine. Klopp took over a side that had forgotten what it was to win and have fun on a football pitch and did his best to pick it back up.
The idea of comparing any two managers’ record after a certain number of games is faintly ridiculous, with important factors such as players in the squad and their relative fitness ignored for convenience.
To suggest that Klopp deserves criticism for managing us to two points less than Rodgers did, when the latter was working with the best attacking side Liverpool had seen for 30 years, is preposterous to say the least.