I HAD a conversation with one of my uncles a few weeks ago.
Not newsworthy in itself, obviously, but those who have read my ramblings on here previously might have noticed that when a conversation with one of my uncles is mentioned, it’s usually in relation to a debate about Rafa Benitez. Well, when I say debate, they were once full-blown arguments which threatened to ruin every family party at which the topic was raised, and have now become throwaway comments made by either side that lead to very little engagement on the topic for fear of the aforementioned battles reemerging.
We’ve been through the dance so many times that we know we won’t change each other’s opinion so there’s little point in falling out over it. You’ll have heard this before, maybe even had the argument with your own uncle, auntie, mum, dad, or a random old fella in the pub who talks so definitively about everything that it’s clear he has all the answers and we might as well just listen to him. (I can never understand why those fellas accept living a relatively dull life when they should clearly be multi billionaires sharing their infinite wisdom with the rest of the world, but that’s for another article.)
The argument is, on the one hand, that Benitez was too defensive and the uncles would rather be treated for a nasty STD by a heavy-handed, hairy-arsed doctor than watch Rafa’s team play. On the other hand, my team’s argument goes, he won a Champions League and an FA Cup, came close to winning the league, got to another Champions League final and multiple semi and quarter finals and, let’s not forget, demolished Manchester United, Real Madrid and a host of other teams (a record win in the CL, anyone?) as well as defeating lesser-known teams such as Barcelona and Inter Milan in their own backyards. But, to be fair, it was boring.
A similar criticism was labelled at Gerard Houllier by a similar portion of the fan base, although for some reason he seemed to be less reviled by his own fans than Rafa. I’d like to think it was because he won three out of four possible trophies in a season, but I’m not entirely sure it was.
The latest conversation I mentioned at the start of this particular rambling was an amicable discussion about the current Liverpool manager and his style of play. My uncle said he’d rather watch this type of football any day of the week than go back to watching Rafa’s teams. I slipped in a reminder about the Madrid game before saying that I’d rather watch Liverpool win some trophies again, and that for all the gesticulating on the touchline and heavy metal football, we hadn’t actually won anything yet. When I asked my uncle would he rather never win anything again than see us play a more defensive style, he didn’t overly commit but seemed to say that the entertainment value outweighs the winning of shiny things, if a clear choice has to be made.
It’s an age-old debate and one which will no doubt begin to resurface as the new season unfolds.
Fenway Sports Group clearly has an idea about the way it wants its adopted team to play, having appointed a young, ambitious manager who no doubt charmed them with his ability to paint a picture of how his teams should win football matches, followed by an older, more experienced, cooler version of the same type of coach, bringing a Germanic swagger to the whole affair while still focusing on entertainment as a path to glory.
After Brendan Rodgers’ appointment John Henry said: “Brendan’s comprehensive football philosophy is perfectly aligned with those at the club and those soon to join the club. He was the first choice unanimously among them and he had no hesitation at all in embracing exactly what we want to try to build at Liverpool.”
Similarly, after Jürgen Klopp’s appointment, Tom Werner said: “He possesses all the qualities we are looking for in a manager – he is a strong, inspirational leader, who has a clear philosophy of high-energy, attacking football.”
But then during the course of last season something began to change. Klopp began talking more about the styles of football that exist in this league that are simply not on display on the continent. Styles that would see home teams playing in front of empty stands in Germany but unfold in front of packed audiences here, with thousands of paying punters cheering the way in which highly-paid elite athletes can line up next to each other in an extremely organised way for an hour and a half, stifling the life out of a game.
So Jürgen started to act accordingly. Faced with injuries to key players which blunted our attacking verve, he deployed the big lads. The grocks. We ground out results and took precious points away from tough venues that ultimately led us to the minimum acceptable target of a fourth-place finish. And most people ended the season satisfied, if not as deliriously happy as if, say, we’d won a European Cup.
He obviously hasn’t had a change of heart since the last competitive ball was kicked in May either. Jürgen said after the Crystal Palace friendly in Hong Kong that “our biggest challenge is to be stronger defensively as a team”.
Not to score more goals. Not to entertain the punters more. To be stronger defensively. Why? Because we’ll win more football matches if we can defend better, and winning more football matches increases your chances of winning shiny things.
I often reference our fiercest rivals down the M62 (or down the East Lancs if you’re speaking to my dad), and they’re a brilliant case in point on this topic. I remember asking United fans if they’d have Jose Mourinho as Alex Ferguson’s replacement, and the consensus appeared to be a resounding “no”. They were used to winning while generally playing attacking football. While Mourinho might practically guarantee adding to the trophy collection, he’s far from a guarantee of an entertaining spectacle. A couple of seasons of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal later, and Mourinho was welcomed with open arms to try to revive what United fans had started to worry was a behemoth in a state of decline reminiscent of Liverpool in the early ‘90s. While they still won’t put up with turgid football in the medium to long term, winning some trophies and having some great nights out will buy Jose some time to try to evolve his style to add some flamboyance to his defensive stability.
So, then, where does that leave the debate, my uncles and the wise old fella in the pub? I expect to see a far more pragmatic Klopp this season. Knowing which games are the ones to entertain and go for goals, and which are for knuckling down, throwing in the grocks and grinding out a horrible win. It’s not black and white, obviously, and it’s possible to be all things to all men in these circumstances, the only question is whether those who hated Rafa’s style and disliked Houllier’s approach will give Jürgen a little more slack for the occasions on which he has to be just like them.
After all, surely we all just want to see some new shiny things at Anfield, however they get there.
It’s been too long.