THE midweek defeat of Hoffenheim lifted many of the early season storm clouds brewing over Anfield. An impressive and crucial 2-1 win in Germany has all but secured Liverpool’s imperative target of Champions League group stage qualification after an eventual fourth-placed domestic finish in May.
Ahead of the visit to the Rhein-Neckar Arena, perhaps for the first time, but more so in the wake of last weekend’s error strewn 3-3 draw at Watford, Jürgen Klopp’s management has come under a vestige of scrutiny from a more reactive section of the club’s fan base. There’s angst in the camp over summer’s inertia and while Fenway Sports Group still cop for most of it, a fussy coach too carries some of the can.
Prior to last Saturday’s Vicarage Road fixture, Joey Barton – speaking on talkSPORT – challenged the German’s managerial credentials. While social media Reds are inclined to howl at the moon at the first sight of trouble – as they did after concession of a late equaliser to Watford – Barton’s critique was of a lazy pundit barking up the wrong tree.
The Liverpool-born midfielder, currently serving a ban for contravening betting regulations after representing Burnley last season, launched an attack on Klopp which bordered on the personal; branding the Liverpool manager a “giant German cheerleader…prancing up and down the touchline.”
Barton’s appraisal – alluding mainly to Klopp’s time at Borussia Dortmund – went further. “He is not trophy-laden like (Jose) Mourinho or (Pep) Guardiola, so we have to be sceptical of him.
“He has gone in with all this charisma and seems a down to earth, nice guy.
“To be a top manager, you have got to have more than that. He has got a terrible record in finals.
“I’m not buying the Klopp aura and that he is this super coach. His career doesn’t point that way.
— talkSPORT (@talkSPORT) 14 August 2017
“He has got one league title, one cup, in 2011-12. His Dortmund career ended in a hole in the ground. He lost the players, he lost the dressing room. They were fighting relegation.”
For a start, Joey – if he wants to acquire media respect and overturn negative public opinion harvested from a series of controversies during his playing career – needs to get his facts right. Klopp of course, won the Bundesliga title twice in consecutive years with Die Schwarzgelben.
If his final season in Germany began with alarmist fears of the drop, Dortmund recovered their mojo sufficiently to finish seventh and qualify for Europe. Footballers are fickle creatures but the upturn in form before Klopp’s departure, suggests whatever was lost in faith was admirably restored in his players before he made his eventual bow.
Barton omits to mention that one of Klopp’s lost cup finals came after steering Dortmund to a Champions League summit meeting at Wembley with Bayern Munich in 2013; which is hardly small beer. Furthermore, although acquiring silverware is a prerequisite for any Liverpool manager, you would be hard pressed to complain if in 2018, The Reds were to match Klopp’s first season feat of reaching two cup finals. The cup final thing feels like a lame, clichéd criticism.
Radio critic Barton was a little closer to the mark in highlighting Liverpool’s ongoing challenge in breaking down compact defences; especially should they be deprived of Phil Coutinho’s inventiveness long term.
“The players he has bought – (Mohamed) Salah, (Sadio) Mane – they are players to get in behind…If you take that space away and sit deep…that is when you need a Coutinho.”
No one questions the Brazilian’s guile but Mane’s incisive probe and finish from a deep position against Watford suggests Coutinho isn’t alone in having ability to pick the lock.
Where Barton is correct is in saying there is an aura that surrounds Klopp; a force field that makes him immune to criticism from some supporters. The manager enjoyed a justifiable honeymoon period and whatever progress has been made (and the restoration of Liverpool’s seat at Europe’s top table is inarguable) is enough to sustain the puppy love.
The irony is that Barton missed the point a bit; he actually went shy of mentioning areas where Klopp is open to genuine censure. It is possible to believe in a manager’s overall competency while recognising their blind spots. Rafa Benitez had many partisans who would have washed his feet without thinking of the stench but had an equal number of supporters whom he drove insane.
The current Liverpool coach is a firm disciple of time on the training pitch being his first priority and rightly so for that is much of the job at hand. After nearly two years of instruction at Melwood however, the Reds’ defensive issues, especially at set-pieces, remain unsolved.
Klopp devotees prefer to scapegoat any one or all three of Simon Mignolet, Alberto Moreno, and Dejan Lovren. Whatever the merits of these players, the manager is currently in the midst of a fourth transfer window when he could have chosen to relegate or move them on. And yet he still retains and picks them. Moreno, despite a loveable childish demeanor, is enjoying a return not consistent with his plight last season, or the left-back pecking order, and still borders on the rash.
Having clearly identified Virgil van Dijk as a defensive solution, Klopp is unwilling to believe there are many, if any, viable alternatives at the heart of the defence. Earlier this month, the 50-year-old questioned whether there were five defenders anywhere who could improve The Reds’ rearguard.
“Look out there and tell me five that would make us stronger. Five. Then you win a prize.
“We have four. I don’t think we need more. In the moment, I’m fine…I don’t see it (the defence) as a concern.”
After Watford some may still beg to differ.
Set-piece issues extend beyond chosen personnel at the back. Liverpool’s organisation for corners – presumably instigated in training – is at times shambolic. Gini Wijnaldum often finds himself at the scene of indecisive crime and Roberto Firmino, though not alone, is frequently guilty of ball watching. If the much vaunted practice-ground prep is incapable of ironing out these deficiencies, it makes the mulish stance and picky recruitment policy all the more questionable.
Organisation or personnel? Jamie Carragher or Jamie Redknapp in that particular tête-à-tête last week? Only the bolshiest would argue it is the one thing and not the other. The Liverpool boss has to have a foot in both camps if he is to address the problem satisfactorily.
Without question, Klopp isn’t a bad manager. Far from it; Klopp in the eyes of many is still and always will be a “super coach”.
Despite Barton’s words, Klopp’s overall record speaks for itself. His self belief is unwavering. There is a rare purity to inspire his thinking. One hopes that the trait of most great managers – a stubborn streak, doesn’t evolve into misplaced arrogance.
You can be right and wrong at the same time. Sometimes your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness. Both Benitez and Brendan Rodgers were unhinged in the eyes of supporters when strict adherence to principle was construed later as obstinacy.
Maybe, just maybe, our manager could relax his search for perfection and accept there are lots of footballers out there who could improve us, and not just in defence. Every time he insists he won’t spend “for the sake of it” it aligns him closer to suspicion of the owners’ parsimony.
To say, as he did on Thursday, that he is happy with his squad if he makes no more signings – with added European commitments this season and with rivals (bar Tottenham Hotspur) all looking stronger – is a claim open to serious question. We can only trust that it is mere ruse and things will look different in a fortnight.
In his staunch defence, Klopp will rightly argue this Liverpool team play exciting, expansive football and last weekend there was a 15-minute vignette hinting at the havoc a front three of Firmino, Mane and Salah might wreak as the season unfolds. That is very much to the boss’s credit in the acquisition of two and the development of the other into an attacking trident worthy of the admission fee.
An offensive philosophy is to be lauded, with the understandable caveat that a side wanting to play so high will always concede goals – van Dijk or no van Dijk.
The frustration is that Liverpool; despite being the opposite of risk averse, defend relatively well in open play. Joel Matip is perhaps a microcosm of this; adept at sweeping diagonal balls away under pressure and decent on the stretch, extending a telescopic leg.
When the ball is dead, it’s another matter.
If we’re looking for another area to wonder where Herr Klopp can still improve, there’s probably room elsewhere for more extended analysis of substitutions. However, Liverpool were coping well at Watford in the final minutes until a cold and stiff Joe Gomez conceded the unnecessary foul that ultimately led to The Hornets’ third goal. It was a naïve change.
The media plot for this Liverpool season is already written – after one league game. As hackneyed as the narrative is – great going forward, suspect at the back – it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is hard to argue with. Opponents will look to win free kicks, wingers will be looking to tickle the football against our full backs’ shins near the white lines.
The manager has a job to do. It’s either back to the lush green defensive drawing board at Melwood or admit defeat and consider alternatives before August 31. As unlikely as it seems for a modern, tightly-knit management team, would they consider drafting in a specialist from outside to improve defensive coaching?
As our Anfield bow beckons, Frank de Boer of Crystal Palace won’t be reading “Brilliant Orange” and reminiscing over the Dutch Masters and their total football. Instead he’ll be stoking his corner-ball cannons, summoning the target-man side of Christian Benteke and voicing echoes of their three consecutive Anfield wins.
In theory it’s a nightmare fixture, laced with all Liverpool’s apparent fears; a bogey team, a side sitting deep and adept from set pieces, and an arch nemesis of a spurned centre forward loitering with intent.
As ever, it falls on the players – and the manager – to buck the trend; otherwise the media naysayers will have more scope for complaint and doubt.