ALL of a sudden, after Burnley and Leicester followed familiar scripts, Liverpool FC is the prime critical focus of the sports media.
The notion of a “Crisis Club” has been around for as long as I can remember, albeit in a different guise. Once upon a time, the brickbats were aimed by the Manchester-produced, Friday evening “Kick Off” show, accompanied by a few carping fans’ letters in the Saturday Football Echo.
Granada’s TV’s Gerald Sinstadt, when the Reds were dethroned as European Champions by Nottingham Forest in 1978, delivered the famous “The Party’s over” line, only to inspire The Reds to a record-breaking title season. Len Griffiths of Oxton, Wirral meanwhile was the most toxic of “The Pink” poison pens, berating the ideas of Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, and Kenny Dalglish et al. Whinging old Len must have been about 103 or sending missives from on high when he wrote his last letter complaining about Brendan Rodgers’ rearguard.
The point is that criticism from fans and media alike goes with the Anfield territory. What makes the first real wave of censure for Jürgen Klopp feel sacrilegious is that this isn’t a crisis, at least not yet, and the current blip can be explained away by an unfortunate extenuating circumstance in each of the last four winless games.
As Rob Gutmann’s grandfather Arthur once told his young charge, football is a game of chance, sometimes won and lost on the vagaries of luck. As a young Michel Platini once said, “The Ball is round.” As this columnist has understood for years, that football is also bouncy and often goes in the wrong direction, even via deflection off a fucking inflatable.
When I think back to that full season under Dalglish a few years back, I recall the word “unlucky” tripping from my exasperated lips all season long. Stewart Downing almost crowned his debut with a worldie which crashed against the bar against Sunderland on the opening day; and a few games later the winger’s cross against Swansea was volleyed against the woodwork by Andy Carroll. Luis Suarez spent the year clattering shots off the inside of the post and to bookend the season, Carroll’s Wembley effort, rattled off the underside of the crossbar versus Chelsea, robbed Dalglish of a potential cup double.
Ifs, buts and maybes yes, but bloody hell, definitely unlucky. “If yer auntie had balls, she’d be your uncle” is not only a horrible vulgar phrase but one which fails to comprehend that things sometimes don’t go your way or even themselves out. Klopp will be reflecting on that, in this moment – as he increasingly bristles at questions posed by hacks not afraid to ask searching questions.
Of course, it’s not just the press and wider media – typically a plethora of washed-up Sky pundits – who begin to point the finger but also knee jerkers across the fanbase who are prone to ignore progress Klopp’s Liverpool have made since his arrival.
New managers always inherit problems otherwise they wouldn’t be in situ in the first place. When the German first planted his flag at Melwood his immediate success was in reinvigorating a squad that had gone stale as an attacking force. It was an issue solved in the short term and one consistently and fully addressed as recently as the whipping of Arsenal a few weeks back.
At Leicester in midweek, I felt for old Kloppo. The cameras panned to him in the death throes of the match and captured a guy baffled and frozen at his team’s ineptitude; the image betraying a man more melancholic than truly vexed. For the very first time he looked somewhat bereft, as though he couldn’t comprehend his misfortune.
Klopp shouldn’t worry too much. No-one with an ounce of sanity is calling for his head. No-one of repute wants him out. He is still shy of two years into the job and his Liverpool project is still on an upward trajectory. He is still very much Fenway Sports Group’s man as well and it is they who call the shots.
That said, critics can easily source obvious sticks to beat him with him. This week’s admission that he’s “sick” of conceding soft goals, following on from a stout defence of centre backs he protests can’t be easily upgraded, is to contradict himself. His unwavering faith – at least in public – in his central defenders can readily be construed as a blind spot; his reluctance to consider all but one alternative recruit, a manifestation of the stubborn streak of which most managers stand accused.
Rafa Benitez, Dalglish, even Roy Evans, and Gerard Houllier all fell afoul of elevating Liverpool fans’ expectations. Benitez with his European Cup, Houllier with his Treble, Evans salvaging something from the Graeme Souness ruins, and Dalglish – in the wake of that moron Hodgson – merely by reassuming his eternal Anfield crown. They all promised more than they eventually delivered.
Klopp too has raised his own Liverpool bar. Reaching cup finals, producing football which launched the beginnings of a title charge last year and the eventual solace of a return to Champions League football are the measures of his achievement so far.
However, his standing among all bar the Twitter cranks, outstrips his place in the Anfield dug-out pantheon. That the current glitch is being seen in some quarters as calamity is in part down to the perception of Klopp and a narrative that extends beyond what he is – a very good football manager with respective strengths and weaknesses.
What stands him in good stead is his record back in his homeland; including his outstanding Bundesliga brace following his successful formative years at Mainz.
And yet, when Klopp came to England and what still surrounds him today are beliefs that he’s some sort of unique super-coach with skills and methods beyond the reach of his peers. It’s all OK that his obvious charisma, charm, beaming smile and raucous laugh go before a more serious private Klopp, but the more reflective German isn’t what most modern fans buy in to. I’m not sure it does him any favours when it comes to assessing his real merits and realistic expectations.
Similarly, there are managerial notions that surround the Liverpool boss which suggest he has peculiar qualities invisible in his Premier League counterparts.
Klopp is famed and lauded for brutal pre seasons and triple summer sessions as though Jose Mourinho has Juan Mata preparing for August by eyeing up the talent on the Costa Brava and Paul Pogba spending July knocking back pints of lager like Bryan Robson.
His development of players and love of coaching is extolled by those who hint Pep Guardiola stays in the shed at Man City’s training ground and leaves David Silva to improve his own game.
Klopp’s gegenpressing style and tactics are heralded as exclusive when most effective modern football is played on the counter, possession out of fashion, with emphasis on winning the ball high up the pitch.
Kloppologists also argue he cherishes a tight team unit, kindred spirit at its core, as though Mauricio Pochettino intentionally courts dressing room scraps between between Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son. Even if harmony is Klopp’s thing, ask Teddy Sheringham and Andrew Cole if their rancour held them back and consider whether Tommy Smith hating Emlyn Hughes’s guts mattered in Rome.
I predicted 18 months ago there was enough exaggeration and flim flam around Klopp that a potential fall from grace like no other – a few years down the line – could be on the cards. We’ve seen the beginnings of that this week, when it’s simply unfair and inaccurate to put him under such pressure at this juncture. There is real danger in overhyping Klopp, who has become the definition of a growing cult accompanying managers.
Instead of laughing our heads off at his glasses falling off and saying “boom” a lot, we should salute him for his purchases of Sadio Mane and Mo Salah, enjoy his obvious passion for attacking football, trust that he’s not stupid enough to ignore the glaring issues of defensive coaching and/or personnel and let him get on with it.
Klopp would be well served by acceptance he’s just another football fanatic, a bit like us only with more nous and responsibility. Even Dalglish will testify that the crown weighs heavy and that even the most ardent subjects can turn nasty. Supporters might help Klopp if he were allowed to abdicate a majesty bestowed on him by premature coronation.
Klopp, like all those before him, will stand or fall by what translates on the pitch, beginning at the King Power tomorrow night, where the poor sod is due a lucky break.
And, if you don’t believe in luck, ask your dad how long Leicester City has been our bogey team.