AFTER the frustrating failure of Liverpool’s efforts to secure Virgil van Dijk’s signature in the summer, Jürgen Klopp’s public stance ever since has been to back the defenders at his disposal.
Many supporters, people in the media and pundits alike, doubted his words when, at the start of August, the manager claimed to be “fine” with the options at centre half.
“Look out there and tell me five that would make us stronger. Five. Then you win a prize. It’s difficult how it is,” said Klopp.
“We have four. I don’t think we need more. In the moment I’m fine.”
Klopp also said that day: “I am already here to work with this squad and not just always thinking ‘but if we don’t get this or this’.”
Even if the sincerity of his words could be questioned given the pursuit of van Dijk, the reasoning for the stance was easier to explain.
Publicly supporting your players is hardly a new approach from managers who appreciate that their every word is scrutinised to the nth degree and negativity towards any aspect of the club is swooped upon and writ large within a matter of minutes.
In general terms, it’s been Klopp’s approach too. Biting back at the questions that search out a negative strand. Steering the stories away from the individual and concentrating on a collective. Admitting that he has a difficult task but never ruling out making the impossible possible.
All of which possibly makes some of his more recent behaviour a little bit of a worry.
As frustrating results have become more frequent, so too has the sight of an exasperated Klopp on the sidelines; bottles have been thrown, he’s slapped his own head and at Wembley he was miles away, muttering alone as Liverpool crashed and burned.
His stance in press conferences also seems to be shifting. Klopp has always banged the drum for “emotional football” but it’s unlikely he meant struggling to keep hold of his own emotions post match when it’s gone wrong.
After the defeat to Leicester City in the League Cup, Klopp was forthright about what he had witnessed, saying in the press conference: “That we concede like this, that makes me really, really sick. That’s hard.
“But defending set pieces is a thing, it’s not the first ball obviously – we always had problems with this – now it’s the second or third even. And the throw in (big sigh).”
After the subsequent win over Leicester in the league yet more questions about the defence were dished up to which Klopp replied: “I can’t take a car and drive them out of the box. That’s how it is. As long as not every player is doing it we will work on it.”
And then came Spurs. Klopp at his tetchiest, or his most honest, depending on your perspective. The frustration was clear. But how often does a manager, particularly a manager big on the group, focused on positivity, tell the world he could defend better than one of the players he put out on the pitch?
“If I am involved in this situation on the pitch, then Harry [Kane] cannot get the ball,” Klopp said.
“I could have been out there in my trainers and they wouldn’t have scored. The first goal was a little throw in and we are not really there. It was just really bad, bad, bad defending.”
Some will praise that honesty. Some will say it’s time for players to take some responsibility for the mistakes and lapses in concentration that have cost Liverpool dear in recent weeks.
But it appears to be a change in approach from the manager. And if confidence is cracked and the mentality is fragile, as it appears to be, are these public dressing downs helping the team find their way?
It can be argued that it could make matters worse. The players will read those comments. See the headlines. Watch the discussions.
And maybe they wonder why the message has changed so drastically in a matter of months.
Sports psychologist Damian Hughes was back on The Anfield Wrap recently and spoke of the detrimental effect conflicting messages from the manager can have on the players. Is that what we could be seeing now?
🎥 @LiquidThinker: “For any coach, they have to come in with a clear idea of how they’re going to play…”
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) 18 October 2017
Or could it be that it’s a message upstairs? Klopp is savvy enough to recognise the reach of his words. As he frowned his way through the post-Spurs press conference he even spoke of not wanting to give the reporters headlines. But then he did just that.
Complaining at the start of the season about a set of circumstances that led to him missing out on his main target would have set a toxic tone before a ball was kicked.
But now we’re two months in, and already 12 points behind the league leaders, perhaps Klopp is guiding the pointing fingers elsewhere. Is he indicating that what looks like blind faith in players that simply aren’t good enough for the task in hand is in fact down to circumstance?
The message lately seems to be he can’t do much more. He’s telling them what to do and they’re not doing it. He can’t drive them. He can’t make them concentrate. He can’t force them to switch on. And in fact he could do better himself rocking around in a pair of New Balance trabs.
In his first ever press conference as Liverpool manager Klopp talked about the process for signing players – a much-discussed topic in the days of Brendan Rodgers.
“We only want to discuss very good players, discussing on the highest level,” he said then. “I am not a genius. I don’t know more than the rest of the world. I need other people to get perfect information.”
Has he had that perfect information? Was his declaration that there were not better available centre halves available based on that information?
There are signs he isn’t happy, that much is clear, and not just in his words. His actions at Spurs – hooking a centre half he awarded a new deal and refusing to replace him with one he signed in Ragnar Klavan – suggests that for all his supportive comments in the past he has now lost patience with some of the individuals tasked with making Liverpool a force.
What’s next though? What are the options? How does he really shake things up with this squad?
Perhaps that’s the point. He can’t. Liverpool needed to buy better and buy more in the summer. They didn’t and they’re paying for it.
Klopp must stick plasters between now and January but perhaps then he won’t be so happy to say all is rosy.
Liverpool need to find some balls. On the pitch and off it. And it’s not the first time that’s been said.
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