TALK of Liverpool being in crisis overstates the current predicament, but there are two things that are true in the aftermath of Sunday’s defeat to Tottenham Hotspur:
- Liverpool’s domestic season is in danger of slipping away from us all.
- Jürgen Klopp now has the freedom to do whatever he wants and he should take that freedom.
Watching Liverpool’s domestic season slip away from the promise of the previous campaign is nothing new for supporters but is something new for this manager. In fact, even throughout his time at Borussia Dortmund he didn’t see a season dwindle into nothingness. He did see an absolute car crash sending his side to bottom of the table at the halfway mark but this isn’t that. That, however dreadful, implies there will need to be a battle, a comeback.
This is the realisation that there just isn’t a great deal to play for. It happened to Liverpool in 2015-16, in 2011-12 and in 2009-10. But the most interesting parallel for me is 2006-7. That season Liverpool had promised so much from the season before without ever quite challenging properly for the title. They’d had a summer window which stuttered and failed to bring in quality in key areas and they found themselves nowhere by mid autumn.
On November 12, 2006 Liverpool were humbled, tumbling to a three-goal defeat in North London to league rivals and finding themselves in ninth place and 14 points behind the Mancunian league leaders. Their defending had been terrible, a centre back (Sami Hyypia) hooked in ignominious and embarrassing fashion, and a manager who had to that point in his Liverpool reign been rightly untouchable found his every decision bang under the microscope.
That it was Arsenal and Manchester United, not Tottenham and Manchester City is irrelevant in all but one way — that season Liverpool still managed to finish in the top four and their place was never under real threat. There just weren’t enough good sides to challenge that. This is now, as we know too well, different.
This didn’t change the staggering disappointment that surrounded the club at the time though. The only difference between that disappointment then and this one now is that it has been aged and deepened, been matured by all the aforementioned disappointing seasons that followed. This, Jürgen, is not our first rodeo and while you want to turn doubters into believers there are many Liverpudlians who have seen this film before, seen its sequels and spin offs. This has been our reality and it has been painful. Sorry about that but we are all where we are. We don’t want the season to slip away. Make it stop.
Which leads us to the second point. It has seemed from the outside as though this is a manager who is very much about placing his trust in his players and having a covenant in them, that if they don’t let him down, he won’t let them down. That’s out the window. They have let him down. These are all his players. Whether he signed them or not, he has kept them and worked with them through four transfer windows now. The nonsense they are someone else’s signings as a get-out clause has to stop. They are his lads and they have let him and us down. But they have also been working to his decisions. And he’s arguably also let them and us down.
The most concerning thing that can happen to any Liverpool manager is the feeling they aren’t quite being themselves. Whether it is Roy Evans signing Paul Ince, Gerard Houllier playing a 4-4-2 diamond, Rafa Benitez stopping being compact and instead blamming it to Dirk Kuyt and Alberto Aquilani or Brendan Rodgers shutting up shop, there is a pattern that sits in the memory. While all of these things worked for a while, while they all had occasional positives, they were never, in the end, the cure. They were, in fact, the symptom.
All of those managers above will have told themselves they were being pragmatic and here Klopp is no different. Klopp has, in my view, attempted to take a pragmatic approach to the season around levels of intensity in games and around the idea of building for a run as autumn turns to winter, as the games intensify, as we get beyond the last international break of the year. The idea of being in touch at Christmas and going from there is as old as football itself, and best applied by Alex Ferguson, but what if it doesn’t suit a style of play or a set of players?
If that is the case then it isn’t pragmatic — compromising what worked reasonably well for something that works less well isn’t pragmatism in the same way that defensive football simply doesn’t equal pragmatic football. Pragmatism is taking an approach and tempering it in some way to make it more effective. This season Klopp has taken an approach and arguably made it less effective.
In short, I don’t think he is having that good a domestic campaign, again, similar to Benitez in 2006-7, who at the time of that Arsenal game in November had only taken one point away from home in six games.
However, he is the Liverpool manager. And that means he gets to make some decisions. The aftermath of the result and performance against Tottenham, hot on the heels of other results and performances arguably give him carte blanche to do what he wants with the squad. The covenant has, for a week, been scrapped. There is a new one from next Saturday. He can bomb out anyone he wants. He can change the captain, change the goalkeeper, change the shape, change the approach. He can look that squad in the eye and tell them that we now do it this way. He can fill his boots and I hope that he does. I hope he tells them that it is now very back to his way and this is going to be his way now.
I have no time for Loris Karius but it is crystal clear that Klopp doesn’t fancy Simon Mignolet as his number one. So he should just make the change he wants to make, whether it is Karius or Danny Ward. I don’t really care — I want Klopp to be Klopp. Thinking back to his first game at the club he was heavily rumoured to want to put Joe Gomez at centre back. If he does, now is the time. If he doesn’t fancy Jordan Henderson as captain, he should do something about it. If he isn’t sure about Emre Can, just find a way not to play him. If Philippe Coutinho is now playing as a midfielder, he plays there. If he wants to start Dominic Solanke, do it — if he wants to make him first sub ahead of Daniel Sturridge, just do that. Whatever it is, the manager gets this one. He gets it internally. He gets it externally. Whatever he does he can cut loose and should stay loose until the international break and arguably the game beyond.
What we can take from his comments, from the circumstance he is in, this is it. This is his week to have his way with his players and they cannot begrudge a single decision. Nor can we. You actually don’t get as many of these as a football manager as we all think, presuming high-handed autocracy is the way football clubs constantly work. They don’t. You perhaps don’t even get one a season once you are bedded in. But this is definitely one. The only thing I’d ask is that his footballers play his football. Klopp’s Liverpool is most definitely intense and this search for a workable fourth gear is a luxury whose moment has passed for this campaign. A domestic season cannot be allowed to get away.
Nothing is gone here. Absolutely nothing. In 2006-7 Liverpool ended up in a Champions League final. They signed Alvaro Arbeloa and Javier Mascherano in the new year. They clawed their way to 68 points. We know that 68 points won’t do the job this season but the rest is worth keeping an eye on. Adversity is about how you react to it. Liverpool need to react like Klopp’s Liverpool. Fighting, screaming, scrapping and running. Into these and through these. The season restarts now. We all need to make the most of it, but the Liverpool manager the most needs to make the most.
The current situation at Liverpool was discussed at length on our Overview show — SUBSCRIBE to TAW Player to listen to that and get 40 plus podcasts about Liverpool FC every month. A subscription also gives you access to our podcast archive – here are some of the highlights so far…