THERE’S a strange phenomenon occurring around the fields of Anfield Road at the moment.
It’s something I noticed months ago and have been watching with fascination as it’s developed, while not being entirely sure what I think about the whole thing.
As the performances on the pitch have taken us from the depths of despair to the highs of record European victories and back again, the strange phenomenon has only become more apparent. It’s not something I’ve ever witnessed before and I wonder whether I’ll ever witness it again.
I’ve spoken to dedicated Liverpool supporters who have had the good fortune to have watched the Mighty Reds for far longer than I, who have confirmed that this is not something that has ever happened before in their lifetimes.
What is the strange phenomenon? It’s the seemingly unwavering support of a manager and the reluctance to criticise him for anything.
It feels like an uncomfortable sentence to write and that uneasy feeling is the main reason for me wanting to explore it further. Isn’t the unwavering support of a manager a good thing?
Haven’t we longed for a time when the Liverpool supporter base gets behind a manager so strongly that he is allowed ample time to correct mistakes and move the club forward without the constant threat of the rabid red hoards turning on him and undermining all the good work?
The answer to both of those questions is, clearly in my view, yes. So why does it feel so strange?
As I sit here and write this to help me to nail down my thoughts, I’m still searching for what it is that I’m finding so unusual about the whole situation. The most obvious thing is the simple fact that it just doesn’t seem to happen in football, especially in the modern era.
I’ve witnessed Liverpool managers win the Champions League and almost win the Holy Grail of the football league in the most entertaining of ways, yet not be adored by the supporters as much as our current manager.
Even when Rafael Benitez and Brendan Rodgers did what they did, there were large portions of the fan base who simply did not like them and did not want them in the job, which led to calls for their heads being quick to surface as soon as certain sections of supporters could justify it to themselves and those around them, usually after a run of poor results similar to those we have witnessed recently.
Yet, here we are, just over two years since Jürgen Klopp’s appointment with wheels appearing to be falling off to a certain degree and the team regressing on the pitch, and there is barely a murmur of criticism directed towards the manager.
I think what has fascinated me even more than the lack of direct criticism, though, is the apparent desire from most quarters to do whatever is possible to find other areas of the club to blame, as long as it means that we don’t criticise the boss.
The players aren’t good enough? That’s Michael Edwards’ fault or, if you prefer, it’s the responsibility of Fenway Sports Group. You’re sick and tired of watching Simon Mignolet in goal? It’s that John Achterberg to blame. Useless he is. Dejan Lovren hasn’t improved since the second Rodgers signed him? Hang him out to dry and pester him on social media.
And what of the man in charge of it all?
Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
Klopp seemingly has a level of influence and power at Anfield that Benitez could only dream of. He has chopped and changed his backroom team from the physios to the sports science department to the fitness and conditioning people.
He’s bombed out decent footballers because they didn’t fit his style, weren’t up to his standards or didn’t toe the line when it came to discipline. He’s had record levels of money at his disposal to spend and chosen not to spend it on anything other than his prime targets.
Yet when it comes to people wanting to point the finger about player recruitment, it is generally pointed in the direction of sporting director Edwards, who appears to have taken the role of the much-criticised Transfer Committee as far as blame allocation goes.
That’s despite Klopp having spoken in glowing terms about him publicly upon his appointment to his new role and despite him still being in a job months after the 2017 summer transfer window, presumably preparing for the January sales and next summer. Does anyone really think that if Edwards was incompetent at his job that Klopp would tolerate it, given his approach to other members of the supporting cast?
I’ve seen the Achterberg criticism surface again over the past few days, the finger being pointed firmly in his direction for Mignolet having a nightmare performance against Spurs reminiscent of his pre salvation months at the end of last season.
Does anyone think that Achterberg would still be in his job if Klopp didn’t rate him? Even more importantly, it’s not our goalkeeper coach who picks who to play in goal each week and chooses whether or not to buy a new ‘keeper when the first choices at the club do little to inspire confidence in the stands.
As I begin to move all of these thoughts from my head to a screen, it’s becoming clear to me that I think what ruffles me about all of this is not the fact that Klopp appears, for the time being at least, to be immune to criticism. It’s not even that others are being blamed without any knowledge of what they are or are not doing behind the scenes. What gets to me is that it’s just not very fair and is completely out of sync with previous supporter behaviour.
I’ve always said in debates about managers of our great club and others around the country that we should all really agree a basis upon which they are judged. Either they are ultimately responsible for everything that happens on the pitch or they are not.
What I tend to see instead, however, is the approach to the blame game being changed depending upon the likeability of the person in the hot seat. Some people just didn’t take to Benitez from the moment he walked in the door at Anfield.
Some downright hated Rodgers before he’d even started looking for houses on Rightmove. As a result, when things went wrong on the pitch, it was all their fault. I’ve been in many arguments down the years in which my position has been that that is absolutely fine, provided that when things go well on the pitch, full credit is given to the manager as well.
But that’s not how it worked in the past, is it? When we won the Champions League in 2005, I had stand up arguments with my uncles who said that we only won the tournament because of Steven Gerrard. To this day, there’s a huge element of the fan base who say Rodgers only came close to winning the league because of Luis Suarez.
Previous managers got all of the blame when things went wrong, but none of the credit when things went well.
And now? Well, now the whole dynamic of the supporters’ approach seems to have been turned on its head. Now if we win it’s because Klopp is a genius and, if we lose, the owners, the recruitment staff, the goalkeeping coach and some of the players are useless.
It’s absolutely fascinating to watch.
In fairness, there is another element to the phenomenon that I’ve noticed lately and mentioned to a few others. It’s the creeping into the common vocabulary of Liverpool supporters of phrases like “I love the manager, but…”. I’ve found myself doing it as well.
We discussed Klopp’s two years as Liverpool manager and the club’s owners on our weekly video “The Wrap Up”. Check out our YouTube channel for more of that.
In the grand scheme of things, however, if as Liverpool manager that’s as bad as it’s getting from 99.9 per cent of the fan base after two years, no trophies and repeated mistakes on the pitch, you must be doing something right.
So, what is it? What’s changed among us that has led to this sudden shift in supporter mentality? It can’t just be that Jürgen is charismatic, tall, handsome and funny, can it?
Some of you will say that he’s got a proven track record in Germany which explains the unusual levels of patience, but Benitez had won two leagues in Spain against two giants before he arrived, then won a Champions League from nowhere in his first season and wasn’t granted this much grace by the vast majority of the fans, despite having a hard core of passionate supporters.
Perhaps we’re all just fed up with five-year projects and starting from scratch, and have made a subconscious pact with each other that Klopp is the right man for the job and we might as well divert whatever blame we can elsewhere when things go wrong, because, ultimately, who else is there that we’d want as manager now anyway?
Speaking personally, I’ve mentioned before in this column that I noted when we got Klopp how I’d never seen the supporters so united in the appointment of a manager, and I said that if he couldn’t win us the league we might as well pack it all in and do something more productive and less stressful with our weekends. So maybe that has played a part and some of us just don’t want to accept that this might be another false dawn by acknowledging the manager’s weaknesses out loud.
My gut instinct, though, is that the likeability factor goes a lot further than anyone gives credit to.
I was only reading a few weeks ago a great article that echoed my own advice to junior employees years ago that the most important thing you can do in work is be liked by your colleagues. Just generally being nice to have around is far more valuable than most recruitment consultants will tell you.
Smile at people and generally be someone who others like to see during their day, and you’ll get away with things that miserable, sour-faced members of your team might not. You’ll at the very least be given more of a grace period to make mistakes.
I suppose it’s not dissimilar to the points I made about the differences between Phil Coutinho and Mamadou Sakho a few months back. If you’re a brilliant footballer people are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt than if you’re just pretty good.
Just look at how quickly most of us forgave our little David Blaine for trying to force a move away. It was basically as long as it took for him to tuck another free kick into the top corner. That’s what magic does.
What I think is certainly the case, though, is that when the supporters and, most likely, the players, are so heavily invested in the personality of the manager, the mood of the whole club can rise and fall with his changing emotions.
I mentioned on the TAW Player show with Damian Hughes that I noticed the demeanour of the players drop in line with his body language away at Manchester City, and he seemed to be subdued on the touchline again against Spurs as we laboured to a second half 1-0 defeat against Spurs when the game was still there to be attacked.
If no one has already, maybe that’s something that someone should mention to Jürgen. More than I have ever seen, the entire club may be entranced by his personality. It would be interesting to hear from those who remember the entire Bill Shankly era whether this is what it was like, but that was unfortunately before my time.
Given that the vast majority of us appear to be under his spell, it is incumbent upon our charismatic leader to make sure that he demonstrates at all times the fight, desire and passion that he expects from everyone else, players and fans alike.
And just maybe, we can have a reasonable discussion about the role our larger-than-life boss has played in our recent run of poor form while still supporting him to get to where we all want to go.
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