A FEW weeks ago, I was chatting off air to the esteemed host of many Anfield Wrap shows, Neil Atkinson, about an aspect of the recruitment of football managers that we very rarely discuss and, therefore, don’t tend to factor into our expectation levels when someone new arrives.
I’ve said before that I’ve never witnessed the worldwide Liverpool FC supporter base to be so united behind the appointment of a manager as it was for the unveiling of Jürgen Klopp to the role of high priest of Anfield. And while I’m sure that we will soon start to hear voices telling us that they had their concerns back then, they obviously didn’t want to make them public at the time.
What I didn’t hear anyone say was anything along the lines of:
“I think he’s a great manager and should be a brilliant fit for us, but we all need to bear in mind that he’s never managed an elite team to play more than 34 league games in a season, and his heavy metal brand of football has only ever been utilised to great effect by him in a league in which they get a six-week winter break to recharge their batteries half way through the season, so we might need to give him a bit of time to adapt before expecting us to win the league.”
I appreciate it’s a slightly facetious example, but the point stands.
I wonder whether it’s even a consideration at the highest levels of elite football clubs when they’re looking to appoint a new manager, but I suspect that the boards of directors look at a list of who they can appoint and pick the best one regardless of the leagues they’ve managed in previously, and the experience they have of dealing with challenges similar to those faced in the English leagues.
At the upper reaches of the Premier League, the influx of elite foreign managers is seemingly never ending, but the question over the style of the incoming managers and how quickly their styles can adapt very rarely gets discussed.
If we imagine for a minute that we get to decide who is appointed as Liverpool’s manager and we presume that the aim of most Reds on the planet now is to win the league, aren’t we best served by appointing a manager who has the experience of winning a league with a style that is more likely to adapt quickly and be able to endure the long winter months, rather than one that destroys players’ legs and needs a few years to adapt by building a new squad and learning how to deal with rotation for the first time? It’s an interesting question to consider.
From a purely aesthetic perspective, I think most of us would rather have Klopp or Pep Guardiola in charge of Liverpool than Jose Mourinho or Antonio Conte, all things being equal, but our problem is that all things aren’t equal. We’re told that we don’t have the same financial fire power as either of the Manchester clubs or Chelsea (whether we actually do or not is a debate for another article), and that we therefore need to find ways of cheating the system and gaining advantages elsewhere.
It’s interesting, then, that so little has been discussed before now about how difficult it is in practice for a manager who has only ever managed in a country with a six-week winter break to bring such an aggressive style of football to England and adapt it to playing 134 games in three weeks in December each year.
On that point, during the last two TAW Player Review shows we’ve discussed the evolution of football teams and the evolution of football managers, including the evolution of Klopp.
While we’re all impatient to win the league after so long without it, it’s important to remember that Klopp has only been here since October 2015 and this is only his third winter schedule. The first no doubt passed him by in the blink of an eye. Last season, when he played the same team twice in two days, first in defeating Manchester City in a high-octane, 5.30pm kick off on New Year’s Eve, followed by an away game at Sunderland which actually kicked off less than 48 hours later and in which most of our players looked like they’d been too exuberant in seeing in the New Year, I remember discussing that it would be interesting to see whether he would take the same approach again in 2017 having gained experience from his 2016 tactics.
This is a key point, and one which we shouldn’t overlook. Every football manager is learning as they go along. If our football club appoints a manager from a country in which the fixture schedule is nowhere near as crowded as the English Premier League’s version, we have to accept that they are learning from scratch about how to handle the fixture congestion from the day that they arrive, and a variable we simply cannot foresee is how long they will take to adapt.
What we’re seeing currently is a manager who learnt last season that he can’t just ask the same lads to get him through the Christmas period and that he has no option but to rotate. But what we’re also seeing is a manager who hasn’t had the experience of rotating in this manner previously, so is again learning as he goes.
We discussed on this week’s Review show the version of rotation Jürgen has adopted which I, for one, don’t think is overly effective. So far, what we have seen is effectively the same first team being played until it can’t play the next game, at which point a number of changes are made and the second string get the opportunity to come in and show us what they’ve got. The problem I see with that is what we witnessed against Chelsea, with the likes of Daniel Sturridge in particular simply not being match sharp.
It reminded me of the end of the 2013-14 season when rather than giving Luis Suarez, Sturridge and Raheem Sterling the last 30 minutes of games to rest before the next game when we were already 5-0 up and cruising, and giving Iago Aspas, Victor Moses and their mates from the bench a good run out to get some sharpness into their legs for when they might be needed, we just kept playing the first 11 until they, ultimately, ran out of steam, throwing Aspas in to try to salvage the challenge for the league against Chelsea. His now infamous corner in that game summing up my point, especially when you consider the form he’s been in since leaving us when he’s had regular games again.
I left the Chelsea game at the weekend wondering what we’ll be witnessing this time next season. I would imagine that Klopp and his team will be studying how other teams approach the same challenge and wouldn’t be surprised to see a more Rafa Benitez-style approach to it next time around, with multiple players rotating in and out of each fixture to keep them all fresh and, as importantly, all sharp for the games in which they’re needed.
We’re also seeing the first example of the manager having to manage a Liverpool squad with more players than he needs, which brings its own problems both on the pitch and on the training ground.
I’d argue that the team selection against Chelsea was partly to ensure that Sturridge, James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain find it difficult to complain about not being picked recently. After all, they were all selected for one of the biggest games of the season at Anfield. On the other hand, when Sturridge saw his number being raised as the first substitute in the 66th minute I can only imagine what instantly went through his head, considering he was one of the players on the pitch with fresh legs and more than capable of playing a full 90 minutes.
While we might not like any of this in our impatience to see us win or, at the very least, challenge for, a Premier League title, the facts remain that part of watching a football team and a football manager is watching their evolution. We accept, although often reluctantly, that players get better with age and experience, going as far as knowing that despite how good Mohamed Salah is now, he’s likely to be even better in 12 months, and better again in 24 months.
Strangely, the same thing is not something I ever really hear discussed about more experienced managers. While Klopp is learning all of the things I’ve discussed above, Mourinho is learning what it’s like managing Manchester United for the first time, and all of the unique challenges that arise in doing so.
Football is, and never has been, a simple game, and only a few geniuses from the past have managed to convince people otherwise for their own benefit. We only have to look at what has just happened to Carlo Ancelotti at Bayern Munich for the perfect example of how peculiar sport can be.
Ironically, despite what I’ve said about the elite clubs turning to managers from abroad and expecting them to work miracles, when we look at the lower end of the league table we’re witnessing once again how clubs tend to turn to what they consider to be tried and tested methods of staying in the league rather than rolling the dice with managers who have never experienced the madness of an English league season and the problems that the hectic schedule creates.
It will be interesting to see whether those two worlds ever collide. I said when seeing how Conte set his team up at Anfield that Chelsea could do worse than replace him with Sean Dyche when the time comes. Rather than taking a big name like Diego Simeone who would have the challenge of adapting to the league (albeit with a style of football that’s easier to transfer between leagues than Klopp’s or Guardiola’s), Dyche already has a few years of experience of overcoming the unique challenges of English football. If he can get a team with the likes of Jeff Hendrick and Ashley Barnes to sixth in the league, imagine what he could do playing the same style of football using Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata.
Obviously even in that situation there are other questions to answer, like how would Dyche translate to managing a club under more pressure to win every week, and managing players who have never heard of him and who get paid 10 times more than him, but it all forms part of the intrigue of watching this mad game that dominates our lives.
For our part, we can comfort ourselves with the fact that the man in charge of figuring all of this out is from the very top table of football management worldwide, and if he ever left there would be a queue of other clubs lining up to appoint him as their next saviour so, despite all of the question marks about tactics, substitutions and team selection, I back him to figure it all out and to get it right given time.
We might just have to accept that we’ve got a bit more evolution to witness first, as frustrating as that may be.
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