When Jurgen Klopp was appointed as the manager in 2015, a keen Liverpool watcher and baiter in Alex Ferguson commented that he was worried about the impact that the German would have on the club. He was convinced that Jurgen would make a difference with his personality, drive and knowledge and was worried that Liverpool could get above Manchester United in terms of where they wanted to be.
Two years later, the man everyone associated with Liverpool hailed as a messiah when he first arrived, finds himself at the receiving end of a lot of tough questions about his methods, players, results and in some quarters, suitability as manager.
I understand the criticism and some of it is justified, which we will get into shortly. What I do not understand is how some people believe that he is not the right man for the job anymore. Klopp needs time to execute on the vision he has for the club, which he has stressed upon on numerous occasions. I for one, have written about how he may need until the 2019-20 season to deliver on a league title.
In the meantime, one looks for signs of progress and it staggers me that a lot of people, including experts, think that there has been none over the Brendan Rodgers era. With due respect to Brendan, Liverpool did not look like they would win any of the competitions they entered during his tenure, save that title challenge in 2013-14.
In his two years in charge, Klopp has taken Liverpool to two finals and the Champions League. Most importantly, for the first time in a long, long time, the team enters games against the established top six with a realistic chance to win. Home and away. People underestimate how big an achievement it was last season to go unbeaten in 10 games against the so called big teams. After years of taking points off these teams once in a while, usually at home. If that is not progress, then I do not know what is.
Could Liverpool do better? Definitely. Let us look at the different talking points from recent weeks in more detail.
Klopp should have bought a central defender in the summer
This is something I can get behind. I have addressed the burning need for a quality centre-back to partner Joel Matip in multiple articles in the last few months. Virgil Van Dijk was absolutely the right target for the position. However, for reasons beyond Klopp’s control, that move did not materialise. Was he then being stubborn in insisting that he would not go for anyone else? Is there a private agreement between Southampton and Liverpool that Van Dijk will move in January? If that is the case, then Klopp has been right in trusting his existing centre-backs to do a job till then, given how well they ended the last campaign. But if that move does not materialise, this might be one decision he will end up regretting.
Liverpool need a new goalkeeper
I believe that Simon Mignolet is not half as bad as he is made out to be. In fact, I have made a case for him to be Liverpool’s number one for the foreseeable future. At Dortmund, Klopp had a clear number one in Roman Weidenfeller. He afforded very few chances to initially, Marc Ziegler, and then Mitchell Langerak. It was only after Dortmund won the league for the first time in his tenure that Klopp started distributing the workload between his keepers, with Roman starting all the important games.
At Liverpool, one can see that he has not decided on who that clear number one will be. And by not making that decision, he is not helping either Mignolet or Loris Karius. He needs to stop the rotation in this position and entrust Mignolet with it. With Liverpool out of the Carabao Cup, he could play Karius or Danny Ward in the FA Cup, but Mignolet has to start all Premier League and Champions League games. So, this is another area where the criticism has been merited but hopefully Klopp will put an end to that soon.
Klopp’s tactics leave them too open at the back
If you have enjoyed watching Liverpool terrorise defences this season, you do not have any reason to complain about Klopp’s tactics. One cannot expect the solidity that Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 provides defensively when Liverpool’s 4-3-3 distinguishes itself from the pack by bombarding players upfield while relying on Jordan Henderson and the two centre backs to provide cover.
The tactics are bang on and it is possible to be defensively solid while employing this system, with the right players. Klopp demonstrated that at Borussia Dortmund. He was let down by individual mistakes last season and that has continued. Klopp’s systems are all about spaces, exploiting them while in attack and protecting them while defending. And this needs players who can take the game by the scruff of the neck and impose themselves. The current crop of players in defensive areas do not do that. This can be seen on corners, free kicks, crosses into the box, long diagonal balls to the edges of the box or even while the centre backs are shepherding the opposition striker higher up the field.
It is a mentality that he is working on and he will eventually get it right. The problem is not necessarily with the skill sets. Liverpool look so much more assured on European nights. The pace of the Premier League shows up these deficiencies and while there are players at fault here, it will be extremely harsh to place the blame at the doorstep of the manager.
Liverpool do not score enough for the chances created
I would be terribly worried if Liverpool did not create chances. But, in this case, the manager’s system ensures that tons of chances are created. If his players are not finishing them, how is it that any blame can be attributed to Klopp? It is the players who need to take responsibility, and just like with the defenders, it looks like a mentality issue than a skill issue. I trust him to sort this out too over the course of the season.
Overall, if Klopp has been guilty of anything, it has been in overestimating the ability of his current squad, and that is not necessarily a terrible thing. For one, he gains the confidence of those players already at the club who he feels need to up their game. He has not thrown them under the bus and that is important. He has done most things right, but has made a few mistakes along the way. Through a combination of coaching and addition of players in January, he will look at addressing those mistakes.
It would be another good season for Liverpool if they make the top four again and get out of their group in the Champions League. It is extremely hard for a manager to win the title in the top five leagues in Europe in their first season or two unless he has taken over at a club that is used to winning them. Klopp did not inherit such a team. He needs time. He will deliver on incremental success every season, and as he said recently, he is on that path regardless of whether fans and other stakeholders think otherwise.
There are times when a manager would be well served not listening to what the fans have to say. As much as it would infuriate some supporters who believe that every decision taken by him should go through them, it augurs well for Liverpool that Klopp is well capable of putting the blinkers on and blank out what people are saying. He will need that at a unique club with unique expectations from its supporters.