January 19, 2016 at 1:45 pm

You’ll Never Fewm Alone

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In the wake of Sunday’s home defeat to bitter rivals Manchester United, esteemed football writers have provided a fleet of journalistic hot-takes explaining The Problem Jurgen Klopp must resolve. Amidst a rising tide of online fan fewm, these guiding lights of football narrative help us rudderless fans to understand the currents beneath the surface as our team appears to float aimlessly towards the rocks.

“Six fouls in a home game against United should be an individual tally, not a collective one”, explains Tony Barrett, a man paid to write almost exclusively about Liverpool Football Club who has, it seems, completely failed to understand the key principle of Klopp’s approach. While tactical fouls can be useful within a specific context, fouling regularly would completely undermine a pressing approach. While ‘getting stuck in’ might satisfy the machismo desires of football journalists, to press effectively players must stay on their feet and avoid giving the referee opportunities to relieve the pressure.

In the Guardian, Barney Ronay asserts that “The issue at Liverpool is a transfer committee that has simply failed on its record.”, having only just noted that “Mamadou Sakho, Emre Can, Alberto Moreno and Firmino” – four shining lights this season in an otherwise murky fog “are said to have been “committee” signings.” Equally confused, Barrett pours scorn on Liverpool’s motley transfer committee, while acknowledging that Christian Benteke was a Brendan Rodgers signing and that “No one has ever laid claim to Simon Mignolet.”

Odd, then, that the committee should again rise to the surface for criticism when anyone paying attention can see that Liverpool’s problems have little to do with players apparently identified and brought in by them. The wave of injuries Klopp has had to contend with barely receive a mention from either writer, despite the fact that he is being forced to play Firmino as a forward because Sturridge, Ings and Origi are all crocked and Benteke – a player both writers say Rodgers signed – undermines the Gegenpressing with a complete lack of mobility.

At the other end of the pitch, Brendan Rodgers’ legacy of negligence anchors the team to defensive frailties that have persisted for more than three years. In Mignolet, Skrtel, Lovren and Lucas (none of whom are attributed to the committee), Klopp has been left with a bow full of holes and Sakho the only sturdy player in central defensive areas – courtesy of the committee.

For top sides that expect to attack, fullbacks don’t actually need to be brilliant defensively, particularly if playing a high defensive line and attacking from the front as Klopp’s teams do. This is because, if all else is working well, they will be doing a lot more attacking than defending; essentially playing as proto-wingers.

A watertight defence must however comprise of a quality goalkeeper, two centrebacks and a defensive midfielder to give them cover, and it’s a lack of quality in these positions as well as the injury-enforced absence of a suitable striker at the other end that has marooned Liverpool thus far under Klopp. Nothing to do with a lack of fouls. Nothing to do with the transfer committee. So why are we treated to so many forced, incoherent explanations when the truth is rather more simple and obvious?

Before Sky, the internet and globalisation, the spectacle of football took place largely during the 90 minutes that teams occupied the pitch. These days that spectacle has become all encompassing as fans consume the game, press conferences, breaking transfer news, statistical analysis and each other’s’ opinions 24/7. Even during games when eyes would once be solely devoted to the action, Twitter is in full flow.

Football today is more than just the games themselves or a form of entertainment, it’s a never-ending soap opera that can be dipped into at any moment. Like a pantomime complete with heroes, villains and even comic relief characters (you can almost picture Kolo Toure playing a humorous genie or Jose Enrique as the vain, greedy pirate destined to undermine the crew), fans boo and hiss at the scapegoats and cheer on the heroes, and not just during the games.

It’s not enough for today’s football journalists to file match reports or simply relay facts. Instead they must tap into and encourage this excitable, insatiable chorus of fandom, which is why their output often takes the form of conspiracy theory, Eastendersesque plots of double-cross or, often, just flat out bullshit. It’s what we want, and it’s all they have to give us.

Thoughtful analysis set in historical context is almost exclusively the preserve of amateur blogs and smaller dedicated football sites, while national newspapers serve up a nauseating stream of transfer rumours, clickbait and flimsy narratives like those of Barrett and Ronay.

All it takes is a disappointing result or two, a couple of media appearances from a former manager, an unpopular goalkeeper signing a new contract and a few journalists stirring up the discontent with their grand narratives and a fanbase that greeted Jurgen Klopp’s arrival as Liverpool manager with euphoria just a few months ago is again ripping itself apart at the seams.

Not since Kenny Dalglish first took over as player manager had such a messianic figure taken the reigns to such positivity and expectation, and even King Kenny came in unproven as a manager. Shankly made his legend at Liverpool, as did Paisley, and despite having achieved similar feats in Spain, Benitez arrived without anywhere near the reputation that preceded Klopp’s arrival in England. Has all that hope evaporated so quickly? Luckily for Liverpool fans, Klopp isn’t so easily disheartened by setbacks.

 

Klopp’s Past, Liverpool’s Future

Taking over a Mainz team sinking towards relegation to the German third tier, Klopp managed to win 6 of the remaining 12 games to steer the Rhineland-Palatinate club to safety using a physically demanding prototype of his now famous Gegenpressing style.

In the following season Klopp would transform Mainz from relegation battlers to league leaders needing only three points from their final three games to secure promotion to the Bundesliga, but two draws and a defeat later their season had ended in heartbreak.

Having missed out on a place in the top German league for the first time in the club’s history by just a single point, it seemed like a lost opportunity that might never come around again. The following season started more slowly, but by the last game of the season Mainz were again vying for promotion with a Frankfurt side ahead of them on goal difference. Despite a 4-1 win Frankfurt scored late late goals to cruelly shatter Mainz’ hopes for a second consecutive season.

The Mainz players and fans were understandably distraught, but by the time Klopp was done addressing a crowd of over 10,000 everyone believed again that they would make it third time lucky. Klopp’s third full season in charge was far from plain sailing, however, and with five games to go Klopp was sat in a pub having all but given up on promotion that year when the results of all the sides ahead of Mainz in the table came on the television. All of them had lost. Klopp took it as a sign and sent all his players a text in German saying “If they don’t want, then we will”.

The players responded and come the final match day Mainz were again just outside the top three promotion places in fourth, two points behind Alemannia Aachen in third. With fate out of their hands Mainz did as much as they could, winning their final game 2-0. When news came through that Aachen had lost their game the city rejoiced. Klopp had taken Mainz into the Bundesliga for the first time in their 100 year history and made himself a local hero in the process.

Klopp’s time in the Bundesliga with Mainz and then Dortmund is more widely known, but as much as Liverpool fans are hoping to see Borussia’s famous Rock and Roll style brought to Merseyside, the perseverance and patience Klopp and his Mainz team showed in the face of bitter early disappointments might prove even more vital imports in the immediate future.

What Klopp’s time at Dortmund can tell us, however, is that the media demands for a change in Liverpool’s transfer strategy are unlikely to be echoed by Klopp himself.

 

Making Sweet Rock ‘N’ Roll Music

Klopp took over a Dortmund club lost at sea. Having finished 13th the previous season playing poor football, the loyal fanbase had become badly disillusioned. According to Sebastian Kehl who he had appointed as his new captain, Klopp would emphasise the importance of pressing and workrate every day. The newfound energy and commitment shown by the players on the pitch invigorated the crowd, which in turn galvanised the players to create a feedback loop of inspiration.

There were no ‘marquee’ signings to ignite Dortmund’s revival. Instead, Klopp went about forging a youthful centre-back pairing of Mats Hummels and Neven Subotić who were both in their early 20s, so his reluctance to sign a central defender permanently this window may be because he sees Sakho and Gomez as Liverpool’s defensive future. The little-known Polish international pair of Łukasz Piszczek and Robert Lewandowski were brought in for less than £4m combined and Mario Götze, Marcel Schmelzer and Nuri Şahin were added from the youth ranks while Shinji Kagawa was signed for peanuts.

If there’s an obvious difference between the transfer strategy utilised at Dortmund and the approach FSG and their committee have taken at Liverpool, it’s the lack of big fees paid for the likes of Lallana, Lovern and Benteke by the German club. Perhaps with more finances at his disposal here in England we will see one or two heftier signings, but for the most part we can expect to see Liverpool boxing clever in the transfer market rather than looking for the knock-out blow.

To love Klopp the character and simultaneously yearn for huge, star-name signings is to misunderstand him. If Klopp wanted to buy the best he could have had his pick of the richest clubs in Europe. In joining Liverpool he has opted for a challenge rather than the path of least resistance, just as he always has.

Where some managers rely on clever navigation of the transfer market or access to the very best players, Klopp is a psychological manager who sees transforming talented players into relentless winners as the key to his success.

Of course, that kind of footballing alchemy takes time. First he needs a nucleus of players willing to buy into the idea that they can achieve anything if they want it enough, give it their all and fight together as a coherent unit. A player like Benteke will know that a relentless pressing game from the front is never going to accentuate his own qualities, so it’s important that he has the right ‘type’ of players at his disposal for them to fully commit to making his tactics work.

The members of the committee will understand the set of attributes new signings need to improve the side, which doesn’t include a propensity for fouling. In fact, the players those in the know tell us have been signed by the committee – Sakho, Moreno, Can, Firmino – all suit Klopp down to the ground, as do Clyne, Coutinho and Sturridge if he can ever regain his fitness.

With some defensive reinforcements and one or two better suited attacking options the improvement should be rapid and profound. It might be hard to imagine after a stinging defeat at home to our arch rivals, but just ask any Mainz or Dortmund fan if they have any doubt that Klopp will eventually put us back on our perch.

So let’s not fewm too much in the meantime. Jurgen will make it cool. He always does.

1 Comment

  • The problem really boils down to the fact that we’re probably good enough for at least a top 4 challenge, if not better, if Sturridge is healthy. Without him, we’re royally screwed. This is the second year in a row we’ve had a goals problem and we’re no closer to solving it. And when we’re not scoring, our defense is really exposed as the shambles it is.

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