Opinion: Why Jurgen Klopp needs to be braver
It is not senseless or unfair to say that Jurgen Klopp has put Liverpool on the map once again. Implementing his philosophy of relentless counter-pressing and organized chaos has taken time, several transfer windows and many millions.
The progress, however, has been clear right from the start; reaching two European finals and leading a title race (when there absolutely should not have been one) pretty much proves that. And it’s all down to him. Yet, there are aspects of his management that have not been focused on enough and have cost the team plenty in the past and even at present. It has become a major concern, to a point where it does beg the question of whether Klopp has it in him to change so the team may win.
Trust in his players is one of the biggest strengths of his management. It has also been his Achilles’ heel. He has a set philosophy in place now and he trusts certain players to deploy his methods more than the others and team selections prove that.
So far this season, he has mostly opted for players who he thinks are more experienced and could carry out his instructions to the dot, rather than go for more talented difference makers. The latter may be riskier, but the many advantages include better team cohesion, performance and ultimately, points.
Let’s start with the often forced inclusion of James Milner. The guy has been shoehorned into the side, despite him being out of form, fatigued and what not. Against nearly all the big sides (rest of the top 6 and in the CL), Milner has been the one constant.
Why? Because Klopp trusts that he is capable of doing exactly what his methodology requires, that his work ethic would aid the team. That belief has been misplaced, time and again. Milner has looked lethargic for the most part this season, after starting it in great form.
He has played poorly, directly cost the team when in possession and in a position of great advantage offensively (set-pieces in particular) and he has also been a liability defensively (inability to keep up with opposition players and poor positioning). He has his good qualities; the man can link up with forwards (that is, creates chances) much better than his English counterpart Henderson (about whom there needs to be a discussion as well), but the negatives of his inclusion far outweigh the benefits.
Coming to the club “captain”, Klopp seems to have a very strong affinity for having him in the starting 11 simply because he’s the captain. Because if that is not the reason, his constant inclusion in the team makes no sense and has harmed the team’s performance more often than not. It is not an understatement to say that Jordan Henderson possesses little to no intelligence on the ball; one of the least press resistant player in the squad, panicky when in possession and mostly opting for the easier pass and not being creative when the opportunity presents itself.
Off the ball, he is rash with his pressing (leaving spaces behind regularly, which is a travesty, particularly when you are the defensive midfielder), and does not offer as much protection to his defence as is required of a defensive midfielder. And yet, like Milner, he has been one of Klopp's' favorites; most likely because the manager does not want to drop a popular fan figure, which may raise uncomfortable questions.
These team selections, particularly in matches where the team requires more than what our captain and vice-captain can ever offer, have cost us points. The argument that the team has won most of the games in which either of these two have started is a fallacy; we have won despite, and not because of their inclusion.
Mohamed Salah’s form, the occasional inclusion of Fabinho/Naby Keita/Xherdan Shaqiri and having the centre-back pairing of Joe Gomez and Van Dijk helped a hell of a lot more. Another excuse that has been made for the duo is that they got the team to the CL final last season, which is simply laughable. Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain and Georginio Wijnaldum had a lot more to do with our CL performances than either of these two.
With the former duo, we have looked defensively weaker, offensively far less threatening and more reliant on individuals to pull rabbits out of their hats. There is little to no link up play with the forwards mainly, who have suffered in terms of goals this year as a result of that, among other reasons, which shall also be discussed.
While new signings do require a bedding-in period to get accustomed to the playing style, it is downright irresponsible to not trust them more. Klopp was absolutely correct in taking his time with Fabinho and Keita, but he has made the mistake of not trusting their ability and choosing to persistently go with the safer, more mediocre options.
Although the former is now one of the first few names on the team sheet, it has been the case only since the start of the year, when he could and should have been utilized much more this season.
Same with Keita, who has always been dropped whenever he looked to gain form, despite having some of the best numbers in the squad for defensive actions and chance creation. Even at their worst, their contributions would be higher than that of the infamous Brexit midfield and that realization has not yet hit Klopp.
He is still playing too safe and trusting in the wrong players to get results, despite all evidence screaming precisely that.
Dejan Lovren is the living embodiment of the club’s mediocrity in the past decade. He has consistently shown that he is not a player to be relied upon; his horrendous injury record is something to be considered at the very least, if not his playing style.
And again, Klopp has started him in games and broken probably the best defensive partnership in history. This has also increased the load on Gomez, who has had to play at RB often, and resulted in his season-ending injury.
The idea of having Lovren in the team and moving Gomez to RB to defensively strengthen the team has really backfired multiple times, especially in CL, and yet, it has been persisted with.. And it all comes back to his trust in the wrong players.
And finally, his trusting nature has got the better of him even during transfer windows. He allowed the club to begin the season with a defence that has 3 centre-back's who are known to miss large chunks of the games and with no sufficient replacements for our best attacking midfielder (who left us in January of last year) and the injured Chamberlain. It was downright irresponsible to not sign a quality centre-back and attacking midfielder, despite having the funds to do so. Both the manager and the club are at fault here for consistently not being proactive enough during the transfer windows and for playing it extremely safe (not signing alternatives when the primary targets are not gettable).
That the team would face a scenario where our CBs would get injured and that we would struggle to create as freely as we did in the last season was all too predictable soon as the summer transfer window shut down. The sheer unwillingness to make additions to the squad in January, even when the injuries kept on mounting, especially when the team had an advantage in the title race and strengthening the squad would have helped sustain that, is precisely the attitude because of which Liverpool never get over the finish line. We simply did not act like an ambitious club.
And no, while the acquisition of Fabinho and Alisson does fall under the list of things that an aforementioned type of club should do, it is still not enough; not when the opposition is a juggernaut like Manchester City.
This is where we ask, what next? What can Klopp do now? Well, his team no longer has the advantage in the race, can drop no points moving forward and has to change its approach. Klopp can start by selecting the best possible team in each of the remaining 9 league games. That means no Milner, no Henderson and no Lovren.
The midfield trio has to be Fabinho, Wijnaldum and Keita. Matip has to play, until the time Gomez is fit to. This would be the most stable team available and it will ensure a return to the form Liverpool were in earlier in the season. Furthermore, this is the summer where Klopp needs to get rid of the utter dross in the squad; and first among those would be Milner, Lallana (comfortably, laughably, the worst player who keeps getting more chances) and of course, Lovren.
Sufficient and suitable replacements (a centre-back, central midfielder, attacking midfielder and wide forward/striker) and backups (fullbacks) would need to be signed and Klopp has to change his outlook on overspending; the club is capable of loosening its purse strings and this summer would really need the purse string to be loose, if the aim is to snatch the PL trophy from City.
Klopp is by far the best manager Liverpool could have at this moment. He has built this team from scratch and implemented the philosophy which has led the team to this point. There absolutely should never have been a title race in the first place and yet, here we are. The team has overachieved massively; the realistic expectations before the season began were to bridge the 25 point gap to City and have a good run in the CL.
The squad was never strong enough to go toe to toe with what is the strongest PL team ever and yet the team is just a point behind. Liverpool are having one of the best ever seasons the league has ever seen and that aspect has been discarded completely, even by their own supporters, which is understandable.
Compared to other historical teams with such a record, this Liverpool side has not had the cushion that those teams had at the top of the league. This team, which is on course to cross 90 points (a milestone which has never failed to secure the title ever), is up against the best team PL has ever seen and that is just a matter of luck.
And this is all down to Klopp. This is simply a case of him needing to be braver, identifying the limitations that his most trusted players have and starting the more talented difference makers in the squad moving forward. That is something that can be rectified even now, which might just create history for Liverpool Football Club.