An ageing, tiring, injury-hit squad, a backroom in flux, a tactical mindset flagging – a great manager finds himself at a crossroads
Almost all managerial lives end in failure. That’s the nature of the job, or at least of the way modern football tends to interpret it. You arrive and you win, or you are ousted. And if you win, you had better keep on winning, or you’ll be ousted.
There are very few second acts in modern English football, at least not at the same club. Bill Shankly had one, defeat by Watford in the FA Cup in 1970 bringing him to the belated acceptance that his first great Liverpool side was over and he needed to build another. But that was Shankly, and that was then. Today’s pressures are different: everything moves much quicker.
If anybody now has the sort of credit in the bank that Shankly had then, it is Jürgen Klopp, but there is a melancholy about Liverpool these days.
Wednesday’s home win against Wolves took them up to sixth but the defeat by Real Madrid and the draw at Crystal Palace perhaps gave a truer impression of Liverpool’s level. They face Manchester United on Sunday and it feels the balance of power in their rivalry may have shifted. There is an awareness for Liverpool that an era could be coming to an end.
It may not, however. Klopp pulled Liverpool out of a similar situation two seasons ago and last season was two games from being the greatest they or any other club has ever had. But everybody is older now, the threads have begun to fray and Sadio Mané has departed. Klopp himself is showing signs of strain, occasionally snappish, often weary.
The danger for a managerial great is to hang on because there is such a faith in his abilities: he was the messiah once and he can be again. But cults of personality are dangerous: blind allegiance to a manager obscures the other factors that make a successful club. And managers themselves are not constant. The tendency is to self-parody, in late career to ask not what the most effective solution might be but to attempt the most characteristic.
It happened with Arsène Wenger and Brian Clough. Both challenged the orthodoxy. Both achieved remarkable success. Both found their spending power reduced by investment into stadium development. And both abandoned the hard-scrapping qualities of their early sides for neat and tidy football played by neat and tidy young men: easier to chase an aesthetic ideal than silverware.
Klopp is not there yet, gegenpressing away while the world evolves, although it is perhaps reasonable to ask whether he is attempting to play Kloppian football with players who are not – or at least no longer – capable of doing so. And Klopp, it should be acknowledged, has tried to develop, to introduce an element of holding possession, an impulse embodied in the signing of Thiago Alcântara. But Thiago has been part of a struggling midfield this season, his failure to track opponents costing goals at Arsenal and Wolves.
This, though, isn’t about individuals. Almost nobody at Liverpool is playing to the levels reached in the past. When that happens, attention inevitably turns to the manager. At both Mainz and Borussia Dortmund, Klopp resigned after a disappointing seventh season in charge; as many have noted, he reached seven years at Liverpool last October.
It is too simplistic to say Klopp suffers a seven-year itch – and few managers in the modern age reach seven years at one club, let alone three – but that recurring pattern may be evidence that he finds rebuilding a side difficult. Which is understandable enough. It was the peculiar genius of Alex Ferguson to be ruthless enough to take apart a thing he had lovingly created and build anew.
There has been an attempt to move on, £150m spent on forwards over the past three windows, but injuries have hampered the progress. The absence of Mané might not have been felt so acutely had Luis Díaz, Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino not missed so much of this season with injury.
To focus solely on Klopp is to ignore how much else at the club has changed. The sporting director, Michael Edwards, left last summer. His successor, Julian Ward, his former assistant, will resign at the end of this season. The director, Mike Gordon, who Klopp once described as “the brain behind all the things at Liverpool”, stepped back from his role in November. The club doctor, Jim Moxon, left at the start of the season. The director of research, Ian Graham, is also leaving. Transition on the pitch is clearly harder to manage when there is also transition off the pitch.
There is also the question of why so many have departed. Perhaps a cycle has simply ended. When one element of a successful team leaves, others are probably less inclined to stay. There have been dark murmurings about the supposedly excessive influence of certain members of backroom staff – but there often are when results decline.
Liverpool’s recruitment team was highly regarded but the squad has been allowed to age together. Andy Robertson and Joe Gomez are the only players aged between 24 and 29 to have started more than five league games this season.
Perhaps the new blood will prevail. Perhaps in a couple of years Liverpool will be enjoying a new golden age. But for now there is merely sadness. Klopp’s Liverpool have been a great part of the Premier League. Their pressing has been sophisticated but has also had an almost primal energy.
However that has faded. Fabinho and Jordan Henderson look tired. Mohamed Salah has lost his superpowers. Virgil van Dijk has become fallible. That the discussion around Trent Alexander-Arnold has come to centre on his defensive body-shape is like seeing Admiral Nelson worrying about caulking a ship’s decks: it’s probably very important but it doesn’t stir the soul. The aura has gone.
Everything feels diminished. A great side in decline starts out as a story but becomes ultimately a reminder of mortality. All things must pass; nothing is constant.
The first age of Klopp at Anfield is over. The question is whether there can be a second.
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