Thursday 8 December 2016

James Lawton: Jurgen Klopp would remind Liverpool who they really are

Published 01/05/2015 | 02:30

Jurgen Klopp’s basic football credentials have always spoken for themselves
Jurgen Klopp’s basic football credentials have always spoken for themselves
Jurgen Klopp

Liverpool's American owners pride themselves on a hard-headed approach to big-time sport. Until quite recently they used to cite quickly enough their restoration of baseball's fabled Boston Red Sox.

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This side of the Atlantic, though, they are beginning to resemble some bewildered non-players caught out in left field.

Their Anfield revolution simply isn't happening. It's not so much dying on the vine as perishing at the roots.

Manager Brendan Rodgers still proclaims his destiny as the man to revive one of English football's greatest traditions, but if anyone is listening in the dressing room it seems at best to be with only one ear.

The faithful still intone 'You'll Never Walk Alone,' the corporate types persist in talk of rebuilding a great franchise, but all the evidence points in another direction.

It is a crisis encapsulated by the fact that, despite transfer investment of £230m on his watch, Rodgers looks increasingly like a man who has run to his limits.

'Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers still proclaims his destiny as the man to revive one of English football’s greatest traditions, but if anyone is listening in the dressing room it seems at best to be with only one ear'
'Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers still proclaims his destiny as the man to revive one of English football’s greatest traditions, but if anyone is listening in the dressing room it seems at best to be with only one ear'

He claims to be still the best man for the job despite a second wretched end to a season, once filled with the highest expectation, and the forlorn statistic that he is now the only Liverpool manager in 50 years to go three seasons without touching a piece of silverware.

Can Rodgers really survive another spring of bitter, demoralising anti-climax?

The doubts of the bookmakers have inevitably mushroomed with the dismal implosion of Liverpool's season, their curt dismissal from the FA Cup by relegation-threatened Aston Villa and a failed Champions League qualification campaign which hit rock-bottom at Hull earlier this week.

The betting men have Rodgers behind only Newcastle's beleaguered John Carver and Manchester City's Manuel Pellegrini as the first man to fall in the backlash of Premier League under-achievement.

Even more significantly, maybe, they have identified a natural-born successor in Jurgen Klopp.

Indeed, at the end of one of arguably Anfield's most hollow weeks, the charismatic German, who becomes a free agent at season's end, was acquiring the kind of momentum that could only be envied by those clubs still trying secure their place in next season's Champions League.

Odds of 5/1 against Klopp succeeding Rodgers became even more tempting when his near miraculous rescue of Dortmund Borussia's Bundesliga season was augmented by a German Cup semi-final victory over Pep Guardiola's mighty Bayern.

At around about the same time, a photograph of Klopp touching, with some reverence, the famous This is Anfield sign in the players' tunnel before a pre-season friendly last summer flashed across the internet. This, given Liverpool's situation, was high-octane symbolism.

Liverpool's Steven Gerrard looks dejected
Liverpool's Steven Gerrard looks dejected

The truth is that if the need for Liverpool team-strengthening is evident enough, there is another, and perhaps, deeper priority. It is for Liverpool to regain a much more vibrant sense of who they once were and who they might become.

In this respect the candidacy of Klopp takes on an extra - and huge - dimension.

His basic football credentials have always spoken for themselves. Before his best players were sold from beneath him, Klopp ran Bayern to their limits.

Dortmund won the league title twice and came within a breath of defeating Bayern in a brilliantly played Champions League final at Wembley. His team played with a wonderful panache and optimism - and plainly the most powerful sense that they were producing their best for a man they both liked and trusted.

That unity and belief spilled beyond the touchline and filled every corner of the Dortmund fortress stadium. The result was a passion and life that, on the best of nights, could only be reproduced at, well, Anfield.

Certainly, it is hard to imagine Klopp presiding over the confusions and the damaged spirit that has been so evident at Liverpool after the brief surge of a mid-season revival.

Rodgers started the season on a warm tide of acclaim. Manager of the year, his admirers included the demanding icon Ian St John, who declared: "I like the way this fellow has the team playing, passing and running. It reminds me of how it used to be."

The manager was also allowed a period of grace after the defection of Luis Suarez, the transcendent, if deeply troubling, figure in Liverpool's thrilling challenge for the title.

All of that, though, seemed to be back on another planet, in another life-time, when Liverpool were outplayed by Villa and then foundered so badly on a desperate night in East Yorkshire.

Rodgers said the players had to re-apply themselves, remember the kind of club they were representing at such a vital phase of their careers.

It was a speech poorly calculated to allay the worst fears of the management and the following.

The truth was brutal enough. Rodgers' command was worn down by too many miscalculations, too many unresolved problems. There was the damage caused by Daniel Sturridge's chronic injury problems, of course, but that was evident enough before the expiry of the transfer window and too often Rodgers looked less a leader, more a victim of apparently ungovernable crisis.

Raheem Sterling was allowed to conduct a mid-season contractual strategy that cried for a powerful, and impassioned managerial response, the kind which Bill Shankly, the founder of the imperilled tradition, would have issued volcanically.

Instead, Rodgers chose to do more than gently nudge Sterling's boat rather than fill its gunnels with his indignation and his rage.

Steven Gerrard's status was allowed to change from revered battle commander to wounded, time-expired victim of the ticking clock.

Right up to the semi-final debacle, Gerrard's selection was a matter of debate and worry, and nowhere was this more explicit than on the face of a once great player when he walked out on to the Wembley pitch for the last time.

Meanwhile, Mario Balotelli remained the embarrassment who, in many eyes, cost the Italian national manager his job and provoked AC Milan, like Jose Mourinho before them, to say that his continued presence was no longer compatible with the organisation and discipline of a professional football club.

These were certainly not the signs of a club which had grown strong, or had at least learned some of the most vital lessons, from their collision with the brilliance and anarchy of Suarez.

The hope was that even while they sighed for the lost genius of the man from Uruguay, Liverpool would continue to build on those moments which took them so close to early fulfilment.

There have been other moments, some of them exciting, as in the range of Philippe Coutinho's game, Sterling's more dramatic eruptions, and the possibility that Emre Can might just emerge as a genuinely weighty presence in the void left by Gerrard.

Unfortunately, they have proven merely points of light in a generally darkening sky.

It means, maybe, that the certainties of purpose, and passion, already displayed by Klopp is Liverpool's best chance of more consistent illumination.

The German, an unashamedly emotional man, may have a soft heart but who, even among the American hierarchy, could begin to dispute the hardness of his head?

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