James Lawton: Klopp leads way in league's race to a new order
Vacuum at summit creates opportunities for others to climb high
Published 01/01/2016 | 02:30
For half a season now the Premier League has been masquerading as a serious football competition, something to place on the same planet as La Liga or the Bundesliga. But then maybe the myth has never been stretched so thin.
Sometimes it has seemed that the whole business was on the point of psychological exhaustion. Certainly Jose Mourinho was. And where was the semblance of a strong referee - or a coach who had the guts to say that guilt was sometimes a two-sided coin?
One doomsday knell was sounded by the uproarious, light-headed cheering of Barcelona players when they drew the current joint leaders Arsenal in the first knockout round of the Champions League. Apprehension was wafted away in one feathery brush stroke.
So what is there to play for between now and the spring? A bit of faded glory on the fringe of the European big league dominated by the luminous likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich? Perhaps a little late, late domestic refurbishment of the once fabulous reputation of the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger?
Or maybe, just maybe, something of an entirely different order. Something to remind the game's most financially feather-bedded league that football is supposed to be about more than profit-hoarding mediocrity; that it has a duty to move its followers beyond the time-worn boundaries of tribal warfare, that if the ruling Fifa has gone to hell it doesn't mean that everyone else has to follow.
What might just happen, we are least bound to hope, is that a few fires will be lit on the way to the finish line of a race which has rarely been so unpredictable.
And who are the men brandishing the flame with most purpose - and, yes, let's remember that old-fashioned but still bitingly relevant word, passion?
They are, and at this point in no particular order, the old idealist Wenger, Claudio Ranieri, the miracle worker from the back streets of Rome, Mauricio Pochettino, the young Argentine who says a coach is nothing if he cannot believe in his players (and they cannot believe in him) and - almost certainly not least - the new messiah of Anfield, Jurgen Klopp.
Beside their work the efforts of such powermongers as Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City have not so much failed as scandalised what is left of the professional conscience. Mourinho lost his head at Stamford Bridge in an avalanche of broken ego, Louis van Gaal arrived at Old Trafford as a saviour and will now surely leave as a man who failed, utterly, to identify the scale of his challenge, and Manuel Pellegrini is careworn and plainly too decent and gentle for the task of reminding his plutocrat City players that their week doesn't end with the agreeable chore of checking their bank accounts.
Sometimes there is a need to fight, to say that you are even vaguely worth the cost of your hire.
The result is a vacuum at the top of a league which not so long ago claimed to the best and the richest in the world - and if this has spread consternation among the authors of the heaviest swaggering, it might also just possibly also carry the whiff of a certain redemption.
What, for example, would Wenger's first title win in 12 years say to all those who have long seen him as a trader in played-out success? It would say that he has remembered some of the reasons why he came into the business, the chief of which - his record has always suggested, even in the least promising of times - being an urge to make beautiful football. He started in England with Dennis Bergkamp and what perfect symmetry of style and intelligence if his last winning statement was shaped by the now consistently fashioned brilliance of Mesut Ozil.
Down the years Arsenal may have dismayed their fans, even had them burning the most expensive tickets in the land outside the Emirates stadium. But always they have sought to play football of a superior kind.
Wenger's nearest rival now, Leicester City's Ranieri, may not be able to claim such purity of intent but he too had a stinging message for the stale, manic posturings of Mourinho and the prissy self-regard of Van Gaal. He invested his hopes in such modestly valued talents as Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez and he said if Leicester City did work their miracle it would have as much to do if not more with their heart and ability as his reawakened flair for inspiring players of previously modest achievement.
Set that against the preposterous claim of Mourinho that he had taken his men to a level beyond their powers and that their failure to stay there was not a breakdown in his own powers of motivation but a series of personal betrayals.
Pochettino, like Ranieri, hammered out the point that a coach cannot do anything of significance if he does not take exhaustive steps to get the players on his side. Vardy, the sensation of the season, talks reverentially of Ranieri's foresight and game preparation and if this devotion is modified by some huge offer for him to move on, a powerful point will still have been made.
It is that professional footballers, for all their wealth and their celebrity, can so easily get lost, that at the worst of times one insecurity feeds upon another. For example, surely, the shambles of Diego Costa's season - and Wayne Rooney's. They came into the season as potential lions, now they define the chasm between talent and performance which comes when the right mood, and environment, is not fashioned from above.
Here, enter Herr Klopp. His work, the real gut-wrenching, club-shaping toil, may hardly have started - and is plainly in need of some significant recruitment, but here we have seen the sparks of what promises to be a most engaging inferno.
The old warhorse Sam Allardyce, who once claimed, outrageously enough, that if he had been born with an Italian name his stock in the managerial trade might even have carried him to the England job - he was miffed by the appointment of Fabio Capello at the time - has described Klopp as a 'soft German'.
It was a silly, off-key remark - provoked by Klopp's rage at the cynical, health-endangering tackle of Jeremain Lens on Mamadou Sakho - but it served one purpose. It illustrated the gap between a Premier League time-serving manager and a football revolutionary of the quality of the man who made Borussia Dortmund such a flagship of bold and brilliant football club.
Whether Klopp has sufficient manpower to intrude into the title race is questionable - good intentions can ultimately take you only so far - but there is no question about his impact at Anfield thus far. He has lifted horizons, illustrated vividly the potential of a football man who can get into the heads - and the hearts - of his players.
It could be the start of a pattern in which Ronald Koeman at Southampton and Alan Pardew, a home-grown manager exulting in his escape from the loony bin of Newcastle United, deserve honourable mentions. After Ranieri at Leicester, Klopp at Liverpool, why not Pep Guardiola at United and Carlo Ancelotti across town at City.
Why not further investment in the force of intelligence in a league which, in its most powerful circles, has given so much evidence of losing its way.
Maybe, indeed, the Premier League needs to hold its breath - and wait for the spring.