Saturday 24 June 2017

James Lawton: Klopp's comfort in his own skin shows up rivals

Liverpool boss' self-confidence means Gerrard poses no threat

Jordon Ibe shoots to score Liverpool’s winning goal in Russia last night
Jordon Ibe shoots to score Liverpool’s winning goal in Russia last night
James Lawton

James Lawton

If Brendan Rodgers had hung on, reprieved at least for a little while by another extension of indecision from the Liverpool ownership, imagine the weight that would have settled on his shoulders when Steven Gerrard claimed his seat at Anfield for tomorrow's match against Crystal Palace.

The fatted calf would have been turning on the spit for the returning hero. The applause would have been long and carrying all kinds of reproach to the club who made no attempt to keep him at home.

And Rodgers? Squirming again, no doubt, in the difficulty of trying to build his own aura of authority and leadership beyond one of the most iconic players in Liverpool's history.

That particular agony is of course utterly remote, for the time being at least, for the man who stepped into Rodgers' badly scuffed shoes.

Jurgen Klopp has embraced the idea of Gerrard as a re-instated Anfield figure, part cheerleader, maybe, part apprentice coach, and if it should happen following suggestions that the 35-year-old player's brief stint with LA Galaxy has proved an underwhelming experience, he will plainly see it not as a threat but another racking up of the feel-good factor.

Take away the life-blood for Manuel Pellegrini of Manchester City's return to the top of the Premier League, and their impressive Champions League win in Seville, the fact is Klopp has in just a few weeks established for himself the Premier League's most enviably vibrant working base at the club which had seemed so recently to be once again lost down another wrong turning.

Consider, for a moment, the plight of the league's most prestigious managers.

Their battle in a domestic competition which has never been in greater need of an injection of raised standards is not so much for clear signs of progress as remnants of an old credibility.

Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger and Louis van Gaal all face a weekend of ever more biting investigation into their will and self-confidence.

Chelsea's hard-won victory over Dynamo Kiev at Stamford Bridge does little to lessen the perception of Mourinho as someone still locked into his deepest career crisis since he first led Porto to the Champions League title 11 years ago.

At Stoke he has to put flesh on the bones of his captain John Terry's fervent assertion that he is still the best man to carry Chelsea forward.

Van Gaal, the wonder worker in last year's World Cup in Brazil and the owner of one of club football's most impressive set of credentials, is still so far from proving that as well as steadying Manchester United he can press the buttons that will trigger some of their old authentic animation as a team of wit and at least the beginnings of a return to some of the old trademarked panache and adventure.

Most anguished of all at week's end is Arsene Wenger. He monopolised the market in football anguish in Munich, where Bayern swept so effortlessly to their eviscerating 5-1 victory.

Wenger's face said a hundred forlorn things before admitting that once again his team had lost their way in the higher levels of European action. And what did his team's pitiful display, on the approach of Sunday's derby with Spurs, say about the current buoyancy of a Premier League in which Arsenal share the same number of points as leaders City?

Exert

It says, yet again, that this is a league with a frighteningly soft under-belly. It is a league where the richest players have never found it harder to exert their high talent against lesser teams, especially those who have the benefit of spirited and clever leadership by such as Claudio Ranieri at Leicester and Ronald Koeman at Southampton and Alan Pardew at Crystal Palace.

And where does this leave Jurgen Klopp? Extremely comfortable not only in the company of the idolised Gerrard but also his own skin.

Indeed, the more you reflect on his brief tenure at Anfield the more you have to suspect that he has arrived in English football at an optimum moment for his particular gifts. Already they radiate through his newly-gathered - and diagnosed - team. They were evident right from the start, a challenge at White Hart Lane where Spurs were more coherent, and potentially destructive, but Liverpool fought with an unrelenting commitment.

It is not a phrase too frequently bandied about the upper echelons of the English game these days but if it was relevant to Liverpool's performance at Tottenham it surely had to be unfurled again at Chelsea last weekend.

When somebody asked Klopp if it signalled a significant run at the title the manager speculated on his questioner's mental health. Here Klopp, who has a hard-won reputation for candour, was maybe being just a little coy.

In their new mood, and new horizons, and with talent of the order of Philippe Coutinho and the fit-again Christian Benteke, Liverpool are plainly capable of building a new team psychology.

It is one which given all current evidence can take them to a place which, if not the peak, could be somewhere beyond their wildest imaginings a few weeks ago.

Meanwhile, Mourinho buries his trepidation over the visit to Stoke with categorical dismissals of claims that he has lost his players. He says: "It's a very sad accusation because you are accusing a player, or more than one player, of dishonesty."

He claims that since the Liverpool defeat his players have responded by, "giving their best in every minute of every training session and by sharing solidarity through a fantastic personal and professional relationship."

Captain John Terry has watched so much of the unravelling from behind a sphinx of an expression, also swatted aside the claim that one Chelsea player had declared the dressing room 'rather lose than win for Mourinho.'

"In my whole career I've never heard a player come out with those words.

"If players heard that among ourselves it would not go down well. I can assure you the players are 100 per cent behind the manager.

"Anyone who has been at the last four or five games can see that we are together - and that we have been extremely unlucky.

"We will turn things around. We will stay together."

Such is the rhetoric of football crisis in one of the Premier League's power centres.

Inevitably, there are similar declarations from Arsenal and Manchester United. Nothing though, you have to believe, will speak more eloquently this weekend than the sight of Steven Gerrard taking his bow - and Jurgen Klopp joining in the applause.

Here surely is a striking case of action outrunning the value of a thousand words.

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