Saturday 24 February 2018

Dion Fanning: Liverpool's history must be an asset not a burden

After 26 years without winning a title, Jurgen Klopp has a long list of problems to overcome

Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp. Photo: Carl Recine / Action Images via Reuters
Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp. Photo: Carl Recine / Action Images via Reuters

Dion Fanning

Jurgen Klopp has had a curious introduction to English football, but at Anfield today, he may glimpse all he believed it to be. When Liverpool play Manchester United, it is often the "full throttle football", Klopp created for Borussia Dortmund, and which he is striving to establish at his new club.

Sometimes it doesn't turn out like that. When the two sides met at Old Trafford earlier this season, all life had been sucked from the fixture, as the hesitancy of two managers with different reasons to be fearful manifested itself during a dull first half, before Manchester United went on to win.

If the game against Arsenal is an indication, Liverpool's approach will be different today, but the sound and fury might disguise the current irrelevance of the two sides. Manchester United began the weekend in sixth place, nine points behind the leaders, while Liverpool are comfortably settled in midtable. There have been moments when the clubs have been mentioned in terms of a title challenge, but that is an example of the unpredictability of the league rather than a testament to the work done at either club.

Last season was the first year since 1981 that both sides finished outside the top three. From 1982 to 1990, Liverpool won the league six times. In those days, the Manchester United of Ron Atkinson could be guaranteed to put up a fight when they played at Anfield. Once it was put to Ronnie Whelan, while he was Liverpool captain, that United usually beat his side "these days". His response was swift. "Manchester United don't usually win the league these days," he replied.

From 1967 they waited, but that all changed in 1993. Since then, Manchester United have been the club fulfilling their ambitions, while Liverpool could only put up spirited resistance. Things were usually at full throttle when Manchester United visited Anfield, and they were a club Alex Ferguson was wary of. "I could always feel their breath on my neck from 25 miles away," he wrote in one of his recent memoirs.

For Liverpool, kind words have not been enough. Louis Van Gaal said on Friday that Manchester United would not go 26 years in the modern era without a title as Liverpool have done, and United's commercial strength ensures that he is probably right, no matter how many mistakes he makes as a manager.

United's decline, however temporary, and Liverpool's ongoing difficulties, which are relieved very occasionally by a title challenge, create a different context for this game. Liverpool's supporters will delight in the fall of Manchester United, but this season they have not been the beneficiaries. When David Moyes arrived at Old Trafford, it coincided with Liverpool's most spectacular recent charge for the title, which included a comprehensive victory at Old Trafford.

As with previous Liverpool title challenges in 2002 and 2009, there were consequences: a suffocating rise in expectation levels which were too much for people at the club to handle.

Last season was a relentless struggle from the moment Luis Suarez was sold, but the visit of United was a defining moment.

Steven Gerrard would probably not have carried such a cocktail of emotion on to the pitch against any other opponent as he did last season against United when he was sent on at half-time and sent off after 38 seconds of the second half.

Whatever ambitions Liverpool had for last season (Brendan Rodgers had gone into the game talking about finishing second) began to unravel on that day.

Rodgers survived the summer, but his backroom staff were sacrificed as a bizarre and pointless gesture.

When Liverpool acted this season after an ordinary start, it was not a response to the start of the campaign, as much as to the failures of the previous year. The fact that Klopp was available and other clubs would be interested also encouraged Liverpool to move quickly.

United might have been a destination. Klopp spoke on Friday of the time Alex Ferguson sounded him out as a potential successor, but others would have been poised as well. The job at United would have brought its own difficulties, but at Old Trafford money would not have been a problem.

Liverpool do not have the same security. If Klopp is to succeed he will have to overcome the odds. On the day he was unveiled, he told the media to "stop thinking about money". It was part of a conscious effort to make all at the club feel the solution to their problems could be found within the club. Tiredness was a state of mind, there was no need to look to the transfer market for solutions and the greater wealth of others could be overcome by a collective will.

Three months and 21 games later, Liverpool are trying to cope with all these problems. They have had a more punishing schedule than any other club in Europe's major leagues over the past two months and they have an injury list that reflects that.

There have been impressive victories at Chelsea and Manchester City, but there have been more days when the players have looked ill-equipped for Klopp's plan or, during the defeats at Watford and West Ham, for any plan.

During those three months, Klopp has made a conscious effort to change the thinking of all in the club. He wanted supporters to be more vocal in their backing for the side. Those who have watched Manchester City claim titles despite playing in a virtually silent Etihad might wonder if an atmosphere has any bearing on results, but City also have the money to overcome any problem.

When Liverpool lost to Crystal Palace in November, Klopp asked how the supporters could lose hope when Scott Dann scored with eight minutes remaining. "I saw many people leaving the stadium - I felt pretty alone in this moment. We decide when it's over. Between the 82nd and 94th minute, you can make eight goals if you want. The big decisions are made when you feel tired."

The late equalisers against West Brom - after which Klopp led the players to the Kop where they thanked the supporters - and Arsenal may suggest Liverpool are grasping at least one of his ideas.

Klopp spoke on his first day of what he had done at Dortmund, how they had "to work for a common idea of play". At Liverpool, that unified theory has been harder to implement because of the mistakes made in the past.

He has been working with players assembled by another manager, who was working with a committee who brought players the previous manager might not have wanted. Under Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool were the camel, the horse designed by committee.

Christian Benteke was signed for £32m in the summer, a final and unfathomable attempt to adhere to Rodgers' vision, while trying to adhere to a conflicting vision simultaneously.

The flaws could be seen at Upton Park two weeks ago when Benteke played in front of a midfield designed to create for a very different type of forward.

Benteke was involved in Liverpool's equaliser against Arsenal on Wednesday when he knocked the ball down into the path of Joe Allen to finish. Liverpool had begun the game with the tigerish intent Klopp demands and they ended it with a goal, which led to his extravagant celebration on the touchline.

On his opening day in the job, Klopp discussed the great traditions of the club he had joined, and the demands it made on managers. "We cannot put history in a backpack and carry it," he said. Liverpool have had to live with a difficult present and an uncertain future for so long that it has become part of their tradition.

Klopp has the personality and the intellect to cope with the weight of expectation. Today he will hope that the history his club brings to every meeting with Manchester United is an asset, and provides a vision of things to come.

Liverpool v Manchester United,

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