Tuesday 23 January 2018

Gary Neville: Liverpool must stop fawning over Jurgen Klopp

Jurgen Klopp’s arrival has sparked an outpouring of emotion among Liverpool supporters
Jurgen Klopp’s arrival has sparked an outpouring of emotion among Liverpool supporters

Gary Neville

When Liverpool appointed Brendan Rodgers in June 2012, John Henry, the club’s owner, said: “He has a comprehensive football philosophy perfectly in line with the club.”

Rodgers, they said, was “at the forefront of a young generation of managers and will bring attacking relentless football.”

There is not much difference between that and the fanfares for Jurgen Klopp, except that Liverpool’s new manager has won two Bundesliga titles and reached a Champions League final. I don’t want to be the one popping the balloon at a party, but the giddiness around Klopp’s arrival is about to collide with the reality of Liverpool’s current situation.

I’m not sure whether Klopp reads our media but I imagine he would be quite uncomfortable seeing the eulogies. There’s been quite a bit of fawning when he has yet to play a football match in England, never mind win one.

Liverpool need to get their belief and confidence back, and feel – actually, this guy is being given a responsibility, and it’s a privilege. It is almost as if Liverpool have to impress Jurgen Klopp. It should be the other way round.

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Jurgen Klopp has taken his first Liverpool training session
Jurgen Klopp has taken his first Liverpool training session

On the internet I came across ex-Liverpool players saying this was ‘a marriage made in heaven’ and ‘it’s giving me goosebumps.’

Well, I’m not a Liverpool fan. I get that. I understand the intrigue and the excitement around a new manager, but I’m also thinking: if we go back to original principles, it was about managers having to prove themselves, players having to prove themselves, people in life having to prove themselves. Now, we elevate people to the status of exotic creatures.

The other issue is that of the English manager. I have almost given up on the idea of an English manager winning the league. We have lost every ounce of belief in our own system, our own ability to coach and manage. It has never been at a lower ebb. And that’s reflected in the way we have greeted a foreign manager this week. I bet Klopp can’t believe it. If a German manager went to Spain there is no way the Spanish would react in this manner.

Of course there would be a fanfare, and excitement. But there would also be pressure on him. Here, it’s almost as if Liverpool Football Club feels blessed to have him - and I’m uncomfortable with that.

I’m all for optimism. And I’m intrigued. Watching Klopp’s Dortmund team was a pleasure. For a couple of seasons they had me on the edge of my seat. They were what I believe a football team to be: fast, tenacious, pressing from the front, winning the ball back early, energetic. It was the perfect coming together of a manager, players and fans.

Klopp and rob.jpg
Jurgen Klopp with Robert Lewandowski in February 2014

Possibly the best game I’ve covered on television was the Champions League semi-final, Dortmund v Real Madrid. Lewandowski scored a hat-trick and I remember thinking: I am absolutely privileged to be in this stadium tonight. The noise, the connection between manager, fans and players, the electricity, the feeling that everyone was one.

The ‘high press’ is being discussed a lot. When I think of styles of play, there is only one I would classify as genuinely new: the Barcelona way, of playing out of your own box five minutes into a European Cup final while being ‘pressed high.’

And then passing a team to death, playing with no centre forward. That Barcelona side was genuinely innovative. Neither Jurgen Klopp nor Mauricio Pochettino, the Spurs manager, would claim to be revolutionaries. The Ian Rush and Peter Beardsley Liverpool sides ‘pressed from the front.’ We love to buy a buzzword.

As a professional, I am slightly uncomfortable to see Klopp placed on a pedestal, and I suspect he will be too. In the modern game we rave about how someone handles a press conference. Klopp has been pushed into suggesting he knows things that we don’t. To his credit he tried to play that down.

Inside he must be feeling: ‘Hang on, please judge me in 18 months or two years, I’m a human being, not a miracle worker,’ although he has promised to win a title within four years (and I can’t think he was referring to the FA Cup or Capital One Cup).

He has set himself a high standard, and there are things that will have to change. He will have to recruit incredibly well - and hope that Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal recruit less well. In other words he will have to defy all odds to win the league, which would be a huge achievement, just as it would have been for Brendan Rodgers 18 months ago.

I struggle to think of the last time Liverpool signed a Grade A player. Luis Suarez was turned into a Grade A player. But it might be 10 years since they signed one already at world-class level.

Mario Gotze is a wanted man

Will he be able to sign a Lewandowski, Gotze or Gundogan, who has already been linked with Liverpool? Will he join Liverpool or Barcelona, Arsenal, Chelsea, Real Madrid? To win a league Klopp will need to attract that level of player. Fenway Sports Group will have to put their hand in their pocket more than they already have. Or Klopp will need to be an incredibly shrewd recruiter to outgun the wealth of Chelsea, City, United and Arsenal.

There is much to like about his appointment, of course. Klopp has a great personality, in an emotional city. After his first 10 days we know what car he drives, what food he eats, we know everything. But on the professional side he will be desperate to get a team out there and get on with the coaching.

The most influential ex-Liverpool players are surfing the wave of support. They play a large part in determining the strength of a Liverpool manager’s position. The emotion around Liverpool can be a weakness at times. At this early stage the city is falling at Jurgen Klopp’s feet. The balance hasn’t been found. All problems seem to have melted away. This is how it feels, anyway.

The first task looks to be bedding in the players they bought over the summer. Brendan Rodgers wasn’t given enough time to do that, despite being given money to invest in that transfer window.

Christian Benteke scores against Manchester United

So, where does Firmino fit in? Where does Benteke fit in with Sturridge? How does he get Lallana, Coutinho and Firmino into the same team. How does he sort out his centre-back problem. Where does he play Emre Can, who’s been moved around but is, I believe, a good player. How does he pull together a team. But the main job is the bedding-in.

The job of a manager in the first few months is to make the players understand the culture, the way of playing, the standards, and win along the way.

To press up the pitch with the players he has is not automatically possible. Klopp has to instill it and it won’t be until January or February, when he’s had three months to work on the players, when we will see his ideas embedded. It would be unrealistic to expect Liverpool to turn Spurs over 3-0 while strangling them high up the pitch.

The harshness of the Brendan Rodgers sacking was that it came eight games into the season when he was asked to integrate new players, having lost Raheem Sterling in the summer and Suarez the year before. Ultimately Klopp will be judged in two years after two or three transfer windows when he has his own squad.

To win the title will require one of the outstanding managerial performances of all time. Or the owners are going to have to throw the bank at it and give him the money to entice top-class players to Merseyside. Can lightning strike twice for Klopp in another country?


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