'Jurgen Klopp's critics not living in the real world'
Jurgen Klopp smiled as the question he was expecting arrived immediately in the press conference which followed another damaging defeat, this time at Stoke City.
“Jurgen, your team are two games from Wembley and potentially your first trophy,” began the journalist. “Why did you decide to rest Philippe Coutinho, Dejan Lovren, Kolo Toure and Jordan Ibe for this game?”
“I’m glad you asked,” replied the German who seemed in remarkably good form despite his team being outclassed by a far more experienced Stoke team. “I anticipated that they might be at risk of injury and that the style of play I was asking from them might contribute to that so I gave them the night off.
“I know we lost 3-0 and have very little chance of getting to the final but the good news is that they should be fit to play Exeter on Friday.”
The assembled press pack nodded in agreement, millions of Liverpool fans around the world were content and there wasn’t a word of criticism.
Obviously, none of this happened and instead Liverpool lost several players to injury and Klopp’s methods came in for sharp criticism. What was almost forgotten was that against a team that has beaten Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea at home this season, Liverpool won 1-0.
As he does, Dutch coach Raymond Verheijen got plenty of mileage out of his prediction from a few weeks ago that Liverpool would suffer injury problems because of Klopp’s style.
“Given the injuries & the many games in a short period of time the last thing a manager should do is introduce a more demanding playing style,” he tweeted.
“He should have waited until the injuries were solved & the busy fixture period out of the way before introducing the demanding pressing game ... This was a massive error of judgement by Klopp as he knew Liverpool had to play more games than any other Premier League team in Nov & Dec.”
In an ideal world, Verheijen has a valid point but nobody ever arrived at a new club and decided to continue with the policies of the previous manager. If those policies had been successful, the new manager wouldn’t be there in the first place.
When Klopp arrived, Liverpool still had a chance of qualifying for the Champions League by either finishing in the top four or winning the Europa League, while the League Cup and FA Cup were up for grabs. Three months into his reign and, in the first three, they have a better chance than they did when he arrived.
If he had waited until after the “busy fixture period was out of the way” as Verheijen suggests, it’s not unreasonable to think that results would have been worse. If he had left it until January to introduce the new pressing game he would presumably have had to increase intensity levels at training significantly at a point when players have even more miles in their legs.
Graeme Souness joined in the criticism by questioning Klopp’s training methods and although he was a better player than the vast majority of Premier League managers, he hasn’t been in the league since 2006 and, in that period, the demands on players have increased dramatically.
A study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine showed that, while total distance covered has dropped by 2pc, high intensity running distance has increased by 30pc and the number of sprints has gone up by 80pc.
“Train the way you play” has always been a basic commandment of football and, if Klopp expects them to run hard in matches, it would be ridiculous to argue that he shouldn’t be training his players to carry it out.
Given the choice between a team suffering several injuries but still being in every competition versus a fully fit squad at the end of January with nothing to play for, almost every manager, chairman and supporter would choose the former. No manager has ever kept his job on the basis that the medical staff at the club were under-employed.
At the end of a horse race, there are very few owners, trainers or punters who will be delighted that a jockey didn’t receive a ban for excessive use of the whip if their horse has been beaten by a nose when another smack or two might have made the difference.
When it comes to important games and which players to pick, particularly if their job is on the line, football managers are no different to the jockeys flogging the horse to get them over the line. It might not be ideal, but it is the reality.
It’s not so long ago that Klopp was being hailed for his tough talking with Daniel Sturridge when he suggested the striker needs to learn to play with a certain level of pain and, in that narrative, he was rewarded when Sturridge scored twice against Southampton in the days after Klopp’s comments.
Verjeijen referenced a UEFA study which shows injury rates go up when a new manager arrives as players try to impress, yet while Liverpool are top of the injury league with 11 (according to physioroom.com), the other teams who have changed managers this season are placed seventh (Aston Villa), 12th (Sunderland), 14th (Chelsea) and 20th (Swansea).
Just behind Liverpool are Arsenal and, presuming they can hear each other about the sound of pinging hamstrings and popping Achilles tendons, the two managers could have an interesting chat on Wednesday night about injuries when the two teams meet.
Arsene Wenger has been in this particular firing line in the past and a few days before Klopp was being praised for his tough-love approach to Sturridge, Wenger was criticised after Alexis Sanchez damaged his hamstring against Norwich.
Klopp, like Wenger, would almost certainly have access to the medical data of daily, weekly and monthly training loads on his players and either saw that the ones who ended up injured weren’t in obvious red-zone danger, or took a chance and played them anyway. Unlike the medical team, assistants or fans, it’s the manager who must make the call.
Roberto Martinez used to be the poster boy for the new, educated manager given his degree in physical education, and 18 months ago Verheijen tweeted a quote from the Everton manager – “I don’t believe in muscle injuries. If you get a soft-tissue injury, a mistake has been made.”
It seemed to put Martinez up on a pedestal above the likes of Wenger, although given the 20 hamstring injuries that Everton suffered in the first 18 months of his reign, the praise has died down somewhat.
If Liverpool lose at home on Wednesday and follow it up with a defeat to Manchester United next weekend, Klopp’s methods will face even further criticism. At least he can console himself that, with nothing to play for in the league, there will be some people who are happy that he’ll finally be able to give his players a rest.