Friday 17 November 2017

James Lawton: Time for Jurgen Klopp to find some answers and sign a leader for Liverpool

Henderson way off standard required to be key player in a team with real ambition

Jurgen Klopps’s judgement call on Jordan Henderson is coming under renewed scrutiny. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images
Jurgen Klopps’s judgement call on Jordan Henderson is coming under renewed scrutiny. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images
James Lawton

James Lawton

There is reason to believe that he has the warmest heart in football, certainly the most spontaneous, but none of this is guaranteed to prevent its burial somewhere beneath Liverpool's Kop in the next few hazardous weeks.

There is no question about it: Jurgen Klopp, so recently the messiah of Anfield, is currently running near to empty.

The German's message no longer resonates through an exuberant dressing room and an exultant stadium.

As his Liverpool take on Tottenham tomorrow evening, any rendering of You'll Never Walk Alone will certainly have Klopp guarding himself against wishful thinking.

It might also have him reflecting hard on his decision not to make a foray into the January transfer window.

Plainly, he needs help. He needs the kind of leadership which runaway league leaders Chelsea are passing around like a baton.

Steven Gerrard: a real leader. Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Steven Gerrard: a real leader. Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

He needs the bounding self-belief and composure of Tottenham prodigy Dele Alli. He needs the luminous impact of Manchester City's sensational young arrival from Brazil, Gabriel Jesus.

These are the teams who have so briskly moved ahead in the last few weeks and in their shadows Liverpool have at times looked near to falling apart.

It may well be the biggest crisis of Klopp's hitherto brilliant coaching career.

Short-term, he can only hope that somewhere deep in his famous passion he will find a way to re-light the torch.

But if he survives the trial, which opens formally against Spurs, what then?

Klopp has to move on the question which has always been asked by the most successful managers.

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LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 1: Roy Keane and Gary Neville of Manchester United applaud the United fans after the Barclays Premiership match between Arsenal and Manchester United at Highbury on February 1, 2005 in London, England. (Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

It is basic enough. Does he have that vital leadership out on the field? Does he have someone - a Roy Keane, a Patrick Vieira, a Graeme Souness or even a resilient, flamboyant old warhorse like Zlatan Ibrahimovic in certain circumstances - to ignite an explosion or two?

No. Instead, he has, most visibly, Jordan Henderson.

Henderson, no doubt, is a professional of many admirable qualities. He runs endlessly. He directs, sometimes a little obviously perhaps, much of the play.

If it is true - as Alex Ferguson once pointed out in rather unkindly fashion - that Henderson doesn't move like one of the game's thoroughbreds, no one can doubt his admirable consistency or good intensions.

But as Liverpool have slipped away from their claim to be Chelsea's most serious challengers, as they have scrabbled a pitiful three from a possible 15 Premier League points, surrendered to the likes of Swansea and Hull City and been swept out of the FA Cup by struggling Championship team Wolves, they have plainly needed more.

They've needed the swagger of someone who can split open the midfield, who has the ability to change the pace and the thinking and the mood of a team.

Henderson operates in a well-trodden groove and leaves superior inspiration to such as Phillipe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana and Emre Can.

Of this gifted quintet, Mane was slowed by injury in the Africa Cup of Nations and only Lallana has been operating around maximum force.

It has meant that the creative burden has simply been too great and too often Liverpool's most persistent force has come from the worthy strivings of James Milner along the left.

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Steven Gerrard: slip-up. Photo: PA

From the shadows, Steven Gerrard is, for the moment at least, necessarily watching the tactical impasse without a hint of public comment.

However, there is no doubt that the spectre of a team falling far below the standards it has set itself is bound to bring some focus on the man who once dictated Anfield's pulse rate.

We are told he is in the early stages of a coaching education but there is another reality. It is that there is no football club on Earth more affected by emotion than Liverpool.

And, if the downward trend is not broken, the odds against the first cry for 'Stevie G' from the Kop cannot but shorten.

Gerrard for Klopp? No, it doesn't make sense, certainly not at this point, but plainly it is space that will be watched.

The growing uncertainty, not surprisingly, has left Klopp awash with edgy passion remarkable even by his own extraordinary standards.

When some of it spilled over as Simon Mignolet saved Diego Costa's penalty in the home draw with Chelsea, the manager found it necessary to apologise to the fourth official caught in his outpouring of relief.

"He accepted my apology," reported Klopp, "and said that he liked my passion. That was cool."

Of course, the Anfield faithful have adored his passion for most of his season-and-a-half stint but the ardour is cooling now.

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Almost inconceivably after a superb start to the season, brilliant victories at Arsenal and Chelsea and a momentum which forced Jose Mourinho to 'park the bus' when he arrived with Manchester United, Klopp's win-loss percentage is no better than that of his predecessor Brendan Rodgers.

Rodgers was banished from Anfield as a failure in the wake of Luis Suarez's departure for Barcelona. He was found guilty of an inability to develop the side, give clear indications of where the team were heading and how they were going to get there.

If there was any doubt that Klopp was moving into the same kind of uncertain terrain after the 2-0 submission to Hull City, it has been dispatched briskly enough by Didi Hamann, a hero of Liverpool's Champions League triumph in Istanbul.

Hamman paid tribute to the psychological force of his compatriot's Anfield stint but was emphatic that the team are in need of some fresh and probing analysis.

"Klopp has succeeded in changing a few things and now he needs to look at the playing personnel because this set of players has failed on numerous occasions in the last few seasons," he said.

Hamman cited failures in the FA Cup against Aston Villa, under Rodgers, and Klopp's inability to deliver in the League Cup against Southampton and the Europa League against Seville.

"Maybe Klopp needs to look hard at the team and maybe there also needs to be a thorough process through the whole club on what might be possible with the players they already have."

No, it is not advice likely to gladden the warm heart of Jurgen Klopp. But then he can hardly complain.

After his inspiring days at Dortmund he hardly needs telling that some football clubs and their supporters will always be governed by a certain passion.

Not for passing heroes, however convivial, but the idea that they are watching a team of potential winners.

Irish Independent

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