Monday 19 August 2019

Vincent Hogan: Klopp magic should not obscure how close Rodgers got to mountain-top

Jurgen Klopp does not believe the Europa League will damage Liverpool's domestic form
Jurgen Klopp does not believe the Europa League will damage Liverpool's domestic form
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

One of the most torn, chaotic places in football today must surely be the inside of Brendan Rodgers's head.

I mean, let's say Steven Gerrard never slipped. Imagine the title had gone to Anfield in May of last year and that gaping, quarter-of-a-century chasm had been bridged. Rodgers would still be there, wouldn't he? No matter the subsequent tapering of momentum, the idea of sacking a title-winning manager within minutes of drawing the Merseyside derby last month just wouldn't have been tenable.

But Rodgers got the bullet and even his most ardent loyalists probably understand that, for Liverpool, it was probably wise to be brutal.

Because the energy gusting through the club since Jurgen Klopp's appointment has begun to carry intoxicating promise. Previously subdued players suddenly look emboldened and there is a structural clarity to the team that, latterly, Rodgers undeniably struggled to impose.

The former Liverpool boss most probably tuned into coverage of their Europa League game from Tatarstan on Thursday night where people reduced to virtual ghosts on his watch in the first two months of the season (Moreno, Allen, Ibe) played with real charisma on a difficult Russian pitch.

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Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers

How could Klopp so empower them in four weeks?

Maybe there was the merest hint of an answer in his booming "Eyybeeeee" roar whilst snaring Ibe in a great bearhug at the final whistle. The Londoner is still a teenager for whom life in the vortex of professional football will, presumably, be thrilling and terrifying in equal measure. On Thursday, he looked utterly carefree, running his marker at every opportunity and scoring the night's only goal.

Whatever so diminished him under Rodgers had now, palpably, lifted off Ibe. He chased everything, hid from nothing. He had reclaimed the swagger of youth.

Coming on the back of a convincing victory at Stamford Bridge five days earlier, the coherence of Liverpool's football spoke of a group now gathering real momentum from the clarity of their manager's message.

Yet there is still a distance to travel before Klopp's team lights the kind of fires in the imagination that Rodgers's side managed during that epic 2013/14 campaign. History seems to have decreed that that title challenge was simply down to Luis Suarez, that a short-sighted orangutan could have struck oil from the manager's chair that season given the South American's goals.

Hence the easy denigration of Rodgers these days, the lampooning of him as some kind of David Brent-style figure who learnt all he knows about management from a book of wall-mottos.

Yet read Gerrard's latest book, 'My Story', and the depiction of Rodgers through that 13/14 season is largely of inspirational man-management and innovative coaching. If the appetite today is to depict Rodgers in the faintly hapless terms of someone who all but ended up trying to sell TimeShare in Kabul, Gerrard recalls a manager of depth and real emotional intelligence.

Where he speaks coldly of a Champions League-winning Benitez, "I don't think Rafa liked me as a person", Gerrard refers to training sessions under Rodgers as the best he'd experienced under any manager, while "his man-management was excellent, generous and imaginative".

In the end, Gerrard's appreciation of Rodgers's management style would be challenged by his own diminishing status at the club, most especially when the manager - contrary to indications given in a late-night text - left him out of the starting line-up for the home defeat to Manchester United last March. Gerrard, who's described himself beforehand to Dr Steve Peters as "like a caged animal", was sent off within seconds of his second-half introduction.

There is a sense ultimately too that Gerrard eventually left Liverpool because it was impossible to reconcile Rodgers's assurances about his importance to the dressing-room with an eventual contract offer than came his way from Fenway. The contract was, essentially, performance-related and emerged after negotiations that made no reference to any future role with the club.

"Would it have hurt them to discuss it with me?" asks Gerrard.

Perhaps it is a question Fenway themselves have begun to ask since, given Klopp's admission this week that he is open to Gerrard (who will be at Anfield tomorrow) being, at the very least, a training-ground presence at Melwood until his return to Los Angeles for a second season with Galaxy next year.

But to suggest that Klopp now wants Gerrard in a way that Rodgers's didn't is to skew reality.

What we see with the German, undeniably, is a personality equipped to deal with awkward questions, that booming laugh disarming even the most contrary. Klopp, you suspect, recognises the superficiality of so much that passes for communication with the outside world, the habitual inflation of a throwaway, mordant line into something epic or constitutional; the insatiable appetite for another Punch and Judy narrative.

Even in the Disneyfied world of professional football, people can be fragile and careworn because wealth can never immunise against panic or low self-worth, it doesn't drown out the groans of a restless crowd.

So you balance that tabloid frenzy against all the sensitivities of the human condition. You play the media game without believing it. Klopp will lose a game soon enough and the "impatience" he sees in everybody at Liverpool will kick back into overdrive.

That's when the size of his personality will be needed. Hard as he tried, Rodgers always looked excessively flushed and dry of mouth when things went wrong. The deeper he slipped into "as I said" mode, the harder it became to see how he might inspire a struggling dressing-room.

Klopp's capacity to laugh at himself, to acknowledge what he calls "the s**t" in so many of his pronouncements will stand to him here, particularly with a fan-base that yearns for football with personality. He seems to have some of Shankly's humour and moxy. He gets the importance of football in the city and the irrationality that that can spawn.

Whether or not the size of Liverpool's footprint broadens on his watch, we can say with some certainty that the club will, at least, feel big again through its manager. It will radiate charisma.

Whether or not, long-term, Gerrard will be part of that is difficult to say. Essentially, all Klopp committed to this week was giving the former captain use of Liverpool's facilities. That it was presented as something more profound won't have surprised (or unduly troubled) him.

For Klopp has made a pretty flawless beginning to his term as Liverpool manager. But his every triumph now should not, on reflex, be recycled as some kind of antidote to the eventual frustrations of life under Brendan Rodgers.

For a time, the Northern Irishman looked to be guiding Liverpool beyond the limitations of finance and football logic. His team had the Premier League utterly smitten, then a captain's slip changed everything.

So Rodgers didn't get to cross that mountain-top. But he made a glorious symphony of trying.

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