Liverpool’s rotten January has spawned the appropriate reaction and, having been almost universally admired for his progress on Merseyside, Jurgen Klopp is starting to feel the cold chill of discontent. Truthfully, the deepest voices within the choir can be ignored, because capitalised forums posts, angry tweets, and shouted phonecalls are good for nothing beyond the construction of straw-man arguments. It would be a misrepresentation to claim that Klopp is under any serious pressure or even that he doesn’t still enjoy the overwhelming support of his club’s fans. However, it would be equally disingenuous to pretend that valid grounds for criticism don’t exist, or that just because the complaints lack nuance they should be dismissed entirely.
Perhaps these frustrations commonly manifest as emotionally incontinent nonsense, but they’re still rooted in something rule. To criticise Klopp isn’t crazy and it needn’t necessarily be a symptom of short-termism, but the cult of personality in the Premier League does encourage these binary divisions; managers are always performing extremely well or very poorly and fans only ever seem to be strongly in support of their head-coach or vehemently opposed to him. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, an Arsenal fan who does not hold a definitive opinion on Arsene Wenger’s future. Similarly, because of the nature of their characters and the attention they attract, both Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola also stand between warring factions. It’s good versus bad, innovative or redundant; it’s a game of absolutes and within Liverpool’s context that’s particularly reductive.
Klopp is in a relatively unusual position. Beyond the limitations of their wage bill and the comparative financial disadvantage they face, there are no real asterisks at Anfield. The club’s history perhaps still elevates expectations beyond a reasonable level, but Klopp has been in his job for a year-and-a-half, has spent plenty of money, and has had adequate time to implement his high-pressing system. It’s quite reasonable for him to be judged through the lone prisms of results and performance. And that’s an interesting exercise because, while it may seem contradictory, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe his time in England as both highly encouraging and relatively disappointing. He has been an agent of great change and a deliverer of some fantastic results. Yet he has also been completely ineffective against the weaknesses he inherited and the architect of some shockingly insipid performances.
That’s quite a rare situation and it’s why the “with him or against him” mentality which surrounds Klopp is so inappropriate.
Recent results have framed Liverpool in a particularly negative way. While responsibility for January’s performances lies with the manager and his players, those displays have unquestionably been influenced by the absence of Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho’s lack of sharpness, and the bizarre situation with Joel Matip. Nevertheless, while not reflective of their season as a whole, many of the negatives within those performances have been visible for a long time. The inability to defend set-pieces or crosses into the six-yard box, the failure to break down a deep-lying opponent, and the myriad goalkeeping problems have all been consistent themes under Klopp – as they were for his predecessor, Brendan Rodgers. It’s actually remarkable that after all the coaching sessions, signings, and informing mistakes, Liverpool not only remain weak in their own half, but are fragile in identical ways.
At the other end of the pitch, they are a complete different side: vivacious and energetic, they are often the gold standard of attacking football in this country. Klopp’s counter-pressing may be fashionable and increasingly commonplace, but it remains a difficult ideology to teach. A coach not only needs his players to re-condition themselves physically but, for the system to work as intended, their instincts and impulses need to be suitably adapted. The philosophy’s advantages are mined from the micro-seconds of chaos that follow a turnover and it takes time to build that exploitative mindset; a team either presses, retrieves and counters as one, or the system will be ineffective. That Liverpool have already adopted that identity represents a tremendous coaching feat which testifies to both the squad’s pliability and the manager’s personality. It’s not easy to be an evangelist, even less so in the developed society of a top club full of well-paid talent. In a recent interview in his native Argentina, Mauricio Pochettino – the other high priest of counter-pressing – spoke of the difficulties posed by “know it all players” when trying to install a new way of playing. That’s something Klopp has encountered. And conquered. With his charisma, his charm, his personable nature. His players believe in what he’s trying to do and are evidently submissive to his vision for how the game should be played.
And yet that back-six remains oddly impervious to the same voodoo. There is no mystery about Liverpool’s flaws, they are plainly apparent to even the most casual fan, and yet there is little evidence of any improvement across these last eighteen months or even of any intention to change. Simon Mignolet continues to make the same errors and goals continue to result from the same failed marking assignments and botched clearances. For someone so innovative, it’s staggering how often the German needs to put his hand in the fire to discover that it’s hot. It’s as maddening as it is hard to explain.
So this is really quite the paradox: Klopp has had a dramatic influence on Liverpool and yet at the same time none at all. As a consequence, he is impossible to evaluate in any certain terms, being neither the benevolent shaman imagined by Sky Sports, nor the false prophet claimed in those dark corners of the internet.