We’re now nearly a year and a half into Jurgen Klopp’s heavy metal reign at Anfield.
Sunday’s draw against Man City means Liverpool will finish the season unbeaten in the top six mini league.
The Reds are on course for Champions League football next season and he has already delivered two cup finals, all before he has even completed a full season in charge. However, it is the next six months that will make or break him.
This summer’s transfer window is critical to his long term success and whether or not Liverpool achieve Champions League qualification during the final months of the season will have a big impact on his spending power and the quality of player he can attract.
The fact that Klopp enjoyed such a strong start to his Liverpool stewardship has probably made his job that bit more difficult. Expectations have been raised sky high and at one point it even looked as though Liverpool’s long title drought might be ended in the German’s first full season in charge.
Doubt creeps in
Slamming into a brick wall at the start of 2017 and exiting both cups came as quite a shock to the Anfield faithful.
Doubt began to creep in where before there had been undying belief. His transfer record began to be scrutinised and after two underwhelming windows the next will now be crucial. Liverpool fans expect a trophy next season and if one does not appear to be coming as 2017 draws to a close then Klopp will start to come under pressure from twitter trolls, fickle fans and the media.
Whilst this seems unlikely at the moment, not only because performances have improved but also because Liverpool fans are generally a little more patient with managers than most, there are a number of problem areas that need to be addressed.
Firstly, there is a real lack of pace in this Liverpool side. Bar Mane and Clyne, the first eleven isn’t the quickest and this is an attribute that needs to be possessed by at least two of this summer’s signings. It is no coincidence that Liverpool won just one of the seven games that Mane missed whilst on international duty and that was against Plymouth. It is an important ingredient that Klopp cannot do without in this open attacking system. You need players that can spark transitions from defence into attack quickly and vice versa.
Experience is another attribute Liverpool are lacking right now. James Milner is the only member of the starting eleven to have enjoyed a 30th birthday celebration. Lucas and Klavan are the only other 30-somethings in a squad which is the second youngest in the Premiership. This might bode well for the future but another experienced head or two would help guide some of the promising youngsters that Klopp is starting to blood in the first team.
A third attribute Klopp’s Liverpool are lacking is aggression.
Too often Liverpool seem to be out-battled by inferior opposition. Before this weekend Liverpool had the second best disciplinary record in the Premiership with just forty three cautions and no red cards. They lack a competitive edge at times and need a few more players with a meaner streak in them.
The biggest problem however, is clear for all to see. One look at the goals against column shows a team that simply leaks too many goals.
Just two teams in the top half have conceded fewer. Only once in the last ten seasons has a team won the title conceding more than a goal per game and this is an area Klopp seems to have made alarmingly little progress with.
Just a couple of games into the season I said that this Liverpool team will probably score enough goals to win the league but will almost certainly concede too many too. I don’t think I was being particularly insightful with this observation – it was glaringly obvious.
There were big question marks over the goalkeepers, one (Karius) was relatively unheard of outside of Germany and just 22 years old. The other (Mignolet) had proven himself to be unreliable time and time again.
Klopp had failed to sign a left back and had decided to play James Milner there, such was the lack of faith he had in Alberto Moreno. To be fair to Klopp this gamble has worked well for much of the season and it is only since Xmas that Milner has begun to struggle.
The midfield also wasn’t affording the defence enough protection, when possession was turned over, and whilst Jordan Henderson has adapted well to dropping into defensive midfield, he isn’t the destroyer Liverpool need in that position. If you are going to play so openly, pushing both full backs on, then you need a Makele, Kante or Mascherano type there to shield the back four.
So, this brings us back to the coming summer transfer window.
In order for Liverpool to climb back on their perch, there can be no more mistakes with recruitment this summer.
Another window where they add a Sturridge and Coutinho is required rather than a Diouf, Diao and Cheyrou.
Having decided that he needed to replace Mignolet last summer, he now needs to give Karius another chance or bring in another keeper. There are six or seven better keepers in the Premier League alone than Mignolet, the supporters don’t trust him and neither does his defence. This alone suggests he will eventually be sacrificed.
A quality left back is also required urgently now. Milner will be a useful squad player next season but he can’t be asked to bomb up and down the flank for another season, especially with the likelihood of extra European football thrown in. It would also give Liverpool valuable width on their left hand side as at times their desire to work the ball inside from wide left positions leads to a loss of momentum and a loss of possession as the man on the ball turns into an already congested midfield rather than taking the ball down the line. And with the best will in the world, the steady Milner is not the man to regularly beat a full back on his outside and take the ball down the line.
A top quality defensive midfield player is possibly the most important signing that is needed.
Such an addition will allow Henderson to move a little further forward and give the full backs more confidence to attack in the knowledge that there is cover in behind.
Another forward is the final area that needs strengthening.
Sturridge has cried off too many times and it might be a mental issue as much as physical now. When he has been available this season he has looked a shadow of himself. He seems to have lost a yard of pace and just doesn’t fit in to this system that Klopp now plays. Divock Origi has failed to kick on and Danny Ings has had a horrendous couple of seasons with injury. Roberto Firmino is a fantastic footballer but he just isn’t clinical enough to be the main forward in this system.
Another centre back is probably needed too as Klavan doesn’t look good enough and Lucas Levia surely cannot survive the cut again. The squad will need to be bigger to cope with the demands of European football and with departures. This means as many as seven or eight new faces may be needed and that is a lot of player turnover and a lot of squad upheaval.
The supporters will demand significant investment from the owners, especially after a profit was made from last summer’s window and no business was done in January. A top four finish is vital in order to fund this expenditure and to make sure that ongoing, the best players can be enticed to Anfield.
The right man?
But what of Jurgen Klopp? Is he the man to bring glory back to the fields of Anfield road?
His enthusiasm for the game is infectious, he clearly has great motivational abilities and has endeared himself to the Kop with his touchline antics and recognition of the role the fans can play. Tactically though, can he retain what’s good in Liverpool’s play yet sort the defensive issues out?
In seven seasons at Dortmund, only twice did Klopp’s side manage to concede less than a goal per game. They won the title in both seasons so can he do the same with Liverpool? Interestingly it was his third and fourth seasons at Dortmund when he secured those titles after finishing sixth and fifth in his first two attempts.
The biggest question mark for me is tactically. He has been accused of having no plan B, of only being able to play one way. In January it appeared that teams had worked out how to stop him. Go more direct and sit deep.
It could be argued that he doesn’t have the players for a plan B. But as manager he has to take responsibility for failing to add to the squad sufficiently in the last two windows.
Klopp’s record in Cup Finals, games in which tactical battles between managers are of even greater importance, looks worrying. He has lost five of six in his career.
The way Liverpool collapsed in the second half against Sevilla in last year’s Europa league final was particularly alarming.
His in-game management also leaves a lot to be desired, especially when compared to that of his predecessor Brendan Rodgers. Klopp often seems to wait too long before making a change and when he does, they rarely seem to have much impact. Again, this could be down to lack of options on the bench, but again, the buck stops with him here.
It is going to be a big few months ahead for Klopp and Liverpool. The owners need to back him with a big budget in the summer or all that he is trying to achieve will be undermined.
Klopp and his back-room staff signed six year extensions in the summer so to risk having to pay them off in a year or two could be very costly. Trying to unearth hidden gems is fine but I worry that Klopp is going down the Arsene Wenger road of failure by refusing to pay over the odds for players and relying on developing youth. Sometimes you need to go the extra mile and take a chance, as Everton did when they spent £28 million on Lukaku and Spurs did when they spent £5million on a youngster from League one called Dele Alli (a player Liverpool scouted for about two seasons but refused to pay the money for).
There is no major tournament this summer to disrupt pre season. Should Liverpool make the top four then they should not lose any of their key players. Coutinho’s recent loss of form should discourage any summer bids from the likes of Real or Barca who will want more consistency for the money he would likely cost.
In addition, there is some real youth talent knocking on the door of the first team such as Trent-Arnold and Ben Woodburn, who at 17 years old has just been called up to the full Wales squad. Sheyi Ojo, Harry Wilson and Ovie Ejaria have also been given minutes by Klopp this season and are showing promise. Joe Gomez and Marko Grujic have recently returned from injury and are both under 21 still, as is Divock Origi. There is much more to come from them. Klopp has had time now to get his methods across and to understand the nuances of Premier league football.
This is a pivotal moment, but Liverpool fans are hoping this is just the beginning.
About the author: Carl Rogan is a former football odds compiler and trader for a number of major bookmakers. As a scout he has written next opponent reports for Preston, Carlisle and other clubs in the North West. Carl lives in London and when he’s not covering games he is a regular at Anfield.