The 2014 Champions League season was especially memorable as the year Real Madrid finally lifted their 10th European Cup trophy after an agonizing 11-year wait for the fabled Décima. Cristiano Ronaldo shimmered, Gareth Bale silenced any and all critics of his world-record €100 million transfer the summer before and Carlo Ancelotti masterfully focused a troublesome and high-maintenance squad. Curiously however, the team that triumphed that year was, in terms of cumulative talent, virtually identical to the teams that had failed to win the competition in the previous seasons. Identical save for a crucial difference: the conversion of Ángel Di María from a winger to a central midfielder.
Arriving in Madrid from Benfica in 2010, the Argentinian wunderkind had cemented himself as a highlight reel staple from the wing, a whirling blur of flicks, tricks and in-game rabonas. However, his lack of consistent end product placed his spot in the starting XI under threat following the 2013 summer arrival of Bale from Tottenham.
Rather than drop such an obvious talent, Ancelotti instead followed the lead of then-Argentina national team manager Alejandro Sabella, himself also suffering from a terrible case of too many world class attacking options, by returning the mercurial winger to the central midfield role he had mastered in his time in the Primeira Liga.
What followed was the best year of Di María’s career. His combination of dynamism, lightning dribbling ability and excellent field vision from the center of the park was the missing cog in the Madrid Galactico machine. He quickly supplanted Isco, Florentino Perez’s most recent splurge, as the vital link between the pair of Xabi Alonso and Luka Modric—the ultimate guy-who-passes-to-the-guy-who-passes-to-the-guy-who-scores—to the awe-inspiring triumvirate of Ronaldo, Bale and Karim Benzema, comprehensively shredding domestic and continental midfields alike to the tune of 24 assists in all competitions. It could be argued that the hunt for la Décima could still be on without the Argentine’s driving presence from midfield that year.
The exploits continued into the 2014 World Cup, where, in an Argentina squad that included Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero, his performances were far and away the primary impetus for the team’s run to the final, with his absence in that match to injury effectively sealing the South Americans’ fates before the first whistle was even blown.
But what does the evolution of a since Manc-tainted phenom have to do with Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool? It has everything to do with it, because it proves that the primary reason a small cadre of Galactico managers like Ancelotti get paid enormous amounts of money to play musical chairs amongst the elite European teams—while journalists, pundits and even former world class players like Gary Neville talk a big game from the booth and the page, but who ultimately crash and burn when tasked themselves with drawing up the X’s and O’s—is above all, due to an ability to forge a fully-formed vision of the future and to mold a group of individual wills, talents and motivations to conform to and buy into that vision.
We all expressed concern when Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp, an august member of that managerial pantheon, played striker Daniel Sturridge out on the wing in both the deflating loss to Burnley and again in the EFL matchup against Burton Albion. “He’s a center forward!” we all chimed in behind even the player himself, “he needs to play in his best position!” This correspondent was just as guilty.
Elsewhere in the squad, the usage of Jordan Henderson came up as another cause for worry, as he struggled in an ill-fitting new holding role for the first few matches of the season. His positional awareness, skill set even his suitability for both a Klopp team and the Liverpool captaincy were questioned.
It was all noise to Klopp, who we are all starting to realize now in hindsight, knew exactly where he was going. To Sturridge, he issued subtly worded challenges on multiple occasions, urging him to step up his defensive contribution. He made sure to reiterate his belief in the forward’s world class ability, but gently showed the way to aligning that ability with the vision. On Henderson’s side, he went out of his way to publicly defend his captain, persisting with the former Sunderland man in the holding role despite withering criticism of his early poor performances.
I am not the sort of person who comes in and says, “You — sacked”. That is not me, “Don’t like his face, don’t like his face...
”I like to give first, second, even third chances. We are human beings. If I was judged on my first mistake, I wouldn’t be here.
So I felt faith, and that is how life should be.”
All of this meant that while Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana deservedly won the plaudits for their sensational performances in the 4-1 demolition of reigning champions Leicester City at the weekend, it was these two Englishmen who produced the most satisfying and vindicating moments.
For example, while Sturridge did manage to grab an assist with a cheeky backheel to Mané for the second goal, his most intriguing contribution didn’t even make the highlight reel, coming in the lead up to Firmino’s opening goal. With the star striker’s willingness to work for the team questioned in the past, and his near guaranteed place in the starting XI under threat from both the Brazilian and young Divock Origi, watching Sturridge spot a developing Leicester attack and then sprint from the opposition box back into his own half to win the ball moments before Firmino’s strike was a revelation.
Uncharacteristically wasteful finishing and a heavy touch prevented him from making the scoresheet himself, but what appears to be a new-found willingness to sacrifice for the team in a manner fans are not used to seeing from him would appear to hint that the mercurial striker is looking to rise to Klopp’s challenge.
As for Henderson, there was assurance and perceptiveness against the champions in shielding the defense in the middle of the park. After being given the runaround by the likes of Arsenal and Burnley, he instead was an integral part of neutralizing the dangerous pair of Jamie Vardy and last year’s PFA Player of the Year, Riyad Mahrez, snuffing out attacks while also notching two hockey assists with his instinctive long balls from deep.
A comically over-the-top reaction from the boss after an innocuous, but very sweeper-like tackle along the sideline by Henderson, was telling in its emphaticness.
Klopp punching the air in delight with Henderson's pressing. Been tremendous today. pic.twitter.com/xhcJUvozfh— - (@_lfcleanne) September 10, 2016
Simply put, Klopp is revealing his vision to the squad and is then throwing down the gauntlet, challenging each individual player to evolve and align themselves with it. We’ve said it before, the man is building a squad that is young, passionate and willing to learn.
Yes, we are clearly reading too much into this first tenth of the season. However it is starting to becoming clear: Jürgen Klopp actually knows what he’s doing. There will be slip ups, but as as we’re starting to see, there will also be evolution.