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The Liverpool Offside 2016-17 Season Review, Part 4: Klopp Concerns

In part four of our season review, we dig into Jürgen Klopp’s first full season in charge to tackle any doubts and concerns.

Watford v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

It goes without saying, or at least it probably should, that Jürgen Klopp is an elite manager. He represents the best Liverpool can likely hope for in the role, and almost any club would count themselves lucky to have him. That doesn’t make him perfect, though, and for some, 2016-17 had a few causes for concern when it came to the Liverpool manager, with a consciously small squad, late substitutions, and at times stubborn personnel decisions topping the lists for many. Have you seen anything this season in the way Klopp approaches the job that concerns you moving forward or that you think he needs to work on to find success at Liverpool?

I’ll leave any deeper discussion of tactics to those who are smarter than me when it comes to such matters, but I will say that the persistent injuries in the team during Klopp’s time in charge have been a particular cause for concern. Hopefully, as the players continue to adjust to Klopp’s methods and Klopp continues to adjuss to the league, we will see this problem start to taper off in the future. Hopefully the near future.

Jerry Seinfeld, whom older readers may remember from the late Baroque period, used to have a bit about being a passenger in taxicabs that were being driven recklessly through heavy city traffic, and in particular rationalizing the taxi driver’s behavior by telling oneself, “Well, he’s a professional.” I have a similar feeling about Klopp.

He effortlessly exudes a totally disarming candor, such that even when the thought occasionally goes through my head that, “Hmm, I’m not sure that leaving so-and-so on the pitch right now is a great idea,” I also inevitably tell myself, “It’s Klopp, he must know what he’s doing.” Also, given Klopp’s hands were somewhat tied at times during the season, I’m assuming that when he is given more tools with which to work over the summer we should start to get a better sense of his in-game decision making.

In other words, I’m reserving judgment on a few minor concerns. For now. But that Dejan Lovren contract weighs heavy on the mind.

Klopp has long been accused—and with good reason—of being too reluctant to make substitutions. It’s a criticism that dates back to his Dortmund days, and probably before then if you ask Mainz 05 supporters. Thankfully, he gets the starting XI right more often than not. At this point in his managerial career, it would be unfair to expect him to drastically change his ways. With any manager, you take the good with the bad. Herr Klopp has given us far more good than bad, and I trust we’ll have even better times ahead.

I mean look, I’ll be the first one to say that the hero-worship that happens around managers in English football is patently absurd and that we need to stop attributing all of a club’s fortunes to the schlubby guy in the suit on the touchline. But I also think any criticism of Jürgen Klopp this season was overblown. Most of us knew what we were getting from the beginning; those of us who didn’t follow the Bundesliga before 2015 or didn’t watch the 2013 Champions League Final were at least able to go on YouTube and get a look at what kind of manager he is and how his teams play. We knew that he was very likely to bring the style of play he implemented at Dortmund—high-pressure, high-pressing, energetic, relentless, bit wobbly in the back, befuddled at teams that hunker down, sometimes seeming bereft of a Plan B—to Anfield.

Klopp has made our team better. No, he’s not perfect. No, we’re probably not title contenders yet. But we’re a better team in every way that counts, and we’ve been rewarded with Champions League football—probably, some might argue, a year ahead of schedule. And yeah, there are things I wish he’d do differently (like substitutions), but too much of the criticism of Klopp this season was just pointless nitpicking.

Jürgen Klopp is a sharp, passionate, clever, inspirational, and charismatic manager with an exhilarating football philosophy. However, Klopp’s in-game management, appraisal of defenders, sustaining injuries, and tactical alternative to his favoured approach have proven to be weaker areas of his generally impressive management abilities since he took over in October 2015. This feels like being unnecessarily picky considering that Liverpool are lucky to have the former Mainz 05 and Borussia Dortmund trainer in charge, but I cannot abstain from answering the question. As Zach says, you take Klopp with the good and the bad. With a manager like we have, I think it's fair to assume that we're all happy to do that.

It’s always difficult to separate the directions of the manager from the performances of his players, but—assuming Klopp’s vision is what we get on the pitch—there is a tactical inflexibility and a naivete running through the current side. The team either plays balls-to-the-wall gegenpress—which works wonders against teams that are a little too comfortable and languid on the ball, especially early in the match before the tempo of the game is set—or mud-it-up defensive mode. Both tactics were particularly effective against top teams this year, and shows that these players can defend if they’re told to, which makes their willingness to completely sell out against supposedly weaker sides and get hit on the counter again and again doubly infuriating. Breeding a greater understanding of game state among his players and showing more nuance and variation depending on opposition and available players would go a long way towards pleasing me on this end.

Keeping players healthy is another challenge, and one I feel Klopp has yet to show he can do. Also, starting Dejan Lovren all the time and giving him a £20m contract is just godawful stuff. Can’t condone that.

Rolling the dice with a small squad is my only gripe with Klopp. But we can’t know all the factors that attributed to keeping the team light of significant options off the bench all season. That’s football, or whatever. But the team was unprepared for the injuries it incurred and the dearth of defenders played a part in the wild and crazy ride that nearly saw us out of the top four. Overall, the manager should manage this team the way he wants to. I can accept that some of Klopp’s more questionable moves are either part of a learning process or that I simply don’t have all the information to judge them honestly. Mostly I’m still gaga that he’s even our manager.

Jürgen Klopp isn’t perfect, but if Liverpool can’t win with him in charge it might be time to pack it in and join the likes of Newcastle and Nottingham Forest—I mean they did manage to win the European Cup twice—dreaming of past glories and the odd cup run. Hopefully, though, he can learn from his mistakes. Hopefully two injury-riddled seasons has taught him the importance of a larger squad and heavier rotation in England. Hopefully a deeper squad built to cope with a hectic domestic schedule and a return to Europe will mean more and more timely in-game changes. Really, in the end, there’s only hope, and any concerns don’t much matter in the larger picture. Because in the larger picture, if Liverpool can’t win things with Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool are pretty much fucked.

Monday — Part 1: A Question of Success
Tuesday — Part 2: Transfer Business
Wednesday — Part 3: Underperformers & Overachievers
Friday — Part 5: What Comes Next?

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