“I can really work with all the things I've learned until now.”
It can be easy to characterise Jürgen Klopp as a coach or manager who is always laughing and hugging everyone in sight. Although he has shown belief in many of the players he inherited upon succeeding Brendan Rodgers as manager, he has also revealed a stubborn and ruthless streak at times along with the furious passion that runs through his actions on the touchline in pursuit of victory.
Klopp has brought renewed optimism to Liverpool in the space of his 18 months or so as manager, but 2017 has been disastrous for a team that looked some comfortable in securing Champions League qualification. He believes that finishing in the top four would be “a big success” this season but acknowledges that Liverpool need to learn from setbacks along with improving consistency. Current form, however, isn't something he's smiling about.
"I am not always laughing like crazy. I am a normal person," said Klopp. "We have this lack of consistency, we cannot ignore it. I am not a clown - even though a few people think I am. It is not about laughing the whole week and ignoring the problems you have."
I think one of Klopp’s greatest strengths is his ability to be honest, inspire, and aspire. It's why he believes in improving the way Liverpool play and getting the players to do what they've been doing more often instead of ripping up a plan that he’s been building for nearly eighteen months. It's why he's naturally concerned but not completely despondent, which may jar those looking for an immediate and concerted response to a collapse after a brilliant first half of the season.
The hugs, the toothy grin that could engulf half the Mersey, and the charming candour might give the impression that Klopp doesn’t want it enough. That may not be the prevailing feeling among the fanbase right now, but all sorts of conjecture would buzz around our ears with further setbacks between now and May. Hearing that qualifying for the Europa League “would be okay and a step in the right direction” or “qualifying for the Champions League would be a big success, 100%” for a club with Liverpool’s supposed ambitions.
The key for Klopp is making “the best of the rest of the season” and working in “a long-term project” in what are the chief concerns in competing today while building something sustainable for tomorrow. Liverpool’s struggles since the turn of the year have much to do with Klopp’s tactics, squad building, faith in certain players, and problems in a squad that predates his arrival. Jürgen Klopp is the right manager for where Liverpool were in October 2015 and where Liverpool are in March 2017, but this shouldn't need to be stated even with such a drastic slump in form this year.
There might not be much belief that Liverpool will be consistent enough in the remaining 12 games to finish in the top four, but who genuinely fears a game against a rival team around the top of the league? Yes, Liverpool cannot expect to keep up such a fine run forever, but maybe Klopp has unlocked what it takes to pick up points in big Premier League games. While that makes the club’s struggles against supposed cannon fodder all the more frustrating, there are two areas that should not be overlooked: nearly a third of a league campaign left to play and overall progress made under Klopp.
Both progress and remaining games should wrestle fear and loathing from doubters’ palms in a season where crisis has seemingly touched all of the big sides. Defeat for Arsenal at Anfield would surely shift the focus on the shoulders of Arsène Wenger once again, and a heavy defeat would spark much ire as the 5-1 defeat to Bayern Munich did. Liverpool would be back in the top four even with the potential disadvantage of playing a game more than most of their rivals, but it would still feel heartening to be there after such a miserable and inconsistent run of form.
The Normal One says he is “a normal person” who is aware of any problems contrary to what some may think, but like a normal person, he will make mistakes in trying to correct them. As for transfers, would it be easier to think that two summer windows would be enough to genuinely judge the direction he's taking Liverpool in? That's not to discount the mid-season windows for convenience, but it appears that expecting anything more than Steven Caulker would be optimistic in the extreme. Maybe the day will return when a player with the quality of Luis Suárez, Philippe Coutinho, or Daniel Sturridge will arrive in January, but until then, summer is where Liverpool can make real improvements to a squad that has 12 games left in the current campaign.
Liverpool can and should do better to finish the season strongly, but the time to avoid hasty judgements on the manager is right now. He's a top manager who needs support, perhaps some better players in key positions along with more depth. He's repositioned players to mostly great effect, pushed a small group quite far, reached two major finals, entered the second half of a league campaign with more points than any other Liverpool manager in the Premier League era, and has made following the club fun again.
Mistakes? He's made them and will make more. Liverpool haven't reached finals under Klopp and restored belief without utter conviction in the manager’s philosophy. Liverpool do not need an option like Christian Benteke or a completely different plan. What Liverpool need are better players, a deeper squad, and for plan A to get better. It can and will as there is a very good manager in charge. He's neither a fraud nor a clown. He's not Shankly, Paisley, Fagan, or King Kenny either. Those days are gone, and even if the league title returned to Anfield, it just wouldn't be the same. Then again, it wouldn't need to be after so long.
What Klopp does know, however, is how to make a squad better over a number of years playing exciting football. Let's see where he takes us.