Of course, it’s not a morality play. Eleven highly paid mercenaries wearing one color try to put the ball into the back of the net more than eleven other highly paid mercenaries wearing another color. It’s business. It’s entertainment. Leave your morality at the door, and enjoy the show. Don’t forget your wallet.
However, it’s hard to argue that the man currently charged with leading the Reds, Jurgen Klopp, isn’t just a better football manager than most (if not all) of his contemporaries, but a better person as well.
There are countless examples of Klopp’s moral philosophy, but I really don’t want to get too far afield. However, something he said in his last interview really struck me. In discussing, with some dismay, the challenge by Hamza Choudhury on Mohamed Salah, the Liverpool boss brought up his own side’s discipline record.
“I don’t get that. Really. [Choudhury] should know better...You cannot only go for the man. And then you only get a yellow card, I don’t know how that works.
“How can [Salah] be OK? He’s limping off the pitch, and you ask me if he’s OK. How can he be OK?
“That’s hard. For three years in a row I think we were the team with the lowest yellow cards...we don’t do these things. But to slow Mo down...that’s really not OK.”
Klopp isn’t exactly right about leading the league for the last three years. But he’s not miles off, either. Starting with Klopp’s first full season, 2016/17, the Reds have never been above 19th on the discipline table. Below is a list of where they ranked, with the worst and best offenders listed for a point of comparison. The number of yellows listed parentheses.
Premier League Discipline Record, Last 4 Years
2016/17: 1. Watford (84), 2. West Brom (80), 3. Manchester United (78)...18. Swansea City (56), 19. Liverpool (54), 20. Bournemouth (52)
2018/19: 1. Watford (77), 2. Burnley (75), 3. Manchester United (73)...18. Chelsea (49), 19. City (44), 20. Liverpool (38)
2019/20: 1. Arsenal (20), 2. Crystal Palace (19), 2. Manchester United (19)...18. Brighton (9), 18. Leciester City (9), 20. Liverpool (7)
The number of red cards is similarly impressive, with only 1 player in 2017/18 (Sadio Mane’s rash challenge against Ederson), and 2 in 2018/19 (James Milner and Jordan Henderson each picking up a late second yellow) being shown their marching orders. In 2016/17, no Reds were shown a red, as is the case so far this season (long may it continue).
It’s not uncommon for a manager to mold a side in their image, and this is clearly a point our manager feels very strongly about. This startlingly consistent record is even more impressive considering his press-heavy style of football. But of course there is a right way to commit a challenge, and a wrong way. Klopp makes sure his players know where the line is, and that they shouldn’t cross it.
And these last four seasons were not a flue. His record in the Bundesliga with Dortmund was also extremely consistent, finishing in the bottom two of the disciplinary table every year but one (his last season, where he finished 15th of 18).
This season continues where the last one left off, with the Reds averaging around about 1 caution per match, which is good enough for the best disciplinary record in the league. Fabinho leads the way with three yellows for the team. So far, he has been booked for mostly tactical, not violent or aggressive challenges. And two of the remaining four have come from time wasting, one for Trent Alexander-Arnold and Adrian each. Finally, one of the remaining two cautions went to James Milner, because of course it did.
Four years on, we know Klopp is a romantic. But he’s also someone who believes in playing hard and fair.
The pundits on Match of the Day might cynically accuse Kloppo of trying to deflect criticism of Mane’s “dive” to win the penalty, but they’ve clearly not been paying attention to his footballing philosophy on this very issue.
It also gives Klopp the moral latitude to call out other sides. While Leicester under former Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers has been pretty good so far this season, picking up 5 yellows in their opening 7 matches, they picked up four at Anfield on Saturday (including Choudhury’s). Jamie Vardy, as well, was lucky to escape a caution after his late and cynical challenge on Adrian.
Just as Klopp’s charges know what to expect from the boss, so do the players of other managers. For Leicester City coming to Anfield, the strategy was clearly to try to give Liverpool a bloody nose (or sprained ankle, as the case may be). Whether spoken or implied, the players clearly felt that they needed to push the boundaries—and occasionally cross them—in order to get a result against Liverpool. This, sadly, is a strategy we’ve seen many times, and from many less-talented sides, against the Reds.
Klopp is clearly frustrated, and has every right to be. But he can only be in charge of his own players, and hope that the league eventually decides to start calling a spade a spade (or rather, a foul a yellow, and a yellow a red).
In the meantime, he can take pride that his side isn’t just beating all comers, but doing so in a way that fully embraces his ideal of fair play.