Playing the Long Game

The Anfield Talk’s Ronan (@ronan_orourke) discusses Jurgen Klopp’s long term plan for Liverpool FC…

No matter what takes place over the next few weeks, even the most cynical of supporters would have a hard time convincing themselves that massive progress has not been made at Liverpool Football Club this season. It is a rare and slightly strange sensation in that effectively all those who follow the club seem to be on the same positive page at this moment in time. I have always done my best to see the bigger picture and trust the process but it is refreshing to see that waves of optimism are no longer seen as delusional. What a time to be alive…

It is after all not that long ago that many would have you believe that the wheels were falling off the Klopp cart. There have been subtle changes over the course of the season which is the beauty of this team in that everything has been steadily building over a long period of time. The only arguable drastic change that has been made so far this campaign was the signing of Virgil van Dijk in January. Even that came at the expense of losing what seemed like a very large Philippe Coutinho shaped hole in the team. Good teams tend to become great ones when the squad buys into a collective belief of how they want to achieve success, and this process must be trusted through the good and bad times. The dedication to what they are working on must be unwavering.

Jurgen Klopp and his squad have ridden some very ugly looking waves not just over the past six months but since his arrival and have emerged standing taller than ever. The club and the supporters are now reaping the rewards of this patience. Here’s a few of what I consider the main reasons why…

 

 

Man Management

One of Klopp’s obvious strengths is his ability to make anyone who interacts with him feel pretty good about themselves. That includes even those of us watching on television. His laugh alone is ridiculously infectious. However, as much as his good nature is well known, I still feel his ability to motivate and get the best from his players is ever so slightly underrated.

To observe this phenomenon from afar, we only have to look at his signings date and essentially every incoming player under his watch has gone on to be a significant contributor to the team. The jury is probably still out on Dom Solanke and Marko Grujic but there’s no denying both have shown massive potential which we hope continues to develop given what stage they are at in their careers.

What is more impressive that most of these additions wouldn’t be considered marquee by any stretch. In fact many were outwardly mocked initially. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was considered many things from unnecessary luxury player to an Arsenal reject who has no end product. The money spent on Ox was apparently spending on an area we did not need reinforcements in… hmm? Andy Robertson wasn’t thought to be the signing we needed as he was just “a left back from a relegated team”. Even Sadio Mané and Mo Salah weren’t exactly universally accepted as signings guaranteed to be difference makers.

These players thriving is no accident. To arrive at a club like Liverpool and be welcomed by a Jurgen Klopp hug is a performance enhancing drug that no chemist can prescribe. You know from that moment that if you buy into his team that something special will arise. Robertson and the Ox had to be patient, but their attitude never wavered. That is a sign of a well managed, and happy squad.

 

Heavy Metal Football Getting a Makeover

For many years Klopp’s teams were known for their explosive gegenpressing style which was the catalyst for some huge results but was also deemed to be a massive weakness as the approach was rightly considered rather unsustainable over the course of a long and exhausting season.

It has been noticeable all season though that Liverpool no longer press like rabid dogs after fresh meat for 90 minutes, game in and game out, any longer. Instead, there are often long periods where the team lurks quietly waiting for their moment to strike. It is a far more economical approach and most definitely more sustainable. There have even been entire games where the team has barely high pressed at all.

Liverpool have demonstrated this season that they can win in a variety of different ways. This is a nightmare for opposing managers to prepare for. It used to be a given that teams could prepare the best they could for the high press and hope to either play around it or wait for Liverpool to tire themselves out. Teams have no idea what is about to hit them anymore and it makes Klopp’s men incredibly difficult to plan for tactically.

Last but not least, Klopp has rotated his squad brilliantly this year. Leading up to the Christmas period, he faced critiscim for resting players for what seemed like no reason. He clearly had planned ahead remembering the squad’s disastrous start in January the year before. I wrote an article at the time about how this rotation policy was, and would pay even greater dividends as the season has gone on and that has proven to be the case. The current Liverpool side look as dangerous and fresh as they ever have.

 

Patience Paying Off

There have been times this season where a lot of patience was required. The defining moment for most being the lopsided 4-1 defeat to Spurs at Wembley. It has been remembered by many as the most crushing of losses but in reality it should be considered more like the 5-0 defeat at Manchester City. In that both results were by no means reflective of the overall play either day. Dejan Lovren got the majority of the blame that day but the whole defense as a unit simply had an untimely simultaneous nightmare.

For many though, that was the day that demonstrated how far behind we were getting. It was never a case of falling behind but instead tweaking what we have to maximize our potential. The minor tweaks began to take place one step at a time after that disappointing day.

We had the introduction of Andy Robertson as the regular left back, we had the continued growth of Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold at right back, we had Loris Karius given a full vote of confidence as the starter between the sticks and finally we had the signing of Virgil van Dijk which in turn rejuvenated the much maligned but always incredibly passionate Dejan Lovren. What was once considered Liverpool’s massive weakness has become an undoubted area of strength. Again this primarily down to patience in the group finding what works for them.

The changes weren’t just at the back either. James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have become integral cogs in the midfield. It is the former regular Gini Wijnaldum who now appears to be more of an outsider looking in as Jordan Henderson is again proving for the 1000th time that he is so vastly under appreciated I can no longer even put it into words. Interestingly, Emre Can has hardly been missed at all. Make of that what you will…

What we can take from all this is that form and ability isn’t always clear cut. At various times throughout their Liverpool careers, many fans would have banished players like Karius and Lovren deeming them unworthy of the shirt. The same could be said of Alexander-Arnold as a right back. He initially was an attacking force against weaker opposition but was sheltered against bigger sides when possible but he has grown and we can now trust him in all situations as an elite right back.

 

 

Jurgen Klopp said from day one that he had a five year plan in place for Liverpool Football Club. It has been a pretty impressive journey so far. I always knew there would be bumps in the road but I felt from the outset that Klopp and his staff had a philosophy in mind that they were going to stick with and I knew it was the right thing to get behind them. Perhaps the most admirable aspect of all is that Klopp himself is clearly still not afraid to learn. He is not perfect and continues to demonstrate that he is self aware enough to adapt to the never-ending challenges of managing a club like Liverpool. What the future holds who knows but we can be sure now that anything is indeed possible again for the first time in almost a decade. Klopp and the squad are making us dream once again.

YNWA

Ronan O'Rourke

Irish/Belgian. Lifelong Liverpool fan and eternal optimist. Always been a firm believer in the Kloppolution.

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