These days a football managers reign isn’t judged purely on the honours they win. In years gone by the bottom line for many of the big clubs was of course whether or not their investment had culminated in a need for a bigger trophy cabinet or not. However, instead of looking at success as a short-term project many now acknowledge, and embrace, the fact it’s about sustained success and is very much a long-term project.
Clubs have realised it’s to their detriment if a manager comes in, spends millions on ageing stars, wins a couple of trophies and then leaves them with a team made up of players past their peak and in need for a complete squad overhaul. A prime example of that is Inter Milan after Jose Mourinho left and arguably Manchester United post-Alex Ferguson.
The latter built a legacy but when gearing up to leave the club that he had built into a juggernaut he failed to effectively plan for the future.
When appointing a new manager clubs want an identity, they want a philosophy and they want a brand. When Fenway Sports Group appointed Brendan Rodgers in the summer of 2012 the owners of Liverpool Football Club bought into the Ulstermann’s project. His 180-page dossier won them over. Their visions aligned.
He was going to play attractive, possession-based football. He was going to coach the players he had and get even more out of them because Liverpool couldn’t compete financially with their rivals. He was the proactive, young and innovative manager that FSG wanted to take their club forward. And for a while, he did just that. Liverpool came within touching distance of that elusive Premier League crown playing their most electric attacking football since the inception of the Premier League.
Rodgers had a system and a style that worked.
It enabled key players like Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge, Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez to influence the game. The Uruguayan left and the foundations Rodgers had built at the club started to crumble.
Various system and personnel changes meant it became almost impossible for Liverpool and their recruitment team to effectively do their job and Liverpool as a club suffered because of it. How could they? For example, under Rodgers Steven Gerrard went from playing in a midfield two to playing as the deepest midfielder of a diamond to then playing as an attacking midfielder in a 3521 formation and even had a cameo as a striker. Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool were erratic and that’s putting it politely.
Towards the end of his reign as manager Liverpool had no style, no identity, no philosophy, no brand and worst of all no clue. Progress had been made from where Liverpool were when he was originally hired to where they were now, but the club was stagnating and FSG wisely acted.
Five days after FSG dismissed Rodgers they pulled off quite the coup. The Liverpool owners managed to convince Jurgen Klopp that the Merseyside club would be the ideal next project for the man who took Borussia Dortmund from mediocrity to the Bundesliga title. He has a history of not only waking a sleeping giant but building on the history that was alright there and laying the foundations for a dynasty. He did just that at Dortmund.
Klopp rocked up to Anfield and instead of making quixotic promises he simply stated he’d turn doubters into believers. He acknowledged the squad wasn’t the best in the league but said he’d disrupt the opposition enough to bring them down to Liverpool’s level.
The Liverpool defence needed addressing and Klopp’s first act as manager was to give them more protection. In his first game against Spurs Liverpool played a staggered 433 formation with Divock Origi leading the line. When defending Liverpool were compact and there were clear lines that Spurs had to play through if they wanted to get to the Liverpool backline. It was a high energy, performance from the Liverpool team as they got in the face of Spurs and looked to win the ball back as high up the pitch as possible to prevent them from getting to teams soft gooey middle.
This transitioned to a 433/4141 system with Roberto Firmino starting as a ‘false 9’ and traditional attacking midfielders in Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho in wide roles. It was a rotisserie of pressing, work rate and creativity and it meant the Liverpool front line was no longer an isolated one man figure.
Their performances were inconsistent but it was to be as expected if you consider Klopp was trying to not only incorporate a new system and style but alongside that he was also improving the team’s fitness at the same time as juggling Premier League, League Cup and Europa League matches.
He took a Liverpool side overly reliant on Daniel Sturridge to fire them to victory and tasked all of his attacking players with the responsibility of scoring goals. They responded emphatically with Divock Origi, Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, Christian Benteke and Daniel Sturridge all scoring 10 or more goals in the 2015/16 season.
The German was the mastermind behind his side scoring seven goals away at Stamford Bridge and the Etihad. He dragged a Liverpool side which was bereft of any real European Experience to a Europa League final beating Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund and Villarreal along the way.
It was a disappointing end to the season for the Reds but Klopp didn’t sit around and sulk. He acted with the efficiency German’s are famed for when bringing in Sadio Mane, Joel Matip, Gini Wijnaldum and Ragnar Klavan long before the Premier League season got underway. These players had plenty of time to bed in, their profiles fit what Klopp not only wanted from any incoming players but what he expected and the team have made an impressive start because of it.
It meant the recruitment team could work on a list of viable players for Klopp months before the transfer window even opened because there was no chance of him drastically changing the system as his predecessor regularly did.
Many fans, pundits and media outlets praised Klopp for getting the team to two cup finals as well as finishing just the six points off of Manchester City who finished in 4th place but some sections of the media pointed out he had won nothing and despite the fanfare surrounding him he’d ultimately failed just like Brendan Rodgers. He may not have won anything in his debut season in England but his biggest achievement was giving a lost, lifeless and lacklustre team such a clear, strong, united identity. People now associate Liverpool with high energy pressing, unparalleled movement in the final third and a team littered with goals. Klopp’s restored the fear factor in just a single year.