Artist In Residence is a series of articles showcasing the work of a specific artist over the course of a week and the stories behind the featured people and moments as well as a Q&A to kickstart the series. This series’ illustrations are from the brilliant Harry G Ward.
It is said that a good manager can build you a good team, a great manager will build you a great team, but a genius of a manager will build you a great team and then do it all over again, and again after that.
No reasonable person is going to doubt Jürgen Klopp’s greatness. Since his big-grinned arrival on Merseyside, back in 2015, the already successful Borussia Dortmund coach has revived one of Europe’s leading clubs with all the care and precision of a restorer of precious antiques. World, European and Premier League Champions, Klopp has buffed, shined, and remoulded Liverpool into one of the, if not actually the most feared side in the world. A team oozing world class talent. But serious questions are now being asked, and, quite unbelievably, social media buzzes with arguments over whether Klopp has run the full course. Has the time now come for Jürgen to take one giant leap from greatness up into the realms of genius? In the words of another legend from the city of Liverpool, it’ll be just like starting over.
As Arsene Wenger before him, Jürgen Klopp arrived as a foreign coach on English shores to introduce a footballing philosophy that reverberated right through the game. With the eventual introduction of Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson Becker, the German paired his high press, high intensity, high energy style with a rock-solid defence. Throw in a razor-sharp cutting edge, so fast the opposition are left chasing sonic booms, and teams across the land, across the continent, were being demolished in an impressive whirlwind of fleet-footed football. A pleasure to watch if not to play against. The Liverpool sun was on the rise again and glinting its beams from fresh silverware.
But there are now obvious signs of weeds beginning to emerge in the Anfield rose garden.
To see where they might lie, let us look at the fabled Liverpool front three. For a long time, Klopp’s attack picked itself, then Diogo Jota arrived all guns blazing from Wolverhampton Wanderers and began to edge him in front of Roberto Firmino. At least, that is, until the Portuguese succumbed to the injury curse that has hung over the Reds 20/21 season. Rumours also persist that Mo Salah, Klopp’s brightest of bright stars, is unhappy in the North West of England and, if true, the consistency of his goal scoring record is a credit to both player and manager, but many people close to the club seem confident that the Egyptian will be terrorising La Liga in the non-too distant future. Finally, it’s no coincidence that Saido Mané’s form dipped when deprived of the regular supply of whipped crosses and precision through balls from Trent Alexander-Arnold. That may not be a direct criticism of Mané but it is a concern that the absence of a single link can so readily unbuckle Liverpool’s swash.
Have we found Jürgen’s Achilles heel? Is the Liverpool squad as good as it should be, and do they face a Harry Kane problem with their current forward line?
Ahead of the 2020/21 season, Jürgen Klopp told reporters that he is happy with his squad and that having too many players brings it’s own problems in man management, but that was before fate took a scythe to his head count and suddenly an extra sprinkling of centre-halves would have come in quite handy. Then there’s that forward line again, just who would sign for Liverpool knowing that they have to dislodge Salah or Mané, or is the boss going to have to move someone on to create a space for new arrivals? Jota aside, are Origi, Shaqiri and Minamino of the standard to ever put genuine pressure on a regular starting spot? Are they even a different enough breed to provide a credible Plan B?
Now, let’s just stop here a moment and take stock, because when it comes to his playing staff Klopp does have a remarkable ability to lift everyone to extraordinary standards. So perhaps he is genuinely unconcerned about his squad. Pick Jordan Henderson and Fabinho in the centre of defence, sure, why not? They’ll look like they’ve played there all their lives. Chuck Divock Origi into a seemingly lost Champions League semi-final and watch what happens. But there are some things that lie beyond skilful man management and coaching methods. Among that group of players who owe Klopp more than a little is James Milner, a fantastic professional but, sadly, age means he is no longer capable of two games a week, week in, week out. And then there are the injury prone. Has Anfield ever seen the best of Naby Keïta? Can Joel Matip and Joe Gomez be relied upon to complete a full season? For a keeper, Alisson is injured a heck of a lot. Will Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain ever again scale the heights of which we know he is capable?
Just a few weeks after Klopp professed his we’re-ok-thanks pleasure in his reigning Premier League champions, he went out and bought Thiago Alcântara, and now further doubt has been cast on his claims of happiness because as champions, all be it with an injury list like the morning after the battle of Waterloo, he seems to have been sussed. Nullify Robertson and Alexander-Arnold, do not allow space in behind, refuse the midfield time on the ball, and Liverpool appear unable to find an answer. Dragon slaying as pioneered by Atletico Madrid and perfected by Brighton and Hove Albion.
However, reports of his demise may be premature because beneath that baseball cap, behind those transparent framed glasses, a sharp mind is ticking over. Jürgen Klopp is often three moves ahead of the rest of us and the escalator to genius may be through a door marked “Youth”.
One huge positive from the overloading of the Anfield treatment table has been the necessary blooding of younger players at the club. You know, the ones who might not have been part of the squad Klopp was very happy with a few months ago, but now definitely are. Caoimhin Kelleher, Nathaniel Phillips, Curtis Jones, and Rhys and Neco Williams have all seized their chances. Add to that list the potential of Harvey Elliott, Sheyi Ojo, Sepp van den Berg, Ben Woodburn and Harry Wilson, captained by the still-a-youngster Alexander-Arnold, all inspired by the coaching talent of the man at the helm, and it’s not too hard to smell the scent of new promise rising between the weeds.
Once upon a time there was another manager in the North West who dismantled a team who won the Premier League after decades in the wilderness, and he replaced it with youth. They went on to do OK. But not before a Liverpool hero for the ages warned you can’t win anything with kids…