The Jürgen Klopp Era at Liverpool: A Year Three Status Check

In October 2015, former Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp succeeded Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool. Over two years since his arrival but question marks still loom over the German, so how has he really performed since joining the reds?

It has now been over two years since the wildly-successful former Borussia Dortmund manager Jürgen Klopp was brought to Anfield to replace Brendan Rodgers. The question remains however: Has he actually improved things in the past 25 months? Is Liverpool in a better place than they were in October 2015? These questions have no easy answer and so it should shock no one that supporters of the club are divided in their responses. Should The Reds be challenging for the league title at this point, rather than struggling to maintain a Champions League place in the table?

Jürgen Klopp inherited a Dortmund side in 2008 that was a shadow of its former self from the previous decade. From 1995-2002 BVB won three German Championships and the 1996-97 UEFA Champions League. Borussia Dortmund was one of the best clubs on the planet during this period. Things quickly unraveled though, and the club fell on hard times and near bankruptcy only a few years later in 2005. After a few seasons of avoiding relegation, poor managerial hires, and a depleted roster, Jürgen Klopp was appointed as the next Dortmund manager during the summer of 2008. He immediately lifted Dortmund from a 13th place finish to sixth place in his debut season on the touch line for The Black and Yellows. 

Under Jürgen Klopp, Dortmund qualified for Europe in six of his seven seasons in charge (the lone exception was his first season), won the Bundesliga twice, won the German Cup (DFB-Pokal) in 2012 and advanced to the 2013 Champions League final. His time at Borussia Dortmund was an overwhelming success as he helped make Dortmund’s “Echte Liebe” brand a worldwide-known commodity. They were once again a giant in the Bundesliga.


The rebuild of Liverpool begins as Jürgen Klopp comes to Anfield

Klopp was rumoured to be Pep Guardiola’s replacement at Bayern München once the Spaniard was to depart the Säbenerstrasse after the 2015-16 campaign. Before this could even happen, the Liverpool managerial position opened up out of nowhere. In the middle of October, 2015, a struggling Liverpool side found themselves in the middle of the Premier League table, with all title hopes dashed and the possibility of qualifying for Europe a laughable prospect. Klopp inherited a side from the sacked Brendan Rodgers that was far from being worthy of title contention discussion. This was primarily because of a horrid transfer policy during Rodgers’ tenure, meaning, he was perhaps not the primary issue.

An overhaul of the Liverpool roster would be needed, but that would likely have to wait until the 2016 summer transfer window. In the meantime, Klopp would do the best he could with the squad that he had. LFC finished eighth in the EPL that season, though, Klopp did guide the The Reds all the way to the Europa League final, which they would lose 1:3 to Sevilla. Despite this loss, simply making the final was a brilliant accomplishment for Klopp after only seven months in the job. The future did indeed look bright for Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

Jürgen Klopp signs the paperwork to become Liverpool’s next manager

When a new manager comes to a club it’s crucial for that person to stamp his brand on the squad. For Klopp, the brand was “heavy metal football.” Klopp was considered a mastermind of the Gegenpressing philosophy, which had become quite popular in the Bundesliga. It requires all ten players on the pitch to press the opposition immediately after being dispossessed. This style of play is aggressive and sometimes can also be quite dangerous.

Gegenpressing does not allow the opposition a chance to organize their attack upon gaining possession, therefore leaving them susceptible to making a poor passes or being forced into an error. In theory, the suffocating press allows for a quick regaining of possession by the defence. Additionally, the side who was trying to advance will be caught off-guard with their own players streaking forward towards goal. This makes them extremely vulnerable to a quick counter-attack themselves, which is precisely the result Klopp is looking for.

In order for Liverpool to adopt and excel in Jürgen Klopp’s system he would need the necessary players to carry out his vision. That summer, Liverpool acquired Joel Matip, Ragnar Klavan, Georginio Wijnaldum, and the sensational Sadio Mané. These players were to be the first pieces of Klopp’s Liverpool puzzle to success. Adding these names to the nucleus of Daniel Sturridge, Roberto Firmino, Emre Can, Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Adam Lallana, and the incredibly-talented Philippe Coutinho appeared to be a brilliant move. The Reds were heading in the right direction.

Returning to Premier League relevancy and the Champions League

For Klopp and Liverpool, the 2016-17 season could not have started better. Liverpool finished as the fourth-placed team in the Premier League, qualified for the Champions League for the first time in three years and did not lose a single match against England’s other “Top Six” sides (Chelsea, United, City, Spurs and Arsenal). For many supporters of the club, they viewed this as being ahead of schedule in the rebuilding process. Liverpool were back where they belonged: among Europe’s elite and a legitimate contender for English football superiority.

During the summer of 2017, LFC would again target players that fit Klopp’s style of play. This transfer window was a tale of two players however, one of which signed with Liverpool, another who was unable to force a move away from his current employer. Of course I am talking about Mohamed Salah, who may be the best signing of the season among Europe’s top five leagues, and Virgil Van Dijk, who to this day, remains a player for Southampton FC.

Salah has been nothing short of sensational since coming to Anfield. It was Liverpool’s shaky defence however, which needed a lift during the off-season. This made the unsuccessful attempt at signing Van Dijk quite painful and is precisely why it is still being discussed as a possibility as the winter transfer window approaches.

Klopp reaches the Champions League in his first full season

Injuries and off-pitch drama have stalled the Klopp agenda

Things have got progressively worse for the beleaguered Liverpool back-four during the first half of the 2017-18 campaign. They have conceded goals at an alarming rate, essentially negating the brilliant efforts of Liverpool’s attack in the process. Is Virgil Van Dijk the prime reason for this though? The short answer is undeniably: “No.” While Van Dijk may be a good player who consistently communicates with his teammates on the pitch at Southampton, there is simply no excuse for the utter lack of intelligent defending that has plagued Liverpool this season.

Many pundits like to compare Klopp’s first two years at Dortmund with his first two years at Liverpool, to which I say, is complete rubbish. That was a different league, he had a completely different roster of players with far less talent than that of his inherited Liverpool side, and incomparable financial circumstances. Let us not compare 2008-10 Borussia Dortmund with 2015-17 Liverpool FC. Instead, why not examine what went right for Klopp in his first full season on the Liverpool touch line, and what has undeniably gone wrong so far in what has been an inconsistent 2017-18 campaign for Klopp, his players, and the Anfield faithful.

Firstly, there is a complete lack of pitch awareness and communication between centre-backs Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip, as was on display earlier this season in a match against Newcastle United. This was undeniably one of the worst goals conceded during the Klopp era at Liverpool. Secondly, the absence of right back Nathaniel Clyne has had a much greater impact than most would have anticipated. Many believed that young talent Trent Alexander-Arnold would be able to fill the shoes of the injured Clyne, which has simply not been the case. James Milner, who played a prominent role in Klopp’s first year has seen a reduction of playing time in the current campaign. Alberto Moreno has improved this season over last, but he is hardly a reliable option at left back in the years to come.

Team captain Jordan Henderson has regressed in year two under Klopp, though, a popular belief for this is that the player is required to do far more than a traditional central defensive midfielder is asked to do, per the instructions of the manager. Ragnar Klavan has never developed into a top-tier Premier League centre-back since coming to Liverpool from FC Augsburg, and Joe Gomez still has much to learn before he can be considered a week-to-week starter in his position.

As a result, Jürgen Klopp has quite the conundrum as it pertains to his defence. It goes without saying that Virgil Van Dijk would have helped immensely in this area of concern. Being that he was unattainable though, there were certainly other centre-back options available on the market to help an underwhelming Liverpool back line.

The offence, comparatively speaking, has been far more successful under Klopp than the defence, though, it has been slightly less efficient this year over last. To start, there was the Philippe Coutinho transfer debacle involving FC Barcelona, which remains a hot topic to this day. Sadio Mané has had to miss a string of matches so far, once due to suspension, then later because of injury.

Emre Can has been inconsistent and has thus seen a reduction in confidence from management. This has led to suspicion of a possible departure from the club in what could be a short matter of time. Daniel Sturridge has been featured at times when he has struggled and has been on the bench after gaining some momentum and appearing to regain his form. The way Klopp has mismanaged Sturridge has been outright bizarre.

The three most consistent Liverpool players this season in midfield and attack have been Georginio Wijnaldum, Roberto Firmino, and the club MVP of 2017, Mo Salah. Where would Liverpool be without Mo Salah? It also does not help that versatile midfielder and England international Adam Lallana has yet to play a competitive match for The Reds this season. Through 13 matches last season Liverpool had 30 points with 32 goals scored and 14 conceded.

LFC sit on just 23 points after the same amount of matches in this campaign with only 25 goals for and 18 against. In short, Klopp’s side is scoring less and conceding more, a recipe for certain regression. It should be mentioned that Klopp has yet to have his best XI on the pitch at the same time season. Coutinho, Mané, and Lallana have collectively missed 26 Premier League matches thus far. To say this has not had a profound impact on Klopp’s ambitions would be incredibly short-sighted.

Still, many people want to compare his Dortmund success with his Liverpool results. If we are going to do that, it is key to note that it was in fact year three when Borussia Dortmund took the leap from competing for Europa League qualification to becoming German Champions. It was the summer before that season when Dortmund picked up additional cornerstone players Lukasz Piszczek, Shinji Kagawa, and Robert Lewandowski. Those were added to a roster which already included Sebastian Kehl, Sven Bender, Kevin Grosskreutz, Marcel Schmelzer, Mario Götze, Jakub Blaszczykowski, Roman Weidenfeller, Nuri Sahin and Mats Hummels. To summarize, Borussia Dortmund in 2010-11 was better than Liverpool is currently (from a chemistry and tactical approach, not necessarily from a player to player comparison). Klopp needs and deserves a bit more time.

How far can Jürgen Klopp take Liverpool?

After 25 months at Liverpool, Jürgen Klopp is ahead of where he was at that same point at Dortmund in terms of team success. It takes time to build a winning side. He still lacks the players to fully implement his system at Anfield. Another winter and summer transfer market is needed to give him the fair amount of time needed to have built Liverpool FC into a Premier League title contender.

Offloading Coutinho could be a good thing, especially if that money is put to good use, unlike the funds from the Suarez sale. Failed transfers like Klavan and Lovren will need to be replaced by players that Klopp specifically asks for. The development of Joe Gomez in central defence and Trent Alexander-Arnold on the wing is crucial, as this would prevent LFC from having to completely overhaul the back line. Nathaniel Clyne’s eventual return will also add much-needed stability.

Koppites everywhere may simply have to get used to Liverpool winning matches by scores of 4:2 or 3:1. A clean sheet will be a rarity, but, when Klopp has his desired personnel at his disposal his “heavy metal” brand of football can not only be entertaining, it can also be unstoppable. If it is any consolation, with the right players for his system, that 2010-11 Borussia Dortmund squad conceded a mere 22 goals in 34 matches, by far the best defence in the Bundesliga (the next best was 39 goals against). I am by no means saying that Liverpool will go through a Premier League campaign with the least goals conceded. What I am saying is that with a competent back line that can support the signature high press of Jürgen Klopp, and is capable of preventing easy opposition scores, Liverpool can win their first League Championship of the Premier League era.

With additions like Mo Salah, Liverpool can attain their ultimate goal

If given the time, Jürgen Klopp will lead Liverpool FC to Premier League glory, of that I have no doubt. He inherited a squad which needed to be re-tooled in order to fit his philosophy as a manager. This takes time. Many are perhaps spoiled because of an immediate Champions League qualification in his second season as the boss. Liverpool are currently in a prime position to once again qualify for the Champions League, whilst also performing quite well in that very competition this autumn, as they appear primed to advance to the knockout stage for the first time since 2008-09.

With two more transfer windows prior to next season, Klopp will be able to bring in the final pieces of his Liverpool puzzle, one of which is the multi-talented Naby Keita. At that time he may finally have a line-up that is on par with Chelsea, Manchester United or Manchester City, position for position. Perhaps next October, the end of Klopp’s third year with the club, we will be looking at his complete Liverpool product that so many koppites have been patiently waiting for. A product finally capable perhaps, of completing that final step that has alluded countless Liverpool managers since the days of Kenny Dalglish;  becoming champions of England once again!

Critty Smith

Critty grew up in Amberg, Germany, but now resides in Charleston, South Carolina in the USA where he follows the Bundesliga, Premier League, and Serie A on a weekly basis. He supports Borussia Dortmund, Liverpool FC, and Inter Milan, but enjoys all football from top to bottom. His favorite players are "Super" Mario Götze, Daniel Sturridge, and Mauro Icardi. You can follow him on twitter @crittysmith

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