The problem with Jurgen Klopp is he hasn’t got a Plan B. No, scratch that, it’s the problem with every manager these days.
Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte, Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger. It’s as if having spent a rough £200million or more assembling a squad of footballers to execute a specific style of play, they end up married to it. Not having a Plan B is the reason almost every football match is lost, according to social media.
It used to be losing the dressing room that was to blame. If a manager was sacked, it could almost be guaranteed that he had lost the dressing room. Indeed, some clubs still cling to this logic.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp addresses the media ahead of their clash with Roma
At Leicester, for instance, the dressing room is lost so frequently, it would make sense to stop buying players and invest in coastguards, or those dogs with the brandy that find avalanche victims in Switzerland.
Their current manager, Claude Puel, has now lost his second dressing room in as many seasons, after Southampton. He should designate a special drawer in his kitchen so he always knows where the dressing room is; you know, like keys or your passport.
But Plan B — that’s the more up-to-date problem. If Klopp does not defeat Roma at Anfield on Tuesday, it will no doubt be concluded that his high-pressing game has been found out and he needs something different. The opposite, usually.
That’s the problem with Plan Bs. Invariably, they amount to a reversal of every principle the manager has. Don’t go short, go long. Don’t go long, go short. Don’t sit back, press high. Don’t press high, sit back.
Before the Champions League quarter-final, Klopp was asked if other teams needed to be aggressive, like Liverpool, against Manchester City. He responded by imagining a scenario in which West Bromwich Albion attempted the gegenpress. ‘City would go through them like a hot knife and butter,’ he concluded.
The hurried adoption of Plan B isn’t always a good sign anyway. Drawing 0-0 with Montenegro in 2010, Fabio Capello threw on Kevin Davies and began waving his arms at his midfielders, in the universal touchline sign language for ‘stick it in the mixer, lads’.
Klopp can switch the attack lines of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane
Drawing 0-0 with Montenegro in 2010, Fabio Capello threw on Kevin Davies at Wembley
That wasn’t a bold Plan B. That was a Plan A that had failed so spectacularly the coach had run out of ideas beyond abandoning every principle he had favoured his entire career, to go direct.
Dave Bassett always maintained that every team seeking a goal in the last 10 minutes played like Wimbledon, so if that was the best way to score, why not start like Wimbledon instead? As a piece of logic, it is hard to fault.
Yet football has changed. Barcelona do not play like Wimbledon if chasing the game and neither did the comeback specialists, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. Managers stick to their game-plan now. Guardiola does not have a route one player to call on, even if he wished he had. He has spent £450m on personnel geared to play one way: just as Klopp would, in Guardiola’s circumstances.
As it is, Klopp has spent Liverpool’s budget on his own ideals. That does not make Liverpool predictable because every good Plan A contains many variations. Liverpool utilise Plans A(i) to A(vii) because in any game Klopp can switch the attack lines of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, alter the position of his full backs, even chop between three and four at the back.
The blueprint, though, is stable: because, mostly, it works. Klopp thinks that, executed well, he has a winning strategy. He hasn’t got the time, or the players, to experiment.
He might tweak for a dangerous opponent, but it’s still Plan A. He might pick a centre half better suited to thwarting Edin Dzeko, or double up on Stephan El Shaaraway on Tuesday night, but again: Plan A. The elusive Plan B is invariably wholesale reversal, anyway. And how would that work with modern, elite, football as it is?
Klopp might pick a centre half better suited to thwarting Roma’s dangerous star Edin Dzeko
Klopp’s net spend places him in the black, but constructing his squad has so far cost £221.3m, not including outgoings. So to play differently might consume that again.
Manchester City, for instance, no longer have a Dzeko-like figure to lead the line. Yet the going rate for that player, at elite level, is what Manchester United paid for Romelu Lukaku, £75m. Maybe a target man will then need wingers to provide a more direct route to goal. That could be another £75m, at least.
And this, remember, is Plan B. Most weeks, these guys do not start. They do not fit the manager’s philosophy. They are there for when he loses faith in his thinking and decides ‘Harry’ Bassett has a point. And who wants a manager with such fragile confidence?
If Twitter and radio phone-ins had been around 44 years ago, total football would have been denounced and Rinus Michels discredited as a fool sticking rigidly to Plan A, who didn’t have the wit to hook Johan Cruyff, and tell Johan Neeskens to start banging it long to a big man as a way of getting to Franz Beckenbauer and West Germany in the 1974 World Cup final.
For that was the problem with Michels and his Holland team, you know. No Plan B. That’s why no one remembers them.
Tottenham need to give struggling Kane a break
Harry Kane looks shot. He looks like a player who has returned from injury too quickly and is struggling. His desire to fight Mohamed Salah for the Golden Boot is admirable, but not if it is at the expense of his readiness for the World Cup.
Equally, out of every cup and five points clear of fifth placed Chelsea with four games remaining, do Tottenham still need him? Their final matches are against Watford, West Brom, Newcastle and Leicester.
The perfect opportunity, surely, to allow him some respite before the World Cup, and prove they are not just the Harry Kane team?
Harry Kane looks shot – the striker looks like a player who has returned from injury too quickly
Spare us the tweet nothings
On the day Arsene Wenger stood down I found myself rereading the transcript of an interview he conducted many years ago. It is approximately 6,700 words long and took place before the start of the 2009-10 season. Dated, of course, but still compelling to revisit his unspun thoughts at such length and in such detail.
He explained aspects of his football philosophy and his life, made some bold but sadly inaccurate predictions about Arsenal’s future, took on global economics — where his forecasts were more exact, interestingly — and launched a passionate defence of his methodology and regime.
He came across as urbane, intelligent, passionate, expert — a hugely impressive figure, convinced and convincing. This is the side of Wenger, of a great many managers in fact, so few get to see. It wouldn’t happen now. Arsenal used to do one of those interviews a season, usually to publicise the club’s charity. In 2009, Wenger sat down with this newspaper and The Times and talked about anything and everything for the best part of 90 minutes.
The next year it would be the turn of another two publications. Those appointments stopped long ago. For evidence of how clubs, and sporting organisations, look to reach out these days, think of the FA’s bizarre dig about Chris Smalling having Harry Kane in his pocket at Wembley on Saturday. Bantz! LOL! ROFL! That is what passes for communication.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is set to bring to an end his reign at the end of the season
So Arsenal will have whole squadrons of media staff whose job it is to generate 280 character soundbites, or images or emojis, but little that showcases their manager’s greatest strength: his intellect, his humanity. And that goes for, almost, all of them. Liverpool know what they have in Jurgen Klopp, and the value of letting us get to know him, too.
And the day after Leicester won the title Claudio Ranieri talked through an amazing campaign with an appreciative, privileged, gathering of sportswriters. It was a fascinating insight into the greatest title victory of any era. Yet as Pep Guardiola and Manchester City rewrite the record books there seems no chance that will be repeated.
Something might turn up on Snapchat, but one of the greatest minds in modern football will one day leave these shores and no one will feel as if they knew him at all. The same with Antonio Conte. The same with Mauricio Pochettino. Who are these people?
Meaning modern managers appear snappy and self-absorbed. There is no time for depth or for a real person to emerge, just a character. Yet does anyone think Jose Mourinho would have been this successful if he was as shallow and one-dimensional as Manchester United allow him to appear? These clubs have some of the sport’s greatest thinkers but limit them to petty irritations and snippets. It’s like having Franz Liszt at the piano, but only letting him play Chopsticks.
The FA would be terrified of letting Gareth Southgate speak his mind, to just talk, unfettered and on the record, for an hour or more, but are happy to churn out clumsy tweets that later require an apology to England internationals. And further and further down we dumb.
Title in reach if Reds learn to be ruthless
Having watched his team surrender a two-goal lead on Saturday, Jurgen Klopp seemed unusually grumpy. He thought the pitch was too dry, he didn’t like West Bromwich’s football. No manager is sunshine and smiles in defeat, but Klopp usually finds a way of putting a brave face on it. Not this time.
Perhaps it was the future, more than the present, that was bothering him. This is Liverpool’s breakthrough season. Not just because of Tuesday night’s momentous tie with Roma and the prospect of a Champions League final, but because of what his team have achieved against the best domestic opposition.
Manchester City are the runaway Premier League winners and Liverpool have beaten them three games out of four. More importantly, they have won the three most recent meetings.
Liverpool threw away a 2-0 lead in their Premier League clash with West Brom on Saturday
Meaning they should, they must, challenge for the title next season. Not a distant second as Manchester United have been for much of this campaign. A genuine, sustained title race. If Liverpool can match Manchester City over the rest of the season, they would be hopeful of having the beating of them in head-to-heads. At which point, anything is possible.
Yet that cannot happen if they chuck two points away at places like West Brom. That cannot happen if they remain the old, inconsistent, Liverpool — six points and eight goals in matches away at Stoke and Brighton, then two points and one goal from home fixtures with Everton and West Brom.
Klopp no doubt thought his team had got these lapses out of their system in 2018. He believed they had turned a corner. So while the draw at the Hawthorns may seem small beer compared to the task ahead against Roma, there is a bigger picture.
A year from now, dropping two points and two goals against inferiors could be every bit as important as a prestigious European fixture. It could be the difference between Liverpool’s first league title of the modern era, and a consolation prize. For all his good humour, Klopp doesn’t seem the kind of guy who thinks it’s the taking part that matters.
Italy’s slow show woe
Napoli’s late win at Juventus makes Serie A’s title race the most interesting in any of the major European leagues this season. Sitting through it, however, made one realise why the Premier League’s global popularity is unmatched.
Slow, dull, and with Juventus happy to take a goalless draw at home, almost from the off, it was not half the occasion it should have been. Even the technical quality in Italy is overstated. With a match unfolding at this pace it is not hard for a player with good basic skills to look impressive.
Is Mr Pilley that silly?
Andy Pilley, chairman of Fleetwood Town, is rather perturbed that outsiders are doubting his motivation for giving the manager’s job to Joey Barton. ‘This is not a box office, showbiz appointment,’ Pilley insisted.
‘This is not an appointment just to boost the profile of the club.’ Fair enough. Yet what might have given people this fanciful idea? Maybe the club statement on the day the news broke. ‘Joey not only brings a host of experience and profile…’ said Fleetwood Town chairman Andy Pilley.
‘This is not a box office, showbiz appointment,’ Andy Pilley said after appointing Joey Barton
You can’t sit on the fence
If the Premier League are right and the majority of fans surveyed have a nuanced view around the reintroduction of standing at football matches, then the issue is considerably more complex than suggested.
The league claim that while most are in favour in principle, only five per cent wish to stand for 90 minutes. ‘The majority want the option of being able to stand and sit,’ they say. If true, this is unworkable. You can’t have a sitting area where some people chose to stand, or a standing area where some demand the freedom to sit.
Well, you can — but it’s not so different from what we have now, which at many grounds is frustration or chaos.
It ain’t half daft, Wilf
Wilfried Zaha looked as if he was hard done by at Watford on Saturday — but, really, is there a smaller violin than the one which plays for those who have earned a reputation for diving and then find the past working against them? For those who remember: ‘La-di-da Gunner Graham: oh dear, how sad, never mind.’