Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has come in for some criticism recently after seeing his side struggle so far in 2017 – but is the German a victim of his own success?
Roll things back to August last year and the first day of the Premier League season when Klopp was readying his players to take on rivals Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium on that sunny Sunday afternoon and think about how many Reds were genuinely expecting the side to challenge for the title. It wasn’t many. Most were pinning their hopes on a top four finish and maybe a bit of domestic silverware in the cabinet come May.
Ok, so the chances of either the FA or League Cup trophies being polished up for display in the trophy cabinet at Anfield are gone for this year, but the odds on the side qualifying for next season’s Champions League remain in good shape. Klopp’s side currently occupy third place in the table in the midst of a very open race between the five clubs behind champions-elect Chelsea for the three spots behind them. And wouldn’t most supporters have taken the situation we are currently in at the start of the season?
The 4-3 win over Arsenal on that opening weekend of the 2016/17 season was perhaps a sign of things to come, given the rollercoaster nature of the match. Arsene Wenger’s side took the lead and looked good value for it until Philippe Coutinho’s fantastic equaliser just before half-time. The Reds went on to take a 4-1 lead before taking their foot of the gas too much and allowing Arsenal to bring it back to 4-3, before seeing it out and claiming the three points. It was symbolic of the ups and downs that were set to follow between then and now. It was followed up by a belief-sapping 2-0 loss away at Premier League newcomers Burnley that brought many fans back down to earth with a heavy bump.
But hopes were raised that things were on the up with a promising performance at White Hart Lane that really should have seen Liverpool claim the three points against Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham side. That draw was followed up by a superb 4-1 dismantling of last season’s champions Leicester City and a 2-1 win over current leaders Chelsea on their own patch at Stamford Bridge. A 5-1 win at Anfield over Hull City came after that in September’s final game before a narrow 2-1 comeback victory at Swansea City and dour 0-0 stalemate with Jose Mourinho’s defensive Manchester United side. Victories over West Brom, Crystal Palace and Watford all followed and it looked like Liverpool were over the shock defeat at Turf Moor and were able to grind out wins over less fancied sides and turn on the style at times too.
Another 0-0 draw followed at St Mary’s as Claude Puel’s side put on a fine defensive performance to keep out the threat of Klopp’s freescoring Liverpool attack. Things still looked good and a surprise title challenge appeared to be on the cards. A late double salvo saw Sunderland dispatched 2-0 at Anfield in late November and things were still going well – aside from the injury suffered by Philippe Coutinho that meant he would miss the rest of 2016. Liverpool sat in second place in the Premier League table and were just a point off leaders Chelsea. Things were looking promising.
2-0 and 3-1 leads were squandered at Bournemouth as Eddie Howe’s side completed a miraculous comeback to snatch a 4-3 win with three goals in the final fifteen minutes or so. That disappointment was followed up with another as West Ham arrived at Anfield and went away with a deserved point thanks to goals from Dmitri Payet and Michail Antonio which saw them claim a 2-2 draw.
These setbacks were responded to brilliantly, however, as Klopp’s side won all four Premier League fixtures over the festive period with a comprehensive 3-0 win away against Middlesbrough, a late winner from Sadio Mane that saw us beat Everton 1-0 at Goodison Park, the 4-1 thrashing of Stoke City at Anfield and then the new year’s eve 1-0 victory against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side. Things were looking great again after the mini wobble against Bournemouth and West Ham. Few could see what was about to happen.
The year started with a disappointing, and very avoidable, 2-2 draw away against Sunderland. Two penalties were handed, literally in the case of the second, to David Moyes’ side and were duly dispatched by Jermain Defoe to peg the Reds back after twice leading. Mane’s needless handball for the second spot kick was to be his last involvement for a while due to Senegal’s involvement at AFCON. The goals dried up and so did the points in the rest of the month.
Plymouth Argyle gave a second string Liverpool side the runaround home and away in the third round of the FA Cup and the blushes were only spared by a rare Lucas Leiva goal that won the replay at Home Park 1-0. It was to prove to be nothing more than a brief reprieve as Championship strugglers Wolves arrived at Anfield in the fourth round and ran out more comfortable winners than the 2-1 scoreline suggested. The league results were little better as a late Zlatan Ibrahimovic goal at Old Trafford snatched a point for United after a fine defensive display from Liverpool almost claimed a vital three points. A revitalised Swansea City arrived at Anfield under new manager Paul Clement and looked a much more efficient side than the one that lost 4-0 at home to Arsenal the week before as they claimed a shock 3-2 win. Despite a Roberto Firmino double dragging Klopp’s side back level at 2-2, the Welsh club still managed to snatch the points thanks to one-time Liverpool target Glyfi Sigurdsson. Two deserved 1-0 wins for Southampton in the EFL Cup semi-finals saw plans for a trip to Wembley put on ice and all attention was switched to the race for a top four place. The month was rounded off with a 1-1 draw at Anfield against runaway leaders Chelsea that snuffed out any hopes of the title this season.
February was a much quieter month than January with just three fixtures played – a third as many of the nine that stretched an already thin squad the month before. Though the second month of the calendar year was little more rewarding than the first. A 2-0 humbling by a rejuvenated Hull City away from home saw the mood sink back down again after the improvements seen against Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. But a week later another top four rival was sent packing thanks to a fine 2-0 win over Spurs thanks to a brace from Mane, who had returned from heartbreak at AFCON in time to be a substitute against Chelsea a few weeks prior. But hopes of a return to consistency were again dashed by a 3-1 defeat against a Leicester City side out to prove a point after the sacking of fan-favourite Claudio Ranieri.
A season that started with such promise has leveled out into one of inconsistency and uncertainty. And that is what many would have expected back before a ball was kicked.
Jurgen Klopp has got so much out of a squad that is actually quite limited in the cold light of day and he should not be criticised for that. Yes, he has made some mistakes with tactics and personnel selections at times this season, but the good has far outweighed the bad. The calls, which aren’t in great quantity, for his sacking are as ridiculous as they are premature. He is still in the early stages of his plans for the team and letting him go now would be absolutely stupid. He is as good a fit for this club as there could possibly be and there is absolutely no chance the owners could go out and attract anyone nearly as good as the German. No matter how many times the clowns who tweet #KloppOut on Twitter say it, Diego Simeone is not going to swap Atletico Madrid for us. And why would we want him to? We’ve got a man in place already who gets this club. He understands the frustrations with years of false dawns that have been peppered with a close shave in the title race. He knows that supporters are desperate for the title, a return to being Champions League regulars and collectors of silverware. He wants it every bit as much as the most hardcore Reds out there.
Klopp got us to two cup finals in his first seven months at the club as well, something that few anticipated – and yet some dared complain that we didn’t win either. Let’s not pretend otherwise: we were the underdogs in both of those games. Sevilla are masters when it comes to winning the Europa League and Manchester City have got much more pedigree when it comes to winning silverware since 2010. We came relatively close in each game but Klopp couldn’t quite get the team over the line. There was no shame in losing either and the snorts of derision which claim ‘Why get to a final if you aren’t going to win it?’ are unnecessary at best. Klopp started turning a very ordinary Liverpool side around quickly and because he hasn’t managed to maintain the quick progress, he shouldn’t be written off.
So don’t criticise him for not keeping the standards he set in 2016. You weren’t expecting it in the first place.