Many Liverpool supporters believed that the appointment of Jurgen Klopp would see the end of star players swapping Anfield for other clubs, but the sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona last month got people worried about the status of the club again. And that has not been helped by the speculation that Barcelona’s domestic rivals Real Madrid are eyeing up a move for Mohammed Salah this Summer.
Both the Spanish sides are going through a period of transition and have been linked with moves for a lot of players from around the continent. That will be of little comfort to Liverpool fans who are panicking about a potential bid coming in from the Bernabeu for the Egpyt international. He has been in fantastic form all season long following his, relatively cheap, £35m switch from Italian club AS Roma last Summer. He has broken goalscoring records at the club and shows little sign of dropping off following an impressive brace against Spurs last week. He is an integral part of Klopp’s side and the German will have no intention of letting him go. But he will have felt the same about Coutinho before ultimately giving up on persuading him that Anfield is a better place to be than the Camp Nou. However, the situation with Salah is different to that of Coutinho. The former Inter Milan playmaker had spent five trophyless years as a Liverpool player, while Salah has joined Klopp’s revolution and knows no different at the club. Klopp will be able to play to that when it comes to convincing the former Chelsea man that he should stay at the club and give him a chance to provide the medals that players crave.
It would hard to blame Salah if he did decide that interest from Real Madrid was too good to turn down, however. If we are all brutally honest about the current status of the club, you can see why star players like Coutinho, Fernando Torres, Luis Suarez, Javier Mascherano and Raheem Sterling have decided that the grass is greener elsewhere. That’s simply because it is. Both Real Madrid and Barcelona have won multiple Champions League trophies in recent years, while our most recent final appearance is now over a decade ago with our miracle in Istanbul approaching thirteen years back. Klopp is intent on returning that sort of glory to the club and a lot of fans will feel that he will need to keep his very best players around to have any chance of doing that. He came agonisingly close to lifting the European Cup with Borussia Dortmund before being denied by rivals Bayern Munich at Wembley back in 2013. He lost some of his most influential players to that same rival soon after with Mario Gotze immediately heading to Bayern and Robert Lewandowski following him a year later. Klopp’s only trophies in Germany following that final were two DFL Supercup successes in 2013 and 2014. That will only go to reinforce the perspective of those who think he has to keep his star names to get the success the club craves.
A key difference Klopp faces in the Premier League to the challenge that he had in his homeland is the sheer quantity of rivals he has here. He essentially had to overcome Bayern to win the Bundesliga, despite them finishing third behind Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen in 2011/12. Dortmund are generally considered to be the second biggest club in Germany behind their dominant rivals, but their resources are some way behind the finance available to whoever is in charge at the Allianz Arena. Bayern’s grip on German football is so tight that they generally pluck the best players from their rivals in order to maintain their position at the top of the tree. Gotze and Lewandowski were not the last players to trade Dortmund for Munich and they won’t be the last. It’s a tough monopoly to break and Klopp managed to do it in two seasons in which his Dortmund team finished comfortably clear. But he has to overcome three such clubs in England with two more clubs of similar stature to his own. The top six clubs in the Premier League can be split in to two trios when you take finances into consideration. Despite spending a world record £75m fee on a defender when bringing in Holland international Virgil Van Dijk from Southampton last month, the Reds fit into the second threesome. Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea have possessed the kind of financial clout that leaves Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur in their wake. It makes the prospect of lifting the Premier League title even more difficult a prospect. But proving that a player can have his ambition matched by the club is key to keeping them at Anfield. Just like we have been plucking players from Southampton, the two Spanish giants have been doing the same to us. The other top European leagues don’t have the same level of competition as the Premier League. There are two huge clubs in Spain, one in Germany, one in France and Juventus have dominated in Italy. So players know they can leave Anfield for those clubs and almost guarantee medals.
If Klopp wants to have a similar situation to the clubs he is plotting to overhaul he needs to be able to offer players the kind of success they can expect to be available with them – and that’s before considering the wages on offer. He has shown that he has the charisma and personality to convince players to reject interest from those clubs in order to become a member of his squad, with Van Dijk evidence of that, but it’s stopping top players going out the other door that still provides a conundrum. Coutinho had clearly always dreamed of playing for Barcelona, that’s almost ingrained into a Latin player, but he stuck the knife in by saying that he went to win titles – something he came close to doing at Anfield just a few times. The Premier League title was within touching distance in 2013/14, but was cruelly snatched away in circumstances even the harshest playwright would struggled to commit to script. The only other opportunities to lift silerware came soon after Klopp arrived when he took his new team to the League Cup and Europa League finals. He lost both and it won’t have been new to him following a handful of cup final losses in Germany. But if he wants to keep his best players from seeing greener grass elsewhere, he will need to convert those opportunities into medals.
Maintaining a place in the Champions League is another way of showing that the club is on the right track. Getting a top four place last season was absolutely crucial to Klopp’s plans to climb the ladder and keeping it is crucial this season. The signing of Naby Keita from RB Leipzig is not dependent on securing it, but other players may think twice about moving to Anfield this Summer if the prospect of Europa League participation is on the menu. Klopp has to have that carrot to dangle to players if he is going to fight off his rivals to land his key targets again. The team look in good shape to claim a spot this season, but the departure of Coutinho did little to help the cause. A lot of supporters will claim that a failure to replace him in January will also have put a serious dent into those aspirations, but Klopp has shown that he will be frustratingly patient in his pursuit of the right signings. No Champions League football would not allow him such a luxury, so he has taken a palpable risk in not bringing in a new playmaker.
Klopp is big enough and tough enough to take criticism on the chin. He hasn’t faced much of it from his own supporters during his career as a manager so far. There were grumblings of discontent at Dortmund when his side were languishing in the relegation battle during the first half of his final season with them, but the majority did not want to see the back of him. And while there have been a few dissenting voices around the Liverpool fanbase, the vast majority are behind Klopp and want to see him given the time to see through his plans. But a finish to the season that sees his side outside the top four places would certainly see more doubt him.
There has been a phrase which has led to much mocking from rivals fans bandied around during the Premier League era: ‘Next season will be our season.’ It isn’t one actually said very often by many Liverpool fans, but it has become a perennial issue for a succession of managers. Such is the hope that we will lift our first Premier League trophy, and first title since 1989/90, that patience has been in short supply for some. But Klopp has only been here for a couple of years, which is a fraction of the near thirty some of us have been waiting. Changing the culture and status of the club in that short a time is no easy task, even if he is just about the perfect fit for the job here. So he will need that bit more time and patience to allow him to progress his ideas for his team here. Winning a trophy this season would have got that monkey off his back and the only chance of that now is the Champions League. And who wouldn’t want to see him pull that off? Few will be expecting it and the opportunities to claim a domestic cup have been spurned, so he has realistically passed up the chance to ease the pressure by bringing in an FA or League Cup. A series of FA Cup triumphs haven’t eased the pressure on Arsene Wenger though and his local rival Mauricio Pochettino hasn’t had a sniff of silverware and yet is far more secure than his north London counterpart.
A top four spot this season and keeping hold of his star players is going to be key for Klopp to move his team up to the next level.