Change is in the air at Liverpool – but not in the manager’s office


Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Liverpool do not lose derbies. At least in recent times. Saturday evening at Anfield would not be a good time to start.

The last time Everton prevailed in the local rivalry was at Goodison Park 11 years ago. Liverpool have not suffered defeat at Anfield this millennium. Falling to the old enemy is unthinkable for the champions.

Jurgen Klopp’s team have experienced a difficult start to the year. The 2-0 victory over RB Leipzig in the Champions League last 16 first leg in Budapest on Tuesday indicated that Liverpool are returning to form but a setback against Everton would send the side back into a tailspin. Thoughts of defending the title have evaporated. The quest is now to secure a top-four spot, an ambition that Everton also hold. Winning the Champions League is still a target but the first priority is qualifying through the Premier League.

Regardless of the result, drama surrounds derbies. Klopp’s predecessor was sacked after a 0-0 draw at Goodison six years ago. Brendan Rodgers’ crime was not the lacklustre performance against Everton but his words in the press conference before the game. The Northern Irishman suggested that Liverpool needed to start a three-year rebuilding process. That enraged Fenway Sports Group (FSG), the owners, who believed at that point the squad was underachieving and the manager bore the responsibility. That notion did not last for long. It was not as simple as replacing the man who picked the team. Klopp had to create a new environment and revamp the playing staff before striking out for glory.

Before the Leipzig game, the 53-year-old talked about those early days, saying that “at the beginning” the owners texted him to apologise for the quality of the personnel that he inherited. A text should be heading the German’s way now. Liverpool’s quality is not in doubt but the lopsided nature of the squad and the lack of centre backs has created huge problems for the manager. The club idled when they were in front and have allowed the pack to catch and overtake them.

After the 3-1 defeat by Leicester City last week, the rumour mill went into overdrive suggesting that Klopp was planning to quit the club. He robustly dismissed the idea. There was never any validity to the gossip and, despite the downturn in results, there is no appetite for change within the club.

FSG recognised even before they dispensed with Rodgers that Klopp was the best manager available to them. Nothing has changed in that respect. Right from the start, the American owners have been in thrall to his energy, enthusiasm, knowledge and likeability.

The last of those attributes might appear to be almost inconsequential. FSG are hard-nosed businessmen and have shown on many occasions with Liverpool and the Boston Red Sox, their baseball franchise, that they can be ruthless. Yet Klopp has been a breath of fresh air for the owners. They inherited Roy Hodgson, who was out of his depth and prickly. No rapport formed between Hodgson and his employers. Kenny Dalglish proved difficult to deal with. The club legend did things his way and did not appreciate input from people new to the sport.

Rodgers, on the face of it, was open to the ideas FSG brought to the Premier League but became involved in backroom machinations. His public pronouncements and complaints about the transfer business caused considerable angst behind the scenes. “Brendan’s thrown us under a bus” became almost a catchphrase for the owners.

Rather than moan about FSG’s methods, Klopp has largely endorsed them. There have been hints of exasperation at the failure to bring in defenders but the Liverpool manager shies away from fingerpointing.

A simplistic analysis suggests that Liverpool’s problems began at the Goodison derby. Jordan Pickford’s challenge on Virgil van Dijk was the catalyst for a chain of events that led to Anfield’s crisis. The issues may be deeper.

Liverpool failed to adequately refresh the squad after the Champions League win two years ago. It did not seem to matter because the side were imperious in the subsequent campaign until the Covid-19 break 11 months ago. When they came back in June the title was effectively won and there was a significant droppoff in standards. No one considered that somewhere in the first lockdown the team may have passed their best.

FSG were cautious in the transfer market last summer but the business in that window compounded the errors of the previous pre-season. It was not just about buying. The club were unable to offload players like Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri to free up cash to spend in other areas. Even before Van Dijk was injured, cracks were showing. The side that were beaten 7-2 by Aston Villa featured nine of Klopp’s favoured outfield players. Staleness was creeping in even before the team’s three front-line central defenders were sidelined for long periods.

The late scurrying in the January window to bring in Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies was treated as a triumph by sections of the fanbase but the last-minute spree was antithetical to everything FSG stand for. Kabak showed some positive signs against Leicester before the late collapse and was good against Leipzig but the 20-year-old on loan from Schalke will face some testing challenges in the next few weeks, starting with Dominic Calvert-Lewin on Saturday.

Some managers would have been deflecting blame in all directions but Klopp is not the type to shove his employers under a moving vehicle. FSG appreciate that, along with the rest of the German’s abilities. Even if Liverpool are unable to arrest their decline in the league and are knocked out of Europe, Klopp will retain the trust and support of the owners.

Everton are the next hurdle. Carlo Ancelotti has issues of his own but the Italian knows that the first bulletpoint on his agenda is to step out of Anfield’s shadow.

Even without a crowd, the atmosphere will be hostile in front of the Kop. Liverpool are still bitter about Pickford’s challenge on Van Dijk and the foul on Thiago Alcantara that earned Richarlison a red card. Some at Goodison believe Klopp and his players complained too much about the rough treatment. There are scores to be settled that may give this derby a sharper edge than many of the recent meetings between the teams.

Losing a derby is always bad but this one would be particularly crushing for whoever is on the receiving end. Yet even if Liverpool prevail, change is in the air – but not in the manager’s office. The third phase of Klopp’s tenure may have begun and he is the right man to reshape the team and its tactics.

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