The new manager effect?

Jurgen Klopp - new boss of Liverpool Photo by: opelblog www.flickr.com

Jurgen Klopp – new boss of Liverpool
Photo by: opelblog
http://www.flickr.com

The self-proclaimed ‘Ordinary One’ swept into Liverpool last week and so began a new era at Anfield. I’m not sure if the Liverpool owners read this blog – they probably don’t have a lot of time in between approving overpriced and underwhelming signings – but if they do they may have noted that in my previous post I mentioned that I had lost all faith in Rodgers and his methods.

Apparently they have now as well although I suspect the availability of Jurgen Klopp was a factor in that loss of faith. Although it rather begs the question as to why the change wasn’t made in the summer, before Rodgers went on another summer spending spree that displayed all the clarity of thought and subtlety of judgement of an overexcited contestant on Supermarket Sweep.

Liverpool’s squad is hardly brimming with world class talent and Klopp inherits a side that is not exactly overflowing with confidence either. The Rodgers era at Anfield resembled Michael Jackson’s moonwalk: there was the appearance of moving forward but in reality we were going backwards.

Klopp entered the fray at White Hart Lane at lunchtime on Saturday after a couple of confident press conference performances. I entered a pub in Dunfermline with my brother at the same time, having arrived in Scotland the previous evening. With the haggis on order, I turned my attention to the big screen to discover what Klopp was about to serve up.

By the time the Knickerbocker Glories arrived (my brother, he practically forced me) there were just enough signs of encouragement to make the meal a modestly happy one. There was perspiration aplenty with a small side of inspiration. In the build up to the game, Liverpool players had spoken of the new boss demanding a few extra yards. In his first game, he got them – Liverpool were apparently the first team to outrun Spurs this season in terms of distance covered.

They ran, but what they were unable to hide was the obvious lack of quality that I referred to above. Coutinho is an honourable exception, but the supporting cast don’t give the impression of having fully learned their lines. Of course Klopp only had a few days to work with the players following the international break so it’s hardly surprising that the new script has not yet been mastered.

In that context a 0-0 draw away at Tottenham represents a decent enough start. Many teams will leave the Lane with less this season. The most encouraging sign came as the Liverpool team left the field. Klopp was there on the pitch, cajoling them, arm around half of them, deep in conversation. The players all looked appreciative and respectful. There’s no question that this is a man that they want to play for already.

How many of those players Klopp ultimately wants to play for him at Anfield remains to be seen. The truth is that not many of them are good enough to turn Liverpool into title challengers and regular participants in the Champions League. Klopp undoubtedly is good enough but to fulfil his ambitions he’ll have to succeed where Rodgers failed most spectacularly – in the transfer market.

The Sky pundits had a bit of a disagreement over the initial Klopp effect: Neville suggested it was little more than a typical new managerial bounce; Carragher claimed that the German had already begun to make his mark on his new squad. I tend to agree with the latter view.

It’s not surprising that a new manager should have some positive effect when taking over. A new voice and some fresh ideas on the training ground should be enough to achieve that in the very short term. Over the slightly longer term though, an unchanged squad of players are likely to deliver a broadly similar set of results.

That’s not to suggest that managers wield only limited influence, far from it. Indeed, I think the best managers have a justifiable claim to be the best paid employees of their clubs. I doubt that Klopp currently is at Liverpool but he’s almost certain to be the man most influential in determining Liverpool’s results between now and the end of the season.

On Saturday I was quite impressed by the new manager effect that Klopp brought to the Liverpool dugout. On Sunday, I went to Tannadice to observe the effect of another new manager: Mixu Paatelainen at Dundee United.

It was also my son’s first ever football match. A big occasion then, and it will be the subject of my next post.

Losing sleep over Liverpool

Old Trafford. Photo by: Paul www.flickr.com

Old Trafford. Photo by: Paul
http://www.flickr.com

Why do I do it to myself? I’m still a little tired as I write this, mostly as a result of staying up until 2.30 am on Sunday morning to watch Manchester United v Liverpool. The Greater Manchester police force weren’t the only ones less than impressed at the chosen kick-off time.

I have to presume that the Liverpool players weren’t informed of my commitment in staying up late as they produced a dismal performance from early on. Gloating Manchester United fans should not get too carried away – the performance of your side was only marginally better.

In a blog post last November, I wrote that this fixture ‘is the biggest game in England such is the stature, history and rivalry of the two clubs.’ It didn’t live up to that billing on Saturday. In fact, it came a lot closer to Gary Neville’s quip last year that watching the two sides these days resembled the Dog and Duck versus the Red Lion.

Neville’s observation did not go down well with Van Gaal at the time, who promptly labelled the former Manchester United fullback an “ex-legend.” I wonder if the same now applies to Rio Ferdinand who described Van Gaal’s tactical approach as “not football I enjoy watching” due to it being “really slow going.” The first half was certainly slow going; it wasn’t just tiredness that kept me on the verge of nodding off.

It’s not just ex-Manchester United players that appear to have something of an issue with the current manager.  The build-up to the game was dominated by talk of a rebellion among senior players over training sessions that they deemed to be too structured and that were making them too robotic.

The first half did rather resemble one of those news clips where scientists from Japan unveil their latest life-size robot inventions and seek to demonstrate the dexterity of the machines by having them play football. Lovren, for instance, could certainly use a software upgrade and a bit of reprogramming to approximate the centre half that he was at Southampton.

Apparently some in the Manchester United squad are also unhappy at the amount of time they are required to spend in meetings for video analysis. They should spare a thought for their Liverpool counterparts today, because that video analysis session is not going to make for pleasant viewing.

I imagine the chief analyst gathering the squad together and saying: “we’ve just picked out the sections of the game where we believe a bit of improvement is needed lads. Just press play and I’ll see you in about 93 minutes to take any questions. There’s one small cut for Christian’s goal.”

Brendan Rodgers’ tactics deserve a bit of analysing for a start. Jamie Carragher said post-match: “I don’t understand this obsession with playing 4-3-3,” correctly pointing out that Liverpool have a lot of strikers but a severe lack of wide players. Carragher’s assessment was actually quite generous, Liverpool’s formation was 4-5-1 and Rodgers set his side up looking for a 0-0.

Liverpool also continued to employ Rodgers’ preferred method of playing the ball out from the back. The problem was that most of the time they played it out to a Manchester United player. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the manager’s desire to play possession football but the current way of doing so invites huge risks because the goalkeeper and centre backs are not comfortable enough on the ball to do it confidently or consistently.

At the other end, Liverpool lack directness and their build up play is too slow, the same issues that Rio Ferdinand identifies in the current Manchester United side. Little wonder then that the game was so ponderous for long periods.

Benteke was an isolated figure up front and despite scoring a spectacular goal, was never given much of an opportunity to put pressure on United’s defence. The creativity of Coutinho was hugely missed (he’s now Liverpool’s most influential player by far) and so of course was the drive of Gerrard.

It was revealed this week that Gerrard almost certainly would have remained at Anfield if he had been offered a coaching post. I find it absolutely astonishing that no such offer was made. In fact, back in November 2014, with Gerrard’s contract situation still unresolved, I wrote in a post that ‘I’m sure an offer will be forthcoming (and would expect it to include the option of a coaching role).’

In Gerrard’s words: “what would have kept me at Liverpool into this season was the chance of shadowing Brendan Rodgers and his staff as well as playing. Those ideas were only mentioned to me after I had announced I was leaving.” How many clubs would have lost a player of the former skipper’s status in such circumstances? Especially a club that was once famous for promoting from within the Anfield boot room.

I wonder what he made of Saturday’s performance. The match kicked off at 2.30 am LA time so Gerrard is likely to be a little tired as well if he tuned in. The man losing sleep this week though must surely be Brendan Rodgers.

Carragher is wrong; Bale should stay at Real Madrid

Gareth Bale Picture by DSanchez17 www.flickr.com

Gareth Bale
Picture by DSanchez17
http://www.flickr.com

I’m a great admirer of Jamie Carragher. He was an excellent footballer, an inspirational Liverpool captain, and by all accounts he’s turning out to be a very fine pundit. I haven’t seen much of his punditry but I did read an article he wrote recently under the headline: ‘Gareth Bale should come home to the Premier League’ (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3083586/JAMIE-CARRAGHER-Gareth-Bale-come-home-Premier-League-s-fight-t-win-Real-Madrid.html). Carragher is wrong and he’s mistaken in just about every line of argument he makes.

Here I consider each of the arguments that Carragher makes (I counted 15 in all) as to why Bale should bail out of Madrid and return to the welcoming arms of one of the Premier League’s premier teams.

  1. Bale would be assured legendary status elsewhere.

Possibly, but hardly a foregone conclusion. It’s not even obvious that he would be the most important player at the club if he signed for Manchester United, Manchester City or Chelsea. Besides, for the moment, Bale does not appear to want to be a legend elsewhere; he wants to be a legend at Real Madrid.

It is only twelve months since he scored in the Champions League final against Real’s city rivals to help his team land their coveted 10th European Cup win. It capped a magnificent first season for the Welshman in Madrid. He seemed well on the way to legendary status at the time. His star has undoubtedly dimmed in the Madrid galaxy since then but the notoriously fickle fans at the Bernabeu who have turned on Bale can swing back just as quickly to revering him.

  1. The Madrid fans love a scapegoat and Bale is now it.

It’s true that they do and Bale has been suffering at the hands of the white hanky brigade but he’s far from alone. The Madrid fans prefer a whole herd of scapegoats and Casillas and Ancelotti both currently find themselves in that pen as well. The goalkeeper and the manager are also both more likely to leave Madrid this summer than Bale in my opinion.

  1. Bale currently appears timid, lacking in confidence and has lost his spark.

This description would be apt for several Real Madrid performances of late. Since the turn of the year the team has not been functioning well and Bale’s confidence has understandably dropped along with many of his teammates (although I don’t think Ronaldo has ever had any problems in the confidence department). But are we really now suggesting that when a player loses confidence and a bit of spark the only thing to do is change clubs?

Confidence comes and goes even for the very best players in the world. It can come again for Bale as a Real Madrid player.

  1. This is about Bale’s career; no one benefits from him being unhappy.

One indifferent season does not define a career. This is not a career-defining summer for Gareth Bale. He’s 25 years old, playing for the club of his dreams, and challenging for trophies (he’s also a multimillionaire). If that’s unhappiness, I’ll take a bit of that thank you very much.

Bale may well decide to return to the Premier League at some point in the future and he has many years at the top of the game still ahead of him. It’s not an option he needs to take up right now.

  1. Bale can never compete with Ronaldo setting the agenda at Real Madrid.

True, he can’t, but I don’t believe he’s trying to. I’ve never met Gareth Bale but for the most expensive footballer in the world he seems like a remarkably humble guy. He knows who is king in Madrid and that he is merely a prince. Ronaldo could do more to help Bale (and the rest of the team) if he was a little less preening and self-absorbed. The Portuguese is a remarkable talent but not a natural leader.

  1. Bale will be measured against other world record signings at Madrid such as Ronaldo, Zidane and Figo.

Carragher’s implication is that Bale cannot hope to compare. He’s not as good as any of the three mentioned above and quite possibly never will be. The point though is that Bale has enough confidence that he wants to be measured against that sort of talent. He wants to be better and he’s pushed himself out of his comfort zone in a bid to improve. In my view there’s no doubt that he’s become a more complete player since he moved to Spain.

  1. Madrid is a culture shock for a shy boy like Bale, especially with the expectation to win the league and the Champions League every year.

It would be a major surprise if moving to a new country did not prove to be a bit of a culture shock. As an expat, I have some experience of this. Indeed, my wife and I had a bit of a culture shock when we visited Madrid. We decided to go out and see what Madrid nightlife had to offer. We turned up at a bar around midnight (thinking that things start a little later in Spain) only to discover that we were the only ones there. Apparently the locals don’t make an appearance until around 2am, after they’ve finished their dinner.

If Bale signed for one of the big English clubs he would face a similar level of expectation. They will all be eyeing the title next season and see themselves as at least contenders (with the possible exception of Manchester City) in the Champions League. Bale has nowhere to run or hide from expectation.

  1. Bale’s personality is not coming to the fore at Madrid.

I’m not entirely sure what Gareth Bale’s personality is and I’d be surprised if Carragher has a much better idea. Bale has never been the most demonstrative of players; he’s not one for shouting or screaming and being overly dramatic about things. He tends to let his football do the talking. Sadly, admittedly, some of that talk has been gibberish of late.

The only concern about Bale’s personality is if it’s leading him to become isolated at the Bernabeu. It’s widely reported that his Spanish remains about as good as my Croatian (that is to say not very – and I don’t even know how to say “not very” in Croatian) and that’s probably the most important thing for him to work on. This summer he should take a holiday, in Spain, and spend much of it taking Spanish lessons.

  1. One of the big English clubs would have been a step-up from Spurs but not such a huge one as Real Madrid.

This seems like more of an argument for not going to Madrid in the first place. Carragher is right of course, Real are bigger and better than any club in England right now and the culture shock wouldn’t have arisen if Bale had joined another English club.

But why reign in his ambition? He thought he was good enough to play for Real Madrid and he’s proved that he is. Even with his less impressive form this season, Bale has remained a regular starter at Real. Ancelotti trusts him and Bale trusted himself to play at that level.

  1. The Premier League has lost too many players to La Liga recently – Ronaldo, Alonso, Suarez – and Bale coming back would balance things a little.

This one’s easy, why should Gareth Bale care about that?

  1. Bale would have more influence in the Premier League than he has in La Liga.

Influence is a tough thing to measure. It may be the case that the style of play in England would suit Bale better (I think that’s true of attacking players more generally) but the influence he’s had in Spain should not be underestimated. Bale is one of those players who force the opposition to think about how they’ll cope with him just by his presence on the team sheet.

  1. Bale would automatically improve any English side he joined.

That’s true and there would be no shortage of suitors if he was put up for sale but let’s not forget that Bale improved the Real Madrid team when he joined. He’s kept his place in the team on merit. It is arguable that one of the big English clubs would build their team around him if he joined them in a way that Madrid won’t but I don’t think Bale sees that as necessary.

  1. He’s not been a failure at Madrid – he’s won 4 medals – so could return to England with his head held high.

He certainly could but those four medals tell a very important story. He wouldn’t have collected four medals at any of the top English clubs in the last two seasons and he almost certainly wouldn’t (yet) be a Champions League winner if he’d opted to stay in the Premier League rather than join Real.

Bale wants to be challenging for the biggest prizes in the game and there’s not many better places to do that from. In fact, there’s only one and it’s not in England. I don’t think Bale will be joining Barcelona any time soon though.

  1. Real Madrid does not suit everyone – think of Kaka, Robben and Sneijder.

That’s true of any club. Look at what happened to Torres after he left Liverpool. Bale has chosen to do it ‘his way’ at the Bernabeu and if he can make it there, he’ll make it anywhere. It’s a tough test for any player and probably the most demanding stage for a footballer to perform on. Bale hasn’t gone there to be an understudy and he can consider himself a headline act in his own right.

  1. It would be good to see Bale playing with happiness again.

On this point, Carragher and I agree. I just happen to believe that he can find happiness again at Real Madrid.

A year ago Bale was preparing for a Madrid derby Champions League final. He scored a crucial goal in that game. The Real Madrid fans waved white flags rather than white hankies and chanted his name. Platini put a Champions League winner’s medal around his neck.

This year he wears the burden of his record transfer fee around his neck. There will be no all-Spanish Champions League final this season, no medal to add to Bale’s collection. I’m sure he’ll watch the game on TV and wish he was there.

But if he wants to be back in the Champions League final next year he’d be better off staying in Madrid than heading back to England.