To regurgitate opinions rendered so bland from unrelenting high-profile exposure is an idle and redundant use of our time in this reciprocal process. As such, the article that I had been planning for this week – a 2017-18 Premier League season table prediction – has been accordingly shelved, with fallacies of Manchester City’s title success and the relegation, in no particular order, of Brighton and Hove Albion, Huddersfield Town and Swansea City, of no interest to you or I when innumerable other sources have already covered the same subject, whilst spouted the same views with little to no substance. In truth, it’s an all-too-easy exploitation of the global fervour the Premier League demands, and perhaps wouldn’t have tested the extents of what is possible in a reporting sense on the weekend of the division’s 2017-18 commencement. But then again, that’s just the frustration of my uninspired period on Thursday evening – when usually I would have contributed the first half of this piece – speaking, as I despaired at the devoid pool of meaningless information facing me in ascertaining a single idea to spark my passions. Eventually, as you can imagine in reading at this very moment, Friday afternoon’s revelations ignited the composition of this article.
Not long ago – at least in my lifetime – a prominent member of the established ‘big four’ of English football, regular Champions League qualifiers and title challengers alongside Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United, Merseyside’s scarlet-attired outfit, and still England’s second most successful club, has encountered depths, perhaps never imagined possible, in the post-Rafa Benitez period, a League Cup title and the eternal eventual anti-climax of the 2013-14 title challenge aside. Throughout the tenure of bespectacled genius Jurgen Klopp, the industrious, yet eye-catching exponents of often-frustratingly profligate football have flattered, perhaps, to deceive – with unrest, in small pockets, at home in fans disillusioned with as-yet unfulfilled promises of title contests – and while a fourth-placed 2016-17 finish reflected their best returns (bar 2013-14) since 2008-09, they still remain closer to inner-city rivals Everton than to the ilk of title-winners Chelsea, finishing 15 points ahead of the Toffees, but trailing the Blues by a significant 17. Now faced with the threat of unrelenting, and evidently effective, pressure from the veritable Mount Olympus of modern football in the political engine rooms of the Catalonian coastline, centred around the diminutive 5' 7" frame of a perpetually jovial Brazilian playmaker who is respected as perhaps the jewel in Jurgen Klopp’s crown of attacking talents, how do Liverpool manage their steadily recovering stature in global football, with or without Philippe Coutinho?
I have to admit – prior to any commencement over an answer to such a significant inquiry – that part of the inspiration is attributable, also, to my Fantasy Premier League addiction this summer. One of the leading Twitter accounts for the concerns of an FPL-obsessed fan, FPL Fly, is home to possibly the most self-aware, yet perceivably, through the ruefully unemotional medium of digital communication, arrogant, inconsiderate and candid fantasy league commentweeters, regularly supporting this common perception of his character in the lambasting of Liverpool’s reputation, and their assets in FPL. He refuses to regard the Anfield-based outfit as a big club, refers to Roberto Firmino as ‘Failmino’ – though that is attributable more to his failings as a fantasy resource than any spite against the club itself – and is notorious now within the Twitter FPL community as a Liverpool cynic. Personally, what I find so intriguing is that Twitter – as a fascinating societal microcosm, encapsulating the vitriol that others may fear to express in wider media – reflects the presumed ponderings also of a vast community who don’t use the platform, and creates an immediate showcase for reaction that is more accessible, and therefore far superior, even to face-to-face interaction.
Exploiting this rhetoric, then, we are able to comprehend the extent of supporters who truthfully believe Liverpool have fallen from their once-gilded status as a giant, not only of the English game, but also of European and global football. Evidence for this stagnation is plentiful, if you’re asking those who share the aforementioned opinion, in the much-touted fact that for 27 years now, no league title has graced the trophy cabinets of Merseyside, and that in that same period, only 14 pieces of silverware have been brought back to Anfield. Of the three FA Cups, four League Cups, three Community Shields, individual Champions League and Europa League titles, and two UEFA Super Cups, only nine have been claimed in the 21st century, and, more alarmingly, only the 2011-12 League Cup is to show as the spoils of the previous decade. The much-maligned braggadocio and self-absorbed behaviour of the Spice Boys of the mid-1990’s, argued to be the ruinous factor of that select generation of commercially-lauded talent that Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley-protégé Roy Evans had at his disposal in Steve McManaman, David James, Jamie Redknapp, Stan Collymore, Robbie Fowler and Jason McAteer, coupled with the subsequent import-reliant modernity and continental achievement that Gérard Houllier and Rafa Benítez brought forth in the 21st century, represents the tumultuous recent history of Liverpool in all of its inglorious what-could-have-been reality. What Steven Gerrard, the constant stanchion of the 2000’s – a period when overwhelming egos ruled the dressing room and heightened transfer outlays increased squad pressure – could have achieved is a prophecy mired in the resounding deviance in the reality of the man, and the age in which he led the club as a figure, at times, far more distinguishable, perhaps culpable, than the managers he served under.
From the outside in, with the benefit of hindsight, it could be deemed that the culture of Liverpool Football Club is its true undermining feature. An untenable reliance on the Boot Room model, where, for 30 years, Shankly, Paisley, Reuben Bennett, Tom Saunders, Joe Fagan, Sean Whelan and Ronnie Moran, later joined by Evans, dictated the progression of the club in assuming the role of manager almost one after the other – Bennett and Saunders the outliers – yet trusting the team behind them as if it were a shared role, in addition to a homely production line that boasts Gerrard, Fowler, McManaman, Jamie Carragher and Michael Owen as some of its finest specimens, has created a fable for the failure to adapt adequately to a changing Premier League landscape. While the objectives of the locally-focused youth programme, and the incestuous managerial succession ideology, had the best intentions in their principles – acting similarly to Barcelona’s now-tiring La Masia establishment and the Pep Guardiola-Tito Vilanova-Jordi Roura managerial axis that delivered such success to Catalonia – there were obvious, and rather poignant, moments when Gerrard and Carragher, as career-long servants, appeared to be holding the club, as an entity, together.
When they came so close to the 2013-14 Premier League title, the infamous slip that gifted Demba Ba Chelsea’s priceless scoring opportunity to halt the Reds’ 16-match unbeaten run, and reduce their title lead to two points with two games left, nobody embraced the blame; not Mamadou Sakho, the source of the inconsiderate pass that allowed Ba to pounce, nor Simon Mignolet, who was tentative to divert the rampant Senegalese striker. Many argued Gerrard had his best year in a Liverpool shirt under Brendan Rodgers in that title push, and although nostalgia, in his final season at the club, may have induced a misjudged opinion in that example, the foil he provided for the rampant strike force of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez cannot be understated in its magnitude to a fine culmination of achievements in the division for Gerrard; representing his second-best season, after 2008-09’s similar runners-up finish. Alternatively, the triumphs of the 21st century are widely regarded, immediately, as Gerrard’s, often more than the club’s. In 2004-05, it was his Champions League title in Istanbul. In 2005-06, it was his FA Cup final victory at the Millennium Stadium.
In the repercussion of Gerrard’s departure, however, and in the midst of the appointment of a German so prized in the managerial occupation for his catalytic role in the reestablishment of Borussia Dortmund as rivals-in-chief to Bayern Munich’s pre-eminence, the club have been able to shed the malaise allowed to fester for so long by encouraging every squad member accept the burden that Gerrard and Carragher shouldered year after year. Yet what effect has it had? An eighth-place 2015-16 season finish, admittedly after a horrendous early run of form that saw Rodgers sacked, and surrendering a position to capitalise on Manchester City’s stuttering returns in ending fourth last term hardly define significant improvement under Klopp. Keeping pace with their lofty competitors certainly represents a challenge, with the financial resources that Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United boast willingly exposed by each in respective transfer exploits, but Klopp proved himself a canny and seasoned campaigner when it came to managing resources at Dortmund – as previously covered, blooding Mario Götze and Marcel Schmelzer in the most high-profile examples of his reign – and surely, if supported with a justifiable period of time and the genuine backing of the board, can repeat the same exploits at Anfield.
There has been a resonating sense of belief in that model by Klopp to date; using the FA Cup as a platform to expose teenagers Ovie Ejaria, Sheyi Ojo, Ben Woodburn, Harry Wilson, Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold to the unrelenting reality of senior football, in preparation for their promotion to the first-team squad, in some cases, only a few months later. Astute recruitment in dependable first-team regulars Sadio Mané (13 goals, five assists), Georginio Wijnaldum (six goals, nine assists) and Joël Matip (one goal, nine clean sheets), in addition to low-cost, low-risk investments in Loris Karius (£4.7 million, 10 appearances, three clean sheets) and Ragnar Klavan (£4.2 million, 19 appearances, three clean sheets) went some way to improving first-team fortunes, especially when compared with the departures; raising £27 million from Christian Benteke, £15 million from Jordan Ibe and £11 million from Joe Allen, allowing lower-half Premier League clubs to bolster their ranks and take points from the Reds’ rivals. Another £50 million’s worth of outlay on Mohammed Salah, Andrew Robertson and Dominic Solanke this summer creates further certainty over the direction of the club; aiming to be upwardly mobile, while covering their own costs, though it has been a revelation to many that, Robertson aside as a seemingly second-choice left-back, little attention has been paid to the widely lambasted leaky defence of yesteryear, with Sakho yet to decide on his future, and no improvement made on the perennially inconsistent Dejan Lovren. As has been said about Arsenal over the past few forgettable years, they may be a centre-back or a dependable leader shy of making an honest title bid.
It is the role of Philippe Coutinho in this modest resurgence that reflects of what significance his possible transfer could play in the wider cultural revolution that Klopp has instigated at the club. Far from a subscriber to the renowned transfer-savvy managerial ilk, the German is, first and foremost, a master tactician evocative of the current era, and secondly a universally respected coach, able to develop and hone the skills of players into fitting the mould he establishes upon arrival, and this is perfectly portrayed in the history of Coutinho – signed for just £8.5 million in January 2013 as a fresh-faced 20-year-old in one of Rodgers’ smarter signings – producing the two best minutes per league goal ratios of his four-and-a-half-year stay (250.6 and 172.7) in 2015-16 and 2016-17 respectively, as well as the second greatest minutes per assist ratio last term (320.7, behind 2012-13’s 186.6) and, more importantly, the foremost minutes per goal involvement (goals and assists) last season at 112.25 minutes. Having only produced or scored a goal every three matches or so in 2014-15 (280.1 minutes per involvement), to now be the focal point of the attacking riches Klopp has at his disposal – with a MPI rate superior to Mané (124.8), Divock Origi (146), Adam Lallana (156.7), Roberto Firmino (170.5) and Daniel Sturridge (192.3) – represents a considerable willingness to adapt and to exploit a system perhaps better suited to his rapid, skilful approach. While you would imagine that statistic would fall in significance with his presumed reversion to more of a central-midfield role, to accommodate Salah, this season, the benefit of the Egyptian’s arrival is that, as we explored the importance of with Gerrard, the burden is eased on one individual.
As the Brazilian sulks in the wake of the rejection of a £90 million bid from suitors Barça, then, where does that leave Liverpool in their struggle to reclaim an identity severely tainted by an almost three decade-long league title drought, that stretches beyond the instigation even of the Premier League? In an immediate respect, it leaves them a midfielder light in today’s trip to Watford; an issue easily addressed by the involvement of Wijnaldum and the debut of Salah, but over the course of a season, and factoring in the two to three months Lallana will spend recuperating from his thigh injury, there gapes a huge, arguably irreplaceable chasm in the Reds’ midfield; one that if not addressed correctly, could set the Liverpudlians back another five years on their competitors. Realising that this is a cost they cannot afford to pay, especially with the disparities becoming increasingly vaster between sides who qualifying for the Champions League and those that fail to, perhaps by a single point in any given season, on Friday the Liverpool board issued a statement comparable in impermeable candour to recent US-North Korea relations; “the club’s definitive stance is that no offers for Philippe will be considered and he will remain a member of Liverpool Football Club when the summer window closes.” Cynicism, rather than the desired assurance, is the main reaction, referencing the previous exploits of Gerard Piqué in the Neymar saga, Rodgers in Luis Suarez’s eventual move to Barça and Daniel Levy with Gareth Bale in the attempted prevention of the Welshman’s record-breaking Real Madrid signature, and it is understandable that, having had their trust undermined in these examples, such large clusters of fans expect little less than the draw of Barcelona and Madrid as a magnetic inevitability for the Premier League’s best players.
Such a reality speaks volumes about the fallacy that has persisted since Suarez’s 2014 switch, with the Premier League apparently strong enough to rebuff the approaches of La Liga’s elite. If this transfer is eventually signed, sealed and delivered, it weakens not only Liverpool Football Club, but the Premier League as a wider entity heavily reliant on broadcasting revenue also, with another lucrative name added to their Spanish counterparts’ contingent of commercially cherished identities, softening the blow of Neymar’s departure certainly for Barça and La Liga, as the understandably profitable Brazilian market is reopened. Liverpool may be able to sign the perennial object of their affection, Naby Keïta, to complete an industrious midfield trio in his position, while relying on Salah for requisite goals and assists his cavity leaves, but truthfully Klopp and the board comprehend the gravity of Coutinho’s symbolism at Anfield and across the Premier League, and cannot afford to let him flee to Catalonia. If they are to complete a reconstruction of the club once proudly branded with the label of the most successful in English football, then titles are required; something that many, with good reason, believe isn’t possible without the Rio-born dynamo. An ultimatum posed by one mutually-coveted player, with far-reaching implications in Merseyside, Catalonia, England, Spain and throughout Europe depending on whether a deal can be struck. At the heart lies Barça, in desperate need of a remedy to the internal splinter, with the potential to manifest into a fatal virus, revealed by Neymar’s departure, Liverpool – on the verge of a long-overdue reinstatement to English football’s gilded hierarchy, providing, unlike their predecessors, they fail to realise unbounded potential – and an individual central to both sides in their respective power struggles. Never, perhaps, has the player as a footballing entity held such resonance in the game than at present, with the ability to spell the demise of a generation’s ambitions whichever direction a saga takes. Make of it what you will, but it is the harsh reality of elitist politics that will pervade the sport for an inconceivable period of time far beyond us.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!