What We Learned in Soccer: Jan 29th 2024 FA Cup Ties and LFC’s situation

What We Learned in Soccer: Jan 29th 2024 FA Cup Ties and LFC’s situation

In a week devoid of EPL footie – there were still a lot of headlines in soccer

This week’s edition of What We Learned was supposed to be a quick one. Without any EPL games on the schedule and a smattering of FA Cup matches in their place, it would have been a few paragraphs about some of the upsets and who the favorites are before closing out with a sneak peek at the double helping of Premier League matches we have coming this week.

Jurgen Klopp is a big part of one of the most important dynasties in world football – Liverpool have been magical under his tenure

The early hours of Friday morning changed that. Jurgen Klopp picked that time to announce his departure from Liverpool following the end of the season, sending shockwaves around Europe and through the Liverpool fanbase.

As a Liverpool supporter myself, I sat at my desk for hours consuming all of the media surrounding the announcement trying to take in what it all meant (you can watch my instant reaction video on the Kicks and Picks Podcast YouTube page). While jarring in the moment, it wasn’t that unexpected. Liverpool fans were well aware of Klopp’s “7 year cycle” at Mainz and Dortmund and always knew Klopp would leave on his own terms. His contract was initially set to expire this summer but he chose to extend that to 2026 in April 2022 citing “freshness about us as a club still and this energizes me” that gave hope that we might get more time than we thought with our manager. But time has passed and Klopp has determined that his energy reserves are depleting faster than he may have thought, pushing him to make a difficult decision that is ultimately in his and his family’s best interest – which all Liverpool fans can support.

That doesn’t make it easier to move on, however. It is near impossible to overstate how important Jurgun Klopp’s tenure at the club was for Liverpool FC. Just 6 years prior to his arrival, the club were on the verge of administration thanks to this gross mismanagement of then-owners Hicks and Gillett. It saw Rafa Benitez leave for greener pastures and cast serious doubt about the club’s future in England’s top league. The club would be sold to FSG saving them from banishment to the lower leagues but still faced a carousel of managers from Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalgliesh (for a significantly less successful 2nd managerial stint) and Brendan Rodgers that tested the patience of even Liverpool’s most ardent supporters.

Enter: Jurgen Norbert Klopp. A man that had seemingly done the impossible in Germany, taking Borussia Dortmund to the top of the Bundesliga and upsetting the juggernauts that are Bayern Munich time and time again. This time his task was more daunting: take a club that had devolved into a stepping-stone club back to the top of the most prestigious domestic league in Europe past not just one juggernaut but multiple in the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City.

At the time, no one would be blamed for having extreme levels of skepticism that a Premier League title was achievable for Liverpool in the current landscape. They just missed out on a title 2 seasons prior when they had Luis Suarez playing out of his mind and breaking every record imaginable while club icon Steven Gerrard anchored the midfield in his last charge for a Premier League title. So Klopp chose his words carefully in his opening press conference when introduced as the new manager of the club and uttered what would soon be a rallying call for the duration of his time at the club: “We have to change from doubters to believers”.

It wouldn’t take long for that turnaround to take shape. Klopp implemented his “heavy metal football” that bore results early – and even when results weren’t finishing Liverpool’s way, was entertaining enough for supporters to get behind the manager’s vision. Klopp led Liverpool to an EFL cup final less than 6 months after he took charge. Shortly after that came one of Klopp’s signature wins that would define the transition from “doubters to believers”.

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In a twist of fate, Liverpool drew Klopps former club Borussia Dortmund in the quarter finals of Europa League. After drawing the away leg 1-1, Liverpool quickly conceded 2 goals (and the crucial away goal tiebreaker) in the first 10 minutes of the home leg. This is where the doubts and disappointments would start to creep back into the supporters’ heads and the feeling of “here we go again” became almost tangible across Anfield. But not on this day.  Halftime came and went and what went on in the dressing room must have been something special because the second half saw Liverpool fight back scoring 3 goals while conceding one more as the game approached extra time. With things level and Dortmund owning the away goal tiebreaker, Liverpool needed one more goal in order to advance. In the 91st minute, they got just that. “Milner…tees it up into the box. Lovren! OH HE’S DONE IT! LIVERPOOL HAVE COME BACK FROM THE DEAD!”

The scenes that followed were those typical of a major Klopp win. Jubilation and celebration with the fiery manager himself getting involved with the rest of the team in a pile near the corner flag. Liverpool would make it to the Europa League Finals before losing to Europa Voodoo masters Sevilla but the point was made and the evidence was there in front of all of Europe to see: Liverpool were back from the dead and well on their way to retake their status as European Elite. 

Liverpool continued to grow under Klopp. They qualified for the Champions League in Klopp’s first full season at the helm. They built off their success and refined their style of play, perfecting the “gegenpressing” system that has now become a staple across England and much of Europe. They toppled Goliaths and cut through tournament style competitions with ease. The 2017-2018 season saw Liverpool top their group without suffering a single defeat and ransack Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side on their way to an improbable Champions League Final appearance. In the end, the Final was emblematic of much of Klopp’s time at Liverpool where things just didn’t go their way – Salah receiving a broken collarbone thanks to a rugby tackle from Sergio Ramos and Loris Karius suffering an unnoticed concussion that would lead to him conceding two shocking goals that would derail his career – and Liverpool left Kyiv empty handed.   

Faith in Jurgen Klopp never wavered despite coming up short time and time again. Grumblings of “can Klopp ever win The Big One” started to echo from rival fans and media members but Klopp would answer those criticisms the very next season in Hollywood fashion. Working their way back through the group stages, Liverpool advanced all the way to the semifinals before drawing a Barcelona side that not only featured a prime Lionel Messi but also former Liverpool great Luis Suarez. The first leg took place in Barcelona where Liverpool were caught with their pants down, and a 3-0 defeat had a consecutive return to the final looking grim. Once again, doubt from fans, doubt from TV pundits and doubt from most corners of Europe started to creep in.

That is where Klopp does his best work. In the home leg at Anfield, Liverpool performed what is likely one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) comebacks in all of sport. Missing Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, the odds were stacked against them. When asked what his message would be to his team prior to kickoff, Klopp provided another mantra that will last beyond his days at the club: “Just try. If we can do it – wonderful. If we can’t do it, let’s fail in the most beautiful way.” 

What followed was a European night at Anfield that will be remembered forever. Liverpool stunned Barcelona at home behind a second half brace from substitute Gini Wijnaldum and the deciding goal that has become legend. In the 79th minute,  Trent Alexander-Arnold shrewdly noticed a shell shocked Barcelona side switch off prior to his corner kick and quickly fired in a cross to Divock Origi who slotted the ball into the back of the net. Anfield was sent into euphoria and Klopp notched another signature win that was wholly unique to him. I truly believe he is the only manager in the world that could have pulled off the 4-0 stunner that night.

Liverpool would go on and win the Champions League final against Tottenham a few weeks later, securing Klopp’s first trophy with the club. From there, the flood gates would open and Klopp would add virtually every other trophy to the cabinet: the UEFA Super Cup, Club World Cup, FA Cup, EFL League cup, but none more important than the Premier League Title that had eluded both club and manager for too long.

It wasn’t a lack of performance or results that were the cause of Liverpool’s title drought. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City had emerged on the scene and were competing at a level not seen in England’s history. When Klopp arrived at Liverpool, the record for points in a Premier League season was 95 achieved by Jose Mourinho’s 2004 Chelsea squad. Klopp’s Liverpool managed to smash that record and net 97 points in a season, but found themselves finishing in second place to Manchester City. They would need to be perfect if they wanted to claim England’s top prize and in 2019-2020, that’s just what they did.

The Premier League played 29 matches before taking a pause when COVID would force the world to stop in March 2020. In those 29 matches, Liverpool went 27-1-1 amassing 82 out of a potential 87 points. They were on pace to secure the league title before the calendar turned to April which had never been done in the league’s history. Their form would put them finishing the season with around 108 points, smashing the new single season record of 100 points. The global pandemic had other plans. At a certain point, there were calls to abandon the league season altogether, an improbable request but one that would seem fitting with just how elusive this one trophy seemed to be for Klopp and Liverpool. Fortunately things fell into place and the league was resumed after a few agonizing months and Liverpool were able to finish their title winning campaign, albeit with a more pedestrian 5-2-2 record that would seem them finish one point shy of the points record. 

Liverpool fans didn’t care about that last detail, however. The city celebrated all the same, social distancing guidelines be damned. The long wait was finally over and Liverpool were champions of England once again. Klopp had answered all the questions, silenced all the critics and finally turned even the last remaining doubters into believers. 

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When Klopp does leave at the end of this season, he will have amassed over 300 wins at the club, 200 in the Premier League and at least 7 trophies. He had 3 different seasons in England with at least 92 points, played in 3 European finals and 3 (soon to be 4) domestic finals. His trophy haul is impressive but realistically speaking, could and should have been more. He averaged 85 points a season in the Premier League (compared to the 63 points Liverpool averaged in the 6 seasons prior to his arrival), consistently finishing in the top four which, in certain seasons, were achievements in their own right. Qualifying for the Champions League with Rhys Williams, Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak as your “senior” CBs for the entirety of the second half of a season is a ridiculous accomplishment that merits a trophy of its own. He currently sits 2nd in all time win percentage as a Liverpool manager (60.73%)  just a fraction behind Kenny Dalgish (60.91%) and if he can win 17 of his last ~27 games he will end up as Liverpool’s winningest manager of all time.  

It’s also important to consider the backdrop of the club’s exponential growth during Klopp’s time in charge. When Klopp was introduced as manager, Anfield was just beginning the first phase of a 3 stage redevelopment that would see the capacity grow from 42,000 to 61,000 with the final stage just wrapping up this season. The club also built a brand new, state of the art training ground that would allow for the senior team to train in the same facility as the youth teams – a connection that was certainly driven by the man in charge.

All this capital development and investment meant that there were times when funds for squad improvement would be limited. A constraint that is often mentioned when talking about Arsene Wenger’s time with Arsenal or used as an excuse during Pochetino’s time with Tottenham, but never really brought up when talking about Klopp. Even when prodded by journalists about transfer windows where Liverpool stood pat while the clubs in Manchester or London brought in reinforcements and world class players, Klopp would calmly respond with statements around how happy he is with the current squad, and whether he was speaking truthfully or not – who would dare to doubt him at this point.

With the end of this season mere months away, Liverpool have found themselves with not 1 but 4 opportunities to win a trophy as a send off for their manager. Both domestic trophies are well within reach with Liverpool set to face Chelsea in the EFL Cup Final next month and well positioned to make another run in the FA Cup as they drew Watford/Southampton in the 5th round. It would feel like things have come full circle if Liverpool managed to win the Europa League – netting Klopp the one final trophy he hasn’t won with Liverpool at the place where Liverpool’s return to prominence all began. However the one image I have in my head that would be so fitting, so perfect of a send off would be Liverpool winning a second Premier League Title in front of 61,000 Anfield faithful allowing the manager to lift the trophy in front of the fans he bonded with so closely for the first time. 

As for what’s next for club and manager – it’s not that important at the moment. I hope Klopp truly takes some well deserved time off with his family and recharges his battery. There won’t be a job vacancy that is unattainable for him so when he’s ready, he can have his pick of the bunch. Liverpool have undoubtedly begun their search for the next manager. I have no preferences at this current time, whoever takes over will be taking over a squad built for immediate success. However, things will change. The manager will likely have a different system and style of play that the current squad will need to adapt to. Some players will improve and shine under the new manager, some will likely regress and be forced to play a position or role they aren’t used to. The new manager will need time to bed in and get the players’ trust. Results may be frustrating at times, after all we are trying to replace an undoubtedly top 3 manager in the world. I don’t want this to come across as sounding negative, I’m just trying to properly set expectations for what’s to come in the years following Klopp. From there, it will be up to the new manager to change the doubters back into believers. 

This is an Article Written by Kicks & Picks

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