Think Jurgen Klopp is untouchable? Remember Johan Cruyff at Barcelona…
Jürgen Klopp finds himself in a perilous position at Liverpool but it’s not unfamiliar. Football is cyclical. This is the seven-year itch; by the time successful coaches enter their eighth season, it can get precarious. Klopp initially had enough goodwill in the tank but the German looks bewildered and his side appear to be running on fumes.
We have the usual list – injury, bad transfer windows, an ageing squad, rows with owners FSG and sometimes just sheer bad luck. Liverpool’s dreadful form now looks terrifyingly close to the classic body language of downing tools. Or to continue with the Merseyside analogy, imagine a White Album-era Beatles song with an irritating but incredibly catchy Ringo singalong ditty called ‘Losing the Dressing Room’.
Parallels can be drawn. Klopp is in legendary company. The best comparison would be Johan Cruyff’s coaching career at Barcelona.
The Dutch legend arguably set in play a template that became modern football (see Pep Guardiola at Barça, Bayern and Man City, Ten Hag at Ajax and Manchester United, and of course Klopp), yet after eight years and 11 trophies as the club’s most successful manager, Cruyff was sacked by Barcelona when the Dutch superstar failed to win any trophies in his final two seasons as he tried to rebuild.
Cruyff’s game was a fine-tuning of Total Football which evolved via Rinus Michels and his love of unsung Hungarian coach Gusztáv Sebes. To oversimplify a complex set-up, it was a game based around possession, a high-tempo mix of pressing, movement, passing and triangles and being able to control and pass. It was about fluidity and required two full-backs who played as wingers to widen the pitch, then the wingers would come inside and get closer to the striker. Klopp has Trent Alexander Arnold and Andy Robertson do the same to create for Mo Salah.
When Cruyff joined Barcelona as a player in 1973, the side were rudderless. Cruyff made his La Liga debut against Granada in October 1973 – seven games into a season with only two wins on the board. They were also out of the Uefa Cup.
Initially, he drove teammates like Charlie Rexach and Juan Manuel Asensi mad but eventually, when they relaxed and were convinced by the Dutchman to play without fear, it clicked. He drove them to their first La Liga title in 14 years, including one hugely symbolic and political 5-0 victory over Real Madrid at the Bernabéu in February 1974.
In 1988 he took over as coach at an ailing Barcelona. The club were in debt, the fans were leaving in their droves and those who stayed were protesting. He instilled the same detailed style. He modernised and revolutionised FC Barcelona. He gave the side their identity. He won the club’s first European Cup.
His side won four La Liga titles in a row, and he built what became known as the Dream Team: Zubizarreta, Koeman, Ferrer, Sergi, Guardiola, Stoichkov, Laudrup, Eusébio Sacristán, Goikoetxea, Begiristain and Bakero. Michael Laudrup played as a false nine (just as Pep Guardiola had Messi play at Barcelona).
The club evolved from the nearly men of Spanish football to serial title and European winners. The board and especially Cruyff’s nemesis at the time, club president Josep Lluís Núñez failed to realise he was building a dynasty, creating a template and securing a lasting legacy and Barça sacked him.
— Andy Bollen (@nirvanadiary) March 6, 2022
Since his appointment on 8 October 2015, Klopp has won the Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, the Premier League, the League Cup and the FA Cup. Klopp holds another astonishing record – the number of days unbeaten in the league at Anfield, which lasted 1,369 days and ran from April 2017 to January 2021.
The players need to improve, and the manager deserves time to turn the oil tanker around before the classic cracked crest appears in the papers. Klopp changed Liverpool’s fortunes on arrival in 2015 but this time it feels different. When he spends his post-match interviews telling the media “he can’t find the words” and when he eventually does he says “it needs to change”, you know something is wrong.
January’s results, added to Saturday’s 3-0 surrender to Wolves, now look more than a blip or a poor spell. Next up it’s a Monday night derby with Everton, then Eddie Howe’s Newcastle, followed by Real Madrid. It could be a defining few weeks for Liverpool.
Klopp is expected to get results as he uses young players to fill in for his injury-ravaged squad. Diogo Jota, Luis Diaz, Roberto Firmino and Virgil van Dijk are all out. Sadio Mané was also a big loss and Darwin Nunez looks unable to get anywhere close to filling his boots. It looks suspiciously like he has them on the wrong feet.
Jürgen Klopp is having to juggle blindfold on a unicycle. On top of that, his side look knackered.
Liverpool’s poor form will be a major cause for concern for fans, directors and owners but Klopp should be given time to build a new side. Those who want him out should be careful what they wish for. Though if a club can sack someone like Cruyff, who invented the template by which modern football is currently played, then nobody, not even the likeable Klopp, is safe.
Andy Bollen has written two books about Johan Cruyff but his latest is about the number 10 shirt. Order The Number Ten: More Than a Number, More Than a Shirt here.
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