Ken Early: Klopp and Conte happier looking for solutions than scapegoats
Liverpool manager has transformed a number of players who struggled under Rodgers
As they pass the season’s half-way point, Liverpool have more goals and more points than they’ve ever had after 19 games in the Premier League. They’ve just come off a calendar year in which they scored more league goals than they have managed in any year since 1985. And yet, with Chelsea on a record-breaking run of 13 wins in a row, they are still six points off the top of the table.
To have played so well only to be so far behind could be felt as demoralising. But Jurgen Klopp has a gift for positive framing. “[Chelsea] won 13 games in a row. Not bad. Can you imagine how annoying it is when you win 13 games in a row and there is still one team only six points behind?”
Liverpool are giving the impression that they can keep the title race interesting for a little while yet. The win against Manchester City showcased some grittier qualities that have not often been apparent since Klopp took the job.
Klopp would claim afterwards that his team’s game plan, which saw them defending deeper than usual, had been put together on the hoof in response to the changing conditions of the game. However, his decision to leave out Divock Origi in order to accommodate the strength of Emre Can in the centre of midfield suggested that he was thinking cautiously about this one from the outset.
Georginio Wijnaldum was named man of the match, his first such award of the season. It goes to show there’s nothing like scoring goals for getting people’s attention, because the recognition he’s getting has been overdue for some time.
Liverpool supporters might have expected more than two league goals from Wijnaldum so far, given that he joined them after a season in which he scored 11 for Newcastle – but his game is not really about scoring goals. Instead he is a strong and intelligent continuity player, very difficult to knock off the ball, who is good at moving the ball quickly through midfield with first-time passes off either foot.
His goal was created by another two-footed player, Adam Lallana, who finished 2016 having been involved in more league goals than any other Premier League midfielder. It’s a remarkable achievement for a player who, less than two years ago, was widely seen as a symbol of the mediocrity that had engulfed the club after the sale of Luis Suárez. His soaring status illustrates the degree to which players’ reputations are determined by the context in which they perform.
It would be insulting to Lallana to suggest that he is some kind of Klopp salvage job, but there is no doubt that the coach’s system has allowed him to look much more effective. Klopp and Antonio Conte have both been rewarded for their confidence in players who were previously seen as problematic, marginal, or sub-standard.
Conte’s big decision this season was to switch to a three-at-the-back system after Chelsea had lost successive matches against Liverpool and Arsenal. The big problem was that the squad contained no obvious candidate for the right wing-back position, and the transfer window had already closed.
Conte found the solution in the form of Victor Moses, who had never forced his way into the first-team picture at Chelsea, and who had spent the previous season on loan at Stoke, playing as a left-winger. It was a reinvention nobody saw coming.
Klopp was also confronted with a selection problem when it became apparent that his left-back, Alberto Moreno, had returned from the summer break as error-prone as ever. The successful solution has been to use James Milner at left-back, even though he had only ever played for Liverpool in midfield. Milner’s history of versatility means this decision of Klopp’s wasn’t quite as left-field as Conte’s transformation of Moses, but it showed a similar capacity to look beyond the obvious or easy answers.
Klopp has got excellent performances from players like Dejan Lovren, Roberto Firmino and Jordan Henderson, all of whom had their doubters in the past. He understands that players everyone thinks are mediocre can start to look rather good once you find the right role for them.
Brendan Rodgers never seemed quite sure what to do with Firmino; Klopp believes so much in his potential as a central attacker that Daniel Sturridge can’t get in the team any more. Henderson has metamorphosed from a scurrying number eight under Rodgers to a strutting number six under Klopp. With Lovren, the secret might have been in finding a partner he could play with. Klopp decided that Martin Skrtel would never be that man, and sold one of the club’s longest-serving players to Fenerbahce.
It’s a similar story at Chelsea. David Luiz, regarded at the time of his arrival as a comical desperation signing the club only made after missing out on all their real targets, has emerged as the best defender in the league. Diego Costa, who was expected to leave the club after a 2015-16 campaign plagued by injury and indiscipline, is on course to win player of the year, unless he is beaten to it by Eden Hazard, who was MIA for most of last season.
Something that unites Klopp and Conte is that both of them, when they faced problems, could easily have shifted blame towards the administrators who had failed to provide them with the right tools to do their jobs. Instead they took a more positive outlook, and solved the problems by doing some actual coaching. Who knows – maybe this approach will catch on.