There comes a time when all good things must come to an end. One of the most utilized idioms across all manner of events, the feeling that nothing can last forever is a reality that many struggle with in not just everyday life, but in the sporting world as well. When it comes to Liverpool Football Club, one of the most storied institutions anywhere in the world, a return to prominence over the last seven years under the stewardship of beloved manager Jürgen Klopp has brought the good times back to Merseyside.
Despite the undisputed fact that the Reds had helped define football both on English shored and abroad on multiple continents for decades between 1963 and the early 1990′s, Anfield’s influence began to wane during the Premier League era. Liverpool managed just six domestic honors since the league’s rebranding, none of which was a league title, with four of those six coming by way of League Cup wins.
The club’s high-water mark did come during the 2000-01 campaign when the Reds blitzed successful cup runs on all fronts, with wins in the FA Cup, League Cup, UEFA Cup, and UEFA Super Cup, while also credibly finishing third in the league behind Manchester United and Arsenal.
But to boast commendable success on the continent, which would include a memorable Champions League win four seasons later in their dramatic comeback win over Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan in Istanbul, did little to push Liverpool back into prominence in England until the arrival of Jürgen Klopp in October of 2015.
Though the experienced German tactician took a while to find his feet, once settled, Liverpool quickly developed into one of the standard bearers for football in England under his command. Since his arrival at Anfield, the Reds have finished in the top four in each season after 2014-15 while winning the league in 2019-20 while also finishing as runner-up to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City on two occasions.
Klopp pitfalls in 2022-23
For a club that had finished second just three times in the twenty-two seasons before Klopp’s arrival, his success at the helm had lifted Liverpool to another level not seen since an era of utter dominance between 1972-90. But in 2022-23 campaign that has seen a dramatic fall from grace in the historic port city in the northwest, many are now wondering if Klopp’s shelf-life has moved past its expiration date as the Reds sit eight in the table and a whopping nineteen points off table-topping Arsenal.
There was no better microcosm of the catastrophic nose dive than their recent 5-2 loss at home against Spanish juggernaut Real Madrid in the Champions League round of sixteen first-leg clash after the Reds were two goals to the good in the opening fourteen minutes. Few, if any, expect Klopp’s troops to overturn the heavy defeat before crashing out of the competition, leaving their Premier League campaign as the only avenue back into Europe’s premier club competition next season.
During a season where it has become painfully evident that the club is in desperate need of refreshment in the senior squad, with many hoping that Liverpool can outstrip both Man City and Madrid to the signature of Borussia Dortmund wunderkind Jude Bellingham in the upcoming summer window, it will take far more than a possible £150m record signing to right the ship. What’s more, the notion that the club may not be able to recover under Klopp is another reality that may not be able to be ignored.
At both the aforementioned Dortmund and 1.FSV Mainz 05 where he cut his managerial cloth after retiring as a career-long Die Nullfünfer player, the wheels fell off the bus in a strikingly similar fashion during his seventh full season at the helm. Tactics no longer yielded the same consistency on the pitch, results suffered, and a massive drop-off in the table was the result.
Dortmund went from four consecutive top-two finishes - including back-to-back Bundesliga titles - to accruing 25-fewer-points during the 2014-15 season in compared to the prior campaign. At Mainz, Klopp molded the side for four years in the 2.Bundesliga to earn promotion, where they finished 11th in both the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons before falling off a cliff in 2006-07 and failing to avoid the drop back down the ladder.
Should this trend continue next season, regardless of the expected summer business the club must surely focus on, it may be time to ask the question if it is time to move on from a manager who has won over the hearts and minds of an entire fanbase. But the man who would replace Klopp in the Anfield technical area would have to be the right fit rather than just the biggest name. An ideal candidate for such a posting could certainly be Xabi Alonso.
Alonso’s Leverkusen offers the perfect canvas for managerial development
Currently cutting his teeth in the Ruhr with Bundesliga outfit Bayer Leverkusen, the Tolosa-born former midfielder has a playing pedigree at the highest level commensurate with other “next generation” managers also honing their craft, namely fellow Spaniard tactician’s Mikel Arteta, and Xavi.
After breaking through at Real Sociedad across four seasons, the Basque native went on to star for Liverpool during a five-year stint on Merseyside that included that famous night in Istanbul, ultimately going on to spend six years at Real Madrid before being honorable discharged from football service in the wake of a final three years at Bayern Munich.
It did not take long for Alonso to make the jump into management, completing his UEFA elite coaching course a year after his retirement from the game before going back to the Spanish capital to take up command of Real Madrid’s U14 side. A year later he was at the helm of Real Sociedad B and would go on to receive rave reviews at Sanse before his departure in May of 2022.
But it would be only a matter of months before he would get his first official posting with Leverkusen after Die Werkself sacked Gerardo Seoane who presided over the club’s worst start in forty years, which included a shock 4-3 loss at 3.Liga minnows Elversberg SV in the first round of the DFB-Pokal to open the 2022-23 campaign.
Leverkusen could hardly do worse than Alonso at the time despite his never managing a fully professional side after Seoane managed just two wins in twelve fixtures across all competitions while only scoring fourteen goals in the process. Since Alonso’s arrival at the Bay Arena, Leverkusen have climbed from 18th to 10th in the league and are now through to the round of sixteen in the Europa League after a 5-5 aggregate two-legged affair against AS Monaco resulted in a shootout win over the principality side.
The data behind their charge up the table and European rebound after falling out of the Champions League during the group stage supports that the club’s improvement under the former Spanish international is hardly a fluke.
On the surface, Alonso’s 44% win rate (8-3-7) is already leaps and bounds ahead of his Swiss predecessor who managed just 12% (2-2-8) before being relieved of command. Digging deeper, Leverkusen’s goal return is considerably better, with the German side standing at 1.83 goals/match under Alonso compared to 1.16 under Seoane, while they are allowing fewer at the other end as well; 1.61 compared to 1.91 earlier this season. Possession numbers have also slowly crept forward, too, with Alonso hitting the 52.9% mark, better than the 52.3% when he took charge.
It is not just the numbers that have improved under Alonso, but the performance levels of key assets, many of whom are young talents that have not hit full stride. Players the likes of Moussa Diaby, Jeremie Frimpong, Adam Hlozek, and Piero Hincapié all have been revitalized, while the return of wunderkind Florian Wirtz has been a key factor after the German starlet has hit the ground running under his new boss.
“Xabi Alonso has come in and steadied a sinking ship at Bayer Leverkusen. Four points from a possible 12 to start his tenure in his Bundesliga career may not look great, but he put the foundations in place. Five successive Bundesliga wins followed, and it looked as though European football may have been a possibility.”
“Alonso isn’t afraid to change systems. Flexible between a 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3, the Spaniard has received significant praise for his ability to score goals in the absence of Patrik Schick. Moussa Diaby, Amine Adli, and Adam Hlozek, have all contributed, and Florian Wirtz is now averaging a goal/assist every eighty-six minutes since his return last month.”
“Defensively B04 could be better, but working with a young core, there’s plenty of potential here. Alonso has done an excellent job of getting the best out of younger players (Hincapié, Frimpong). His players are buying into his philosophy and we’re slowly starting to see B04 improve. It will certainly be interesting to see where Alonso and B04 are in the next 18 months.”
What is most impressive about Alonso’s possession-based system, beyond the tell-tail signs of its modernity akin to a handful of his contemporaries, is the notion that goals can come from anywhere, including midfield. Moreover, his tactical flexibility both in terms of formation and match plan has varied depending on his opponent.
Even though the best result has not always been found, his not being tied to one system provides a canvas that can be painted as needed. In that light, Alonso could, over time and after further development in Germany, could certainly improve on the foundations that Klopp has unquestionably laid during his tenure at Liverpool.
If the Premier League giants are to look to re-establish their credentials both at home and abroad, the club needs more than hundreds of millions of pounds in squad investment to go with a manager that brings gravitas over fit. League rivals Arsenal and Newcastle have found growing success in that particular arena, and if Liverpool is going to be able to once again stand toe-to-toe at the summit of the top flight of English football, some gambles may be worth taking.