Liverpool are into the League Cup semi-finals, leaving Jurgen Klopp potentially just three matches from his first silverware at the club. With league form fluctuating, how important would a first trophy be for the German?
When Jurgen Klopp was first confirmed as Liverpool’s new manager, it was hard to contain the immediate swell of excitement that greeted the news on Merseyside.
The German did little to help in that regard at a gregarious and humorous opening press conference, where plenty of his remarks leapt from his mouth straight onto the following day’s back pages. One comment in particular attracted attention: “If I sit here in four years, I am pretty confident we will have one title.”
Taken literally, many assumed the German was talking about the Premier League title: whipping Reds fans into a social media frenzy as critics – and fans of rival sides – scoffed at the possibility that the club would rule England at some point before the next European Championships. But although Klopp never clarified his comments, it is possible the English word he was really reaching for was ‘trophy’ – that he wanted to win at least one major prize before 2020, not necessarily the league.
If that is really the case (and, as someone who has subsequently resisted bold proclamations in his press conferences, it seems unlikely he would have decided to start with one) then the 48-year-old’s first chance at achieving that aim comes in the Capital One Cup, where Liverpool are in a two-legged semi-final against Stoke City, the first of which is at the Britannia on Tuesday.
But with Champions League qualification still on the agenda and the Europa League knockout stages (and FA Cup!) to come in 2016, it will be interesting to see just how intently Klopp focuses on the League Cup – and what it might mean for his unfolding reign at Anfield.
WHAT HAS KLOPP SAID ABOUT IT?
Liverpool have beaten Carlisle (on penalties), Bournemouth andSouthampton (6-1) to reach the final four, with Klopp in charge for the latter two of those ties. On both occasions he played a rotated side, with Adam Bogdan in goal and a few different faces (Connor Randall, Cameron Brannagan) from those generally seen in the Premier League.
After beating Southampton, however, Klopp intimated that he would be taking the semi-finals extremely seriously.
That suggests he will name as strong a team as possible, and perhaps the fixture list will also enable that: Tuesday’s first leg is followed by a Friday FA Cup trip to Exeter, while the second leg comes after a visit to Norwichand before a fourth round FA Cup match, assuming the they progress. But those games are all rather packed together, meaning some sort of rotation will surely be forced.
The problem is that rotation is being made difficult by the injuries afflicting the squad. So there will be no massive overhaul of the starting XI. As Klopp said in his Monday media briefing:
” We don’t have that much opportunity for [changes]. It’s not that we have six, seven, eight players to change in this moment, we have always all the squad with us. We first of all have to react to the impact the last game had on the players then we have to decide. At the end, it’s always that we go to this game and want to win and for this we make the squad. “
COULD HE LOSE FOCUS ON IT?
For what it is worth, it may be informative to note that a second cup competition is an alien idea in Germany – which has just one competition (the DFB-Pokal Cup) that runs throughout the season. It certainly seemed like Klopp had done little research about Liverpool’s own strong history in the League Cup, which they have won a record eight times.
“I’ve heard about it,” Klopp said following the win over Southampton. “But nobody’s told me about it until now. Are people alive who won this title last time? When was the last time?”
When it was pointed out to him that the Reds actually won it in 2012, Klopp replied: “Oh yeah, then hopefully! Good! Then I can ask a few people.”
Saturday’s disappointing defeat to the Hammers means Liverpool are currently eighth in the Premier League table, six points off fourth but simultaneously just six points above 13th. It seems the club’s ambitions for the rest of the campaign will be defined over the next six weeks so, with that in mind, Klopp might wonder if he needs to focus all his resources on the league right now.
WHAT WOULD LEAGUE CUP SUCCESS MEAN?
Well, for whatever reason the League Cup has become a useful first stepping stone for managers (particularly foreign ones) in recent times. Jose Mourinho famously won the League Cup in 2005 to secure his first trophy on English soil at the earliest opportunity, offering early evidence of his self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ status as his side would clinch the league title a few months later and go on to such sustained success.
Nobody is necessarily expecting Klopp to follow suit (the league title is surely an optimistic target this season), but early silverware would certainly give him a great foundation for similar steps over the coming campaigns.
In Mourinho’s second stint his first trophy was once again the League Cup (last year), although the success that followed was rather short-lived. The season before that eventual league champions Manchester City also won the League Cup as Manuel Pellegrini secured his first trophy, suggesting it does offer some sort of indication of bigger titles to come in the near future.
Of course, that is not always the case. In 2013 Michael Laudrup ledSwansea to League Cup glory, but left the club midway through the following season. Juande Ramos also won the England’s second cup with Spurs in 2008, and was sacked four games into the start of the following campaign.
And then there is Liverpool themselves, who lifted the competition in 2012 under Kenny Dalglish. The club lost in the final of the FA Cup that season but also finished eighth in the league, earning the legendary Scot the boot from John W. Henry and co. Those same owners remain in charge – so Klopp may already be aware that his bosses perhaps deem success in the League Cup as an added bonus, but not something he will be primarily judged on.
FOR KLOPP PERSONALLY, THOUGH, IT COULD BE SIGNIFICANT
Liverpool have to beat Stoke first – which will be no foregone conclusion – but reaching a final would give Klopp an early chance to address a less than ideal managerial record he possesses. The German has won one major final (the 2012 DFB-Pokal) in his career, but has lost three – including the 2013 Champions League final. He would surely like to start redressing that balance during his time in charge with the Reds.
What is more, he might well be aware that every Reds manager since Bill Shankly who has been at the club for three years or more won at least one trophy – with his predecessor, Brendan Rodgers, the only exception.
For the likes of Roy Evans and Gerard Houllier the League Cup became an important first milestone, while even Rafa Benitez’s first final came in the competition (although he would lose to Mourinho’s Chelsea). Klopp, whose longer-term ambitions surely extend higher than any managed by those coaches during their tenures (with the possible exception of Benitez), will not want to pass up a chance to make the same initial impact.
At a time when the club’s league results have led to the first real questions about the true value of German’s tactical approach – and, as the transfer window opens, at a time when he is likely to start refashioning the squad in the way he desires – cup success would be a fitting and timely response, and surely give him a greater mandate to execute the transfer and tactical activity he wants over the ensuing months.
BUT STOKE SHOULD NOT BE OVERLOOKED
Klopp will not be getting ahead of himself. Stoke are a formidable opponent standing in the way of Liverpool and Wembley, Mark Hughes‘s team having beaten Chelsea (twice), Manchester City and Manchester United in the league already this season.
Then again, Liverpool may not be too sad to be playing the Potters: on the last three occasions the two clubs met in the League Cup, Liverpool won the tie and went on to win the whole thing.
Having arrived to great fanfare, the hope was Klopp would deliver sustained success to the club in the near future.
The League Cup is perhaps not the specific trophy most fans had in mind but, now presented with a great opportunity to make it his first significant achievement at the club, the German would surely love to do so – and set out his stall for future success.