Klopp steering Liverpool through punishing demands of English football
A stubborn and resilient Liverpool edged past Stoke City to reach the Capital One Cup final on Tuesday but the performance was so disjointed and tired that it raised questions about the next series of matches.
As the players celebrated in the dressing room with the obligatory group photo, their manager Jurgen Klopp was no doubt examining the future fixture list and inwardly groaning. He may be all crazy smiles, jokes and ebullience on the outside, but the German's initial encounter with English football must have had him reaching for the smelling salts at times.
Saturday's FA Cup match with West Ham will be Liverpool's 16th game in 59 days, taking place during the worst days of the sodden English climate. The potential for deterioration in their situation is daunting. Imagine there is a draw on Saturday, but Liverpool won the replay. That would result in eight matches during February followed almost immediately by a league match with Manchester City on March 2. That would make Liverpool's winter schedule 25 matches in 91 days.
This would be considered tricky even for a club that had bought wisely and been lucky with injuries. For Liverpool and Klopp, it is making the proverbial rollercoaster ride look like a walk to the shops.
What makes Klopp's head spin even more is that during a third of that time -- had he chosen to seek new employment in his native Germany -- his players wouldn't have had to play any football at all.
How ironic that the quintessentially British manager Sam Allardyce accused Klopp of being "a soft German" after Liverpool beat his Sunderland team 1-0 on Dec. 29.
By the time the Reds have navigated their way through one of their busiest periods in modern times, it's probably safe to declare that if there is one thing Klopp and his players are not, it's "soft".
His determination to overcome every obstacle thrown in front of him has been refreshing invigorating in an age when managers never seem to stop moaning. It's beginning to transmit itself to the players, too.
Jon Flanagan could have been forgiven for throwing anxious glances at the bench during his first start in nearly two years, but if anything he was reluctant to come off after 105 minutes of fraught defending against a highly motivated, vigorous Stoke side on Tuesday night.
Joe Allen's lack of first-team chances would stifle the passion of many professionals but he was rock-like in the penalty shootout and converted the winner. Likewise Simon Mignolet, the subject of so much negative ire about his contract, made two vital saves that virtually put Liverpool in the final.
Perhaps it is mean to speculate on how a side managed by Brendan Rodgers would deal with the current situation, but also fair to say there are signs that the players respond well to their new leader.
Is this incessant workload fair to the players, though? Just as importantly, is it fair on the paying public? A game like Norwich 4-5 Liverpool was widely touted as "the game of the season," but some would argue it was a circus, littered with terrible errors from mentally exhausted players. Liverpool's subsequent grit against Stoke was admirable but if it was indicative of what is to come, it doesn't bode well for the rest of what is bound to be a congested season.
So is the solution a winter break? Traditionalists would kick back mightily at such a suggestion. Besides, wouldn't a coach like Klopp use the extra energy levels to press harder and squeeze the life out of games even more? Better entertainment might not be the end product.
Throwing the League Cup to the lower leagues only? Try telling that to Everton, without a trophy in 20 years and no doubt still fuming about injustices to smaller clubs after their 3-1 defeat on Wednesday to Manchester City.
Clubs left to make their own choices about which competitions to prioritise? That's a risky game, although most big teams indulge already to some degree. Klopp almost came a cropper in the FA Cup against Exeter, though claiming a massive injury list left him with no choice.
Supporters of clubs who can't stockpile players and build powerful squads are no doubt amused by crocodile tears about too much football but even with the biggest transfer budgets, there still comes the need to rotate successfully. Sometimes just changing a side is enough to disrupt its rhythms and balances, despite quality personnel.
Liverpool supporters would have wanted all this at the beginning of the season. The Reds are some distance from a top four place, but even that challenge is not insurmountable. They are in a cup final and still in the FA Cup, while the Europa League restarts in a month's time.
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The Capital One Cup is bottom of people's priorities at the beginning of the season, but any trophy could kick-start a revival for a sleeping giant. That would then mean stronger competition for the league title and the precious Champions League places.
Tottenham may not have beaten Chelsea in last year's final, but they have still progressed further in the following season, and that's the example Liverpool must look to emulate. The resilience in recent weeks has been good to see. Everyone knows Klopp has to raise the bar in the summer, in terms of the squad's quality and fitness. All that can wait.
It's remarkable how confidence and spirit amount to so much, particularly in English football. It was clearly evident at Anfield on Tuesday, even if quality and skill were largely absent.
Steven Kelly writes about Liverpool for ESPN FC and has a weekly Liverpool column for The Irish Examiner. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.