Jurgen Klopp is looking at the wrong Liverpool legend to bolster his title bid, writes Richard Jolly.
They seemed two very different issues that Jurgen Klopp addressed within the space of a few minutes last Saturday, one in the cavernous new – if temporary – press conference room in the bowels of Anfield’s Main Stand, the other in a corridor outside it.
First, he talked about the possibility of bringing Steven Gerrard back to Anfield, probably in a coaching capacity. “He is always so welcome,” the German said. “People shouldn’t worry that we have no space for Steven Gerrard.”
Then, to a more select audience, he addressed the issue of Liverpool’s defending after West Bromwich Albion scored the 17th set-piece goal they have conceded during his reign. “I lose respect when people say this,” he said of his critics. “We have no defensive problem.”
Finding a role for an Anfield icon and addressing a capacity to concede that, whether or not Klopp deems it a problem, is a habit: little unites them, except perhaps one individual. Gerrard’s return would be symbolic, but there is a more pressing need at Liverpool for his old ally.
Klopp should pursue an idea that was considered a year ago and invite Jamie Carragher to join his backroom staff. It is no throwaway theory. When he was appointed, Klopp’s camp were intrigued by Carragher. They asked at least one person close to the former defender about him, though no approach was actually made.
Instead, he is in a fourth season of lucrative punditry. A man who had to bawl at and bail out Martin Skrtel with depressing regularity is now able to show a cheeky sense of humour. He is more relaxed but he still has excess energy, currently burned in boxing at the Rotunda gym. Perhaps, like his televisual sparring partner Gary Neville concluded he did, he needs a new challenge.
Gerard Houllier, for one, believes Carragher should go into coaching. There have been offers. Steve Bruce was willing to take him to Hull as a player-coach. Tim Sherwood wanted to tempt him to Aston Villa, without perhaps realising the possibility a potential assistant could carry more credibility than the manager.
Carragher has turned them down. The chances he would reject Liverpool are altogether more remote. The 38-year-old had studied managers and management, anticipating a future there, but saw the impact the job had on Houllier and Rafa Benitez at Anfield. A 2013 column for the Daily Mail began: “Who would be a manager? Not me.”
Yet Liverpool’s requirement is not for one. Klopp should have that job nailed down for years. A defensive coach, however, could make the difference in a tight title race. The bare facts are that Liverpool have scored the most league goals since Klopp’s arrival. They have kept a solitary top-flight clean sheet this season: against a Manchester United team who rarely tried to score.
Liverpool’s last title challenge foundered not just because of Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea and a late capitulation at Crystal Palace, but because they were not secure enough. They conceded 50 league goals. Now Liverpool are on course to let in 47, which would be more than any champion side since Ipswich in 1962. In contrast, Carragher was the cornerstone of Benitez’s rearguard when they only let in 107 in 152 league games between 2005 and 2009.
Being able to defend does not automatically equate to an ability to coach others to do likewise. Yet as Carragher’s media work shows, he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game and an analytical brain that enabled him to become one of the outstanding centre-backs of his generation. He understands the mechanics of keeping goals out.
Better than his successors, it seems. Klopp’s side are a compelling sight, playing fast and furious football, but with hints of frailty. The last week has featured twin 2-1 home wins, games where Liverpool could have gone four goals ahead but ended up grateful that fraught finales did not produce an equaliser.
It is such situations that additional input is required. Gegenpressing may be the best playmaker, to quote Klopp, but only for the first 70 minutes. Liverpool have to transition from attack to defence sometimes thereafter. They must illustrate they can close games out, not with the pressing, front-foot football that works so well from the off but with the solidity Houllier and Benitez implemented.
It is not about ripping up Klopp’s gameplan, but customising it so Liverpool’s early explosiveness gets its due reward. It may require defensive substitutions to remove some of the front five and introduce the midfielders often found on the bench, but Liverpool have to strip the drama from the closing stages of games by getting men behind the ball and eliminating errors. The best teams Carragher played in specialised in doing that.
He and Klopp teamed up for an hour of analysis on Sky Sports recently, some of it focused on set-piece defending which was contentious, but often effective, when Benitez’s Liverpool tried it. It is an area where Liverpool could improve, a partnership that perhaps should be renewed behind closed doors at Melwood. It might even be the chance to earn Carragher the title winner’s medal that eluded him during his playing days.