Why Liverpool will choose “The Club Legend” route for their next manager

At some point Jurgen Klopp is going to walk away. I don’t think he’ll be sacked. It doesn’t matter how ‘bad’ things are getting at Anfield this season, you don’t sack the man who brought you a Champions League and your first top division title in 30 years.

Especially not when that man is one of the few in the world who is an actual bonafide difference maker. Pep Guardiola is probably the biggest single asset in club football. Jurgen Klopp is the second. You don’t sack that.

But eventually Klopp will walk away. He’ll get worn down, he’ll no longer feel he’s bringing his best to the table. That could come when his contract expires – he’s already said he’ll take a sabbatical or it could come sooner. This year has been especially hard on him, not because of the results which haven’t gone Liverpool’s way in ages, but from all off the field things. Not being able to properly celebrate your achievements, lockdowns, and on top of that, the death of his mother and his inability to see his family, attend her funeral, or properly mourn. It’d be ridiculous to think he’s not completely burnt out mentally.

Maybe that expedites his decision. Maybe it doesn’t. The announcement on Tuesday that Joachim Low would be walking away from the German national team after the Euro’s this summer throws in another wrinkle. It’s well known that Klopp wants to manage Germany one day. There were plenty of rumors a few years ago that he planned his contract to expire in 2022 so he could take over after the 2022 World Cup (he’s since extended to 2024). Maybe this just expedites it.

I don’t know. I think Klopp will be at Liverpool next year but for the purpose of this post we’re going to say he leaves.

In that case, what do Liverpool do next?

There’s only one answer. They hire Steven Gerrard.

Let’s call a spade a spade here. Gerrard is obviously qualified for this gig. He took over Rangers in 2018 where he did pretty decent. Your Rangers, you’re not going to finish lower than second and it’s not easy to take down the monopoly that Celtic has on the Scottish Premier League. They’ve won every title since the 2011-12 season.

But Gerrard was building something, and this year he unleashed it on Scotland. It’s March 9th and Rangers have already won the league. They’re 20 points above Celtic. They’ve scored 77 goals in 32 games and have only conceded nine. They cruised through a group that featured Benfica in the Europa League group stage and won their first knockout tie 9-5 on aggregate. Advanced data on the Scottish league isn’t easy to find but every so often some charts pop up on twitter and trust me when I say Rangers are putting up NUMBERS.

Obviously there’s a difference between managing in the Scottish league and in the Premier League but it’s clear Gerrard knows what he’s doing. It’s not like he took over Celtic, rather he took them down. Obviously managing at a club like Liverpool comes with more scrutiny and media etc but don’t think he’s not already dealing with that. Rangers might not be a global club, but in Glasgow they matter.

Gerrard’s got way more of a CV to step over to Anfield than Frank Lampard had to take over Chelsea. But a marriage takes two sides to form the right fit, and on Liverpool’s side, Gerrard is the only one that makes sense, not because of his CV but simply because he’s a club legend.

We’ve heard the term ‘club legend’ be thrown around a lot when it comes to new managers recently. That’s for good reason. Over the last three to four years a lot of clubs have been neglecting the big name ‘continental’ managers with the impressive CV’s in favor of far less experienced men who spent many years at the club as a player.

To a certain extent this started with Barcelona hiring Pep Guardiola after he managed their B team for just a season. It didn’t catch on then but a few years later Real Madrid did the same with Zinedine Zidane. Both had success, both won multiple Champions Leagues. Now the idea is spreading.

Manchester United hired Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Chelsea hired Frank Lampard
Arsenal hired Mikel Arteta
Juventus hired Andrea Pirlo
Barcelona hired Ronald Koeman

This hasn’t been a coincidence. Those years mean they ‘understand the culture’ of the club or ‘have club DNA.’ That’s just PR speak that clubs can put out to get their fans excited about bringing back the winning ways that these men brought when they were players.

From the club’s side, there’s more to this than just nostalgia. These men are getting hired because the way their clubs were doing business over the past decade was no longer sustainable. They were splurging on absurdly high transfer fees, signing players to five year contracts, and firing their manager every two years. Firing the manager meant giving him (and his staff) a payout. Bringing in a new manager meant a new man who wanted to bring in ‘his players,’ which meant more transfer fees, more contracts that outlived the manager, and more deadweight.

The costs were becoming too much, they were making a very large mess. If you weren’t careful you could very well ruin the club (see what’s happening at Barcelona right now). They needed someone to come in and clean up the mess.

Cleaning up the mess isn’t easy. In most cases (pretty much every team listed above) you need to clear out the expensive stars that aren’t contributing. That’s not as easy as it once was. Clubs are now smart enough not to take on aging stars on lavish wages. You need to phase out the ones who are advancing in age, and start bleeding in younger players. Bleeding in younger players means there’s going to be inconsistency. You’re going to drop points.

The big name managers don’t do this. They’re smart enough to know they’re not going to be here for a long time. Because of that, they’re always looking towards their next job. If they can get six more points in the table by bleeding that 29 year old of everything he’s got rather than giving a chance to the 21 year old they’ll do that every time. Because that league title will go on their CV and when their former club is left with a mess, it’s not their problem anymore.

Enter in the club legend.

Club legends are the ones who want the club to succeed above all else. Yes they want glory for themselves, you don’t reach this level without a well sized ego, but there’s a much bigger level of they want to be the ones responsible for the club’s success. These people are working their dream job. There’s no other job that could poach them away. Unless they’re sacked they’ll never leave.

That gives them the perspective to have a long term outlook. They understand the hard work they have to put through. They’re willing to do that. They know the club can’t spend money like they used to, so you need to bleed those younger players in.

These guys are here because teams need to clean up their finances, they can’t spend like they used to. Their teams are going through rebuilding mode and the results aren’t going to be as good. But the hope is that a club legend will get more patience from the fans.

That’s what Liverpool have on their hands now. Their squad needs an overhaul. That front three of Firmino, Mane, and Salah are all in their late 20’s and are starting to break down. Jordan Henderson is 30. Thiago turns 30 next month, Van Dijk at the end of the season. These guys need to start being phased out and being replaced.

Replacements are hard to come by. Liverpool have some good young pieces to build around in Trent Alexander-Arnold, Curtis Jones, Joe Gomez, and Diogo Jota. 17 year old Harvey Elliot is tearing it up at Blackburn so there’s hope for them there. They’ve got some more in the prime of their careers (Robertson, Fabinho) that can carry them through this period but in a few years they’ll need to be phased out as well.

Getting replacements will not be easy to come by. They’ll need to get some of these players off their books, which will be no easy task. Without that, it’s hard to see where the money comes from. The Reds spent £160 million in the summer of 2018 on the final pieces to their puzzle, Fabinho, Naby Keita, Shaqiri, and Allison. That left them with no money to spend the following summer.

Those expenses would have been fine had Liverpool just made all the money that they expected to make over the next few years, but they didn’t. COVID came and wiped out a large chunk of revenue in 2020 and an even bigger one in 2020-21. Last summer Liverpool spent £45m on Thiago and Diogo Jota, but only had to pay £9m of that up front. They still owe £34m and given how transfers work, they still owe money from those Keita, Fabinho, and Allison deals. Combine that with the lack of revenues coming in – and the possibility of them missing out on the Champions League – yikes.

So it’s going to be inconsistent, it’s going to take time (for the record I think Klopp can pull this off if he’s given time but he wouldn’t be). That’s why it only makes sense to hire someone who the fans love. Someone who the fans want to succeed. There will always be some who shout that he’s bringing the club down, or he’s just a puppet of the cost minded owners, but as long as fans can see that he’s building something they’ll back him.

That’s what football is these days. Getting your costs back under control. Listen to any ‘neutral’ fan and they’ll have spent the entire season telling you how close Zidane and Pirlo are to getting sacked. That’s what the papers all say because the papers are all selling to fans who want to think football is the same as it was five years ago.

They’re not going anywhere. Juventus didn’t even approach Mauricio Pochettino last summer because his wage demands made him a non-starter. They don’t have money. They can’t afford to just sign new players that could take you straight back to the top. They have to take a longer term more developmental approach. So they signed popular men in hopes that the fans would give them time.

When Liverpool need to hire their next manager, they’re going to be in the same boat.

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