Jonathan Northcroft of The Sunday Times joined us in another #LFC in-depth interview to discuss Chinese Investment, Klopp, Sturridge and much more in this 45-minute long discussion.
AHQ: I think its probably best to kick off with the game on Sunday, Liverpool winning 6-1 at Anfield against Watford. I don’t think anyone could have predicted the events that occurred, although maybe I’m being a little bit harsh giving Liverpool’s current performances. What were your thoughts on the game from a defensive and offensive point of view?
Jonathan: There are so many impressive things about it. I was actually at Stamford Bridge the day before and saw a Chelsea team which I thought were the most impressive team of the season. They’ve really moved up a notch, they seemed to have laid down a marker and that in itself put a bit of onus on other teams to respond and it’s Liverpool that responded, not Arsenal or Tottenham. That performance was a little response really to Chelsea’s form, so that was impressive. Also its just impressive doing that against Watford, who are no mugs whatsoever, they’ve been well drilled under Mazzari, they’re also robust physically, they aren’t going to give you an easy ride in any sense and it was probably the best of that Klopp brand of football that we’ve seen so far, an overwhelming team display, so fast, so much rotation, so much movement and an appetite as well, that appetite to just keep going and to score more goals. I guess the only shame was the goal conceded because I didn’t think Liverpool deserved to concede that, I thought they deserved that elusive clean sheet.
AHQ: Liverpool are in terrific form at the moment, the only defeat this season came at Burnley back in August. Top of the table and in a league cup quarter-final, is this kind of the dream start fans could have hoped for given the disappointing end to last season?
Jonathan: Jürgen Klopp does what he says. I was there in the summer when he was incredibly positive talking to us journalists before the start of the season. They were coming off the back of a summer without the big transfers that other clubs have had and were behind elsewhere and had that up and down league form in 2015/16. Klopp was so positive about the season ahead, really positive about how he felt things had developed on tour, he promised that Liverpool had more than one way of playing now, he felt that there was an ability to kill teams with possession as well as kill teams counter attacking and I think we’re seeing now that those are his elements and I think it’s been as good as if not better than he promised it would be and actually looking back at that Barcelona victory at Wembley, that actually gave a fairly decent idea of what was to lay ahead.
It really has exceeded my expectations but importantly I don’t think its exceeded the managers expectations and that’s one of the things that so impressive about him.
AHQ: There was a fascinating piece from Paul Joyce in the times about the style of Liverpool under Klopp. All the work that was done in the preseason tour and knowing when to press, knowing the triggers of when to press. Have you been surprised at how quickly, especially the new players that have come in have adapted to the work that was put in over the summer?
Jonathan: I suppose so. I’m kind of hesitating because on paper yes they are new players and its amazing they they’re settling in so quickly but actually I think it’s a result of targeted buying, I think it’s the result of a manager who knows exactly what he wants from a player.
I did actually say that in summer that I felt he might not have bought the most impressive players on paper but he’s bought people he knew he needed and wanted, so I think that’s why they’ve been able to slot in so quickly, because he’s hand picked guys that are going to work with him. How Mane in particular got that rotation of position going with Coutinho, Firmino and Lallana, that does actually go beyond a clever transfer, that has to be credited to the player too who obviously has a very good football brain and there’s just that natural understanding that’s really good. I’m not surprised that Matips settled in so well because he’s just a hugely impressive individual and a bright guy.
I think I might have discussed this on the podcast before, I think one thing that’s held Liverpool back in previous years has been buying players that have been starting every single season with 8 or 9 new players to try and factor in and now we’ve seen the wisdom of somebody buying in a targeted way and not overloading the squad with new recruits but just the right number of recruits in the right places and I think that’s another reason why we’ve been able to hit the ground running.
AHQ: Everyone at the moment is talking about Liverpool’s front 4 – Coutinho, Firmino, Lallana and Mane. How impressed have you been with the way that they have clicked at Liverpool.
Jonathan: They’re very good as a unit both in possession and out of possession, so they’ve got both sides of the game covered. They’re working as a pack when they’ve got the ball and when they don’t they are beautifully coordinated. I think it’s the best Liverpool team I’ve seen in a long time, because its a unit in the attacking sense, its not going to rely on one particular player to score the goals and there’s not one player that you look at and think ‘oh no if he’s out of the team then rest of them are going o struggle’, they’ve all go about 5 goals each so far. Lallana has stepped up as a leader and Coutinho has stepped up as a leader also.
Coutinho has taken on the mantle of a kind of senior member of the attacking group and I think Lallana is kind of responsible for providing the trigger for the pressing effort. I’m really enjoying watching Liverpool at the moment because of the team play that I’m seeing and watching players spark off each other and that’s no more evident than in the attacking group.
AHQ: It was also a very busy summer in terms of outgoings. A lot of the focus has been on incomings and how well they’ve settled but the majority of Liverpool fans seem to be pretty pleased at how Liverpool have conducted their business in the transfer market. Its been labelled as one of the most productive outgoings in a summer transfer window for a number of years, what are your thoughts on it?
Jonathan: I think it’s the best window for a while, I remember Rafa Benitez’s first window was sensationally good when he got Luis Garcia and Xabi Alonso, there was Torres one year, Suarez was obviously a January signing. It’s a bout as good as there’s been in terms of value for money certainly, what I think of looking at Klopp, he’s a man that’s already done this before. Liverpool’s the 3rd club of his career and in his previous 2 clubs he’s built a squad and he’s built them over a bit of time but what I mean is he hasn’t come in to a huge cheque book in any of his jobs, he’s had to do this before. I think this is the value of his experience in knowing who he wanted and what he wanted. When you look at Liverpool, £14million in credit compared to certain other teams its fantastic.
AHQ: We are in November now and a lot of people are already looking at the January window, I think partly because Liverpool are losing Sadio Mane to the AFCON and Danny Ings is out for the season as well with another devastating injury. Its been widely reported that Klopp will want to strengthen in January which is probably justified considering Liverpool will have lost those players. There’s reports of Liverpool tracking the Iranian international Sardar Azmoun, he is the sot of player you could see filling the void when Mane departs?
Jonathan: I think Mane has a unique sort of attribute in terms of playing with intelligence at the level of pace that he’s got and I’m not sure if Sardar Azmoun is quite as quick but what does strike me about him in terms of being a Liverpool player under Klopp is his flexibility, he’s playing through the middle but he can wide, he can play number 10, he’s the right age profile, he scores headers. I haven’t seen much of him but reading about him, he seems to tick a lot of boxes.
I think Klopp probably wouldn’t have been looking at a January signing and then obviously Ings getting injured might be the factor that changes things. The trouble with January for Liverpool is it coincides with Manchester United and Chelsea and even for a January signing to have an impact on those games, they’ll have to come in in that first week of January, which makes it even more difficult, but I can definitely see the need for something. I think the Chelsea game is at the end of January so somebody will maybe need to be ready to bolster the squad for that.
AHQ: It’s Manchester City on New Years Eve too so it’s a very busy period.
Jonathan: There’s the league cup as well, which could be a factor. Also Liverpool are going to be challenging for the title, which although Klopp has high expectations, I’m not sure if everybody at the club will have foreseen them challenging for the title, the fact that they will might also concentrate minds on recruitment a little bit. I think Liverpool’s transfer policy under Klopp has been great and that’s the way its going to stay, going after long term targets but I do think there’s a need for at least one player to come in from that window.
AHQ: I think Liverpool fans are more confident now over the way Liverpool goes about transfers than they were under Brendan Rodgers or Roy Hodgson! Moving on what do you make of the new main stand at Anfield and how much has it been a contributing factor to the good feeling around Liverpool at the moment?
Jonathan: Its very impressive, it’s a bit chicken and egg isn’t it, the atmosphere’s been great but that’s because the team has playing so well. I think what it does is it does raise Liverpool as a club, you do see Anfield and think its now starting to get up there with some of the rivals and its like that side of things, at long last, there’s something exciting happening which I think the club needed. I did hear one interesting point made about the stand which is as fantastic as it is, is it going to have a long term effect on the Kop because its so big that it dwarfs the Kop. It’s a really welcome development because in my time of covering Liverpool, its pretty much a 15 year saga of nothing actually really happening in the stadium and now they’ve done it and you can see in the concourse area how much scope there is for making money out of it. You can also start to think about other bits getting filled in as well to make it that kind of really big modern super-stadium.
AHQ: That leads me on to talking about whether the Anfield Road end will possibly get done. There’s been a lot of talk recently with John Henry maybe coming out and saying it wouldn’t be feasible with there being no hospitality. Liverpool fans keep getting told time and time again that FSG aren’t looking to sell the club at any cost but will maybe get some new naming rights partners. There’s been a lot of talk about a foreign investment from China. Do you still feel that there are consortiums very much interested in Liverpool?
Jonathan: I wrote the story about the Chinese interest a couple of months ago and that’s very real and hasn’t gone away. When I wrote about it back in September, at that point I think the Chinese side had a certain optimism that they would be able to sort a deal quickly but FSG still aren’t sure if they want to sell. Maybe FSG value Liverpool higher than they expected them too but that interest is still there. I haven’t written about it recently, but I have been following it and I think one of the issues that’s probably holding things up at the moment is FSG looking at Liverpool as a football club wondering how much money is the club worth because if the club is going to challenge for the league and be in the champions league next year, that makes Liverpool more valuable.
The success of the new stand, that makes the club more valuable. I think the bidding started at £800million from the Chinese and they would have to value the club a lot higher than that for FSG to sell either a stake or the whole thing, but the interest is definitely still there.
AHQ: Do you think had this interest maybe come 2 years ago under Brendan Rodgers after that near title winning season and Liverpool signed Balotelli, FSG would think a bit differently?
Jonathan: Maybe, because of course there would be more money available just in general for transfers but were talking a Chinese stake essentially. I know about a company called Everbright who are a Chinese state investment vehicle. It might not actually be them in the end that tries to negotiate but it will be another arm of the Chinese state. We are talking about such an amount, bigger than Manchester City’s backing and you can see the impact a large backing has had on City. It’s just ironic that this has come at a time that actually Liverpool finally have a manager that doesn’t seem to need a huge amount of money to spend in transfer market and probably doesn’t spend his time thinking about having a lot of money to spend in the transfer market.
So actually Jürgen Klopp, he’s a different sort of manager who wont be bothered if this investment happens or not but there’s no doubt that money and success are pretty closely related in football and the challenge for any takeover is making sure the clubs values remain intact, if the values remain intact then the money ends up being a positive factor. If the club loses its values then it’s not worth having any amount of money I would say. You look at Manchester City’s model and think that if this did ever happen and it was done sensibly, then of course it would put Liverpool right up into the very top echelon of clubs financially
AHQ: Do you think after it came out a couple of months ago in your piece and the way FSG denied it was maybe not really what Klopp wanted in terms of it being a distraction with the season kicking off?
Jonathan: FSG have said on record that they are looking for investment, now that means that they’re not looking to sell but what they are saying is they would be open to talking about selling a stake, when your talking about investment that’s what they mean. An owner of any football club would take that position because there could always be someone that could come along and help the club. Another thing is, if you think your going to be able to sell something or a bit of something, the last thing to do is start talking about wanting to sell it, you’ve got to play hardball and that’s very much a canny bit of negotiating in the position that FSG took. They were never going to come out and say ‘yes were going to sell it, come and make us an offer’. They’re much shrewder than that, but if you look at the detail of what they said, its clear that they would listen and are listening in terms of this Chinese interest in the club.
AHQ: Just finally on the interest, do you think that might be something that’s looked at after the season because the way Liverpool are going maybe the last thing they want is for all this to come up again?
Jonathan: These things take a long time, when I wrote about it, the Chinese side were quite optimistic. I imagine that would take at least for the rest of the season, FSG will be in no hurry at all, they are looking at an asset who’s values are increasing all the time and its up to the Chinese to try and come up with a package that interests them.
I think it will drag on for the rest of the season and probably come to some sort of conclusion round about then, whether they’re going to do some kind of deal or not but a takeover or investment can take 18 months, look at Crystal Palace with their American investors it took about 15 months. So there could be a long period that this goes on and it’s quite hard to report on because we’re desperate for a quick progress but that’s not how these huge transactions happen, its like a complicated transfer but of a whole football club and not just an individual. It’s just going to go on at its own pace quite slowly but I can tell people it is still there.
AHQ: It will be very interesting to see how it all pans out especially as we get deeper into the season.
Jonathan: Its interesting to see whether fans want it or not because things are good at Liverpool at the moment but then in the past the club has suffered from not having enough money so I don’t really know which way the fans are going to go on it but the only way an investment would work is to obviously take the fans with them and at some point if something’s going to happen, any new buyers will need to present themselves in the right way just like FSG did but you have to take fans with you at Liverpool, it’s the only way to do things at the football club.
AHQ: Do you think Liverpool need that investment in the long-run?
Jonathan: It’s a great question, I think they probably do. I’m a football romantic and I’d like to say no, but the reality is with premier league and european football, Liverpool are punching above their weight this season, most other seasons they have been more of less where their financial place in the rankings said they were going to be. Most seasons the league is won by one of the teams in the top three wage budgets. The champions league tends to get won by Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich, all financial powerhouses. Jurgen Klopp is showing a different way to be a top club, so having a lot of money isn’t the only way you can be a top club.
What I do know of the Chinese is that they are good investors, they buy for the long-term, they have a model of buying for the long term so it would only be a good thing to Liverpool.
AHQ: Lets move away from China and ask you about the events of Mamadou Sakho, a series of quite saddening events when you put it all into perspective. Do you feel there is quite simply no way back now for Sakho? West Brom hold an interest in taking him on loan in January, what’s your view on the situation?
Jonathan: I don’t think there’s a way back for him now. Jurgen Klopp is all about buying into his level of intensity and what he wants, its all about the group and the team, but it looks like Sakho crossed that line and Klopp is like the smiling assassin as a manager, a nice bloke but he’s very decisive. We’ve seen this with players he hasn’t wanted, Mario Balotelli, Christian Benteke, he’s pretty clear about what he wants. I am a Sakho fan but I would suggest that he isn’t as needed as he was this time a year ago when he was in fantastic form. He doesn’t look quite as important as he was. A West Brom player? If they can afford his wages yeah I think he’d be a good player there. It’s a team of giants!
AHQ: The other big news that has come out of Liverpool recently is the proposed merging of Melwood and Kirby, what’s your take on it?
Jonathan: I am all for it. I think Kirby has been a good facility but I don’t think anything can beat a young player seeing the first team physically there with them. Feyenoord have got a very good youth development division across the road from the stadium and I guess it’s a similar sort of thing. I think what Klopp is doing is trying to leave spaces in the squad for the young players to fill, he’s been quick to extent the deals of the likes of Alexander-Arnold, and this is a big part of the future of Liverpool Football Club. It really impresses me about him how he’s looking after the future.
You think of his Dortmund teams and the amount of players he was able to bring through to become an integral part of the team there, he is someone who has learnt to do things without money, he has learnt to develop and that is as much a part of the Liverpool tradition as anything.
AHQ: Do you think Klopp is building one of the most competitive squads Liverpool have seen for a long time?
Jonathan: I think what Liverpool have got at the moment is a sense of unity, more so then they have ever been. There is more strength in depth now, so you can swap players in and out, but I still think there is quite a long way to go, there are still transfers to make and there are still players to develop but Klopp is certainly building the best squad I have seen since Benitez in terms of the strength of the squad, and I can understand why Liverpool fans are more optimistic then they have been sine 2013/2014. You can see the continuity and you can see the path for the future under Klopp.
It’s a radical impact which Klopp has had on the club, and I guess it’s what top managers do, it’s the real mark of a top manager.
AHQ: Looking further ahead to the summer now, there was reported interest in Philippe Coutinho from PSG earlier this summer but anything more concrete so far hasn’t materialised….do you feel it’s only a mater of time before the interest surrounding Coutinho does become more than just interest? Considering Liverpool’s reputation with losing star players over the years fans are understandably anxious.
Jonathan: Liverpool have done their best to increase wages but they are still not in the league of these real giants. The deals that Ronaldo and Gareth Bale just signed at Real Madrid show you where the gulf still is financially. While that gulf exists there is always going to be a threat to those top players at Liverpool. Coutinho is such a young and exciting player, and he’s now got the cache of now being an important Brazil player. PSG will be interest and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s interest from Spain as well. However, I think the Klopp factor gives Liverpool a huge advantage in keeping these players at the club. You look at the players he was able to keep at Dortmund, he didn’t keep them all but he was able to keep players a little bit longer than they might have usually stayed. With what Klopp’s got it gives Liverpool a fighting chance of keeping them and others.
AHQ: Yeah, it’s certainly going to be interesting again. The January and summer windows are always going to be interesting under klopp at the moment.
Jonathan: And by the way, Coutinho he’s a really good bloke, he’s very much a scouser. He’s not in anyway flash. So he’s not a player that’s going to go looking to try and leave. But unfortunately when clubs come to him and go how about £300,000 a week, you know to match that that’s very difficult. But it’s not a foregone conclusion that it would be a problem because Klopp gives Liverpool a good chance of protecting themselves against that type of thing. And of course the club doesn’t have to sell, we just know that from experience it becomes difficult once a transfer starts getting closer.
AHQ: Yeah, and I guess another one that’s being debated at the moment is future of Daniel Sturridge. I think 12 months ago you never would have thought Daniel Sturridge would be sitting on the bench. It’s an interesting one because obviously Sturridge doesn’t want to sit on the bench, he doesn’t want to be playing out wide either. So, this is one that will kind of rumble on for quietly. Daniel Sturridge obviously doesn’t want to be sitting on the bench but Klopp doesn’t want to pick him, so what do you think will happen?
Jonathan: Yeah, I think that is a more likely departure really. As you say Sturridge is useless to sit on a bench, that doesn’t mean he’s got to play for Liverpool but he’s certainly too good a player to be a substitute all the time. His problem I guess will be that he’s different to the other players that are in that unit. You know, he doesn’t press in the same way, he’s got more of a free spirit about him which is what makes him really unusual as a player. He’s a great finisher, a great technician but he’s also go this sort of free spirit movement as well which is not always a positive, he’s not the same group of player that the others are.
I can see what Klopp [plans], when Sturridge and Origi played together in the cup and looked so good you could actually see the straight Plan A and the straight Plan B for Liverpool. You know its probably first eleven aren’t working you could have a change, get Sturridge off the bench, a really good strike force, though quite an unusual strike force in Sturridge and Origi. But I can’t see Sturridge settling for that being his role. Whether clubs will want to invest due to his injury record, that’s another question. He’s got quite a high wage and any club would have to take that into account. But of course he’s been better than he has been for a long time.
AHQ: Yeah I’m with you I get it, it’s got to be one to watch. But he signed a long-term contract, it can’t have been that long ago, a couple of years ago?
Jonathan: Yeah it was under Brendan wasn’t it. I can’t see anything happening until the summer with that one, and it’s probably a situation where again because he’s on that contract Liverpool are looking for a decent price for him, it’s just whether a club is going to take that, you know you could get £30 million for him but could you get what he’s really worth which is probably, unfit, £50 million, I’m not sure because of injury.
AHQ: Yeah, it will be interesting, its going to be fascinating to see what happens on number of different things during this new era under Klopp. I mean there’s not many managers that come into a club and a few months later are signing a new seven-year extension, I guess its a testament to what he’s done. Just a couple more, looking back at the summer window there’s kind of evidence that everything happens for a reason so that being said do you think Klopp will be a lot happier to kind of walk away with Sadio Mané and Gini Wijnaldum in terms of the way they suit the style rather than Mario Götze and Zielinski who obviously were his first choice?
Jonathan: Yeah absolutely, I think Mané was a first choice, I’m not too sure about Wijnaldum. I mean I don;t know, what they’ve got there is players that have fitted in so well and that’s the thing that beyond ability is important and players that have come from English environment already as proven performers so I don’t think he’s swap them now. What it does do is, what the transfers do help now is that Klopp can go after those younger, longer term targets like Dahoud.
If you look at some of the younger ones because, and like to the future a bit, because he’s nailed his first team recruits and any other younger, I feel like there’s no pressure on Grujić at the moment because the team has been playing so well. I think the defining targets are going to be those longer ones, the ones we already know about I think those are the ones Liverpool are going to go back in for, that’s what I’d expect anyway and that’ll be the summer anyway.
AHQ: Yeah, you’ve got Dahoud who obviously is in a contract standoff, but he’s another one at Mönchengladbach who seems to be having contract issues, so maybe Liverpool will go back in for him again.
Jonathan: Well I’d be surprised if Liverpool didn’t keep trying on that one. There’s a real continuity in recruitment and the targets that Liverpool are going in for are ones that they watched. Mané was on the radar for a couple of years really and I think there’s a reassuring amount of continuity in the recruitment process.
AHQ: I think this is the first time in a number of years that everyone’s is on the same page when it comes to recruitment so was did you make of the internal appointment of Michael Edwards as Sporting Director in the last week or so, what did you make of that?
Jonathan: Well, one thing that I did know was that Michael Edwards is highly rated by FSG as he really impressed them from day one and is very well thought of, and what it told me, and I can’t say I’m surprised by it, is that Klopp highly rates him as well because you know Klopp very much has the key say in the transfers, so for Edwards to have that role Klopp must be very happy for it to happen. It’s good, Edwards has done a good job. I haven’t actually written or seen the words ‘transfer committee’ for months now and that’s nice isn’t it.
AHQ: Yeah, I read a piece the other day that kind of echoed what you’ve just said, it hasn’t been mentioned for ages.
Jonathan: No, thank goodness.
AHQ: Yeah it’s refreshing. I think everyone seems to be pulling in the same direction now at Liverpool which hasn’t been happening for years.
Jonathan: And again, Klopp is the type of guy that takes people with him. Some managers go in and end up fighting little battles an are worried about getting and having enough power and having power over everything. Klopp has got a different sort of style of management so I think them also pulling in the same direction is a result of how he does things. He’s just one of those galvanising leadership figures that has got an ability to take people underneath him with him but also take the people above with him too and that’s another way he has got value for the club.
AHQ: 100%, I think Liverpool have definitely got the right man in charge. So looking at the season ahead, all be it there’s a lot of talk about how well Liverpool are doing and how promising they are for the rest of the season, do you feel that have enough to stay there in that league position, because a lot of teams have been there in that position before and have paled off, do think Liverpool have what it takes, especially with Sadio Mané leaving in January and injuries at any point, do think they still have enough to maintain a title challenge?
Jonathan: I do think that the January period will be critical because of the fixtures and the Mané factor and you’re never quite sure about a team going to win until you’re the end games of the season. In the first eight games of the season you can lose them and then only in the last eight games of the season can you actually win the league. so we’ll wait until we get into that stage to see how far Liverpool can go but there’s a lot of factors that suggest to me that they will be right up there right to the end, the most blindingly obvious one being how well the team are playing but no Europe is an obvious one, a manager that know how to do this is another obvious one and a proper team not something that depends on individuals but a proper team. And the weak point is always the defence but with Matip there now, we’ve got to divide the defence in two ‘Pre-Matip’ and ‘Post-Matip’ and ‘Post-Matip’ actually isn’t looking too bad.
So if that improvement continues that’s the negative knocked out. I guess in a long winded way I’m saying that I think that Liverpool will be right up there at the end but as I say you don’t really know how a team is going to do. And it’s going to be exciting to see Liverpool and Chelsea and Manchester City who are in the same boat, those are the three hat are going to be really challenging. You know they’re all going to be test on the home stretch. It’s not like the situation we had two or three years ago where Manchester United knew how to win it because they won it so many time before. There’s going to be another new winner of the Premier League this year.
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