Matt Smith, Broadcaster for BT Sport, joins us back on the podcast to discuss Liverpool’s start to the season, Mamadou Sakho, left-backs and the transfer window.
So it’s been a bit of a change since we last spoke last year. Last season, well you wouldn’t really call it a success, but there was progress definitely made, we got to two finals, Europa League and a League Cup. It wasn’t successful but you can definitely see where Klopp has improved the squad, and the start of this season too, you know you can see he’s now saying it’s his squad after inheriting the squad from Brendan Rodgers last season he’s made his own additions and had a few games to start with, it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster really. What do you make of the start of the season under Klopp so far?
Matt: Well, I think on the whole positive I would say, although you do feel there are so many kind of unanswered questions from the outside looking in. Clearly, pre season was positive, I think the very fact that the manager got a full pre season with most, if not all of the squad, was something that he was clear would benefit the team long term and though the season, and we’ll see that over the months to come. I think the start opening weekend at Arsenal was fantastic in lots of ways, yet conceded three but to score four away and to have that patch, certainly in the start of the second half, with players nearly almost suffocating and drowning an Arsenal team, even an under strength one, was encouraging.
The kind of two steps backward a week later at Burnley, just an insipid performance, Burnley played well but everything that could have gone wrong for Liverpool went wrong and it felt like the age old problem of breaking down an obdurate team that play on the counter even at home. Then a bit of both at Spurs, on the weekend I thought they obviously bossed the first half and should have perhaps been, if not out of sight, comfortable in the game, and Spurs were always going to come back into it, they are a good team. Listen, I think four points from two trips to Arsenal and Spurs is a good return, it’s just marred by the fact that it perhaps should have been more from the three performances.
Yeah, it’s that one trip to Burnley that I think leaves a sour taste in everyone’s mouth, doesn’t it? As you rightly mentioned, you had that opening bit of the second half at Arsenal that you think well this is what Liverpool are capable of, and then a week later they go to Turf Moor and just can’t seem to break them down, now why do you think that was? Do you think it’s more of a system that he played or is there anything you can think of that he could have done, like going to up top from the start with Sturridge or Origi, he likes to run the channels? Is there anything you think Liverpool can do against those kind of teams that will sit back and just let us attack them and then hit us on the counter?
Matt:Well, obviously when it clicks it looks like they will break any team down but when it doesn’t they can look very flat, like most teams do, they rely on individuals but what they don’t, it seems to me, have is, and in fairness the manager referred to this after that game, they don’t really have a plan B in that scenario they just keep knocking on the door, and yes patience is a virtue but they didn’t really create even chances let alone goals on the day. So, I don’t think in selling Christian Benteke, he doesn’t want to go down the route of long balls or the direct long ball football. He’s not really set up to play that way with he personnel that he’s got, he obviously doesn’t want to do that.
So, he does need a plan B of sorts, and whether that’s to go to two strikers or some tactical tweak that allows you to create more against a team that’s sitting in deep and playing on the break, particularly when they’ve go the lead, you’d think that’s got to happen because they looked, as I say, well off on the day, now that can be down to systems or a number of individual players having an off day and that kind of was part of the story I thought from watching it, and I do have to give Burnley some credit for it, they did particularly execute their game plan well, but you can’t have 81% of the ball and create as few chances as Liverpool did, and even when they tested the goalie it was from outside the box, it was a poor day.
Yeah, there just doesn’t seem to be any end product there. Now, one player that was missing against Burnley, who’s come in this summer, was Sadio Mané, and judging off fans’ reactions he has been a bit of a revelation since he’s come in, performed excellently against Arsenal and did really well against Spurs as well, was really keen to defend from the front and press the defender, and just made it an absolute nightmare time for the Spurs defence. So what do you make of his impact, do you think he’s what Liverpool have been needing and have been lacking for a while? A lot of people obviously wanted Mario Götze and Mané was arguably second choice to Götze, but does he bring something that Mario Götze doesn’t bring?
Matt: Yeah, I think he brings electric pace which Liverpool have lacked, without doubt. Clearly Origi’s a young player with pace and I think Sturridge isn’t slow but I don’t think he’s perhaps lightening in the way that Mané is over certainly more than five or ten yards, I think Sturridge’s quickness is in the movement of his feet, in the intelligence of his movement and in his brain really his creativity, but I think in terms of getting behind defences or getting away from a defender and leaving them stone cold then I think that’s something that Mané offers that very few in a Liverpool shirt could do.
So that’s a big positive. I think he does press well from the front and that is something that I think Klopp wants and I didn’t see enough of that against Burnley, I didn’t think they pressed the ball successfully. I think when they don’t do that they look a bit flat as a a team, and we all know enough watching football even to understand that’s the cornerstone of Klopp’s philosophy, don’t want to overplay the ‘gegenpressing’ and all that but trying to win the ball back in the other team’s half and thus create opportunities when they’re not set to defend is a big part of how he wants to play the game, so Mané should work in that regard and I think Lallana has grown into that role as well and one or two others, it doesn’t suit everybody perfectly but certainly Mané.
Listen, I’m sure Mario Götze will shine again for Dortmund, didn’t get much of an opportunity at Bayern Munich, and he is a quality player but all in all, certainly on what we’ve seen, I’m pretty happy with that plan B.
Yeah definitely, it seems like he’s a perfect fit for Liverpool and what we need. Like a lot of fans said that we’ve already got Mario Götze like players such as Coutinho, Firmino, Lallana, but that electric pace that Mané brings, like you said, is just something that we’ve not had in years.
As far as incomings for Liverpool this summer, it’s been an interesting one, we’ve had Loris Karius come in, Alex Manninger in the goalkeeping department, Joël Matip on a free, Gini Wijnaldum as well as Sadio Mané, and obviously Grujić has come in after being on loan from January. So, obviously a lot has been made of Liverpool’s left back situation and centre midfield situation, but with the deadline being today at 11pm, doesn’t really look like Liverpool’s getting anybody else in, is there anyone specific or any position that you think Klopp needs to look at in the next 24-30 hours and definitely get in, or do you think it’s just going to be waiting till January?
Matt: Well, I think all in all probably some of the mistakes that have been made in previous windows have been to revolutionise the squad too much, now if you bring in somewhere approaching double figures of players, which has happened a couple of times, I think it leaves you with too many player to kind of accommodate into a new team/squad and you spend too much of the season trying to find a collective that works.
So, I think he probably was aware of that as a manager and although there is work to be done, maybe you can’t always get it done in one window. the other thing I think is that although it’s obvious to me and I think many fans that perhaps what they lack is comprehensive or a complete left back, Moreno sometimes I think gets unfairly criticised he kind of is what he is, but I think perhaps Klopp has looked and said if I can’t find better then we’ll go with what we’ve got, Milner and Moreno, give me X and Y I can’t see enough value in anybody else that improves us then I’ll sit tight until that person comes along and is available. I think it must be the same in the sense of the position of a sitting midfield, now it may be that he sees Grujić or perhaps a fit Emre Can fulfilling that role as well as anybody, I would like to see a really commanding, experience player in that position for Liverpool, so that they can dictate games more successfully as well as protect the back four which has obviously struggled now for past few seasons in terms of ow they concede goals, but perhaps again he doesn’t see that player there that can be bought by Liverpool.
I think fans also sometimes forget that they haven’t quite got the pulling power that they once had, the manager has helped with that, again to a couple of finals last year has proved that there is progress being made but not being in the Champions League, not paying the kind of money, not being able to pay the kind of money that the two Manchester clubs have spent this summer or Chelsea for that matter, both in terms of fees and wages, means that you have to gamble some players or that you have to wait until the right player comes along and that requires a patience that as fans we often don’t feel.
Yeah, and a lot of people suppose Liverpool is a club that can go out and spend £30 million on player instantly but obviously as you’re saying it’s not the case anymore unfortunately.
Matt: I think they’re almost in a profit zone at the moment, so the ownership often get criticise but I don’t think for one moment they’ve said look you know that’s it you need to turn a profit or break even this summer, I don’t think they give Klopp a new six year contract and say you can only sell what you buy or buy what you sell in terms of numbers, I think they’ll have given him a decent budget, it’s just that the players who make him better or make his team better are either offered massive money by other clubs or the time isn’t right to get them from where they’re playing now.
I think it’s a massive misconception now, people thinking because FSG are turning a profit and they don’t want to spend money and that’s it but obviously Klopp has said on multiple times he’s happy with the backing he’s received from FSG and as you rightly said if he doesn’t see a player out there that fits the mould that he wants and the profile that he has, then he’s not going to buy that player just for the sake of it.
Matt: No, exactly. Listen Liverpool have got one of the top six or seven coaches in world football so if we can’t trust him who can you trust?
Exactly. As regards to that sense of midfield role you were discussing earlier, the one name that has been playing there quite bit, who is going through quite a lot of shall we say discussion over the last six months, is Jordan Henderson. Obviously he had that debilitating heel injury last season, kind of hampered his game time a lot and hampered his performances, and now he’s come back into the side pain free and playing in that role. He’s coming for a lot of criticism from fans, how he’s the captain, how he’s going missing in games, he’s only passing sideways etc, do you see Jordan Henderson, first of all, as a main stay in the team, and B, do you see him as a long term captain of Liverpool?
Matt: I do personally yeah, I’m a supporter, I like him as a bloke, the way he comes across when I’ve met him, and as a player he offers plenty. Now look, I think in the middle of the pitch often players are asked to play a role that isn’t necessarily ideally suited to their game and people can’t be something their not all the time.
We’ve obviously just had a discussion this week about why Daniel Sturridge feels he’s limited in terms of playing wide, and the manager has said look you have to sometimes play positions that suit the team and not you, and also football isn’t played in a static way so you move around the pitch and influence the game that way but they are playing under instruction, no one or very, very few players are given utter freedom to just walk out and do whatever they fancy. and because of injuries and perhaps last of availability of others and lack of recruitment of players in that part of the pitch Jordan Henderson has been asked to play sometimes in a position that doesn’t suit him.
He’s better playing further forward, he’s better getting around the pitch and influencing the game really in the other team’s half, I really don’t think he’s got the game to be this sitting midfielder that he’s been asked to be in recent few weeks, and because of that people begin to question how much value does he bring, and is he a captain because he’s not necessarily this domineering, overbearing, “Charles in Charge” type of personality, or that’s our perception of him. I think he fits the bill in lots of ways, more ways than he doesn’t fit the bill and if there’s a better candidate then okay let’s see if the people in charge of the club on the football side agree with that but at the moment he’s the right man for me and I think he brings plenty to the team.
Do you think he’s unfairly compared to Gerrard in the minds of fans when people think ‘well we had Steven Gerrard for so many years, he popped up with goals for us left right and center when we needed them, he was the man to rely on’. Jordan Henderson obviously hasn’t done that, as it may not be his style. Do you think a lot of fans still think like that, comparing him to Gerrard and automatically thinking he’s a waste of space?
Matt: Well its pointless comparing anybody with a player like that. Players like that come along once in a generation really. The fact that he as from Liverpool and then such an accomplished footballer in many positions, such a dominating figure and a captain for so many years. Comparisons are invidious for any player, let alone Jordan Henderson who is a different type of footballer and a different type of person, so I would just say don’t make the comparison, that would be my view. Other players perhaps get more latitude for whatever reason, that’s the way fans are, they can be fickle, they have their favorites and that’s fair enough. You pay your money your can have a choice but I would certainly stick up for him.
Another fan favorite that’s having a bit of a tough time at the minute is Mamadou Sakho who was obviously sent home from the pre-season tour due to a couple of reasons and now looks like he’s been advised to go out on loan in order to play football as apparently he’s not going to get a game at Liverpool, it’s as blunt as that. Do you think that’s the right move sending Sakho out given his performances in the past, it looks like we have been better with him in some games than without him. Is that the right move for him going out on loan to another premier league club or do you think he should stay and try and force his way into the 11?
Matt: No I think if the managers made it clear that he would be better off going and getting his fitness and his rhythm, perhaps his attitude right somewhere else for a period but if there not looking to sell him, then I can only assume that’s the right move for the player because if he does stay and the managers made it so clear then you would have to assume his opportunities would be very limited and clearly there’s a similar situation for one or two players before this window closes at other clubs.
We don’t always know or perhaps we cant always say what’s going on inside a dressing room and that’s quite right, that’s how it should be in terms of we’ve just talked about players going in and players going out. I like the fact that a club like Liverpool, you only find out about a deal when its done, there’s always going to be a rumor mill around big clubs but I don’t like that deals kind of leak out before they’re over the line because I think clubs like Liverpool should be able to keep things in house until they want them made public, that’s how a class club should operate and in this case I would like to think as he rightly said, the coach, that the people who know about this situation and need to know, know and the rest of can speculate all we want but its clear cut for those that are directly involved, so whatever happened on the tour, I think the manager took a view and sent him home.
Given all that went on with Sakho, of course I have some sympathy for the last 6 or 8 months and how he was left dangling by a decision that was then revoked. He missed the Europa cup final, he missed the euros in his home country so his head was probably all over the place, but if seems it’s the right thing for him to do to go and play football elsewhere for a period and prove himself and then maybe come back into fold, then all well and good.
I think you’re right; a move to the prem to play week in week out will benefit him. Just moving away from on field matters for a second. Last week it was reported that Chinese investment could be interested in Liverpool although FSG have stated that they’re not looking to sell the club outright, but they do value the club quite highly, over the billion-dollar mark. Do you think that’s a possibility for Liverpool and what do you think that will bring and knowing Klopps style of not spending so much on players as other clubs do tend to do, do you think that the money could be used elsewhere, maybe for the stadium or for the training ground, if it happens at all that is?
Matt: Its always a case of ‘watch this space’, just as on the football side, on the commercial side we’ll find out in due course wont we, and again there’s a little smoke made into a big fire sometimes. As far as I can read it, the owners FSG don’t want to sell the club, they’ve invested pretty heavily really and I think they’ve got a healthy long term vision for the club and I think the stadium reflects that and the long term contract for the manager who’s been backed, I think as the previous manager was since FSG took over.
I think they would like the right investor to help them compete with the kind of runaway finances that some of the other clubs in the premier league and around Europe have at their disposal, given that the financial fair play idea from UEFA has largely come and gone really, so were back to the uber-spend, particularly with the new TV deal that is now allowing all premier clubs to splash the cash big time. So if you stand still you fall behind, and whilst I think Klopp and Liverpool don’t or cant work right at the same pit face that maybe Man United, Man City and Chelsea can, you’ve got to be in the ball park, you cant be so far behind in terms of the money spent and the investment that supports that, that you’re left behind, because as Liverpool fans waited a quarter of a century for a league title, you don’t want to wait another quarter of a century and it doesn’t get any easier to win that competition that was once #LFC’s bread and butter.
To get back to that to have a chance of winning the league title, you need a squad of players and an infrastructure behind them, that gives you a chance of getting enough points over 38 games, that’s hard. Look at all the other teams, they’re not standing still, they’re not going backwards, they’re moving forwards at pace. Yes lets build a team and not become a five-minute wonder but you cant stand and watch the others disappear over the horizon.
No definitely not, its a fast moving game isn’t it the latest transfer for Paul Pogba record, £85-90 million. Whens the £100 million barrier going to be broken or the £150 million barrier, its scary where its going. As regards to the season, what do you think Liverpool’s aims are? What do you think they should be aiming for, is a top four place something that you could see happening? Were not in Europe this season, so that could work to Klopps advantage, more time on the training field, which is what he values. Maybe a successful cup run, what is it that you think will make Liverpool’s season a success?
Matt: I think the lack of European football is a shame because the Klopp is so synonymous with European competitions, but I think the fact that’s its not there this season has to be taken as an opportunity. I think it works clearly for a coach like Brendan Rodgers who used the time on the training pitch and the great players he had that season to really have a tilt at the league title, he came up just short as we all know but I think Klopp is similar in the sense that he should maximize that opportunity of lack of injuries and fatigue that game after game can cause, lack of travel and all those kind of peripheral things but they do all add up across a season.
The fact that they can focus on domestic football completely should give them a realistic chance of finishing in the top 4. I think its unrealistic to suggest they can win the league but hey, Leicester won it last year and none of us saw that coming so all things are possible but certainly a top four finish even in this ultra competitive premier league is definitely possible. If arsenal and Tottenham, who I think financially are in the same kind of ballpark as Liverpool and have a similar quality of squad, if they can have realistic ambition of the top four then Liverpool certainly should as well.