James Pearce of The Liverpool Echo joins us back on the podcast in another #LFC interview to discuss 2017, the January transfer window, Klopp, contracts and the rest of the season.
AHQ: Hello and welcome back to the Anfield HQ podcast, we’re joined back on the podcast with James Pearce of the Liverpool Echo.
A lot has changed really since we last spoke before the start of the season back in August, I remember in that podcast we were both talking about how the top 4 was the priority target for Klopp this season and Liverpool obviously currently sit in 5th, only a point off the top 4 but that doesn’t tell the entire story. As we sit here today, how would you sum up Liverpool’s season so far and where as it gone wrong for you in 2017?
JP: It’s been strange hasn’t it! Probably for the first 4 months of the season, Liverpool overachieved. I think like everyone else, you kind of get powered along with the momentum, the wave of optimism and there probably was a time in November when I did actually think this could be the season. Liverpool were playing that well and they just seemed to have an array of match winners, they weren’t reliant on one individual with that front four of Mane, Lallana, Coutinho and Firmino doing so much damage. Leaking a few goals at the other end yes, but it didn’t really seem to matter because they had so much firepower. Liverpool were top of the table and deservedly so and then unfortunately what’s happened, especially since the turn of the year, has just kind of sapped away that optimism and they’ve completely lost momentum.
I think if there’s any obvious answers to what’s been behind it, then I’m sure Klopp would have taken action to do something about it but I think it’s a number of factors. I do think fatigue is one area, it is a very demanding brand of football that Klopp had Liverpool playing and I know people will say ‘hang on a minute they didn’t have European football’, but I still think if you just take December and January in isolation, they were very intensive and I just think Liverpool have lost that spark that they had in those early months of the season.
I think injuries have also played a part, obviously losing Matip, Henderson and Clyne for a few weeks, obviously Coutinho’s injury was a big blow at the time and then you chuck into the mix Sadio Mane going to AFCON. With one set back following another, you can see that the belief and confidence that we saw back in the autumn, players playing off the cuff, playing with a freedom to go and express themselves and suddenly in January we’ve seen a lot of performances where players are almost scared to do that, players were taking the easy option rather than taking risks with the ball.
There has been a big downturn and I do think another factor was not doing any business in January, I wrote many times before that they needed to bring in cover. They were always going to miss Mane because the lack of wide attacking cover in the squad and unfortunately that proved to be the case. I think probably because Liverpool overachieved for the first half of the season, then massively underachieved over the last 5 or 6 weeks that at the moment, everyone is on a massive downer and rightly so because it has been disappointing, but with a bit of perspective, you see that the one target from back in August was a top 4 finish and Liverpool are only a point away from where they want to be.
AHQ: With no domestic cups or Europe as well, Liverpool’s sole focus will now be the Premier League. I think a lot of Liverpool fans were slightly frustrated straight after Hull because we now have no excuses to really cling onto now Mane is back, Coutinho, Firmino, Lallana and Mane all started for the first time in a number of months and other than Dejan Lovren missing, there wasn’t really any excuses as to why Liverpool performed as badly as they did. What would you put the Hull performance down to?
JP: I think that was the most alarming of the lot, certainly a lot more alarming than losing to Wolves in the FA cup and the defeat to Swansea because I think there’s a difference with Hull, that wasn’t far away from Klopp’s first choice eleven. He opted to pick Can ahead of Wijnaldum. Lovren would have started ahead of Lucas, but there were no excuses really with the personnel Liverpool had out there, it was that front four which we spoke about before, all starting together again for the first time since November 6th and that made such a pitiful performance all the more difficult to fathom and I think that’s why there was a real change in Klopp’s body language and demeanour post match because after other setbacks in 2017, he’s been quite bullish and in press conferences has said ‘come on, why Is everyone so down in the dumps’ and clung to various positives and mitigating circumstances at times, but not even he could bring himself to claim that.
I was at his press conference when he said ‘I was sat in a seat like this a couple of weeks ago and said ‘come on lets be positive, but it would be wrong for me to ask fans to be positive having just sat through that’’, and I think he’s right because it was pretty much a performance with no redeeming features. I think Liverpool, despite having so much of the ball, did so little with it, they looked so limp and lacklustre and just lacking any real spark and verve in the final third and as we saw, Hull did what other clubs have done before them, in terms of just sitting deep, frustrating them and knowing that if they just bide their time, they’ll get a gift at the other end and that’s exactly what happened from the corner and then obviously Liverpool get caught out again for the 2nd goal and it just completed a thoroughly miserable afternoon.
AHQ: You talk about Klopp clinging on to positives at the start of the month, how do you think he must be feeling right now because obviously a lot of teams have started figuring Liverpool out by sitting deep and getting us on the counter attack but with no personnel bought in January, what must Klopp be thinking in terms of how he turns things around going into the last third of the season?
JP: Personally, I wonder whether a result like Hull makes him think that the squad isn’t as strong as he thought it was. I think he will have been surprised at the manner of some of these limp performances in January and February because at the start of the season we were so used to seeing quality football. Even when he made changes for example in the EFL cup, the quality of the football didn’t dip. Young players were coming and really delivering, so I think he’s been given a lot of food for thought. I think he knew last weekend that it would be wrong for him to be publically positive and bang the drum after a day like that but he’s not the kind of manager that will be panicking. If he’s regretting not doing any business in January, I think he’ll keep that close to his chest, I don’t think he’s going to admit that.
I still think he’ll believe that he’s got sufficient quality there to get Liverpool into the Champions League this season, I think the big thing is going to be if he can make the most of this training time as he’s regularly complained about between games when you’re literally just having to recover and then go again and you wonder whether the big effort that it took against Chelsea partly explained why Liverpool were so off the pace at Hull.
There’s a full week to prepare for Tottenham and then over a fortnight to prepare for Leicester, that certainly can’t be clung to as an excuse going forward so it’s a big test for Klopp because it’s his first really serious blip in his Liverpool reign, obviously results weren’t great at time in the league last season but that was different as he’d inherited someone else’s group of players and we were enjoying an outstanding run in Europe which meant that people were quite happy to forgive slip ups in the league, so with nothing else to play for now it’s vitally important that Liverpool don’t completely squander everything they achieve in the first half of the season, because at the moment it probably feels like things have slipped away but as we said before, Liverpool are one point off 4th place and I think Klopp would have taken that if you asked back in August because I think he knew that it was going to be a very competitive Premier League season and it’s certainly going to be a real battle to get into that top 4.
AHQ: I think it’s the EFL Cup result against Southampton that put Liverpool down in the dumps. If we had been in a Wembley final and one point off the top four, maybe things would have been put in a different perspective. A lot of people including yourself have come out and said Liverpool should have strengthened in January and there was a lot of talk coming into the window about how Klopp’s got the money to spend and now Liverpool fans have come out targeting FSG saying they weren’t given the money. Just to clarify things – it must be all Klopp’s decision. He was the one that wanted to sit patiently and wait. We saw it last January with Alex Teixeira. Is it a similar situation in that the player wasn’t available and Klopp’s happy to sit tight, thinking the quality of the squad was good enough to cope?
JP: Both publicly and privately, Klopp is absolutely adamant that he’s had all the backing that he’s asked for from the owners. When times are tough, people want someone to blame and it would be a great story for me and any other journalist if it were true that sums were being withheld and Klopp wasn’t being able to do the business he wanted, but there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that is the case.
There were times under Brendan Rodgers and he’s spoken about it since, he missed out on targets that he wanted to get and he was frustrated. He ended up with what became a committee signing as opposed to want he wanted but there’s no whispers of that under Klopp and I know some will say he’s hardly going to say what he really thinks, but I think he probably would. This is a guy that got a wrap on the knuckles for telling a hundred thousand Liverpool fans to go to the European final in Basel. He speaks his mind and he’s passionate. If he was furious and frustrated at the way the club’s recruitment policy was being handled, I think we’d know about it.
Who knows what will happen going forward, but in terms of January Klopp felt the ones he wanted just weren’t available. Julian Brandt was one – Leverkusen were adamant they wouldn’t sell him. Pulisic as well. The chances of getting that done were completely depleted by him deciding to sign a new contract. Draxler was one that was well documented but it came down to money and ‘I’ve been offered x amount by PSG, can you do better than that’ type thing. Klopp felt that when money was the motivation, he probably wasn’t the one for him.
It’s a difficult one because I still think that Liverpool should have strengthened in January. If you can’t get the ones you want, then it’s no different to another window where surely you have a list of targets and if you can’t get the first one you get the second. The position Liverpool were in at the turn of the year, one or two new faces would have really freshened things up and given everyone a lift. It gives the players a lift. It gives the fans a lift.
But I can understand Klopp’s thinking because we’ve seen time and time again Liverpool waste money in the transfer market. Certainly, under Rodgers there were times Liverpool brought in players the manager wasn’t 100% sure about and they ended as flops and being moved on. I respect Klopp’s decision in terms of deciding to hold tight for the summer but I do think Klopp and other senior officials. Mike Gordon is the most senior FSG man who’s heavily involved in the everyday running of the club. I think the first half of the season lulled them into a false sense of security in terms of the depth of the squad and what’s happened since the turn of the year has underlined that Liverpool did need an injection of fresh talent.
AHQ: It certainly looks like there will be an injection of fresh talent in the summer. The ECHO have done a piece on how Julian Brandt is still wanted and with Christian Pulisic do you think his new deal might change Liverpool’s approach to him as a summer target?
JP: I think so. My understanding was with both Pulisic and Brandt, it was a case of Liverpool would hope neither of them would pen new deals, because it becomes much more difficult to get someone if they’ve just committed their long-term future to the club in the same way it is much more difficult for Barcelona to now try and get Philippe Coutinho.
I think common sense tells you the chances of Pulisic coming in the summer are quite heavily reduced but Brandt hasn’t signed a new contract as of yet. He’s one that Klopp really, really likes. Again, you wonder how much might depend on whether Liverpool can offer Champions League football because I think that is obviously a big pull. Klopp spoke about it towards the back end of last season and I know he said then that he didn’t want players that were simply motivated by that, but the bottom line is that’s where any player wants to be. The financial rewards of being in the Champions League would have a knock-on effect also in terms of the size of his budget in the summer.
AHQ: Where do you think really needs strengthening? I know some journalists have said the entire spine needs to, not ripped up, but added to. The goalkeeper situation still hasn’t been sorted out properly. Left back – how long can James Milner cope there? A proper midfielder and a striker. Where do you feel Liverpool need to strengthen this summer?
JP: I think at the moment it feels like they need a lot because standards have slipped across the board. We’ve got to try and let the dust settle and in a couple of months hopefully it won’t look as if they need to do as much business as it does at the moment. Certainly, at the top end of the field, they need to go out and buy a top-class striker.
It’s pretty obvious there is a lot of uncertainty over Daniel Sturridge’s long term future. He’s struggled to hold down a place under Klopp this season and you just wonder if with an offer in the summer that suits everyone, that he might move on. In which case, 100% Liverpool would have to replace that quality. 100% they need a wide attacker. That was the one thing I thought they were crying out for in January. We saw without Mane, without that pace and the ability to burst past a defender, Liverpool were far too slow and pedestrian with their attacking place. A wide attacker would have to be a must.
Left back certainly as well. Milner has done brilliantly there for the lion’s share of this season, but I still think you need a specialist there going forward. At the moment you’d probably say another option in midfield. I can understand why people would say that. Although the midfield three of Henderson, Wijnaldum and Lallana functioned so well earlier in the season. When he’s had to tweak and change it, I think a three of Can Wijnaldum and Henderson is probably too similar.
The goalkeeper situation is interesting. Mignolet has made a couple of bad mistakes clearly in the last couple of games, but I felt since being brought back in in place of Karius, he had looked a much more commanding figure between the posts. I think that’s a real dilemma for Klopp. I don’t see him going out and seeing Joe Hart as the answer. I know there’s been a lot of speculation about that but everything I’ve heard from Liverpool is there is no interest. Does he keep backing Mignolet, does he bring back Karius? I think it’s unfair for anyone to write Karius off – such a young goalkeeper who had a tough spell.
He’ll come back strong and I don’t think Mignolet is the disaster that some accuse him of being. Let’s not forget his penalty save saved Liverpool a point against Chelsea recently. Yes, he made a bad mistake against Hull but I think sometimes he can be a lightning bolt for criticism. If you look at that goal, yes he had to be more decisive and stronger, but the defending is absolutely atrocious. Maguire had the first header and there was no reaction when Hernandez went in on the keeper and again no reaction when N’Diaye put it away. I think it will be a summer where we see at least five or six come in.
I know Klopp is about evolution rather than revolution in terms of the players he has at his disposal but it’s pretty clear that it’s a squad that needs greater depth especially if Liverpool have European football next season, that’s going to be absolutely paramount.
AHQ: I think one of the things with Mignolet is a lot of Liverpool fans on Twitter and social media look at the other top four goalkeepers and Mignolet falls at the bottom of every single one of them. A little bit on contracts. A lot of Liverpool fans are saying FSG are putting PR spins and new contracts after shambolic defeats. Philippe Coutinho was a massive one, especially with no release clause. Were you surprised at how quickly that deal got done?
JP: I was surprised just how quickly it got done. I think that was a sign of just how happy and content he is at Liverpool. Because of the way the results have gone recently it’s gone under the radar a little bit and Coutinho himself was very poor in that defeat at Hull, but let’s not forget what a special talent he is. One of the most worrying trends at Liverpool has been losing their best players and I remember doing an interview with Klopp last summer when he talked about wanting to stem that tide and make sure that Liverpool was a destination for top talents rather than just a stepping stone.
Keeping Coutinho is huge especially with the no-release clause. I got the impression earlier on in the season that was why Liverpool weren’t as quick as they thought they should have been to get him tied down to a new deal because he was performing at such a high level and his importance to the team was so great that he deserved an extension and to be up there with the highest earners at the club.
I wondered whether they did fear if they did start contract negotiations that the topic of a release clause might come up, and obviously they didn’t want to find themselves in a position like they were with Suarez where they got him tied down to a new deal but it’s bittersweet because you know six months later there’s a good chance someone’s going to trigger that release clause. To get that contract signed and for there to be no release clause is huge. It’s an indication of the job Coutinho thinks Klopp is doing and his belief that he can win trophies and be successful without having to go anywhere else.
AHQ: The other big one that’s come out in the last few hours is a new deal for Adam Lallana that he’s close to signing. A lot of Liverpool fans picked up on the £150,000 a week bracket which Coutinho is on. From your point of view, are you surprised he’s in that same bracket or is that how FSG do things – they reward good progress and good form? Lallana has shown similar sort of form as Coutinho this season and so perhaps they should be on the same wage bracket.
JP: I’m not aware that that is his new salary going forward. I know it’s been reported in some places – it wasn’t in the Echo but other reputable sources say that is the case. If that is true, then it’s possibly a bit of a surprise that he’s on a parity with Coutinho. But I think it just underlines how important Klopp believes Lallana is to the club because he has blossomed more than anyone else under Klopp when you think about what a difficult start he had to his Liverpool career after a big money move from Southampton.
Klopp described him as his biggest surprise in terms of players he inherited and by that I think he couldn’t quite believe how perfect he was for the type of football he wanted to play because Lallana does run himself into the ground in terms of the work rate and effort he gives you. He’s also supremely talented and a creative force so if those figures are right, I can understand why people might raise an eyebrow but make no mistake it will be because Klopp believes he’s worth every penny of it.
AHQ: Philippe Coutinho has signed a new deal, which is great for everyone involved, but Emre Can seems to be splitting opinion on Twitter. You did the live blog for the Echo and said Can maybe thinks he’s worth more than Liverpool are offering at the moment, what was you opinion on that because when can started ahead of Wijnaldum at the weekend a lot of Liverpool fans highly questioned Klopp decision, what’s your opinion on the Can contract situation?
JP: I must admit, he was pretty poor against Hull, as was every other Liverpool player on the day. It would be wrong of me to jump on the bandwagon afterwards because I actually thought Can was much better against Chelsea. Whether he should’ve been picked instead of Wijnaldum is another matter, but I thought it was probably quite a tough call that one. I know people will say that it was a bad decision or whatever, but I could see the logic.
I did actually ask Klopp about Can. I think it was the day before the Hull game and I asked him about the contract situation and he said that it’s not unsettling at all for Can because, “he knows what I want” and by that I think it’s fair to assume that he wants him to stay, he wants him to be part of Liverpool’s future. But there is a standoff there. There’s no getting away from that. I think Liverpool opened contract talks with Can last summer and I don’t think contract talks got very far because there was a disparity between what his representatives think he’s worth and what was on the table.
So, that’s no closer to being resolved at the moment and I think it’s difficult to say how that one will pan out. I think that the fact that Klopp clearly wants him to stick around makes you wonder whether Liverpool will go back to the negotiating table, but if they do stand firm then I think that will be an issue this summer because there’s no way Liverpool are going to risk losing Can in the summer of 2018. I think that’s one, that at the moment, you’d probably say his future is uncertain rather than it is definite that he wouldn’t be moving on.
AHQ: Liverpool got some business done in January. Sakho joined Crystal Palace on loan until the rest of the season, that one being talked about more than anyone else. With Sakho, after Klopp’s comments in his press conference, there may be a way back for him or when the season comes to an end or do you think that his time at Liverpool has come to an end completely?
JP: I must admit that was Klopp just being diplomatic when he said there would be no decision until the summer. I think, he said something very similar about Markovic when he went to Hull and he was asked if there was a way back for Markovic. I’d be absolutely amazed if either of those players played for Liverpool ever again.
With Markovic, It was quite damning that if Klopp fancied him, he could’ve had him back for the second half of this season, especially when, as we said earlier on, Liverpool aren’t completely blessed in wide attackers. He was allowed to join Hull, obviously Klopp offloaded him in the backend of the window on loan when Liverpool would’ve happily taken a permanent deal then. No, I don’t think there is any way back for Markovic and I think it’s the same with Sakho.
You know, I think his relationship with Klopp has completely broken down and if Klopp would have had his way, he would’ve agreed a permanent deal for Sakho in January. I wasn’t surprised he didn’t because I thought their valuation of £20 million was overly optimistic. In time, Sakho will prove himself again to be worth that kind of money because he’s only 26 and he was the captain of France and all the rest of it. But, for someone who hasn’t played any senior football since last April.
I always thought it would’ve been a huge gamble for someone to pay 20 million quid in January and sure enough Liverpool have had to settle for a loan to Palace, which is a decent enough deal for Liverpool in the end with the £2 million loan fee and them covering his wages, but no, I think Liverpool will look upon that as hopefully Sakho will go there, perform well and keep Palace in the Premier League and then they will either firm up their interest into a permanent bid or if they don’t then other clubs across Europe will.
But I would be very surprised if there is any reconciliation between Sakho and Klopp because it just seems with breaking club rules over the fat burners initially and his antics on the club tour and his general attitude around the place and then obviously the Snapchat early hours rant, it was clear from early on there was no way back. Sometimes things happen in football that genuinely amazes you but it would have to be something out the ordinary I think.
AHQ: With Liverpool beating Arsenal 5-1 at Anfield to go on an 11-game unbeaten run, how important in your eyes is Tottenham on Saturday considering, as you said, Liverpool are one point off the Champions League places? There are still a lot of big teams still to come to Anfield this season so how important do you think Tottenham is to revitalise a season which has derailed in the last four weeks?
JP: I think it’s absolutely huge. I think, as we touched earlier on, for all the doom and gloom at the moment, and don’t get me wrong because there is as Liverpool have squandered such a fantastic situation they were in and getting knocked out of both domestic cups in the manner they were at home was disappointing. Most people would say that Tottenham have had a fantastic season and Liverpool at the moment are in free-fall. If Liverpool beat Tottenham then they’re one point behind them.
So, I think that just shows how quickly perception can change and I think it would be a real mood changer if Liverpool could beat Tottenham. Their recent record against them is excellent. They should’ve beaten them earlier in the season at White Hart Lane but they will have to defend a huge amount better than they did against Hull. With Kane and Alli, they’ve got some potent attacking weapons and they’re probably the best defensive side in the Premier League, so Liverpool are going to have to show much greater spark and ingenuity and craft going forward.
It does feel like such a pivotal game in the context of the season because to lose again at home would be unthinkable. Especially with Man City just above them and Man United right on their tails. There is very little room for error right now. In terms of the top four, it’s going to be an absolute battle and Liverpool just need a draw, that wouldn’t be a disaster. I think a draw would keep Liverpool in there and would be a morale booster of sorts after what happened at Hull, but in truth, I think Liverpool are absolutely craving a win at the moment just to get the fans up again and to breathe some belief back into the dressing room.
People talk about parking the bus and Liverpool not having the answers but teams tried to park the bus earlier in the season and Liverpool just blew them away. It’s not a sudden thing that teams have started to defend against them. I think a lot of it comes down to Liverpool and just losing their way and they need to get that back. It would be interesting to see how Klopp plays it selection wise if Lovren is fit, you would imagine he would come back in, I’m sure Wijnaldum will come back into the midfield, but does he keep faith with what he believes is his strongest line-up?
Does Klopp bank on Firmino suddenly coming back to life after a bleak spell? The same with Coutinho. Or does he turn to someone like Sturridge and Origi. I think that’s going to be the interesting thing. For me, I’d like to see, with a week’s training, that front four that did a lot of damage this season play against Tottenham because I think what the last couple of months has proved is that Liverpool don’t have the depth but, as we’ve seen time and again, when they’re at it, they do have a first eleven capable of beating anyone and if they perform to the levels they can then there’s no reason why they can’t beat Tottenham on Saturday.
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