Premier League leaders Liverpool have perhaps the toughest task of the summer, as they will have to replace their greatest manager in recent memory.
Jürgen Klopp has announced that he will leave the club after over eight years in charge, in which he has won everything there is to win.
It is safe to say that he has completely transformed the club. When the German manager took over, the club was barely at a Europa League level. They are now one of the top clubs in Europe.
Behind the scenes, a lot has been changing at the club in recent years. Several key sporting direction figures including Michael Edwards, Julian Ward and Ian Graham have departed. With Klopp leaving as well, Liverpool are in need of a near-total overhaul.
Needing Sporting Direction
There is plenty of talk about who Klopp’s potential successor might be, but Liverpool’s first priority should be to sign a Sporting Director/Director of Football.
Jörg Schmadtke was playing such a role on paper this season, but reports suggest he was only involved in negotiating deals while the overall recruitment and squad-building strategy was guided in no small part by Klopp. In any case, Schmadtke is also leaving this summer.
Liverpool’s recruitment and squad building for this season was questionable. Assessed individually, their signings have not been bad at all.
Each of Dominisk Szoboszlai, Alexis Mac Allister, Ryan Gravenberch and Wataru Endo have made significant contributions to the team this season, so the money spent on them can be easily justified from that angle.
However, looking at their squad as a whole, it becomes clear that they should have prioritised a different profile of players.
They now have several talented midfielders in their squad, and yet lack an out-and-out lone defensive midfielder who can both facilitate ball progression and offer great defensive solidity at a very high as Fabinho used to do.
Such minor issues can be seen all over the squad. In attack, for example, they have a host of left-sided forwards such as Luis Díaz, Cody Gakpo, Diogo Jota and Darwin Núñez, but their only senior right winger is Mohamed Salah.
At the back, they do not have a single left-footed centre-back and no proper back-up for Virgil van Dijk at left centre-back.
In Klopp’s interview where he explained his decision to leave the club at the end of the season, he spoke of something along the lines of having to make too many decisions at the club.
It is tough to read into what exactly he was referring to, but it probably has has something to do with him having greater responsibility with regard to squad building, recruitment and such.
Clearly, this is not a sustainable approach. Most well-run clubs have a well-structured and ordered sporting direction structure in place which guides and influences all of their decision-making, including the hiring and firing of head coaches.
Although Klopp’s departure leaves the managerial position vacant first and foremost, Liverpool’s number one priority right now must be to appoint a new sporting director.
That context is important to keep in mind while assessing potential managerial candidates. At the moment, there is no indication to suggest that the remaining decision-makers at Liverpool are following this process.
On that basis, our assessment of potential candidates at the moment will have to consider the fact that the situation behind the scenes might not be ideal
Roberto De Zerbi is a name that is being floated around quite a lot. The 44-year-old Italian tactician is doing a stellar job at Brighton & Hove Albion right now.
They are mixing among the top six despite not having the resources to do so on paper, and they’re playing some fantastic football along the way.
De Zerbi also has a good deal of experience behind him having been in senior football for about a decade. He first came through the lower tiers of Italian football before standing out at Sassuolo. That earned him a move abroad to Shakhtar Donetsk, after which he came to Brighton.
The Italian has taken an innovative style of play to every club he has coached at, and it is one that has caught the eyes of the likes of Pep Guardiola.
However, he needs a very specific type of squad profile in order to implement his playing style, which in turn requires a good recruitment setup.
With questions about that exact aspect at Liverpool, this does not seem a good match for either party. De Zerbi would risk what is an ever-growing reputation in case things go south, while Liverpool obviously risk a significant drop-off in performance and results.
Liverpool will have to accept some degree of a drop-off post-Klopp. He is doing an incredible job of getting the most out of an improperly structured squad this season.
The key to that has been his tactical flexibility, both in terms of formations and overall approach. So, the Reds would do well to hire someone who has shown a similar track record.
A fellow German, Julian Nagelsmann, stands out in that respect. The 36-year-old coach has established a reputation for himself as a mastermind tactician, who can not only change his team’s approach from match to match to suit opponents as he often did at Hoffenheim, but can also tailor his overall playing style to best suit the squad as he did at Bayern Munich.
His sacking from the record German champions was quite harsh and almost ended very badly for them, so that should not really be held against him. As his contract with the German national team runs out this summer, the timing would align perfectly to bring him in.
The main question mark surrounding him, though, would be his man-management and leadership characteristics. These aspects of his sacking from Bayern are worth noting, even though the club has a reputation for not having the best dressing room environment at all times.
At Liverpool, Nagelsmann would have a very tough job of not only replacing a great manager but also a legendary leader who is adored by everyone associated with the club – right from the players to the fans. Klopp’s personality will be sorely missed too, and with that in mind, Nagelsmann might also not be the best fit for the club at this time.
Combining both of the critical aspects we have discussed so far, we get Xabi Alonso. The only question that can be asked about him is his relative lack of experience as he has only coached a primary senior team for the year and a half he has spent at Bayer Leverkusen, but his short track record is outstanding.
He first led Real Sociedad’s B team to rather dizzying heights in the Spanish second division – higher in the pyramid than the likes of Real Madrid Castilla and Barça B.
Alonso then took charge of Leverkusen mid-season when they were in the relegation zone and won a European spot for them that term, before going on an incredible title charge this time around.
Alonso has shown great tactical acumen and flexibility in his two jobs so far, and his experience as a top-class player also gives him another edge.
Of course, he also has the advantage of being an ex-player at Liverpool which will earn him instant support from the fans.
This could prove crucial in smoothening the transition beyond a legendary figure like Klopp, so Liverpool should do everything they can to make Xabi Alonso their next manager.
Stats courtesy Transfermarkt and FotMob.
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