There may be some doubt about whether Jurgen Klopp has improved Liverpool, but there shouldn’t be: the Reds may not be about to repeat the title challenge they managed under Brendan Rodgers in 2014, but they are competing in a much more competitive top six these days.
Liverpool have also returned to the Champions League and qualified for the knockout stage for the first time since Rafael Benitez was in charge, back in 2009. The team has also improved massively, and that has to count as progress even if win percentages and finishing positions don’t always reflect the improvement.
It all depends on how you want to measure success. If you measure it by trophies, you’ll be at the mercy of declaring failure if no silverware is brought home, despite valiant efforts, injuries, form and luck. If you measure it by performances, you risk being satisfied with failure, glorious and possibly even otherwise. It’s a tough balance.
Those tipping scales are perhaps best illustrated by Liverpool’s early form under Klopp himself.
It’s easy to forget that there was a whole host of early promise. It wasn’t plain sailing, but after just a few weeks an identity was instilled in the team, and Anfield was won over by the hard-pressing style and the charm and charisma of its manager.
More importantly, though, Liverpool were showing that, despite their struggles under the departed Rodgers, they could still have a good season. Indeed, Klopp’s first season in charge (in reality, just the majority of a campaign) the club made the final of two competitions, losing to Manchester City in the League Cup final and Sevilla in the Europa League final.
This is where the see-saw pivot between success and failure lies. It was a success just to get there, but how can losing be considered a triumph in any sense? Because of their defeats and their league position, Anfield saw no European football last season.
So what do Liverpool want from Klopp? Had he won the Europa League and the League Cup in his first season he would have matched what Jose Mourinho achieved in his opening campaign as Manchester United manager last year. Is it his attempt to win at all costs style which will satisfy Reds fans? It’s unlikely, and even though it looked as though the Old Trafford club were going to contest a title race this time around, they are now just three points ahead of Liverpool, having lost more games, too. Measuring success the United way hasn’t put them in a much better position to Liverpool.
What about the Mauricio Pochettino route of building a team which is more than the sum of its parts and gets better incrementally? Well, the Argentine’s Spurs side have won no trophies and have already lost more games this season than they did in the entirety of the last campaign.
Five of the top six clubs have their flaws this season, and even Manchester City would be disappointed with only a Premier League title to show for a record-breaking season so far. And all that shows is that the goalposts are continually moving for Premier League clubs – objectives change as the season wears on.
We can say that the early promise Liverpool showed under Klopp – that they might improve in the league and become a great cup team – hasn’t materialised as of yet, but we can also say that progress takes a long time. Especially when a club like Barcelona can simply snap up one of your best players in the January transfer window.
This season, Liverpool’s best chance of success probably comes from laying the groundwork for next year. If that sounds unambitious think of it this way: Klopp’s side are highly unlikely to win the Champions League given the quality of opposition left in the tournament and are only three points clear of fifth place in the Premier League. Success in the FA Cup would be nice, of course, and a first trophy since 2012 would be an important milestone, perhaps even breeding more success along the line, but when we get down to the nitty gritty at the end of the season it will probably be widely agreed that playing Champions League football next season is more important.
That means beating Manchester City at Anfield this weekend would be arguably one of the Reds’ biggest results of the season. Even if, come the end of the season, it only helped them to fourth place.
Liverpool are a club who are still on a journey, and it has to be remembered that both success and progress can be measured in different ways.
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