Liverpool Football Club was never going to be allowed to bask at the summit of club football. Our status as the world’s best team was confirmed officially a little over a month ago, but the wide acclaim which followed that rise has already given way to swathes of criticism. The club has ideas above its station, so it goes.
In a Monday morning where the heroics of Shrewsbury Town were the real headline, the comments of Jürgen Klopp dominated. After the 2-2 draw in Shropshire the Reds’ manager summarily removed both himself and the first team from the replay selection picture. In an interview that some consider influenced by emotion, Klopp stated that both he and the first team were going to respect the winter break put in place by the Premier League.
The latter didn’t surprise. The first team have rarely featured in domestic cup competitions, and that rule certainly won’t be broken during a designated period of rest. Everyone agrees on that, despite Liverpool’s strong league position. But the decision to rest himself has attracted hyperbolic allegations of disrespect. How dare Klopp think the FA Cup — the oldest club cup competition in the world — is beneath him?
His first team may need to respect the winter break, be he doesn’t. He isn’t tired. He should manage the game, fly back from his presumed holiday for one night. Support the kids. They are the future, after all. These are just some of the swirling opinions which have formed since that fateful Sunday evening in Shropshire.
And perhaps not all the criticisms are entirely unfounded, particularly those about supporting the kids. Neither Liverpool nor Klopp want to perpetuate the message that only the first team warrant his time and support. But I don’t believe that’s the message the boss wants to convey.
Many have already opined that his decision to not manage the replay is part of a wider ambition to tackle the problem of fixture congestion. That would explain the immediate self-exclusion; his plan was always to use the occurrence of a replay to advance the fight against fixture congestion.
The fact that Klopp is now more widely perceived to be disrespectful of the FA Cup is merely collateral damage in that fight. So is the fact that some pundits have accused him of not supporting his youth team players. Both he and his youth team players know the true story. In my view those players were already briefed that this would happen. The admission that the replay will be managed by u23s coach Neil Critchley would not have been a new one, and it would not have been met with widespread concern that the manager doesn’t care about them.
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Though Klopp has never been wedded to the domestic cup competitions, it would be remiss to consider this the driver behind his self-exclusion. The decision not to manage the replay was taken purely in opposition to the fixture build-up, and as an act of rebellion against the ineptitude of the FA’s scheduling department.
Whether it’s correct for the biggest clubs to yield such influence is a separate argument — the reality is that Klopp has used his platform to great effect here. Whatever the outcome of the replay, the issue of fixture congestion feels ever closer to breaking point. The manager of the best team in the world has declined to manage a fixture in order to honour a belatedly introduced winter break. That has all the markings of a slippery slope should the regulatory bodies not act.
Klopp wants the FA to know that the winter break cannot be tokenistic. It’s here, it applies equally to managers, and it won’t be watered down to placate the FA. He cares little for the feathers that ruffles, nor do the club hierarchy according to the recent backing given. The only legitimate criticism of Klopp’s stance could be its impact on the kids, but as aforementioned, they would have been made aware long before public transmission.
It’s convenient to label Liverpool F.C as arrogant as they lie atop world football. Unadulterated praise becomes boring for the outsider, who now thrive off the slightest catalyst to criticise. The facts are these: a winter break was introduced for this year by the Premier League, the FA scheduled a replay to be played during that break, and Jürgen Klopp has refused to cede to such mismanagement. Accusations of disrespect and a lack of support have arisen as a result of that stance, but for Klopp, both are immaterial so long as the relevant people know the reasons why.
Should the kids overcome Shrewsbury at Anfield, none will be more vociferous in their praise than Klopp. The German has to balance his investment in the future of Liverpool against maintaining the prosperity of the present. Respecting the winter break is key to both.