“I still have three years at Liverpool!” Jurgen Klopp was keen to point out when FourFourTwo asked him last autumn about what he’ll eventually do in his life after football.
“That’s a long, long time actually in football,” he added. “I am fully here, full of energy, I want to go as far as possible.”
Now, six months on and into 2022, the summer of 2024 looks a whole lot closer for Liverpool supporters. A summer when the man who ended the 30-year title drought and brought home European Cup number six is set to depart the club.
Klopp has been consistent that he will walk away when his current contract expires in just over two and a half years - by which time he’ll have been at Liverpool almost nine years, the longest spell of his managerial career.
Speaking more recently, Klopp said: “If I would have known how good this club is, how much we mean to each other, I would have wanted to be here much earlier.”
Some supporters have theorised over a potential ‘sabbatical’ for Klopp, with current assistant Pepijn Lijnders taking the interim reigns, but that seems unlikely.
Regardless, what Klopp and Liverpool must ensure is that the football club is in a strong position when the inevitable does happen. That means long-term planning, something that is currently a hot topic amidst Mo Salah’s contract situation.
As things stand, Liverpool are set to lose their director of football, Michael Edwards, in 2022 (something that is confirmed, with his assistant, Julian Ward, replacing him), their star player in 2023, and their manager in 2024.
Add in that as well as Salah’s contract expiring in 2023 there’s also Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita’s – you can see why supporters would be anxious about the future.
“I’m pretty sure the fans are not as nervous as you are,” Klopp told a journalist recently in relation to Salah’s contract ticking into its final 18 months.
“They [the fans] know the club pretty long and know the people here have been dealing with things for pretty long, so I think there are enough reasons to be positive.”
Such words, though, seem pretty misguided. It would be rather odd for a supporter not to be nervous given the expiring contracts of the front three who put Liverpool back on the European and domestic trophy hunt. Add in that fans also remember – although not as big a loss as Salah would be – both Gini Wijnaldum and Emre Can departing on free transfers after their contracts hit similar impasses. There’s not a lot to reassure fans other than Klopp saying that conversations are “positive.”
Salah’s contract situation also links to Klopp’s future in that any player signing a new deal now knows that Klopp won’t be the manager in two years’ time. It creates a quite uncertain future.
Liverpool's age problem
What Liverpool and Klopp have is an age problem. The age of their squad is on the high side in the Premier League now - not quite ‘Roy Hodgson at West Brom’ style, but the average age of the Liverpool squad is higher than most of their rivals.
In January last year, Klopp named a side with an average age of 29 years and 15 days. The oldest side he’d named as Liverpool manager. Since then he’s named two more older XIs, including in the Champions League group stage away to Atletico Madrid, which was the club’s oldest since 1953.
Aged 29 years and 130 days, Liverpool's average starting XI age tonight is their oldest since September 1953 v Newcastle (30y 39d). #LFC #ATMLIVOctober 19, 2021
Take Liverpool’s current perceived ‘Best XI’ of Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joel Matip, Virgil van Dijk, Andy Robertson, Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, Thiago, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. In the summer of 2024 when Klopp leaves Anfield, every single one of those players will have turned 30 except for Alexander-Arnold.
You could debate Firmino’s place in that XI, with Diogo Jota usurping him this season but much of that has been down to injuries for the Brazilian.
Avoiding Manchester United's late-era Ferguson mistakes
What Klopp must not do is leave an ageing squad that is well past its best – something Alex Ferguson did when he departed Old Trafford in 2013.
Ferguson’s squad somehow won the league title in 2012/13, but it was one built around a core of Patrice Evra (31), Rio Ferdinand (34), Michael Carrick (31), Ryan Giggs (39) and Robin van Persie (29) and added to by Nemanja Vidic (31), Paul Scholes (38) and Dimitar Berbatov (31).
Those younger players in the United squad - Tom Cleverley (23), Johnny Evans (24), Rafael da Silva (22) - didn’t have long careers at the club. Even Wayne Rooney (then 27) was past his best form.
Ferguson left David Moyes a squad well past its best and it set the ball rolling on their nine-year (and counting) title drought, with Ralf Rangnick the seventh manager to attempt the impossible job. Replacing an iconic manager such as Ferguson – or Klopp – is hard enough without being left with an ageing squad.
So how does Klopp avoid this? Well, Salah’s contract situation isn’t exactly in his hands, but that would certainly help.
The young blood at Anfield is the likes of Harvey Elliott, Curtis Jones, Jota, Alexander-Arnold, Ibrahima Konate, Joe Gomez and Kostas Tsimikas.
Clearly, there’s a big issue in attack, where all of the front three are out of contract in 18 months’ time and major decisions are needed. Even if Salah were to sign a new deal, does Mane get offered a contract he wants? Is Firmino now seen as being a fringe player and one to allow to leave in 2023? Do you sell one this coming summer to avoid losing them on a free contract?
Liverpool are said to have interest in a host of younger attacking options, namely West Ham’s Jarrod Bowen (25), Porto’s Luis Diaz (25) and Salzburg’s Karim Adeyemi (19). Adding one of those, or any other forward below the age of 25, must be high up on new director of football Julian Ward’s to-do list.
Arguably, though, it’s in midfield where an injection of youth is needed even more, with the injury-prone Thiago turning 31 this season, Henderson 32 this summer, and James Milner now 36 and out of contract after this season. Fabinho turns 30 next year.
Midfield names linked include Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham (18), Monaco’s Aurelien Tchouameni (21) and Gladbach’s Denis Zakaria (25). Acquiring one of those, to add to Elliott and Jones, would go a long way to ensuring Liverpool don’t fall into the same trap Man United did.
Adding a high-quality/high-potential midfielder and forward would also reassure Salah of the club's long-term planning and vision, so you only strengthen your hand there also.
It's clear that Liverpool need to be more active in the summer transfer window than they were last year, for a multitude of reasons. Failing to do so would certainly risk a bleak outlook for life after Klopp.
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Matt Ladson is the co-founder and editor of This Is Anfield, the independent Liverpool news and comment website, and covers all areas of the Reds for FourFourTwo – including transfer analysis, interviews, title wins and European trophies. As well as writing about Liverpool for FourFourTwo he also contributes to other titles including Yahoo and Bleacher Report. He is a lifelong fan of the Reds.
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