Klopp facing an inevitable captaincy conundrum at Liverpool

The words of one of his predecessors is sure to have been echoing in the thoughts of Jurgen Klopp since August, the start of a season where he hopes to finally deliver some silverware to add to his spiraling status on Merseyside.

“If you are first you are first, if you are second you are nothing,” said Bill Shankley, straying from one of his usual one-line zingers to state the cold reality of England’s top flight.

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Unfortunately for the German, despite the messianic reputation acquired over the last three years, he has yet to enter the winner’s enclosure in any competition since bringing his “heavy metal” style of football to the Premier League.

It’s taken a few seasons but building a positive rapport with his players – an understandable rare approach given how dispensable those in his occupation are – is finally paying dividends, but as you battle for top honours from all sides, while the trophy cabinet remains strikingly bare, the scope for compassion dwindles.

The need for a lack of compassion is something the Liverpool manager has probably noted with a certain conundrum down the line, charging its way towards him in much the same way his much lauded attacking triumvirate would chase down the lone centre-back, white in his eyes, possessing the feet of a flamingo with rickets.

Klopp’s future predicament became all the more evident in Wednesday night’s Champions League clash with Red Star Belgrade as Fabinho delivered a masterclass, incisively poking neat balls through the Serbian side’s lines as well as exhibiting Inspector Gadget-like qualities to cut out balls heading in the opposite direction.

He masterfully dominated the various avenues the visitors attempted to navigate through and having just turned 25 the day before, and having reciprocated Klopp’s gift of a first European start in red with an imposing display, he could be a permanent nexus linking a visibly strengthening defence and attack at the club for the best part of the next decade.

The early signs certainly suggest the wait has been worth it, just as Andy Robertson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had been beforehand. But what does this mean for the club’s captain?

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There’s no doubting Jordan Henderson’s work ethic and passion on the field, but as for pure unadulterated artistry the Englishman has fallen well down the pecking order, even if injuries and prolonged settling in periods have handed him more minutes on the pitch.

As impressive as Klopp’s execution of gegenpressing has been, avoiding an interior maelstrom at Melwood when – and not if – he drops his captain will be the most impressive achievement to date for the affable coach.

Obviously the English international brings more than a few drops of zeal to a game as captain, but with the likes of James Milner and Virgil Van Dijk, both certain starters when everyone is available, more than capable of comfortably wearing the captain’s armband the case for starting Henderson dissipates further into the Merseyside ether.

His Brazilian colleague’s omnipresent style,and a sixth sense for detecting future passes, cancels out the need for a second anchoring midfielder.

And even if Klopp opts for the conservative approach, Georginio Wijnaldum has arguably been marginally more impressive – if the unspectacular role can be described as such – in that holding position.

The ideal scenario for the manager would be Henderson accepting a role as an impact sub when needed. The 28-year-old, to his credit however, doesn’t appear to be the kind of player that would be satisfied assuming such a role off the bench.

Club legend Bruce Grobbelaar recently claimed a witch doctor curse was behind Liverpool’s dearth of Premier League titles over the last number of decades since his retirement.

In order to lift the curse, he claims, somebody needs to step up and urinate on all four goalposts at Anfield but having managed to sprinkle the posts in front of the Kop he was removed from the pitch when heading for the Anfield Road End. Or so he says.

In the bizarre scenario where the the club decided a leader was needed to step up and counteract the workings of some African sorcery, Liverpool’s captain would probably be first to put his pride on the line and drop the togs in honour of the crest.

Nobody doubts his dedication to the cause; his arduous workmanship just doesn’t stack up well enough in a midfield now consisting of artists in their trade.

In a side with the versatility of Liverpool, Henderson is beginning to look as out of place as the Child of Prague on Richard Dawkin’s mantelpiece.

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The real headache for Klopp should be deciding whether to start Naby Keita, a player in his pomp when bursting forward over the midfield whitewash, or the giddy Xherdan Shaqiri, the short and ostensibly stubby guy with the body fat percentage of a chicken’s leg but perhaps the club’s best answer to a number 10.

If Liverpool’s deadly front three is to be converted into a terrifying four-pillared vanguard, then the Swiss answer to Messi most likely holds the key.

Hence the options for Klopp are simple: keep the club’s captain in the starting line-up or increase the side’s winning prospects by dropping him for players with more to offer.

Obviously dropping a captain, especially one as passionate as Henderson, can bring its difficulties and pollute the environment at the club, and if that happens, does Klopp release his captain in January?

It would be a ruthless move, uncharacteristic of the man who is revered by his players much like the carefree substitute teacher moonlighting in a Metallica tribute band.

But the player’s marketability as an English international, as was the case with Leicester City’s Harry Maguire, will skyrocket Liverpool’s asking price should they go down that route, as unlikely as it seems for now. Will the board let business trump reputation? Inconceivable, it is not.

The Liverpool manager will more than likely want to hold on to Henderson’s experience but it may be a case of plata o plumo for the Liverpool boss if his first lieutenant begins to spoil what seems to be a merry atmosphere around Melwood.

Man-management skills have been a salient strength of Klopp’s but the next few months will truly test the 51-year-old’s ability as a peacekeeper.

Men like Shankley, Paisley and Dalglish were capable of making the tough decisions when needed, or just managing to keep everything afloat. Klopp’s time is fast-approaching.

The Author

Aonghus Ó Maicín

Freelance sports writer currently wandering around the Far East. Contributor to both national and local media outlets.

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