23 October 2015

THE NEW GUY: THE CHALLENGES FOR AN INCOMING COACH

Daniel Gallan

Remember your first day at a new job? Were you nervous? Were you eager to impress straight away? Now imagine that you had the world’s eyes fixed firmly on your every move. Every decision you made, every experiment you attempted was scrutinised by millions of strangers. Now you get a sense of what Jürgen Klopp, the newly appointed manager of Liverpool FC must be feeling. To understand what challenges the new coach at a prominent team faces, CONQA Sport spoke with Gary Kirsten, former head coach of the Indian and South African national cricket teams

New Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp poses after the press conference. He comes to Anfield with a weight of expectation and faces a difficult challenge as the new manager of a prominent club. Image supplied by Action Images / Craig Brough.

New Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp poses after the press conference. He comes to Anfield with a weight of expectation and faces a difficult challenge as the new manager of a prominent club. Image supplied by Action Images / Craig Brough.

Jürgen Klopp made his debut as Liverpool Football Club’s 20th manager last week and was quick to dispel any notion that his arrival was the second coming of a football saviour. Contrasting Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho’s comments in 2004 that he was the “Special One”, Klopp stated that he was the “Normal One”, downplaying suggestions he would swiftly return The Reds to their former glory days.

These humble comments will do little to ease the pressure on the German. Make no mistake, despite Liverpool’s lack of success in recent years, their fans and owners expect the former Borussia Dortmund boss to change their fortunes.

Things were neither spectacular nor disastrous in the 0-0 draw at Tottenham Hotspur and so we are no closer to predicting with any certainty whether or not Klopp will shine or flop. What is certain is that for all his experience, character, and guile, one of the most likable managers in world football will be feeling the pressure of being a new manager at a massive organisation.

One man who understands what Klopp must be feeling is Gary Kirsten. In 2007, the former opening batsman for South Africa took up one of the most demanding and difficult jobs in world sport – the head coach of India’s national cricket team.

There are 1.2 billion people living in India and you’d be hard pressed to find one that isn’t a fan of cricket. Supporters worship their heroes like gods when they’re winning but burn effigies in the streets and attack their idols’ homes when they feel they’ve let their nation down. No one loves cricket more than the people of India and for a foreign coach, it can be a hostile environment.

“You have to win people over from the start,” says Kirsten, now coach of the Delhi Daredevils in the Indian Premier League. “You have to establish yourself as the leader as early as possible, and the most important thing is figuring out how you are going to build credibility amongst the stake holders of the team.”

Aware of this, Kirsten opted for a bullish introduction. With a lengthy powerpoint presentation, the normally quiet Kirsten was going to wow the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni into believing that he was the man that was going to turn things around. His plan failed spectacularly and the future World Cup winning coach learned a hard lesson on his first day in charge.

“You kind of get the feeling that you want to make a play straight away as the new coach,” says Kirsten. “But before you can do anything in a new environment, you have to understand the dynamics of the team. Patience is important and I made the mistake of trying to move things too quickly. You can’t do that as a new coach. The presentation flopped as this was not something that these guys were interested in. It was a massive wake up call.”

Klopp will be all too aware that Liverpool FC is more than just a club. It is a proud organisation with a history that is the envy of most teams in Europe. What Klopp needs to do is ignite the passion in the players that has appeared absent recently. After the departure of talisman Steven Gerrard, no one has really stepped up to become “Mr Liverpool”. As the new man in charge, he must reinvent the club that was stagnating under former boss, Brendan Rodgers.

His gegenpressinga high tempo pressing game that suffocates the opposition’s ball player, might just prove to be the shot in the arm that Liverpool need. In Jordan Henderson, Lucas Leiva, James Milner, and Philippe Coutinho, he has an experienced and potentially well organised midfield that can adapt and implement a new strategy.

What he needs is time. As Kirsten says, “In sport, you don’t have a lot of time,” and the English Premier League can be a very unforgiving environment for a manager trying to find his feet. Manchester United manager, Louis van Gaal called it a “rat race” and shifting the way a team plays can be a lengthy process.

Klopp will need results to go his way while he is establishing his own philosophy. “Very often, the reason a new coach comes in is because things weren’t going well under the old coach,” says Kirsten. That is why a shift in strategy is needed. Unfortunately, there is a chance that the new coach will be trying to fit square pegs in round holes and mistakes will be made. No coach, no matter how many titles he has won, is going to come into a new team and find the perfect formula immediately. It is in these moments that big players need to help the new coach or manager as he tinkers with the way the team plays.

Gary Kirsten (C) celebrates with the Indian players after winning the 2011 Cricket World Cup. Kirsten initially faced challenges as the new coach of a team with great expectations but found his feet after establishing himself with senior players. 

Gary Kirsten (C) celebrates with the Indian players after winning the 2011 Cricket World Cup. Kirsten initially faced challenges as the new coach of a team with great expectations but found his feet after establishing himself with senior players. 

According to Kirsten, star players need to put in outstanding individual performances during a manager’s early teething stage. Liverpool lacks a genuine superstar. Daniel Sturridge is a quality striker but his fitness is a worry. Coutinho has shown that he can pick a pass and score the occasional spectacular goal, but these are not players who are going to single-handedly steer Liverpool to a Premier League crown. The odd game here and there will require something special from an unlikely source and Klopp will look to the next transfer window to bring in star quality.

This is why Klopp, like all new managers and coaches, needs to manage the expectations of the club, owners, players, and most importantly, the fans. Realistic goals will keep morale high during this transitional period. Kirsten advises that focus should be directed to the way the team plays rather than results on the field. Unlike cricket, football is a low scoring sport and one moment of magic or mayhem can undo 90 minutes of hard work.

Would it be more favourable, for Liverpool to win a match in the dying seconds after playing poorly for 90 minutes, or have defeat snatched away from them after showing signs of improvement? For impatient fans a win is the better option but sustainability and marked improvements in performance are what all new coaches should be striving for.

If Liverpool were to finish in the top four and qualify for the Champions League this season, it would be a remarkable coup for Klopp. The truth is that Liverpool are in a league where the teams above them have better resources and players and a top four finish seems unlikely. A more realistic target would be fifth or sixth while laying a foundation for future seasons.

“People often expect a quick turnaround whenever someone new comes in,” says Kirsten. That expectation is exacerbated if the incoming manager has had success in the past. Kirsten felt this extra pressure when he was appointed as head coach of the Proteas after winning the World Cup with India. Though World Cup glory eluded him, he was able to cement South Africa’s spot at the top of the world Test rankings.

When Klopp took over at Dortmund in 2008, they had just finished 13th in the league. Three years later they won the Bundesliga and followed that up with a domestic cup and league double. But it took time and patience and those are two luxuries he must be afforded at Liverpool.

It is also important to realise that the German Bundesliga is less competitive than the English Premier League with Bayern Munich being the only club with huge financial muscle.

The big four of Chelsea, Arsenal, and the two Manchester clubs, United and City, are a level above the chasing pack in terms of funds and their ability to attract big names. While we heap praise on Klopp for his work with Dortmund, the task he faces with Liverpool is more difficult.

Sure, it wasn’t that long ago that Liverpool were challenging for the title, and the Merseyside club aren’t a mid-table team like Dortmund were, but as Paul Wilson wrote for The Guardian, “For all of Klopp’s undoubted qualities, he’s not going to bring back (Luis) Suárez, is he?”

Kirsten cites three main attributes any leader worth his salt must possess: credibility, humility, and presence; Klopp clearly has all three. His pedigree can’t be questioned and has proved that he can turn a struggling side into one that wins trophies.

Like any new coach, Klopp will be establishing himself in his new environment while stamping his authority on a club that has a proud tradition. He has the backing of the owners and fans at the moment but there are no guarantees in football. Should too many results go against him; the new manager will soon find this honeymoon period short-lived.

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016. 

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