A London tourist (remember them?) would not have captured as many smileys as there were in Liverpool’s squad over the past week. From James Milner’s passive aggressive stance then belated smiley face substitution on Sunday to Gini Wijnaldum’s fixed grin after a delicious third goal against the Hammers, this was a team that remembered how things work in harmony. Except that the narrative of Liverpool being back wasn’t as clear-cut this time. As Wijnaldum said: “I don’t want to say we are back because I think you have to show it every game again. That’s what we have to do.”
It was very wise of the Dutchman to put in that caveat. Who is happy in football these days? Just Pep? Even then, it is only a few weeks before the Champions League brings a furrowed brow and a serious tinker against Monchengladbach for no particular reason.
After the Anfield club’s 3-1 Thames cruise at the London Stadium, Henry Winter emoted: ‘One look at Jürgen Klopp’s relationship with his Liverpool squad is to see a manager who cares deeply for them as players and people. No agenda or ego diminishes Klopp’s dealings with his players. He fights for them, and they fight for him. Klopp is manager, mentor and father figure, sharing a joke and a will to win.’
Winter was trying to argue that Jose Mourinho should do more of the empathy part. It was a point that was overplayed, like Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Once more into the breach’ line in Henry V. Liverpool were too bloody tired to go once more into the trenches. It is not the season of Shakespeare. More like Mrs Brown trying to stop the next family crisis.
When Roberto Firmino scored a last-gasp winner against Tottenham in mid-December, all was relatively well in Klopp’s world while Mourinho’s mood descended into something contagiously sour. He couldn’t laugh it off, like when he fell to the floor after Gio Lo Celso had missed a glorious chance to equalise against the same opponents 12 months previously. Back then, the Portuguese was only a few months into the job with a free three-month trial to get up to speed. He could afford to play to the crowd. Liverpool were different gravy.
Oh what a wonderful honeymoon January 2020 must seem in comparison. Jose and his squad are now probably waking up to the comparable strains of Madness’s Grey Day: ‘In the morning I awake. My arms, my legs, my body aches. The sky outside is wet and grey. So begins another weary day.’ The soundtrack is beginning to toll some familiar rhythms of discontent – Serge Aurier walkouts and Dele Alli lethargy to name but two.
Indeed, Jose only talked of sadness after Spurs fell to defeat to Brighton off the back of another loss to his nemesis Klopp: “When you are too sad, you have no energy, enthusiasm or confidence, and that was what the team showed in the first half,” said Mourinho. No energy? Wow. That was Liverpool on Wednesday night against the same opposition. For the whole 90 minutes.
When he was out of work and breathing fresh air without fear or stress of success or failure, Mourinho reminded any potential employers that to really succeed he would need “structural empathy” and a yearning for people he loves, people who want to work for him. For all his non-touch feely air, Mourinho at his best, like Klopp, can create a family as he did at Inter, even if it feels a little like a war clan: “It’s not possible to do something special if it’s just the Coach: we had a special group and a special family. They brought out the best in me. I helped many of them get to the top, but many of them succeeded with me.” Yes, he has to have the last word about his influence, but, let it go. That is Jose…he doesn’t need a YNWA theme tune.
Mourinho cannot magically create unity at a club that was in deep depression after failing to pull off the Madrid heist in June 2019. He now has to be a strong father, dealing with the Dele wails of discontent and the frustration that the word ‘patience’ brings in today’s global restlessness. Why, wasn’t it this very site saying that we got it wrong about the Portuguese just a few months ago? Has he now gone stale within 60 days of the reversal of fortune?
Mourinho can do unity. He is not all about the friction. It might not work out. It will probably end in tears. Now is not a good time to predict why or how.
After a wounding week with losses in London and the south coast, Mourinho picked a good time for togetherness before the Chelsea game. He spoke of finding “common ground” with Alli and that Tottenham needed “good Dele” to work with him. He gushed about Tanguy Ndombele. And Harry Kane’s annual January injury is only for a week. He also added: “Of course a coach needs time and needs stability, and [it] is a very good thing to feel stability.”
Whatever the short term, Jose looks longingly at Jurgen and his family structure, even if at this moment both of them are feeling distant from their goals. Klopp has what Jose wants: a tribe that might sometimes feel exhausted with each other but are united by something much bigger.
Tim Ellis – follow him on Twitter