How on earth do you replace Jürgen Klopp?
Liverpool's era needs defining before they hire a replacement
When Liverpool hired Jürgen Klopp in 2015, the club was seen as a huge mess in terms of behind-the-scenes structure.
Fenway Sports Group bought the club at a knock-down price of £300 million knowing it was a fixer-upper, with the entire football operation needing a complete reset. Their initial move was to hire Damien Comolli as Director of Football with Kenny Dalglish as the manager. That didn’t go so well, with both getting the sack at the end of the 2011-12 season. It wasn’t even clear who was in charge at FSG, with John Henry and Tom Werner the high-profile names among numerous investors.
They had wanted to replace Dalglish and Comolli with a similar structure. Louis van Gaal of all people was considered for the sporting director role. Eventually, it had been decided that academy director Pep Segura would be promoted to the position, with Henry himself telling the Catalonian he’d got the job. Then Brendan Rodgers blew everyone away in the interview to become manager, presumably with that incredibly genuine and sincere charisma we all know him for, and convinced FSG to change their plans to give him more control.
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Well, not exactly. FSG still wanted some kind of modern structure rather than giving the coach full control, and settled on the infamous “transfer committee”. The “committee” as such was a wildly overblown name for chief executive Ian Ayre liaising with director of technical performance Michael Edwards and head of recruitment Dave Fallows, the three men taking on the roles of a Sporting Director between them. The biggest problem was that Rodgers wanted nothing to do with this, and pushed the club to sign his own targets instead. Thus Liverpool would sign a weird mix of poorly scouted players Rodgers wanted and trusted alongside interesting players who didn’t fit into any of the manager’s plans. Surprise surprise, it didn’t work and was a key factor in Rodgers losing his job, with Klopp his replacement.
Klopp was happy to work in a continental model but wanted a much clearer structure. Edwards now took on the responsibilities of a sporting director himself, getting the official title about a year later. Both Klopp and Edwards would then report directly to Mike Gordon, the FSG executive now put in almost complete charge of Liverpool. The structure was clear, and decisions were much better for it. Liverpool went from being one of the worst-run big clubs in England to the best. The Reds were making some of the best transfer deals out of nowhere, incorporating analytics and modern recruitment methods alongside traditional scouting flawlessly.
But as is often the case with football, events got in the way. Edwards decided to step down at the end of the 2021/22 season, seemingly less out of bad feelings than just a desire to try something else. Assistant sporting director Julian Ward got promoted immediately, but he then decided to leave after one season, for reasons that remain a mystery. While all of this was happening, Gordon took a step back from day-to-day operations at Liverpool. At the time, it was reported that he was focused on exploring a sale of the club that never happened, though more recently it was claimed he “took time off”. In the meantime, Liverpool’s CEO based in England, Billy Hogan, took over those responsibilities after previously only covering the commercial side.
There was suddenly a vacuum with Klopp the only senior football-qualified person. I’m not sure this was a “power grab” as some suggested, but decisions inevitably became more manager-driven. Interim sporting director Jörg Schmadtke described himself as “the assistant for Jürgen”, such is Klopp’s level of control at this point. Perhaps it’s fine to bend your structure for Klopp, one of the two greatest managers working today. But it raises a lot of unanswered questions when he’s leaving in six months.
Schmadtke is set to leave imminently and Liverpool need to hire a permanent sporting director. Sam Wallace of the Telegraph claims that the club are “likely to appoint a new sporting director in advance of the final decision on the successor to Klopp”. That makes sense. Whoever ends up getting that job, I don’t think they need to reinvent the wheel. Edwards success came working closely with Fallows, chief scout Barry Hunter and director of research Ian Graham. Fallows and Hunter are still in those same roles, while William Spearman has taken over Graham’s role with the analytics department still intact. Gordon has returned to a more hands-on role after his time away. Liverpool just need a sporting director to be a cog in an already effective and successful machine rather than breaking it up and building their own thing.
From there, the real decisions start.
Keep reading after the break for my thoughts on what Liverpool should look for in the next manager and how the team might be reshaped.