Wed. Feb 21st, 2024

The most momentous managerial decision since Sir Kenny Dalglish’s shock departure in 1991 lies ahead of Liverpool. How exactly do you replace the man who has raised your horizons and restored your standing as one of European football’s powerhouses?

Liverpool have time to find their successor for Jurgen Klopp, who announced Friday morning that he would be leaving the club after a little less than nine years in charge. Mike Gordon, president of owners Fenway Sports Group, has confirmed that Liverpool are still doing their due diligence in finding a successor for the German, while at the same time looking for a permanent figure to take on the sporting director role filled by Jorg Schmadtke over the last two transfer windows.

It may then be some time before Liverpool decide upon the man to succeed one of the greatest managers in Europe over the last 20 years, bad news for those clubs who are about to see their coaches peppered with questions over the imminent vacancy at Anfield. One in particular stands out as below we profile the leading contenders and dark horses who could be in the frame post-Klopp.

The clear favorite — Xabi Alonso

Within minutes of Klopp’s announcement, Xabi Alonso found himself trending on every social media platform. No wonder. The Bayer Leverkusen head coach ticks almost every box Liverpool could have. A Champions League and FA Cup winner, he knows the club, something which several of Klopp’s predecessors can attest is an altogether more important requirement at Anfield than almost anywhere else. Having gone on to win yet more honors with Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Spain, Alonso has as cosmopolitan a background as they come. Anyone who has seen him on the training fields outside the Bay Arena will be certain that the 42 year old can connect with and inspire young footballers.

The cherry on top of all that is he might be about to break a title hoodoo even more profound than Klopp did when he brought the league title back to Anfield. There is a reason Alonso’s club are nicknamed Neverkusen. They have not won a major trophy since 1993 and have never won the Bundesliga at all. As the season rounds into its second half, Bayer Leverkusen sit four points clear of Bayern Munich and are unbeaten in all competitions. Alonso has radically changed his club in his first senior managerial job.

So widely admired it has long seemed a matter of when, not if, Alonso would move to Anfield, the Allianz Arena or the Santiago Bernabeu. He has said all the right things, cooling speculation as much as he could in his press conference Friday with lines similar to those he gave CBS Sports in November. “I don’t know when that moment [to leave] will come,” he said then. “My feeling is right now here, and my mind is 100% here.  I don’t know when that will happen, but I’m enjoying it here and we have many reasons to be positive about the future.”

If one is inclined to pick hairs in Alonso’s candidacy, then one stands out. Leverkusen have made great hay in the Bundesliga this season with a more precise, measured approach that stands in contrast with much of German football. Liverpool, however, constructed a squad for Klopp that brought a degree of the Bundesliga’s verticality to the Premier League. Has Alonso tailored his style to his players? He was certainly a more defensive coach after his appointment then many assumed, but a man who ended his career under Pep Guardiola might just be inclined to embrace steady control. Ultimately, with only one senior job and Real Sociedad’s B team on his resume, there will have to be some projecting where Alonso is concerned. The early signs suggest he is the obvious fit though.

Premier League options

Roberto De Zerbi
Another of the names mentioned ranking highly with bookmakers is Roberto De Zerbi. Like Alonso, the Brighton coach’s style is not the most obviously transferable to Anfield, though the work he did to swiftly bed that approach in with an upper midtable Premier League side is a powerful argument in his favor. De Zerbi has certainly worked out some of the flaws in Liverpool’s current system, his first three matches against the Reds saw him earn two wins and a draw.

Graham Potter
If not him, perhaps another Brighton boss could be worthy of consideration. Graham Potter’s struggles at Chelsea have not particularly harmed his standing within the game, who could possibly have succeeded given the turbulence inflicted on them during those months of spend first, think later ownership? Liverpool famously convinced Klopp to sign by explaining to him why they would not have sacked him over his final season at Dortmund — would they take a similar view of Potter?

Thomas Frank
That era of Liverpool made so many hits in recruitment, both in the dugout and on the pitch, by leading the way in data analysis. A club intent on doing the same in 2024 would surely have to at least consider Thomas Frank. Since getting Brentford promoted in 2021 he has guided the Bees to 127 points in 96 top flight games and the ninth best expected goal difference in the Premier League, one closer to financial behemoths Manchester United and Newcastle United than those sides scrapping at the bottom of the table. With a limited budget (and an impressive support staff), Frank has forged a multifaceted team and connected with a fanbase through his candour and passion. If he could bring Bryan Mbuemo with him too, all the better.

Outsiders and long-shot candidates

Julian Nagelsmann
A rather more distant prospect with bookmakers than some might assume, Julian Nagelsmann does at least come with a near guarantee of availability. The 36-year-old former Bayern Munich boss answered the call from the German national team with a home European Championships looming large, but his deal only takes him through that tournament. He would be available then, but perhaps not until as late as mid-July, less than a month before the Premier League season begins.

Steven Gerrard
We’re 1,000 words deep, and still Steven Gerrard’s name has not come up. Two years ago that would have been unimaginable. One of Liverpool’s favorite sons seemed to have judged his career to a tee to be ready to succeed Klopp, guiding Rangers to an undefeated league title and starting brightly at Aston Villa. Since then the career path has become a little less bounding through the Shire, more terrifying scrabble through the Dead Marshes. Still, there’s a new contract at Al-Ettifaq at least.

Ange Postecoglu
Elsewhere it would be nothing if not amusing should Ange Postecoglu’s mission to give Tottenham their groove back end prematurely as he jumped ship to Anfield. It is also extremely unlikely given the influence the Australian has garnered for himself at Spurs and his general demeanor. 

Jose Mourinho
If amusement is the order of the day then ownership could have a go at trolling their own fans by appointing arch nemesis Jose Mourinho, giving him ample opportunity to prove that he is no longer able to draw elite performances out of footballers. Perhaps not…

Thomas Tuchel
A final theory to bring us full circle then. Should Alonso indeed end Leverkusen’s wait for a title, then that is likely to go down like the proverbial lead balloon at Säbener Strasse, where failure to win the Bundesliga might just be a sackable offence for Thomas Tuchel. Given his pick of two of Europe’s highest profile jobs (it might have been three had not Real Madrid extended Carlo Ancelotti another season), might Alonso be tempted by the altogether more achievable task of getting Bayern Munich back to Germany’s summit? If so, why not bring the former Bayern Munich boss back to the Premier League, where he himself feels more admired, and try the Klopp-Tuchel succession plan just like Mainz and Borussia Dortmund did? 

After all, it worked for them. Dortmund got 30 more points in their first season under new management compared to their final one under Klopp. If Liverpool remain on their current points trajectory for this campaign and Tuchel repeated that trick they would end 2024-25 on 117 points, three more than the maximum obtainable in a 38 game season. Beat that Pep.

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