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Friday, June 21, 2024

Liverpool next manager contenders: Xabi Alonso, Roberto De Zerbi, Julian Nagelsmann in frame

It is the day all Liverpool supporters knew would come eventually.

At the start of next season, Jurgen Klopp will not be sitting in the Liverpool dugout. Instead, it will be someone else.

But who?

Just as it was when Alex Ferguson left Manchester United and Arsene Wenger left Arsenal, Klopp will be a hard managerial act to follow. His legacy is set in stone after leading Liverpool to domestic and European success and forming one of the greatest groups of players the club has ever had. Good luck to whoever is next.

So with Liverpool understandably keen to begin the recruitment process, The Athletic looked at some of the possible options available to the Fenway Sports Group (FSG) as it decides who will lead a new era at Anfield.


Xabi Alonso

A former Liverpool midfielder returning as the heir apparent. Too bad Steven Gerrard has just signed a new contract with Al Ettifaq, right?

But it has been Xabi Alonso who, in recent times, has become a much clearer candidate to make the move to Anfield — and the job he is doing with Bayer Leverkusen is all the evidence required.

Arriving in October 2022, it wasn’t an easy first season for Alonso. But over time, his tactical and coaching methods have shone through and he has shaped a team in his image. The Spaniard can use learnings from a career that saw him play under a succession of elite managers — including Rafa Benitez, Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola.

After 18 games, his side are unbeaten at the top of the Bundesliga — and four points clear of second-placed Bayern Munich. They play an exciting, possession-dominant, intense style of football in a 3-4-2-1 system. His team can also be pragmatic when required, albeit not quite the “heavy metal” football Liverpool have played under Klopp at times.


(Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

Alonso has installed a winning mentality and a fighting spirit at Leverkusen not dissimilar to what Klopp has built at Liverpool. He is a ‘first-in, last-out character’, who often broods over tactical details for hours on end. Alonso is not quite the showman Klopp is, with his focus solely on the football rather than other departments across the club.

Alonso performed at the highest level as a player and appears to be more than capable of coaching at it too.

Andy Jones


Roberto De Zerbi

The Brighton & Hove Albion manager’s introduction to the Premier League came at Anfield in October 2022 and his side raced into a deserved 2-0 lead after a dominant opening 30 minutes.

It was the first insight into what has become common knowledge: the Italian is an innovative, detailed coach who has turned Brighton into one of the most fascinating teams to watch in the Premier League.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has claimed that De Zerbi has changed English football; a pretty big compliment from one of the greatest managers of all time.


(Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

De Zerbi likes his players to be protagonists on the pitch and that requires a possession-dominant side. He wants his side to build from the back and create space to progress the ball to attacking players.

At its best, it has been a match for the best sides in the division. He is tactically flexible and willing to change his setup, system and approach throughout the game to gain advantage and control.

He has imprinted his style on a squad who have bought into his methods completely. His exuberance on the touchline demonstrates his passion and would likely resonate well with Liverpool’s supporters.

With access to bigger resources than Brighton can offer him and a higher-quality squad, it would be interesting to see how good a Liverpool team coached in De Zerbi’s methods could be.

Andy Jones


Michel

Given Klopp’s transformational effect on the club, it makes sense to glance over at Girona for inspiration on their next managerial miracle worker.

Michel has been on some journey with the La Liga leaders, picking up a side still reeling from a second-consecutive play-off final defeat at the start of the 2021-22 season. In the two and a half years since, Michel has taken Girona up and kept them safe before embarking on a scarcely believable title charge with Real Madrid this season.

Michel’s style hinges on inventive movement and bravery in possession to pull the opposition apart. In an early season trip to Sevilla, the coach was caught demanding his players take “two touches minimum” and to play “street football” in the face of an aggressive press, insisting on personality to play through the pressure.

That philosophy shows through in the numbers: only Las Palmas have completed more passes in their own half this season, while Girona have the lowest direct speed of any La Liga side, pointing to patient, considered build-up.


(Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

His tactics are adaptable and creative, epitomised by the changing roles of Miguel Gutierrez throughout the season; a left-back turned central midfielder, winger turned box-crashing No 8. Michel’s character is intense and obsessive, a Guardiola-esque communicator from the touchline.

A move to Liverpool would suggest a stylistic rebuild, as well as a huge step up for a budding young coach. Then again, it is nothing that Michel hasn’t navigated before.

Thom Harris


Simone Inzaghi

Liverpool since the start of 2021-22: Champions League finalists, FA Cup winners, League Cup winners, Community Shield winners. They have not managed to dethrone Manchester City, but have been consistently excellent in knockout competitions.

Inter Milan under Simone Inzaghi since the start of 2021-22: Champions League finalists, twice Coppa Italia winners (Italian Cup), thrice Supercoppa winners (Italian Super Cup).

Rarely is a head coach with that kind of trophy cabinet readily available, but such is the notorious instability with Inter — and Serie A more broadly — that he has not had his contract extended beyond summer 2025.


(Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

The sticking part is tactical. Inzaghi always plays a 3-5-2 — as he in his previous job at Lazio — but his Inter side have become increasingly adaptable. They rank first in Serie A this season for high turnover goals, 10+ pass sequences and sequences that end with a shot or touch in the opposition box. For direct attacks — a proxy of counter-attacking — they are second.

This style and shape could suit Liverpool’s player profiles, particularly a wing-back role for Andy Robertson on the left. It could add sufficient midfield and defensive support to move Trent Alexander-Arnold inside permanently. It means trading wing-backs for wingers, but Mohamed Salah and Darwin Nunez look equally threatening as No 9s, and Liverpool could continue to be tactically flexible.

Liam Tharme


Unai Emery

Unfairly laughed at in his time at Arsenal, Unai Emery’s return to the Premier League has been an emphatic redemption story.

He has taken a despondent, struggling Aston Villa side and made them title and Champions League-qualification challengers in fewer than 12 months.

Emery’s credentials are tough to question, particularly in Europe where his expertise led Sevilla to three consecutive Europa League titles between 2013 and 2016 and more recently with Villarreal in the 2020-21 season.

The 52-year-old is a workaholic and he has been afforded plenty of control at Villa to surround himself with people that he trusts and works collaboratively, with such as sporting director Monchi. That is something Liverpool will need to consider given the additional upheaval of Klopp’s coaching staff and interim sporting director Jorg Schmadtke all departing too.


(Visionhaus/Getty Images)

Emery is well-respected in coaching circles. He has improved players collectively and individually, sticking to a set of core principles and a tactical framework that can be tweaked depending on opposition and game state.

He tends to favour a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 system and wants his side to play fluid, attacking football with constant movement and combinations.

Out of possession, his side take up a 4-4-2 shape and his team press and adopt a high defensive line which has made them extremely successful at catching opponents offside. This season, they have provoked 106 offsides, more than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues.

How many discussions have been had about Liverpool’s defensive line over the years? It’s something that would certainly continue under Emery.

Andy Jones


Thomas Frank

As close-to-home replacements go, Thomas Frank could be a shrewd (and fairly realistic) target to minimise the potential impact of wholesale tactical change.

The Dane has overseen Brentford’s impressive rise to the Premier League with minimal fuss, with two mid-table finishes under his belt and some notable wins along the way. Only Brighton (40) have taken more points against the ‘Big Six’ since their promotion; Brentford have beaten Manchester City twice, Chelsea three times, and Manchester United by four goals to nil.

Frank is tactically flexible, tailoring his aggressive out-of-possession philosophy to exploit the weaknesses of his opponents. Brentford’s pressing numbers are ‘best-of-the-rest’, ranking eighth for the number of passes they allow per defensive action (PPDA) since their promotion, reflecting their desire to assert themselves despite their recent arrival to the top division.


(Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Brentford’s usual 4-3-3 shape will also be familiar on Merseyside, as inverted wingers allow full-backs freedom to push on. In addition, Bryan Mbeumo has thrived in a Salah-esque role under Frank, while his preferred 3-5-2 against the bigger sides in the division makes Alexander-Arnold’s inverted role in possession a familiar concept. It is little wonder that the 50-year-old has admirers at Anfield.

Things have been more challenging this season for Brentford, losing both Ivan Toney and Mbuemo for large chunks of a competitive third season in the top flight. But Frank, as always, has acquitted himself well and feels eminently poachable for a club of Liverpool’s size.

Thom Harris


Julian Nagelsmann

Aged 30, Nagelsmann, seen as one of football’s brightest young coaches, prepared for Hoffenheim’s clash with Liverpool in a 2017-18 Champions League qualifier by playing down the influence of Anfield’s atmosphere before the game.

By the time he departed Merseyside, he knew all about it. Liverpool won 4-2 but they were 3-0 up after 21 minutes with Hoffenheim stunned (and Nagelsmann left scratching his head in the dugout).

He would likely be much more complimentary about it if he were to be sitting down for a press conference after having been announced as Liverpool’s new manager.

For some time, Nagelsmann felt like a natural successor to Klopp. But after spells at RB Leipzig, Bayern Munich and the German national team, he is not quite the hot property he was when he burst onto the managerial scene.


(Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Nagelsmann is an innovative manager, ingraining specific principles and structure into players and tweaking them depending on the opposition. He frequently makes creative tactical changes in game, often switching between three and four at the back. But this approach worked against him at Bayern Munich, where his micro-management and messages to the players became overly complicated at times.

Nagelsmann’s idol is Pep Guardiola, so it is no surprise that many of his ideas attempt to replicate the Spaniard. He wants his side to build from the back and be possession-based while pressing high when they lose possession.

Klopp praised Nagelsmann when he was appointed as Germany’s manager and labelled him a “great coach”. He is not, however, the man-manager Klopp has proven himself to be at Liverpool and there would be pressure on Nagelsmann to show he can deal with managing a big club in the wake of his unhappy spell at Bayern.

Andy Jones


Ange Postecoglou

This would be a tricky one, mate.

The former Celtic boss has only been at Tottenham Hotspur for eight months but has deservedly received huge praise for the job he has done. Spurs’ style of play and mentality have both been completely revamped — and all in the same season when they lost talisman Harry Kane to Bayern.

Still, Postecoglou grew up in Australia as a Liverpool fan. He spent his childhood staying up late with his dad — whose favourite player was Kenny Dalglish — to watch them.

The 58-year-old has breathed new life into a Tottenham side that looked well short of it last season. His use of inverted full-backs to create overloads in central areas in his 4-3-3 system looks like an approach that could be replicated at Liverpool, and his possession-based style results in plenty of attacking flair.


(Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

One of the biggest compliments afforded to Postecoglou has been that despite the numerous injuries and suspensions he has had to deal with, the team’s style has not changed. He is wedded to it and even when circumstances are against them — such as going down to nine men against Chelsea — they remain determined to play their way.

Had the Klopp departure come 12 months further on, a move for Postecoglou would certainly have been plausible as he has rarely stayed in a job for more than two or three years. He would love to manage the club one day, though, so Dalglish might be needed to visit London.

Andy Jones

(Top photos: Getty)



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