What Klopp could learn from Houllier’s 1999 summer
Jurgen Klopp is facing the first major squad rebuild of his Liverpool tenure, perhaps his career in general, and could do a lot worse than learning lessons from decisions made by one of his predecessors.
The late Gerard Houllier took all of the reigns at Anfield following the departure of joint-managerial equivalent Roy Evans in November 1998.
At that time, transfer windows didn’t exist. August 31 was merely a day in the calendar and not the colourful and at times tedious television sideshow it has become.
Despite having the freedom to bolster the squad whenever he saw fit, Houllier opted instead to hold onto his cards and wait until after the season to conduct the main surgery required.
Liverpool’s current boss has no such luxury 24 years on and I dare say he would have dipped into the market several times last season had he had the chance, but there are some discernible similarities between the jobs faced by both managers.
On the face of it, it was an exciting time to be a Liverpool supporter and an era where the side’s true potential was immeasurable.
Steve McManaman’s free transfer to Real Madrid landed a huge blow to kick the summer off, but the Reds still had plenty of young talent waiting in the wings.
Michael Owen had lit up the 1998 World Cup in France and was two years away from picking up a Ballon d’Or.
Robbie Fowler had just bagged 18 goals in 35 appearances and Steven Gerrard was getting primed to become arguably the greatest player the club has ever seen.
Houllier’s issue was that his side lacked muscle memory. By Liverpool’s standards, the 90s was a dry patch which yielded just two domestic cups to follow the 18th league title that came in 1990.
To combat this, the Frenchman brought in Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz to shore up the back line, along with goalkeeper Sander Westerveld and German international midfielder Didi Hamann.
Emile Heskey and Vladimir Smicer were also brought in to give Liverpool some extra firepower, along with Titi Camara and Erik Meijer for depth, but the real improvements came with the increased defensive solidity.
Liverpool had an issue and used the summer to rectify it directly. Having conceded 49 league goals in the somewhat chaotic 1998/99 campaign, the Reds shipped just 30 in the following season and climbed from seventh to fourth in the league table.
There was no silverware, but the progress was palpable and the fruits of Houllier’s labour were not far around the corner.
Twenty-four years apart, the club finds itself at a crossroads and at a point where decisions over the coming weeks could have huge ramifications for seasons to come.
Houllier’s reign never quite gets the recognition it deserves in relation to others. The historic treble in 2000/01 was not only a monumental achievement at the time, it restored a winning mentality to a team that were beginning to look lost.
The summer of 1999 was crucial to laying the foundations for that, adding experienced players with knowhow and allowing that feeling to emanate throughout the group.
In some ways, that is what the Reds are naturally beginning to lose today.
Each year more and more of the players who were part of the side that won everything are saying their goodbyes to Anfield and the expertise that comes with that medal haul is almost impossible to replace.
James Milner, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Gini Wijnaldum were among those who contributed to the most-decorated period in the club’s modern era. More will follow them out the door next summer.
Liverpool struck quickly to address the deficiencies stemming from signing just one senior midfielder in four seasons by bringing in Alexis Mac Allister just 11 days after the conclusion of 2022/23, in some ways it was the perfect response.
The midfielder joined with a big reputation having captured the World Cup with Argentina in December and at just 24 Klopp didn’t have to compromise on age profile to get a ready-made winner.
But Mac Allister’s signature alone was never going to be enough to satisfy supporters and solve the underlying issues which saw the Reds drop out of the Champions League for the first time since 2016.
The task in hand
Now the manager must find solutions outside of those who have won him everything, the players who he adores so dearly and would trust with his life.
Football is a brutal sport and there are no prizes for sentimentality. A scattergun approach to spending doesn’t always pay dividends, just ask Chelsea, but Houllier demonstrated in 1999 the benefits of calculated yet ruthless methods for getting where you need to be.
Klopp’s squad also has youth in abundance, but the key difference is the expectations that the manager and his players have themselves manifested.
The likes of Harvey Elliott, Curtis Jones, Stefan Bajcetic and Ben Doak are expected to perform now to be deemed plausible options, winning the European Cup and Premier League title in successive seasons necessitates that.
The manager has shown a willingness to give his young players opportunities, but sometimes that has strayed into the territory of reliance and has shone a brighter spotlight than would typically be fair at such an age.
The shortages of options, particularly in midfield, have facilitated that due to standing still for too long in the transfer market.
Just 12 months ago, Liverpool got within touching distance of going where no club has gone before and would have gone down as the greatest side to grace the sport.
It demonstrates that the Reds aren’t a million miles away from where they need to be, like they had been when Klopp took the job in 2015.
But last season also proved that the team are more than the sum of their parts and any missing pieces of the jigsaw can accelerate the downfall if careful measures are not taken.