Liverpool FC is just six points away, with nine games to go, from winning a first English top-division title in 30 years and former Reds goalkeeper David James feels manager Jurgen Klopp's philosophy has been the turning point.
With the 2019-20 Premier League season suspended indefinitely due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, Liverpool's title hopes suddenly hang in the balance as the competition may not resume.
David, who is also the former manager of Indian Super League (ISL) club Kerala Blasters, is currently under lockdown in Hertfordshire, UK. The Englishman opened up on how to deal with an incomplete season, the next step for Indian football and more in a chat with Sportstar .
What do you think is the reason for Liverpool's recent dominance?
This season and the last have been a culmination of Jurgen Klopp's philosophy over four years. Right at the beginning, Jurgen had joined the club outside the transfer window. He didn't buy any players in the first opportunity he had. He gave the entire Liverpool players a chance to prove themselves and that was remarkable.
There were eight players signed prior to his arrival that season. In England, there was a lot of scepticism towards the new recruitments and most players were considered not good enough. Jurgen turned those players into ones that people respect now. The likes of Divock Origi have scored important goals in the Champions League. It was a gradual thing and this season has been tremendous. Irrespective of what happens in the future, Liverpool is in a very good place.
What has Klopp done better when compared to previous managers?
It's more to do with his philosophy. He's been changing the roles of players and that has helped. We see the youngsters playing in the FA Cup. You can see there's a lot more to come. These are exciting times for Liverpool fans. The game has changed on the whole. We had a different cultural understanding when I first joined Liverpool. Jurgen has made great investments. He's got a wonderful group now and he seems to be knowing the club very well. He's managed money in a much better way. You can tell with the way he speaks during pre-match and post-match interviews that he has empathy with his players.
Lots of managers in PL plan exactly what they're going to say after a match and most of them repeat the same things. At present, only Jurgen and Pep Guardiola defy that, hence they're the two best managers in PL. Klopp is the best in the world at the moment. It's his personality that goes through the club right now and that's changed what Liverpool was for 28-29 years.
What should be done if the season doesn’t end?
In order to have a champion, the key point is to not only consider the Premier League but also the English football pyramid. There are four divisions. Even if you want to sort out the anomaly surrounding European qualifications, promotions and relegations, the whole pyramid should work in synchronisation. Otherwise, the entire system fails.
You can give Liverpool the Championship but you need someone to be relegated as well in order to carry on with the Championship and other lower leagues. If the games can't be physically played, then I strongly believe that there should be some kind of algorithm to determine who wins, who gets relegated and who gets the European spots. The Champions and Europa leagues have to be completed this season and continue next year as well. So integrity has to be maintained.
Do you feel Virgil Van Dijk deserved the Ballon d'Or last year?
Van Dijk has been truly fantastic and he definitely deserved a spot in the final three. I hadn't watched much of Spanish or Italian football last season to judge if Lionel Messi had the season worthy of winning the award or if Cristiano Ronaldo impressed. It's very difficult to pick and chose.
And I'm not sure if you're aware of this. The criteria for Ballon d'Or is not only about the performance on the pitch. It also includes charitable work and stuff like that. So I don't know what each player has done on the charity side. If the award was given on only the football side, then I guess Van Dijk has done better in terms of trophies than Messi and Ronaldo.
Who has been Liverpool's player of the season so far?
Alisson has missed quite a few games. (Sadio) Mane has been important at times. Van Dijk is so good all the time. However, I think one player was missed very much in the recent games and that was skipper Jordan Henderson.
When he wasn't there in the squad, it didn't look the same. Henderson is a player who has grown massively this season. If it was my call, Henderson would win the PL player of the season award, but I think Van Dijk will claim it.
What's the reason for Kerala Blasters' downfall in the last few seasons?
The first season was an experiment and you know we got to the final. It was a really wonderful experience. The first three editions were shorter compared to the others, teams were closer and recruitment was easy. You can bring in players for half-a-season and they could play elsewhere after that.
When the season was extended, it went over the January transfer window and became a very different proposition. The team was struggling and I know when I went back (in 2018), we couldn't afford to spend loads of money to bring in players for just five matches. That's unsustainable. Eventually, we did quite well in the second half of the season.
I wanted to be part of something where we could go through development. The whole structure was kind of set up around building academies and bringing local players from the streets of Kerala. Since it's a football-loving state this made perfect sense. I knew there were always going to be problems at the beginning with regards to player abilities and how we recruited them.
At the start of the latest season, we had a great win against ATK. And as the season progressed, the little things weren't going our way and there were a lot of draws. The confidence was down. However, in the bigger picture, it still makes sense because the development of local players is much more important than always recruiting superstars.
Is ISL the way forward for Indian football?
When you look at the Indian football team, ISL becomes an unattached entity. The ISL can be entertaining and that's fine. However, the irony is when we were at the bottom of the league we still had five players going away to the AFC Asian Cup. So the performance in the league becomes immaterial.
I do want my players to represent their country. From the national team, they should qualify for major tournaments. The challenge that India faces here is that the ISL is only 18 games per side, 20 or 21 if you make the playoffs; 21 matches in 12 months are nothing. The PL has 38 games and English clubs play 40 to 50 matches per season. So England national team's representation is solely based on that. The Indian players are not getting enough competitive game time. Other Asian countries are improving pretty quickly as they have longer leagues.
Every ISL club has one pitch to train and that is used by the visiting side and others as well. The quality of those pitches isn't good either. When you add all these up, you end up with a product which is substandard to be able to challenge the rest of the world.
So playing more games is the key to success...
The ISL should join with I-League. Launch a 15-20 team league. Conduct more games and give local players opportunities. One thing which bothered me in the past was people claiming that Indians didn't have the physicality to play football. You need to compete with stronger sides often. People like Sunil Chhetri have more competitive experience outside India and you can tell when you watch him play. Increase in competitive games for clubs and the national side is a must. A good pre-season is required.
When we played Girona FC and Melbourne City in 2018, I knew we wouldn't win the matches because those sides were better. The important thing is to see what football looks like elsewhere. If you are not going to compete with players of that level then the international team is going to struggle against teams of that level.
* Fans can visit the official Facebook page of Sony Pictures Sports Network, @SonySportsIndia and watch ‘Sony Ten Pit Stop’ to catch David James from 5.00 PM on April 22, 2020. *
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