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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Welcome to Liverpool, Arne Slot: Your in-tray is already overflowing

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Jurgen Klopp offered one last example of his skills as a motivator. He has proved time and again he can galvanise 11 people. He also had the best part of 60,000 in the palm of his hand, as he demonstrated on his farewell to Anfield. Getting them to sing the name of his successor, Arne Slot, constituted a seal of approval for Liverpool’s next manager, an attempt to smooth his welcome with popularity. For some, it may have had echoes of Sir Alex Ferguson’s words to supporters on the Old Trafford pitch 11 years ago: “Your job now is to stand by our new manager.” David Moyes lasted 10 months at Manchester United.

It isn’t always easy to follow an iconic manager; Unai Emery, doing outstanding work at Aston Villa, floundered when following Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. Slot has Klopp’s blessing and prepared for life on Merseyside by joining in a rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at a party as he bade farewell to Feyenoord. The more pertinent part of his new job, however, does not concern the soundtrack.

Klopp’s words on the Anfield pitch were a further indication of his theory that Liverpool 2.0 will not end with his departure. “It’s not an overhaul needed,” he said. Speaking before his valedictory victory against Wolves, he said: “We all agree four weeks ago it was a super squad.” He has demonstrated loyalty to his players; Slot does not need to show it, but part of Klopp’s skill set was to get footballers to deliver more for him than they had for anyone else. That becomes a challenge for whoever takes over from him.

Arne Slot is the new man in charge of Liverpool (EPA)

Not merely for Slot, who will have less power than Klopp wielded, as an off-field team is being put into place and they will have an immediate significance. Fenway Sports’ new CEO of football, Michael Edwards, Liverpool’s incoming director of football Richard Hughes and the returning Julian Ward will constitute three of the decision-makers. Three huge calls beckon, with captain, vice-captain and top scorer all out of contract in 2025.

Virgil van Dijk, who has praised Slot and said he wants to stay at Anfield, is yet to receive an offer. “Nothing has changed and nothing is on the table either,” he said on Sunday. “No changes in my situation at all.” He will turn 34 a few days after his current deal expires: FSG have tended to be reluctant to give long and lucrative contracts to players in their thirties but the Dutchman has had an excellent season. There are reasons to renew.

Trent Alexander-Arnold’s future is not yet assured (Peter Byrne/PA Wire)

The presumption is that Trent Alexander-Arnold could be a Liverpool lifer: the next captain, a local who has shown no interest in decamping elsewhere. Yet a unique talent’s age – 25 – makes him the greatest priority. Perhaps, though, Mohamed Salah could still produce the biggest fee if there is anything resembling a repeat of last summer’s £150m offer from Saudi Arabia. At almost 32, with his 2024 performances perhaps lending themselves to evidence of decline, he presents the biggest dilemma. It might make financial sense to sell but it would mean the Slot years begin with a huge footballing loss, the sort that, if it went wrong, could seem a fatal blow.

Meanwhile, the departures of Joel Matip and Thiago Alcantara are already confirmed. Perhaps Jarell Quansah’s emergence – further proof of how youth development is part of Klopp’s legacy – will mean Liverpool decide they don’t need a centre-back, that they already have their new Matip. If a like-for-like replacement for the oft-injured Thiago may not be targeted, there is a greater case to search for a defensive midfielder: as well as Wataru Endo did in winter, it feels an incomplete part of the rebuilding job.

Darwin Nunez remains something of an enigma (Getty)

Beyond that, it will be instructive what Slot makes of some of the curiosities in Klopp’s squad. The German was largely excellent in juggling them but Darwin Nunez felt an £85m enigma who ultimately defeated him. Slot could deem the Uruguayan a first choice, or choose Cody Gakpo, or Diogo Jota, or he may want a new signing. In midfield, Ryan Gravenberch displayed talent but delivered too little in his debut season. Dominik Szoboszlai was terrific in the first few months, less convincing in a stop-start spell thereafter, but potentially a high-class gift from Klopp for the future. Curtis Jones had a brilliant three months in the middle of the campaign, Harvey Elliott a terrific end. A new manager may reshape the midfield pecking order.

Elsewhere there is a theory that right-back Lutsharel Geertruida is the likeliest player to follow Slot from Feyenoord: if he joins, it may point to more appearances in midfield for Alexander-Arnold. Slot may be unlikely to forge the bonds Klopp had with both the support and the players, and the German’s deft man-management was a reason why, for instance, Caoimhin Kelleher settled for life as a second-choice goalkeeper. Klopp leaves a large squad with a host of gifted youngsters who may want further opportunities. The sheer volume of them could complicate Slot’s task.

The hardest bit, of course, is simply following Klopp, the huge personality who had a colossal impact at Anfield. But as one era ends, another will start. Klopp has got Anfield singing Slot’s name. It is up to him how long they carry on.

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