It was the no-brainer signing of the summer. As soon as Manchester United left the race to sign Nathaniel Clyne, Liverpool acted quickly. Having moved Glen Johnson on and sent Javier Manquillo back, this was the perfect upgrade. Even accounting for the English premium, £12.5m seemed a fair price for England’s new first-choice right-back.
One can only offer a guess as to what Clyne thought of Brendan Rodgers’ decision to use him as a wing-back. It may be a similar role in name to the one he was accustomed, but Clyne was a non-specialist in a position which blends attack and defence more than any other in modern football.
Asked to be the entirety of Rodgers’ right-hand side, Clyne’s early performances became slightly confused as he tried to learn on the job. He was occasionally caught out of position, asked to run, run and run again by his manager. In Rodgers’ last four league games in charge, Clyne sprinted an average of 71.5 times per match.
“I think a bit has changed since Jurgen came in, with his charisma and his enthusiasm in training,” Clyne said a few day’s after Klopp’s arrival. “It’s high tempo also because of the work rate we’ve been doing. That will get us the results on match days.” You could feel the smile in his words – ‘No more wing-back for me.’
Alongside Emre Can, Jordon Ibe and Roberto Firmino, there has been no greater beneficiary of Klopp’s arrival than Clyne. At Dortmund, Klopp made no secret of the importance he placed in his full-backs, requiring that they be defensively solid but also offer an attacking overlap as soon as the ball was won. Marcel Schmelzer and Lukasz Piszczek both established themselves as internationals under his tutelage.
An indication of Klopp’s full-back demands came at Stamford Bridge last month as he was clearly heard haranguing Clyne for a weak back pass and poor wing play. Clyne seemed put out by his manager’s words, but improved notably after the break. He was also Liverpool’s best player at Anfield on Sunday, despite the defeat to Crystal Palace. Klopp’s demands for perfection will not be tempered.
Clyne has been Klopp’s everyman during his early weeks in charge. His number of passes per 90 minutes have increased from 39 under Rodgers to 51, while his touches per 90 mins have increased dramatically from 64 to 85.
The headline statistic is this: Under Rodgers this season, Joe Allen, Jordan Henderson, Lucas Leiva, James Milner, Mamadou Sakho, Can, Firmino, Alberto Moreno, Joe Gomez, Philippe Coutinho, Divock Origi, Adam Lallana and Martin Skrtel all touched the ball more times per 90 mins than Clyne. Under Klopp, nobody has.
It’s not just Clyne’s general involvement that has increased. Despite ostensibly being moved into a more defensive position, he is shooting, creating chances, attempting dribbles and completing passes in the opposition half at a faster rate than under Rodgers. He’s also completing more tackles too; defensive responsibilities have not been shirked. Klopp will be clear on that.
“The manager spends a lot of one-on-one time with the players,” Clyne said a fortnight ago. “Everyone knows how he wants us to play. He wants us to press players high up the pitch and not allow our opponents to breathe. That suits me. I like to run around and I’ve got the stamina to do it.” Music to his manager’s ears. Heavy metal, perhaps?
So as not to completely break Clyne, Klopp has seemingly instructed his right-back to be more economical with his efforts. Rather than continued sprinting up and down the wing from wing-back, Clyne now picks his opportunities to move forward and provide the overlap. He’s covering a similar distance each game, but the number of sprints have reduced from 71.5 under Rodgers to 56. More actions, fewer sprints, similar distance ran.
The concern for Liverpool supporters is that it’s Clyne or bust until the January transfer window. Jon Flanagan is injured, Martin Kelly and Johnson were sold and Andre Wisdom is on loan at Norwich. Clyne has played every minute of Liverpool’s Premier League campaign and started every game in all competitions bar one. The ‘Kolo Toure at right-back’ experiment was less successful than those people who tie balloons to themselves in an attempt to fly. Klopp will cross his fingers that Clyne can cope with the workload and increased demands.
Klopp’s Liverpool tenure is still in its embryonic stage, but the German has already left his mark on his new squad. If the improvements in Ibe and Sakho are more striking, it is Clyne whose responsibility has most increased. Brendan Rodgers’ fledgling wing-back has quickly become Jurgen Klopp’s VIP.