Sentimentality is a defect found in the losing side. In football, someone showing loyalty without some kind of reward in the opposite direction is often seen as a lack of ambition; the romantics are admired, the winners remembered. It’s the sad truth of Alan Shearer’s ill-fated attempt to keep Newcastle up. The reason Francesco Totti will end a stunning career with a dozen less trophies (and counting) than Gianluigi Buffon. It’s the battle cry of the Brexiteer-esque, self-styled “Wenger Out Brigade”, after each season’s crushing and customary Stoke City away day defeat.
So when Mario Götze’s proposed move to Liverpool hit newspapers, it seemed like a decent enough plan to revive his career. But did the romance of the idea help to snowball the rumours though?
Wind back a few years, and Götze was the hottest property in German football thanks in part to a certain Jurgen Klopp. A World Cup final-winning goal came, as did Bayern, who Götze opted to join despite an inevitably bitter backlash from Dortmund fans: sentiment, realised Götze, wouldn’t win him European Cups. Pep Guardiola’s Bayern relied on movement forward, from the ball-playing back four (five if you count Neuer) to a front-line always confident on taking men on. And somewhere down the line, Mario didn’t subscribe.
The thought behind the 23-year-old resurrecting form in the Premier League with his former boss is an easy one to see the logic behind. Klopp got the best out of Götze. Klopp is arguably the best man-manager in the league. Götze is a potentially world class talent, Liverpool are strengthening, and a big name signing this summer like him would’ve been a big message across Manchester and beyond.
But primarily, that’s all it would’ve been: a name. A message. Where Götze figures in a Liverpool side that don’t know their strongest line-up right now – does Mario even know his best position? – is unclear. In a way, Suarez spoiled Liverpool fans. Suddenly, a team who’d previously finished 7th were spearheaded by arguably the best striker on the planet. Sturridge, Sterling, Henderson all came into form, and the charge was on. Beautiful football followed, hope in suit, and heartbreak followed after that; but when Suarez eventually departed for an astronomical fee, it was expected that other superstars would step up, and more still would join the club to take the Uruguayan’s mantle: superstars like Götze. Sturridge continues to suffer false starts. Sterling, thought to be the next big thing in English football – note the German parallels, here – moved on acrimoniously and struggled. It was post-Bale Tottenham all over again.
Any side losing such a mercurial talent takes rebuilding; ask the Southampton players left after every annual pillage. But the Bale lesson is a good one, and arguably more relevant to the Reds. Levy replaced Bale with a cluster of players to improve on the squad, and they didn’t immediately do that, just as Rodgers’ frenzied window shopping didn’t prevent Europa League football and a season-long Sterling strop that doesn’t feel 100% over even now.
Just as Spurs learned the hard way though, Klopp’s great asset is that his players now work for each other. A marquee signing like Götze this soon into the project doesn’t exactly fit in with the philosophy. In a skewed, Tyler the Creator-inspired vision, Klopp’s a leader building a team of overachievers, as Karius, Mané, Wijnaldum and Matip all prove. Klopp is bringing in players who want to prove themselves on bigger stages, not players who have dropped down from bigger ones. A mixed second half in the season resulted in a never-say-die attitude in Europe, something that looked unthinkable under Brendan, and it seemed from the outside like personalities were taking a backseat in favour of grinding out results on the pitch. Klopp is Pochettino-esque in his the pressing game, the raising of fitness levels, the fact that this Liverpool team all want to play for each: that’s what Klopp’s all about, not luring big players with his name, like Mourinho. And actually, that’s what Liverpool as a club are all about. They band together and have each other’s backs in times both good and bad, from the 80s through to the most recent Champions League triumph. This is a club that prides itself on their fierce loyalty and togetherness, so for the manager to reflect that philosophy on the pitch makes sense.
It’s not that Götze wouldn’t improve Liverpool, discover his former self or be the focal point in this side. He’s a potentially majestic footballer who’s had a hard couple of years. But the fact that Liverpool didn’t get him, for better or for worse, represents a new chapter. This is a Liverpool side which relies on the working of an engine, the combined efforts of twelve – counting the Kop – rather than the sublime moments of the few. The lasting legacy of Leicester City after all, is that teams win you things, not massive signings. And there’s something a whole lot more romantic about that.