IIt’s the time of year when conversations tend to focus on one topic and for football managers, it’s the January transfer window. Liverpool’s recruitment strategy has been much admired in recent years, but this time the question for Jürgen Klopp wasn’t about digging up another Mohamed Salah, but simply whether he would be reluctant to bring in an unvaccinated player.
As the coronavirus has ravaged the game list, the Liverpool manager envisioned a future where a vaccine refuser could pose more trouble than he’s worth: as a threat to his teammates, creating a two-tier system when he must be separated from the rest of the squad. the squad and a logistical nightmare as the need to quarantine could exclude him from many a game.
“We’re not close to signing a player yet, but I’ve thought about it and yes, it will definitely have an impact,” Klopp said. His friend Steven Gerrard, the Aston Villa manager, has expressed similar sentiments. If Klopp has a jabs-for-jobs policy, vaccines could shape the future for his part.
Liverpool is a rarity, with vaccine uptake at 100% and boosters encouraged once everyone is eligible. It’s a simplification to say it gives them full protection from call-offs as Virgil van Dijk, Curtis Jones and Fabinho missed Thursday’s win over Newcastle after recording positive lateral flow tests. But while anti-vaxxers elsewhere are apparently partly responsible for the delay, Liverpool will face Tottenham on Sunday. That’s why Klopp wants potential teammates of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Salah to trust Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca.
“If a player is not vaccinated at all, he is a constant threat to all of us,” said Klopp. “He doesn’t want to be a threat. It’s not that he thinks, “I don’t care about the others.” But he is [a threat] and we have to find different scenarios. He has to change in a different dressing room, he has to eat in a different dining room, he has to sit on a different bus, he has to drive a different car: organizationally it gets really messy. ”
As annual Champions League participants with a cast of players representing their countries, Liverpool should be more aware than most quarantine rules for the unvaccinated, as well as the contacts of those who test positive.
“If you really want to follow the protocols, it’s incredibly hard to do,” Klopp said.
“Like a [player] gets Covid and he [the unvaccinated player] around him for the past four days, he will be in seclusion. If we have to travel to a country to play international football and we come back, he has to isolate himself. Of course it will have an impact. We have to do all these things like build extra buildings for unvaccinated players and it’s not going to happen.”
The 20 Premier League managers will meet virtually on Monday to discuss the game’s latest Covid crisis after a weekend in which six top games were cancelled. A power outage may not solve anything if Omicron is still a threat in a few weeks.
Klopp is concerned that canceling games later in the season could lead to a backlog. His answer lies partly in honesty. He has consistently argued for greater transparency. While other clubs have a fog of secrecy surrounding players and affairs, Liverpool were quick to confirm the identity of their trio on Thursday.
The paradox is that many of his executive colleagues, whose job it is to tell players what to do, have refused to instruct their prosecutors on a matter of critical importance. Klopp is a decision maker who has not dodged a decision. He is an outspoken proponent of vaccination and has brought morale as well as football leadership.
“I trust experts,” he wrote in his program notes on Thursday. “I take the advice of smart, educated people who know their field because they’ve devoted their lives to it and studied it.”
A belief in experts, be it a throw-in coach or a nutritionist, has served him well in management. The feeling now is that too many players at other clubs have instead shown confidence in conspiracy theorists or confidence in the strength of their own bodies.
A quarter of EFL players do not plan to be vaccinated. In contrast, 93% of their La Liga counterparts and another 4% have antibodies. Serie A and Bundesliga are thought to have similar numbers and while a postponement puts the fixtures on the agenda this weekend, they are generally rarer abroad. It seems an unfortunate case of exceptionalism in England; Klopp, a critic of Brexit, may recognize a theme.
The EFL anti-vaxxers could become a more immediate problem for the elite in January’s FA Cup. Shrewsbury, Liverpool host, whose manager, Steve Cotterill, spent nearly 50 days in hospital with coronavirus. Despite this, not all his team is vaccinated. Klopp is relieved to see the draw at Anfield and thinks of those at risk in the more cramped spaces of lower league stadiums.
“We’re going there [Shrewsbury] going to an away game in the FA Cup and changing in very small changing rooms, that was the situation last year,” he said. “We play against a Football League team at home but others play away and I’m not sure how it’s arranged. It’s just not 100% thought out.”
Another season has turned into an obstacle course. It calls for more leadership, and not just from Klopp. “It’s not just [about] stop the competition or continue as usual,” he said. “There are things in between that we have to sort.”