THE LOVE AFFAIR BETWEEN JURGEN KLOPP AND LIVERPOOL: CONSTRUCTING A LEGACY, LEARNING FROM DORTMUND AND MEASURING SUCCESS

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From the moment Jürgen Klopp was appointed Liverpool Football Club manager, the entire red side of the ‘football city’ were sold. Memories of Klopp’s historic achievements at Borussia Dortmund fuelled a collective sense that a new dawn was set to arrive at Liverpool, and after the despondency towards the end of Brendan Rodgers’s tenure, a long-term project under the German’s stewardship seemed a thoroughly appealing prospect.

HOW TO SHAPE A LEGACY

There was, of course, recognition that Liverpool would not mould into Dortmund overnight.

Despite this, Klopp led the club to League Cup and UEFA Europa League finals in his first eight months in charge. By the time Klopp’s squad had arrived in Basel to play the Europa League final against Sevilla, the German manager had already created a legacy at the club as Liverpool forged an unforgettable path to the final. In the last 16 they defeated Manchester United, and in the quarter-final against Borussia Dortmund, they staged one of the most remarkable comebacks Anfield will ever witness when they came from 3-1 behind to defeat Klopp’s old club 4-3. With four second half goals driven home in front of the Kop, that night, Klopp truly won over the Liverpool faithful.  

Ahead of the final, Klopp urged all Liverpool fans to make the trip to Basel regardless of whether they had tickets or not. Contrary to UEFA’s advice that non-ticket holders should stay at home, Klopp encouraged Liverpool fans to ‘enjoy the city’ and show their support ahead of the club’s first European final in nearly ten years. Klopp was determined to guide Liverpool back to the glory of silverware after the disappointment of losing on penalties to Manchester City in the League Cup final the previous February. Glenn Billingham noted before the final for These Football Times that Klopp’s separation of the UEFA message and his own encouragement of Liverpool fans to travel to Basel ‘reaffirmed the powerful notion that the occasion of the final is all-encompassing’.

Liverpool led 1-0 at half-time in the final, but collapsed in the second half, conceding three goals in quick succession to Unai Emery’s attacking Sevilla side. Instead of lamenting yet another final defeat, Klopp publicly expressed a continued faith in his philosophy and took responsibility for the defeat. Klopp stated, ‘we couldn’t reach our level. It is my job to help the boys’, in his BT Sport post-match interview with Des Kelly. Klopp vowed, ‘I promise everybody we will use this experience and we will come back stronger’ in an attempt to lift the Liverpool fans after the disappointing defeat.

In the following season after their Europa League final despair, Oliver Kay visited Liverpool’s training facility in Melwood to find out how Klopp was operating a year after his appointment. Fenway Sports Group (FSG), Liverpool’s owners, had recently awarded Klopp a new six-year contract after only 13 Premier League wins into the job. Kay concluded that from what he had witnessed at Melwood, the Liverpool squad were ‘not short of energy or joie de vivre’. The players were worked tirelessly, but Klopp’s man-management created an environment in which the Liverpool squad would relentlessly fight for the team.

This was not only translated onto the training pitches but also in Klopp’s personal life. The German regularly joined his coaches for dinner and played table tennis at bars in the local area. Indeed, what Klopp gets up to in his own time is not necessarily a common denominator for on the pitch success, but it certainly endears him to the Liverpool fans and helps him settle personally. This is a distinct element of Klopp’s charismatic appeal in Liverpool. In immersing himself in the city’s ‘culture’, the German develops a reciprocal affinity with the Liverpool fans.

REPLICATING PAST SUCCESSES AND CONFRONTING THE INEVITABILITIES OF MODERN FOOTBALL

For Klopp, the philosophy which underpins the way Liverpool play is paramount. Understanding this is central to unlocking the team’s abilities and helps them win matches. As Billingham wrote for These Football Times, ‘Art is in the application’, highlighting the fact that Klopp’s playing style, in order to be efficient, must be meticulously perfected.

Therefore, Klopp had to work in his first two seasons at Liverpool with the long-term vision that he would eventually make the team his own, to buy players who fit his style and promote youngsters from the academy. Marcus Christenson wrote for The Guardian in April 2013, when Klopp was at Dortmund, that ‘his own philosophy of what makes a squad competitive is one that sums up the ethos of the city they play in’. Klopp told Uli Hesse in 2012 that in Dortmund, the people ‘demand that the team should play with the attributes that are closest to my heart. We want to play the kind of football people remember’. In this respect, Liverpool is hugely similar with Dortmund, and this has been decisive in Klopp’s success at the club.

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Neil Atkinson of the ‘Anfield Wrap’ podcast welcomes how Klopp wanted the kind of club where football is the ‘lifeblood of the city’. Klopp loves how Liverpudlians ‘live football; the history around it’. Not only is the connection between the city and the club important sentimentally, but Klopp has enjoyed vast success at Dortmund and Liverpool with academy players and ‘local lads’. Similar to his promotion of Mario Götze to the Dortmund first-team in 2009, Klopp’s desire to establish a ‘Scouse heartbeat’ in his starting XI has been embodied by the tremendous growth of Trent Alexander-Arnold at right-back.

Billingham concluded his piece for These Football Times with the assertion that ‘Klopp’s man-management makes him an easy man to please. Klopp exudes a personality which makes it easy for players to want to please him’. Alexander-Arnold’s rise has come to represent further evidence of this assertion, and his view of Klopp as a ‘special’ manager illustrates the formidable impact the German has had in maintaining one of Liverpool’s imbued traditions: the promotion of Scouse talent.

Klopp’s success in delivering upon his playing philosophy such as finishing in the top four of the Premier League and reaching three finals during his tenure have thus far sustained his positive relationship with FSG. Although Klopp and the club were understandably reluctant in commissioning the sale of Philippe Coutinho to FC Barcelona in January for £117 million, Klopp’s magnificent work in the second half of the 2017/18 season, where the club reached the UEFA Champions League final, renewed FSG’s faith in the German. The purchase of Virgil van Dijk in January 2018 for £75 million saw Klopp prioritise a specific position, one that was deeply problematic for Liverpool in the previous two seasons. Furthermore, with the arrival of Naby Keïta from RB Leipzig guaranteed in the summer transfer window of 2017, Liverpool were safe in the knowledge that the gap in midfield which Coutinho left was cushioned with a gifted replacement mere months later.

WHY KLOPP HAS BEEN A QUALIFIED SUCCESS

Aside from Liverpool’s transfer dealings and exploits on the pitch, there is a sense that Klopp is the perfect man to take the team forward, driven by an established ethos and appreciation of the club’s stature. Former Liverpool defender Mark Lawrenson told FourFourTwo last month, ‘Klopp gets the club. He gets the fans and even gets us older players – he embraces it and understands why Liverpool has the history it does’. Klopp’s own statements have reinforced this, making it clear that he is humbled to be managing Liverpool, aware of the importance of leaving a positive legacy at the club. ‘It’s so great, being Liverpool coach’, Klopp told FourFourTwo, ‘I never thought I would be here. We know the expectations – we have them as well’.

It is Klopp’s appreciation of his current position which perhaps leads to his praise from the wider footballing world. After all, the German seeks to deliver joy with his teams before anything. Lawrenson is candid in his praise for Klopp, claiming that he is the ‘modern-day Bill Shankly’. This may be a slight exaggeration considering the impact that Shankly had, but Lawrenson was a winner at the club and was fully aware of what it took to be successful, so he will not be fooled into thinking that multiple seasons without silverware will be acceptable.

Instead, there is a sense that Liverpool will win under Klopp, and in a recent interview with Melissa Reddy for JOE.co.uk, the Liverpool boss exudes confidence, believing that the club will win a trophy during his tenure. ‘When we win something, this city will explode – I’m sure – in a very positive way’. Klopp discusses the harsh realities of modern football by comparing his achievements at Liverpool so far with going to the Olympic Games and coming home with a silver medal. Klopp states, ‘It’s still something (an Olympic Silver) but in football it’s nothing’. This perspective has some merit, and there are other factors which are frankly plain to see in regards to Klopp’s ‘success’ at Liverpool.

In comparison to of one of Klopp’s adversaries, José Mourinho, how the respective managers currently fare varies immensely. Klopp recently said, ‘I’m a much better manager now than I was three years ago’. Can the same be said about Mourinho? Perhaps not. The Portuguese manager won the Premier League in 2015 with Chelsea, but in the three years since has not challenged competitively for the title.

Essentially, the jobs that Klopp and Mourinho undertake are fundamentally different. Mourinho was hired by Manchester United to get them back to winning ways in the short-term, to prevent a slide into mediocrity, a situation that Liverpool have found themselves in many times since their dominance of the 1980s. Klopp was hired by Liverpool with a view to constructing a long-term project at the club, and the club rewarded him a new contract once they witnessed Liverpool reach two finals with a team of limited quality.

On the other hand, Mourinho was awarded a slightly extended contract at Manchester United only after he had returned the club to Champions League football and won two trophies, thereby fulfilling the club’s short-term objectives. In comparison to FSG’s six-year demonstration of faith in Klopp, Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward extended Mourinho’s existing deal with the club by a year, a public recognition of Mourinho’s tendency to move on from his duties after three or four years.

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Klopp was awarded FSG’s vote of supreme confidence despite Liverpool failing to qualify for the Champions League during his first few months in charge. The advocation of a patient, calculated approach looks set to come to fruition as Liverpool challenge Manchester City and Chelsea for the Premier League title. Klopp has successfully conducted a full-scale surgery of his Liverpool squad, with his strongest starting XI consistently selected. For Mourinho, reactionary behaviour at the club has created a lack of confidence after ludicrous sums of money have been spent but ultimately failed to bring United back to the big-time. In doing so, this has blurred the lines between what constitutes a ‘Mourinho team’ as the existing squad effectively represents a hangover of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.

Of course, since Marcus Christenson wrote for The Guardian about the upcoming Champions League semi-final tie between Klopp’s Dortmund and Mourinho’s Real Madrid in April 2013, the German coach has won just two German super cup titles whilst the Portuguese has won the Premier League and the Europa League once each, as well as two League Cups. Christenson argued that Klopp’s ‘demeanour is such a contrast to Mourinho’s current surliness’, words which resonate with the current situation both managers now find themselves in.

However, in the context of this season, it is clear that Klopp’s Liverpool are on their way to achieving a new dawn and if they ultimately fail, it certainly won’t be Manchester United who pick up the pieces such is the nature of Manchester City and Chelsea’s brilliance.

Klopp’s success at Liverpool has been embodied by the establishment of a positive ethos which has captured the imagination of the club’s devoted fans, leading them to places they have longed for since the 1980s, underpinned by a mission to bring joy back to Liverpool, with Klopp the pioneer of a new era of enterprising and enthralling football.

BY CHARLIE PRITCHARD