Finally. An interminable wait stretching 30 years plus one lockdown is over and Jürgen Klopp stands alongside Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan as an immortal who made Liverpool champions of England and Europe. There is no asterisk attached. Liverpool’s 19th title may have arrived with the Kop eerily silent but it was a resounding triumph for a dominant, record-demolishing side.
“I am not the guy who is going to shout: ‘We are going to conquer the world!’” said Klopp at his unveiling. Yet that is precisely what the 53-year-old from the small Black Forest town of Glatten has achieved. This is the story of his own Project Restart …
When they’re sitting around that table to appoint a manager, do they say: ‘He can be part of the committee?’ That’s wrong, and I don’t think Jürgen will accept that.
Sir Alex Ferguson, October 2015.
The former Manchester United manager was right to worry about Klopp revitalising his old adversaries but wrong about how he would put Liverpool back on their perch. A paradox of Liverpool’s rise to European, world and English champions inside 13 extraordinary months – it could have been 10 but for lockdown – is that it has been accomplished by a manager yielding greater authority than many predecessors, yet who delegates and defers like few others before him.
In a world that increasingly shuns experts Klopp embraces them and not only physically. Whether tempting renowned backroom staff from Bayern Munich – head of fitness and conditioning, Andreas Kornmayer, and head of nutrition, Mona Nemmer – or appointing a throw-in coach, Thomas Grønnemark, having researched the Dane’s world-record throw on Google, Klopp has shown an effective leader does not have to be an autocrat in the modern game. “You cannot have enough specialists around you,” he said when explaining Grønnemark’s appointment in 2018. “I must always be the guy who makes the decisions on when we use all these specialists but you cannot have enough.”
His willingness to defer to the sporting director, Michael Edwards, on transfers, however, lies at the heart of Liverpool’s renaissance. The club’s “transfer committee” was synonymous with waste and drift before Klopp’s arrival. It still exists, with many of its members overseeing recruitment at Anfield, only now it delivers thanks to the manager’s receptiveness towards others and without the unofficial title that once dogged it.
Klopp’s office sits opposite Edwards’ at Melwood. It is located where Gérard Houllier envisaged it should be when the training ground was redeveloped in 2001, looking down on the first-team pitches. That panoramic view has been incorporated into the new £50m training complex under construction in Kirkby, incidentally. The Melwood offices are roughly 10ft apart and the carpet between them well-worn. Klopp can be regularly found in Edwards’ office, feet on desk and planning the next step. The scene is in stark contrast to when Brendan Rodgers was in situ and pushing to sign a striker who never suited Liverpool’s style, Christian Benteke, one month after Edwards and co had landed what should have been the perfect one, Roberto Firmino.
Rodgers’ use of Firmino, often on the left or on the bench, bewilders to this day but the summer of 2015 encapsulates perfectly the top-level dysfunction that held back Liverpool for so long. “Players the club brought in,” was Rodgers’ way of stressing he was not entirely responsible for signings. Nor is Klopp, although he dismissed the notion he could not work within Fenway Sports Group’s preferred structure on day one. “For me it is enough to have the first and the last word, the middle we can discuss,” he said. “I am not a genius. I don’t know more than the rest of the world. I need other people to get perfect information.”
In Edwards, Klopp realised quickly he had that source. The Liverpool manager’s tactical vision was clear but he needed others with inside knowledge of the transfer market to find the suitable parts. Sadio Mané, acquired during Klopp’s first summer, started a pattern of supreme talent identification that has underpinned Liverpool’s rise to champions; the key change overall. Klopp ranks the decision to not sign Mané from Red Bull Salzburg among his biggest mistakes at Borussia Dortmund, yet righting that wrong with Liverpool was not the obvious move it now looks. Mané was inconsistent at Southampton and unproven at the highest level. Liverpool, sensitive to accusations of paying inflated prices, insisted the fee was £30m. Southampton maintained it was £34m, correctly.
Twelve months later, with Edwards promoted from technical director to Liverpool’s first sporting director, a role Klopp had worked alongside for 14 years in Germany, Mohamed Salah arrived for the same price from Roma. Liverpool scouts including Dave Fallows and Barry Hunter had tracked the Egypt striker since his emergence at Basel but there was no guarantee a player who struggled at Chelsea would flourish in English football. At least not to the phenomenal extent he has. Georginio Wijnaldum had impressed in patches at Newcastle. Andy Robertson had just been relegated with Hull when Liverpool paid £8m for an uncut diamond of a left-back. In 2018 Liverpool had the market to themselves for Fabinho, despite Manchester City being in the market for a holding midfielder and missing out on Jorginho. Liverpool, under Edwards, have pursued the right players for Klopp’s system, not necessarily the biggest names.
Virgil van Dijk was the £75m exception in January 2018, accompanied by the £65m capture of Alisson six months later. Transformational signings who rectified longstanding flaws in an instant and elevated the entire team, the pair represented a fundamental shift in Klopp’s approach. Eighteen months earlier he had lamented football’s flawed economics as Manchester United negotiated an £89m deal for Paul Pogba. “I would even do it differently if I could spend that money,” he said. “The day that this is football, I’m not in a job any more.”
Neymar’s £198m move to Paris Saint-Germain gave Klopp an excuse for his sea change. He employed it occasionally but was also honest enough to admit: “That’s the problem these days, whatever bullshit you say nobody will forget it.” The Van Dijk deal was controversial – with Southampton accusing Liverpool of an illegal approach and refusing to sell in the summer of 2017 – and ultimately a reward for patience. Klopp declined to look elsewhere for the centre-half he desperately needed and held out for his first choice. He also stood firm on a conviction there was only one goalkeeper to improve Liverpool when Roma, stung by the Salah fee, initially quoted £90m for Alisson.
Pre- and post-Van Dijk, Klopp has kept a pathway open for Liverpool’s brightest academy talent. The manager dismissed Nathaniel Clyne’s claims at right-back early in his reign but did not sign a replacement on account of Trent Alexander-Arnold emerging through the ranks. The homegrown youngster struggled in the senior squad at first but, once called up, he was there to stay. Klopp wanted time to work on Alexander-Arnold’s technical ability and believed a similar full-back on the opposite flank would be ideal for his system. Enter Robertson, also beneath the required level on arrival but another who Klopp felt would develop on the training ground. In many respects, and with the exceptions of Alisson and Van Dijk, Liverpool are a side of slow-burners, Firmino and Fabinho among them.
Klopp has been repaid handsomely for last summer’s assessment that this squad had more to give. He could have built from a position of strength having guided Liverpool to their sixth European Cup and the first trophy of his reign after several near-misses. Instead, he did not make one outfield signing. There has been only one in the last three transfer windows – Takumi Minamino for the cut-price release clause of £7.25m in January. The Dortmund left-back Raphaël Guerreiro was considered and attainable last summer but Klopp, Edwards and the FSG president, Mike Gordon, opted against paying a sizeable sum for a player to serve as back-up to Robertson.
They favoured stability plus the occasional major signing who could make a telling difference. The latter ambition has been affected by the ravaging effects of coronavirus on football’s finances. Timo Werner and the £53m release clause in his Leipzig contract long appealed to the Liverpool hierarchy. The striker favoured a move to Anfield but the pandemic has prompted a rethink at a club faced with an annual wage bill in excess of £300m and, according to the chief executive, Peter Moore, “unprecedented operating losses”.
The anticipated postponement of the Africa Cup of Nations, which threatened to occupy Mané and Salah for up to six weeks next season, would ease pressure for quality cover in the short term. With the title wrapped up Klopp has the luxury to rotate before the new campaign while City are occupied with the Champions League. Liverpool’s dominance strengthens the conviction Premier League titles can become the new normal at Anfield.
He’s your friend but he’s not your best friend.
Dejan Lovren, November 2015.
The throwaway line from the Croatia international was delivered weeks into Klopp’s reign and summed up the dynamic between the charismatic manager and his players. Their relationship has developed over time and changes in personnel but it underpinned the sense of unity during lockdown and is fundamental to the achievements Anfield revels in today. Lovren was speaking with respect for a manager who had earned plenty at Dortmund. Klopp was in command from day one. Players know there is a line that should not be crossed, although the manager has adapted to their needs at important moments. Hugs and belly laughs alone do not make Klopp an ideal manager for the modern footballer. His public persona projects an image that is partially true and overshadows the meticulous approach and training-ground graft that have made Liverpool such a force.
To Klopp the training ground is sacred. Respecting Melwood as a place of work is his absolute rule. There is no leeway on that instruction, a point he enforced by banning impromptu visits from wags, agents and hangers-on as soon as he arrived. Family members and representatives now make appointments. Some rules are more flexible. There is no smoking inside Melwood, obviously, so Klopp goes outside on to a first-floor balcony at the back for a sneaky fag whenever the craving overrides his persistent attempts to quit. Well, he is the boss.
Another change introduced at the start was more and later training sessions. Sessions corresponded with the kick-off time of the next game, the amount of time off was drastically reduced and training was unremittingly intensive. The template had served Klopp well in Germany but Liverpool players complained about the impact on family life. Several were unhappy at missing the school run and having to make alternative arrangements. Others claimed the demands contributed to the downturn in results that Liverpool suffered during Klopp’s first few winters. The manager accepted the feedback and, coupled with his shock at the fixture schedule in England, tailored training routines, their intensity and times accordingly.
Before lockdown imposed its unforeseen break Liverpool’s players had been given more time off in the last two fruitful seasons than previously under Klopp, who still oversees every training session. This season Liverpool have also travelled to several away matches on the day, rather than staying in a hotel overnight. Leicester on Boxing Day was one. Having just won the Club World Cup in Qatar, Klopp felt his weary players deserved Christmas Day at home. He was repaid with arguably Liverpool’s finest performance of the season in the 4-0 win. A huge moment.
Klopp took a stand against the fixture schedule when he refused to select any senior players for the FA Cup fourth-round replay against Shrewsbury. But there was another factor at play in that decision. He had promised the first-team squad a genuine mid-season break and they responded with a winning streak that included hard-fought victories over Tottenham, Manchester United and Wolves. When the Cup replay clashed, the manager felt he could not go back on his word. The decision was universally appreciated inside a dressing room who know Klopp has their backs.
Supporting players under pressure, whether in word at a press conference or in deed by keeping them in the squad, ignoring outside influences or the temptation for a quick transfer fix are other attributes that have fostered unity. It is not done for effect. Klopp has never deviated from his core philosophy that players can always be improved through coaching. There are very few exceptions to that principle within the Liverpool squad. There are also few examples of players betraying Klopp’s trust with breaches of discipline, surprisingly few given the intense scrutiny on the club and the strong characters within it. Perhaps Mamadou Sakho provided a salutary lesson.
The France centre-back missed the 2016 Europa League final defeat by Sevilla as a consequence of a Uefa doping charge that was later dropped. He was sent home from Liverpool’s tour of the United States that summer after almost missing the flight out, missing a recovery session and turning up late for a team meal. He aired frustration at being sidelined the following season on Snapchat. Klopp called a team meeting at which Sakho was present to declare he would not tolerate dissent on social media. The defender was banished from the first-team squad, made to train with academy players and joined Crystal Palace, initially on loan, four months later. There have been no public fallouts on that scale in the intervening three years; a reflection of the personalities that have come into the club as much as the manager’s disciplinary code. Players adhere to the manager’s insistence that the team come first and there are no allowances for star names.
Klopp delegates the running of the Liverpool dressing room to Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Van Dijk and Wijnaldum. He keeps a distance from the players’ inner sanctum and allows senior players to resolve any trivial internal matters. He knows he can trust that group to uphold standards and, in Henderson, Liverpool have a selfless but demanding captain. The midfielder banned title talk among the squad until the feat was accomplished. His influence enables Klopp to take a step back. Not that there is an impenetrable barrier between players and manager.
Klopp is reminded of a player’s birthday in order to congratulate them on the day, usually in front of their teammates on the training pitch. He is also informed of any serious problems that affect his squad, such as family illness, and will have a private word. There is a lightness to the working day at Melwood. Klopp has interests beyond football and two sons who keep him up to speed with social media and life for a younger generation. His world view, shaped by the experience of becoming a father at 20 while studying at university, working in a warehouse at night and trying to make it as a player, means conversation around the dinner tables at Melwood is not limited to football. He gave journalists travelling to cover a game in Munich a list of the best beer halls to visit. The instructions were followed with almost religious devotion.
Jürgen Klopp, September 2016.
Liverpool’s title triumph reflects Klopp’s ability to connect with players. His team have dominated with a relatively settled first-choice XI, give or take rotation in midfield and changes forced by injury, but the entire squad has made an impact. There has been no public clamour to leave from established internationals deprived of playing time. Winning helps appease everyone and, though Xherdan Shaqiri could have gone in January had Klopp given the green light, the manager has kept everyone onside.
Milner, Divock Origi, Adam Lallana, Lovren and Joël Matip have made valuable contributions. Lallana was assured his patience would be rewarded with a starting role against Everton in the FA Cup. Some senior professionals might have sulked at the thought of carrying academy players; Lallana led by example and Klopp doffed his baseball cap to the 32-year-old as he left the pitch victorious. Everyone has felt part of this historic campaign.
When Klopp interrupted his sabbatical to take the Liverpool job it was a personal opinion that, for once, the manager had taken a bigger risk with the appointment than the club. His stock was considerably higher than the team’s in October 2015. It goes without saying Klopp’s judgment was correct: Liverpool was the right place at the right time. Managers who prefer to develop winners and a winning mentality rarely get the time at a global giant but Liverpool’s position among the elite of English and European football had gone when Klopp was approached by FSG. He was granted patience as a result and, though progress has always been evident to those who follow Klopp’s team, there was no internal pressure on the manager during his first three trophy-less campaigns. His reconstruction of the team also coincided perfectly with the rebuilding of the club.
The lucky bastard Klopp was referring to is himself. The admission came at the grand opening of Anfield’s £114m main stand at the start of his first full season in charge. Anfield had felt a lonely place to Klopp when fans filed out of the ground before the end of a defeat by Crystal Palace in his fourth home game. It has been re-energised since the redevelopment and not only owing to the presence of an extra 10,000 supporters. Klopp’s responsibility, he said when the main stand opened, was to “fill it with life”.
The painful irony of winning the title without a crowd is lost on no one at Liverpool but the extent to which Klopp’s team have delivered is phenomenal. A season-ticket holder will have witnessed 56 victories, 14 draws and two defeats in the four Premier League seasons since the stadium entered the 21st century and FSG resolved decades of controversy and heartache over Anfield’s future. A pandemic has deprived them of more, as well as the long-awaited opportunity to celebrate as champions should.
These unprecedented times have also impacted greatly on the finances of a club that recorded a £19.8m loss in the year before the main stand was rebuilt but profits of £42m and £125m in the two most recent financial years. That money had been reinvested in Klopp’s squad and infrastructure before Covid-19 struck. Although plans to increase Anfield’s capacity above 61,000 with a redeveloped Anfield Road stand have been postponed for 12 months, and uncertainty stalks football’s landscape, the foundations are in place for continued dominance from Klopp’s side.
That is for tomorrow. Today is not how any Liverpool fan could possibly have imagined but it is the moment they have craved for 30 years all the same.