The inside story of how Jurgen Klopp weathered the worst to lead Liverpool to the Champions League final
"And now, we will go to Kiev. It sounds crazy, but it's true."
The downpours, pelting over Kowloon as though they were bullets from above, had finally subsided. For Liverpool, however, this was the inception of the storm.
Before the sun could fully crack through the scattered clouds that Friday morning in Hong Kong last July 21st, Jurgen Klopp’s phone screen was crowded with notifications from sporting director, Michael Edwards, and Fenway Sports Group president, Mike Gordon.
The news being broken to the manager - the club had instantly rejected a £72 million bid from Barcelona for Philippe Coutinho - was yesterday’s back-page buffet in the United Kingdom courtesy of the seven-hour time difference.
Klopp’s designs for the pre-season tour had already been scaled back due to monsoon conditions that prompted cancelled training sessions and improvised workouts.
It was this development, though, which had the potential to cyclone through their preparations for 2017-18.
Liverpool could not have been more unambiguous in their response to the offer: there would be no summer sale, regardless of how much the fee shot up.
Undisguised, too, was the fact La Liga’s giants would return armed with a traditional media offensive that would pack more of a punch than their improved proposals.
As Klopp entered the private assembly room for breakfast at the palatial Ritz-Carlton, the answer immediately presented itself. The 25-year-old, inner turmoil tinting his facial features, was on edge with “an instant difference in his body language,” according to observers.
So this was a problem. Klopp walked over to Coutinho to schedule a talk for that evening, when they had an honest and respectful exchange.
Liverpool could not simply delete their plans for the season on account of Barcelona being unprepared for the loss of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain, the Reds boss explained.
It was a point he circled back to, while also emphasising that the timing was wrong, as was the message it would send about the club.
Coutinho understood that, but highlighted the sacrifices his wife, Aine, and parents had made for his career. The future revolved around them as much as it did his own ambitions.
He was happy at Liverpool, he loved the club, he was full of gratitude… But this was Barcelona. And beyond that, it represented a lifestyle change for his family, who could function within a culture so much closer to their own.
Klopp acknowledged Coutinho’s thought process, but repeated that it was about Liverpool and this was not the right thing for the club, for his teammates, or for their season ambitions.
The message was reinforced privately by Edwards and the ownership before a public declaration.
“We wish to offer clarity as regards our position on a possible transfer of Philippe Coutinho,” read a statement on the club’s official website on August 11 2017, which highlighted their “definitive stance is that no offers for Philippe will be considered and he will remain a member of Liverpool FC when the summer window closes.”
It is Saturday, January 6 2018, where a long-scheduled New Year’s celebration for Liverpool’s staff at the Klopp residence has coincided with the £142m sale of Coutinho to Barcelona.
The news had been released shortly before the flow of Monkey 47 gin and a catalogue of German lager at the gathering, with the message following the announcement on the club’s official website entirely scripted by the manager.
“Players will come and players will go, that is football, but as a club we are big enough and strong enough to continue with our aggressive progression on the pitch, even when we lose an important player. We have never been in a better position in recent times, as a club, to react in the right way. We will use our size and strength to absorb moments like this and still move forward.”
That night, as the spine of the football staff and their partners made his home their own, Klopp may as well have had the words inked on his appearance.
The party, defined as “symbolic” and “powerful” had an element of toasting to Coutinho’s contribution at Liverpool, but at the same time, there was a sense of middle fingers flying in the direction of the doom decorating his departure.
Whatever followed, those present felt they were in this together. They believed in each other, in the roster, that the addition of Virgil van Dijk would make Liverpool stronger, that there was more than enough snarl as a collective to continue on an upward trajectory.
That Klopp, above all, subscribed so religiously to this thinking translated into others sharing his conviction.
Liverpool would not just be fine, Liverpool would be fucking flying.
Klopp was a portrait of confidence and composure, but the previous five months had been stressful for the former Borussia Dortmund trainer.
It went against his entire nature, heavily built around empathy, to see a player so sewn in distress. He treasured Coutinho professionally as well as personally and agonised over what the saga was doing to the Brazil international.
Klopp imagined what it was like for him at home. He was torn by the impact it was potentially having on his wife and young daughter.
The manager knew how he'd feel if one of his own kids were going through that situation, or if his partner was being affected by it.
Part of Klopp’s weaponry is sagacity, drilling deep to appreciate what drives those that line up under him or work alongside him.
That he knew Coutinho, who is quite sensitive and counts his family as his axis, was cheerless made him so too.
But those who know him best insist Klopp is happiest sitting off and shining the spotlight on the ones he cares about having a good time.
He loves witnessing the initiation tradition of a player singing a song in front of all his teammates.
He adores the environment the squad have carved between themselves and the way they have married the serious (a strict fine system) with the humorous - Dejan Lovren’s ‘gaffer’ social media undressing stands out after he revealed his Champions League half-time rallying call at Manchester City.
Klopp can also spend hours on YouTube watching videos of joyous supporters and has noted multiple times this season that watching the crowd develop and truly connect with the team has been special.
So to view the opposite - to see sadness plague Coutinho - was piercing.
As such, if the decision was solely Klopp’s to make, the No.10’s switch to Spain would have been sanctioned before the start of 2017-18.
Never thinking he is always right, and knowing what he personally felt was trivial when juxtaposed with the full picture, the German supported the reasoning of Edwards, Gordon and the ownership in general.
It did not make sense then, that when the only route available for Coutinho to secure an exit was to go antagonist, his camp targeted the manager in their press onslaught, which only hardened FSG’s stance.
Klopp hid it well, but the falsehoods over his relationship with Liverpool’s “genius,” plus the player’s manufactured unhappiness at the club did hurt - especially as he continued to publicly fight his corner.
Coutinho’s performances post the saga, especially on the continent, may have been seen as a fait accompli, but to get him to feature in the Champions League at all was an achievement.
When it became apparent there was absolutely no twisting of Liverpool’s arm, the threat of not representing the club in Europe was still strongly being advocated by his advisors.
Gordon and Edwards toiled to surgically remove that and Klopp began reintegrating Coutinho, a process made simpler by his protection of the wantaway star.
Despite the heckling and suspicious inverted commas each time the ‘back injury’ that sidelined the midfielder in August was mentioned, Klopp never deviated from his line - even when the issue was “only emotional” according to Brazil’s doctor during an international break.
Squad harmony and ensuring there were no further hiccups to the start of the season was paramount for Klopp - he did not mind being the subject of ridicule, which drew mass respect from the dressing room.
10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…
Happy New Year!
2018 had only just ticked in, but it entered with the same complexity and concern Liverpool had enjoyed a temporary break from.
Barcelona were not so much knocking on the door as they were smashing through it. Coutinho’s desire to leave had not diminished despite his excellence behind a supreme frontline and the club preparing for their first Champions League knockout fixture since 2009.
Liverpool did not want a repeat of the upheaval of the summer, but conversely, neither did they want to cede the Brazilian during such a positive juncture.
Against the tide, they attempted to persuade him to stay until the end of the season on very lucrative terms - a deal now effective later. However, there was no budging from Barca’s end nor his: Coutinho had been on Merseyside for five years and he was adamant: it was time to say goodbye.
As the days ticked on and the eventuality of a sale became more pronounced, Gordon was hugely concerned that the uplifting tone around the club would morph into one of unrest. He was insistent that any abuse should be funnelled towards him and the ownership, shielding Klopp and the squad from toxicity.
Through this period, though, there was no calmer person at Melwood than the manager and there was no way he wouldn’t front up.
Klopp demanded that everyone relax, that this was just a football transfer, and so they should treat it as such and nothing more.
If Liverpool did not want any drama around it, then it was imperative that they did not create a spectacle themselves.
It was a transaction, not a tombstone for the Reds’ season.
The most significant factor was how the squad would react to the development. The Magician was loved his peers, but additionally, there had been an episode that played on Klopp’s mind.
One August afternoon, a desperate Coutinho approached the senior players’ committee and pencilled in a talk in one of the meeting rooms on Melwood’s ground tier.
He appealed to them to change the club’s mind, and while he knew the squad wanted him to stay, he also figured fellow professionals would recognise why he felt this was a ‘dream step’ that was critical to take.
For all the chicanery that occurred during the summer window, it was the folding of his teammates into the fuss that most annoyed Klopp.
So when the deal was done and Coutinho was off, the manager rounded up the full group in the dressing room at the training complex and delivered an incisive address.
The message was that they'd lost a great player and a friend, but it was no more than that. He told them to not give anyone on the outside a chance to say that Phil going has affected their season.
Klopp mentioned that the scrutiny would increase, but he didn't believe it would hamper Liverpool in a negative way. It was important for the team to believe the same, because if they allowed his exit to be an excuse, Liverpool were weak.
He reminded his players they could decide whether people said their collective genius had walked out the door with Coutinho.
"This is us. On we go."
Liverpool had anticipated a thunderstorm, and when the whistle for the interval went at the Etihad, they were relieved for the respite from Manchester City’s electric onslaught.
The scoreline was only 1-0 to Pep Guardiola’s men on the night, and still 3-1 to the visitors on aggregate in the Champions League quarter-finals, but those first 45 minutes were punishing.
Klopp’s half-time routine is consistent home and away. He speeds from the touchline to the dressing room, takes off his jacket and convenes with assistant coach Peter Krawitez, who has selected crucial in-match clips along with analysts Harrison Kingston and Mark Leyland.
The footage they slice is never usually of a goal being conceded or scored, but examples of how to avoid the former or ensure the latter by highlighting the positioning of the defensive line or where the best offensive spaces are.
At City, there was a deviation. Lovren had been shouting, telling the team to ‘wake up,’ that they weren’t showing enough belief and were allowing Kevin De Bruyne and co to do as they please.
Klopp pounced on this as the perfect opening for his own message and so he broke away from his normal process, allowing the centre-back to speak for just under a minute before then commanding the room.
He started by agreeing with the Croatian, before pointing at Lovren and Van Dijk, saying they were killing the team by being too deep.
He then calmly got his crucial information over: get higher, condense the pitch and stop City playing the passes that feed their strengths.
In possession, relax, orientate yourselves better and speed it up. He pointed out spaces available to break City’s press, helping Liverpool retain the ball and thwart the hosts’ constant flow of attacks.
Klopp then highlighted Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s chance at the end of the first half as the memory that would be playing on loop in the home dressing room.
He stressed that City had just seen what Liverpool were capable of and it would be terrifying them as all it would've taken was one successful attack to scorch Guardiola's charges.
There was an element of 'so what the fuck are we doing still sitting here?' as he ordered them to go out and get back on the front foot.
While City were engulfed by the emotion of the occasion with Guardiola getting sent off at half-time, Liverpool used the break to reorganise.
Klopp’s ability to cut through everything and communicate concisely was visible through the first passage of play in which his side strung five to six consecutive passes together.
It culminated in Mohamed Salah’s opener on 56 minutes that effectively ended the tie, after Gini Wijnaldum fed Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The England international dissected City to supply the Egyptian, who along with Sadio Mane had worked to isolate and unsettle Aymeric Laporte, Fernandinho and Nicolas Otamendi as per instruction.
Klopp is forever examined through his magnetism, but not his methods. People see the cool as fuck figure with his unkept stubble in a hoody and trainers, but not the tactical nerd obsessed with preparation and details.
The storyline is dictated by the hugs, fist pumps and rantings, but should be about the composed leader, who is able to read the room and never ducks a big call.
Liverpool need only a point to secure Champions League football heading into the final top-flight game of the season against Brighton? Ok then, he'll just pick four attackers.
There is a misconception too that Klopp’s management is punctuated by Hollywood moments, that ‘Any Given Sunday’ type zingers are delivered on a daily.
To this point, Andy Robertson and Oxlade-Chamberlain are often asked “what did Klopp say to you when things weren’t going well at the start of your Liverpool career?”
There is no cinematographic answer as there were no elaborate meetings or ground-shifting discussions.
He told them to continue as they were, put in the work, and the time would come, things would align.
He figures having ‘the talk’ can be self-indulgent and self-serving at times. If there is no certain benefit to a player, what exactly is the point?
And if there is no massive issue, with the criticism existing externally, why should Klopp feed the notion that there is a problem by formally addressing it?
Take Mane for example, who was slightly off colour for a period, snatching a little too much and overthinking every action.
In general, though, the speedster was still a threat, still being decisive and still ensuring that the front three functioned exceptionally while adding to his defensive duties.
There was never a big sit down with the Senegal international, simply a brief sort of ‘What’s up? Stop beating yourself up about any mistakes, I am very happy with you.’
Mane found his own way through his stifled spell, aided by a sprinkling of encouragement rather than a lengthy tactical dissection.
Klopp doesn’t hesitate to assume control when a situation demands it - see Mamadou Sakho as a reference - but he dictates when necessary, not out of ego nor as an act.
October 8, 2015
At Hope Street Hotel in Liverpool’s city centre, those who would now work closely with the club’s new manager were offered insight into the character behind the established caricature.
After Klopp signed a three-year deal worth an estimated £7m per season in the Sixth Boardroom, where Rafa Benitez had also ratified a contract with the club in 2004, he gathered the football staff for dinner.
Some expected a rousing speech from the German, others assumed it would be the introduction to Jurgen’s Law.
Instead, Klopp spoke very little, inviting everyone to tell him about themselves, their roles and how things worked at Liverpool - from training schedules to the matchday routine. He wanted to absorb as much information as possible.
When it was time to talk through the media plan for his unveiling, Klopp was asked about his preferences when dealing with press. “No, no,” he responded, underlining that this was the communication team's field and they were the experts.
They had to tell him how it should be. They had to teach him.
One of the Stuttgart native’s gifts is trusting and turning to the people he works with, previously stating “I’m not a one-man show. I was never that in my life, and I never want to be that. The best lesson you can get in a day - to speak to smart people about things they know about much more about than you do.”
It is why when recruitment continuously pushed Salah to the forefront of the agenda for Liverpool’s incomings, Klopp co-signed their expertise.
He is across everything, but respects staff who take responsibility for their spheres of influence and are bold enough to settle on important decisions without informing him of each small detail.
Klopp surrounds himself with strong personalities, and as such, perhaps that partly explains why his long-time assistant and friend, Zeljko Buvac, is expected to leave the club at the end of the season.
The Bosnian-Serb has been missing from the first-team fold since the end of April due to ‘personal reasons,’ and while no clarity has been offered on the situation, there is thought to be an element of discontent for Buvac over his standing in football.
That his absence has not affected Liverpool behind the scenes is a nod to the strength of the individuals in the backroom team.
It is a strand that runs through the playing personnel as well, with proof in the non-upheaval following Coutinho’s winter departure.
Just as the footballers have happily assumed more responsibility, so too have the coaching and support staff.
“Incredibly healthy” has been a label used to describe the overall set-up at Melwood and when you consider the seamless adjustment of Van Dijk and Salah, it seems an accurate assessment.
Meanwhile, players that took a while to find their stride, like Robertson and Oxlade-Chamberlain, never felt walled off.
Klopp empowered Henderson to cultivate the dressing room culture and the captain has promoted a togetherness many within the West Derby facility say they haven’t encountered before.
The bond extends beyond the team to the non-football staff, who are part of the fabric of the place too. This is so much so, that even when players leave the fondness lingers.
When Liverpool travelled to Rome for the second leg of their Champions League semi-final, Lucas Leiva sent back a surprise for popular canteen pairing Carol Farrell and Caroline Guest - signed Lazio shirts with a personal message for both.
Meanwhile, it is in their domain - the dinning room - where Klopp and Edwards often strategise over breakfast or lunch beyond the more in-depth presentations on players. Th while the sporting director keeps a low profile as he prefers to do his job rather than talk about it, allowing him to make moves under the radar at times, Klopp appreciates that he ise duo, who both employ an open-door policy, enjoy an effortless relationship underpinned by mutual respect.
And distinguished in his field and very decisive.
The Reds boss is never shy to talk up the brilliance of the recruitment group, who are backed by a stellar research team run by Ian Graham.
And while Edwards is not the type to seek credit, Liverpool’s forward line - the most devastating in Europe this season - is largely his sketch.
Gordon assesses the dovetailing between the pair as a core canon for the club’s success. Klopp appreciates Edwards’ intelligence in assembling a team to effectively implement his aggressive blueprint, while the transfer chief is aware that signing a top player is purposeless without a top manager to extract every inch of their talent.
The way the Reds have vaporised teams on the continent this season with their attacking venom has seen a spike in agents calling up to ascertain if there’d be any interest in their exciting clients.
Liverpool are now the running train.
'I could see myself here for the rest of my career'
FSG were convinced, but how could they not have been? For nearly five years, he was the one: the ownership’s ideal manager, who remained just out of reach.
In October 2015, however, he had finally become their one - Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp.
But it was only on a three-year deal. He had never lived outside of Germany, let alone managed in a different country, and while there were no doubts over his status as The Perfect Fit on the club’s end, Klopp was mindful of the adaptation both he and his family would have to undertake.
The contract represented a realistic scenario rather than a romantic one. During a relaxed conversation in June 2016, however, he remarked that he could imagine being at Liverpool for the rest of his managerial career to Gordon.
That put in motion an instant process to lock Klopp in after a quick discussion with principle owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner.
Within a matter of hours, fresh terms had been thrashed out with the manager’s agent, Marc Kosicke, and a new six-year deal was agreed.
Klopp had been on holiday in Ibiza before ferrying over to Formentera, the smallest of Spain’s Balearic islands in the Mediterranean Sea.
And on June 16, as he celebrated his 49th birthday, he also toasted signing on until 2022, with the news only being announced at the start of pre-season the following month.
"When you have an individual of Jurgen's quality in the building it makes perfect sense to secure that person for the long term. To not do so would be irresponsible."
Long before Henry, Werner and Gordon had first met with Klopp on October 1 2015 at the New York law offices of Shearman & Sterling, they had done extensive homework on his credentials.
It was obvious that he was charming and a unifying figure, but they sharply realised there was endless substance beyond the soundbites and mad-scientist smile.
Liverpool had craved a recognisable identity and here was a bonafide architect; a man worshipped in Mainz and Dortmund for his remarkable design work.
They spoke for hours at the high-rise building on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, chewing over everything from playing style to reawakening the fan base and reconvened the following day for further talks.
Klopp had made one particular point with regularity: Liverpool should be a force in Europe. And they could be. He would work to get them back amongst Europe’s elite, and moreover, as being the kind of team no-one wanted to face in the Champions League.
In a matter of months after arriving in Liverpool, he had guided the club to the Europa League final eliminating Manchester United, Dortmund and Villarreal en route before falling short against Sevilla at the showpiece in Basel.
In his first full season at the helm, Klopp’s side secured a fourth-place finish and a crack at Champions League football for only the second time in eight seasons.
And having navigated a tricky qualifier against Hoffenheim last August to enter the group phase of the tournament, Liverpool are in now in its final and will be at the continent’s top table again next season.
Whatever happens against Real Madrid in Kiev, Liverpool’s advancement is unarguable.
Rewinding to Hong Kong, that they have made it here - one objective boxed off, one well surpassed - through the disruption, the injuries and the sale of Coutinho mid-season, is masterful.
Liverpool have the opportunity to be the ultimate conquerers of Europe this season having already dispatched Porto, Manchester City and Roma, smashing scoring records en route to the NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium.
Most significantly though, there is a wealth of confidence within the club that this will not be a rarity, that spellbinding nights under Anfield’s lights will become a divine right again.
They believe Liverpool will not just be fine, Liverpool will be fucking flying.