Jurgen Klopp: Living and breathing Liverpool
It has become a stock image: Jürgen Klopp in a wide stance, his hands in his pockets, with his back to Liverpool’s warm-ups while his eyes are transfixed on the opposition’s pre-match routine.
That period before the teams return to the dressing room to morph into battle mode offers the German rare time to do a tiny element of something he has always wanted to, but his schedule has never permitted in nearly two decades.
Watching how managers work - the translation of their ideas, the mechanics of their methodology - fascinated Klopp during his playing days and he wanted to explore it more extensively when he retired.
However, his immediate transition in 2001 from a Mainz defender to the main man in their dugout paused that plan before it was further shelved when he moved to the Borussia Dortmund helm seven years later.
In September 2015, during the closing stages of a four-month holiday after departing BVB, Klopp revisited his to-d0 list and plotted to strike an excursion through football management off it.
It would be a stretch of evolution for him, absorbing the intricacies of the position blanketed from the pressure, an outsider to the all-consuming process.
But while Klopp sketched his expedition, his agent, Marc Kosicke, fielded a phone call from someone purporting to be Ian Ayre.
Liverpool’s then chief executive enquired as to whether the luminary birthed in the Black Forest would be enthused by spearheading the revival of the Anfield side.
A Skype video chat was arranged by Kosicke to discuss further details, but moreover, to establish if it was actually Ayre on the other end of the line.
With his identity confirmed and the communication productive, a face-to-face meeting was arranged with Liverpool's owners.
On October 1, Fenway Sports Group's principle owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner and president Mike Gordon waited in the New York law offices of Shearman & Sterling to meet the man their exhaustive research - a 60-page dossier breaking down his philosophy, training sessions, statistics, relationships with players and staff, interactions with the media and everything in-between - suggested was the perfect fit for Liverpool.
Klopp arrived with Kosicke and immediately enlivened the words in FSG’s file on him: his magnetism unmistakable, but his incisive thinking and ability to communicate a clear panorama of his ideology in relation to the club's ambitions marked as most impressive.
For everyone present during the dialogue at the high-rise building on Lexington Avenue, this was it.
Exactly a week later, Klopp sat in Hope Street Hotel’s Sixth Boardroom, surrounded by sweeping views of the city, as he signed his contract to become Liverpool manager.
“I wanted to have one-year sabbatical,” he recalls from the same spot - this time without having his journey tracked on social media and fans swarming the street to greet him - as he marks three years in charge of the club.
“The plan was to have four months of holiday, doing absolutely nothing, and then go to different places because when I became a manager, the day before that I was a player.
“Since then I’d worked constantly, so I never had the chance to travel around and look over the shoulder of any great managers in the world. I wanted to do that, but then again - new job and I couldn’t.”
Klopp, so tuned to what comes next, normally eschews rewinding.
Here though, the nostalgia of being in the room where his commitment to Liverpool was ratified, can't escape colouring his face.
He frequents the venue often - it is the hotel of choice ahead of all home games - but Klopp has never returned to this loft to retrace his steps.
“Special, special” he repeats before acknowledging that while he was thwarted in his original plan for expanding his football education, he was ultimately presented with a more formidable way of challenging himself.
“I really wanted a change after 14 years managing in Germany, where I knew everything, I knew each team,” Klopp says.
“If you would have asked me about a side in the fifth division, I could have told you the names of at least four of their players.
“Then I came to England and everything is new. Yes, I watched English football before, but I was busy in Germany with my league and with Champions League and stuff.
“Then, you come here, we play a team - let’s say Hull - and you don’t know one player.
“For the preparations you have pretty much three days so you watch their games completely differently because I had completely no idea of what they do. In Germany, meanwhile, I knew inside-out how every team played.
“The start at Liverpool was really busy because we had to learn a lot of things while also playing in the Europa League, but it was exactly what I wanted - a new challenge for myself.
“I wanted to get rid of some routines which were normal after spending such a long time in Germany as a manager and have kind of a new start.
“I really feel it’s a big privilege to have the chance to do so, because it’s like an energiser it gives you a real boost, which helps.
“I’m a much better manager now than I was three years ago.”
MESSAGE SENT, MESSAGE RECEIVED
The prospect of living in England was stimulated in Klopp prior to him entering professional football.
Having travelled around the country for a month during early adulthood via an inter-rail card, where he sometimes cleaned his youth hostel digs in exchange for free accommodation and was awed by £5 bed-and-breakfast offers, the “inquisitive mind” developed a deep interest of these shores.
During his seven-year stint as Dortmund boss, English football reciprocated the intrigue as Manchester United, Tottenham and Manchester City had all checked on his availability at different points and to varying degrees.
Those in Klopp’s inner circle were convinced that when he eventually did depart the Westfalenstadion, it would be to work in the Premier League.
Beyond the fast-paced, intense nature of the division blending into the manager’s blueprint, they rated its relentless competitiveness as well as the fierce passion of supporters appealed to his character.
Most crucially, Klopp could speak the language: channelling his instructions and conviction through someone else could never be an option.
The remaining question was which English club would mesh best with Klopp and vice versa. On this, there was unanimity among his closest football confidants - Liverpool.
The Merseysiders had previously tried to tempt him from the North Rhine-Westphalia twice (2011, 2012), but his commitment to Dortmund was fortunately no longer an obstacle as Brendan Rodgers' tenure at Anfield was fading to black.
Once FSG and Klopp had come to an agreement during their New York conference, he felt like he had barely blinked before being officially appointed.
Liverpool parted ways with Rodgers on October 4 and the three days that followed were consumed by the admin of moving countries ahead of the Stuttgart native arriving into the city.
There were no extended periods for Klopp to fully draw up his preparations, so he focused on the core element: getting his message across instantly.
“I tried to prepare myself a little bit language-wise,” he reveals.
“I downloaded an app, which I have still and it helped me a lot. I felt that I needed to improve my English a bit, because like a lot of people of my generation in Germany, we learnt it in school, but then we don’t use it too much.
“I tried, at least, to think of a few things that I could say in the meetings with the players and had a look what the English word was for that. That was all my preparations pretty much, because I couldn’t do a lot.
“We left a country and our lives there behind, if you want, so we had to organise a few things. It was quite busy these four days, quite busy, and it was not a lot about football.”
Klopp’s first opportunity to share his outlook was with Liverpool’s in-house TV channel after signing his three-year contract with the option of an extra annum, in which he implored supporters to change from “doubters to believers.”
He reiterated that during his first press conference early the next morning, asking for patience as he developed the team, for people to enjoy the journey and not judge the present against the past.
“History is only the base for us. But you're not allowed to carry around your big history with you in a backpack.”
Klopp’s opening gambits were easily shareable, but also surgically addressed the key issues around the divided, despairing atmosphere which preceded his arrival.
“It was it was obvious something was wrong at Liverpool, so it was clear that we need a new relationship and that’s actually the basis for everything - the people,” he reflects.
“The first day the manager comes in, all are happy I think most of the time. From that moment on, it only can get worse, step-by-step because you cannot reach all the expectation, it’s not possible.
“I don’t know exactly what the people thought about what I could do when I came in, probably they thought ‘do something similar like what you did at Dortmund.’
“Even at Dortmund we needed a start. What I was asking for was just to give us time to start new, because if you don’t do that and if we have to start the next game and have in our backpack the last 400 games, that doesn’t work.
“It was cool that they brought a new face in and, of course, if you were used to difficulties in the past then you doubt everything, even the positive things.
“I’m pretty sure a lot of people thought as well, ‘okay, a new guy in, but will be the same as always? They have a good few games and in the end, they will win nothing.’
“And actually it happened like that,” Klopp goofily chuckles, adding: “I have said it a few times: I have no idea when we will win something, but I’m sure this club will win something.
“I don’t know when so lets have the best times of our lives until then. Let's enjoy the world, let's enjoy the football, let's enjoy the journey and it’s what we did so far - it was a good time.”
There has been an increase in the point-and-laugh approach towards Liverpool fans for relishing their explosive playing style, their return amongst Europe’s elite and the healthy running of the club despite the absence of silverware under Klopp.
He feels the joke, however, are on those who cannot comprehend how the effervescence has materialised and why it is one of the most powerful catalysts.
Prior to the Champions League final against Real Madrid in May, Liverpool organised a fan get-together at Kiev’s Shevchenko Park to celebrate the shared adventures of the season and cocoon the euphoria of the club’s progress at a place accessible to everyone who made the arduous, expensive trip over.
The event, which included contributions from BOSS Night, The Anfield Wrap and Redmen TV, is still talked about - thousands of all ages and backgrounds wearing their support in the most intoxicating way: swaying, bouncing, amplifying their voices, raising their fists, drinking the unforgettable experience in - despite Liverpool’s 3-1 defeat and the cruel nature of it.
There was, of course, disappointment from fans in the aftermath, but the sense of defiance and the belief that there would be no standing still for the Reds was even greater.
“Here, the enthusiasm of all the people involved, the involvement of all the people, the feeling of all people is brilliant,” Klopp says, agreeing that the fanbase have responded to his early messaging.
“We have to keep that, it's cool, that’s exactly how it should be, because there are more important things in the world out there than football.
“But, when you go to a match, there’s nothing more important because you’ve decided already, ‘I’m forgetting all other things, I go there to the stadium, I want to have the best 95 minutes of the week, of the month, of my life, whatever'.
“I can still feel how special it is and how blessed I am that I am really part of that. In this moment, being a Liverpool supporter or employee is fantastic, it just feels great.”
T - TERRIBLE
E - ENTHUSIASTIC
A - AMBITIOUS
M - MENTALLY-STRONG MACHINES
Transmitting his points to the world through the press came before Klopp could relay his strategy and demands to the squad.
His appointment dovetailed with an international break, which meant “I came in step by step. The first few days were quite relaxed, training-wise we brought a few kids in from the academy and then the players came back from international duty and the big challenge was to prepare them in pretty much two days for the Tottenham game with new ideas.”
Klopp waited until everyone returned to Melwood before conducting his first major meeting with the group.
He wanted his delivery to have an impact, mindfully keeping it simple and emotive.
“You don’t want to give too much information,” Klopp, who signed a new six-year deal in July 2016, says, “because it's like you’re filling a glass with a bucket and that doesn’t work very well.”
Pep Lijnders walks through how the “gaffer had total command” during his introductory address.
“His first big presentation was unbelievable,” the first-team coach remembers.
“The players were gathered in the press room and he made all the staff at Melwood, which is a lot, pass through individually through the room.
“He said: ‘Boys, do you know all of these people? All of these people are here to help you perform at 100 per cent. Do you know their names?’”
Each staffer at the training facility - from simpatico canteen duo Carol and Carolinethrough to the backroom crew - proceeded to share who they were and what they did.
Lijnders adds: “In that meeting, he created the responsibility we had to each other, the responsibility to perform and he told us “‘everyone is responsible for everything’.”
When it came to explaining his expectations of the team, Klopp spelt it out.
“I remember I wrote in big letters on a paper the word ‘TEAM’ and I said that is what I want us to be,” he explains.
“I said 'T’ is for terrible to play against - I had not a better word unfortunately… I don’t know if I have a better one now. ‘E’ for enthusiastic. ‘A’ for ambitious. ‘M’ for mentally-strong machines.
“Sometimes, we are exactly that! We can be terrible opponents to face, we have this kind of excited - a bit crazy if you want - style with organisation. We are for sure very enthusiastic and very ambitious and we have become stronger and stronger mentality-wise. Pretty much all of my players work like machines too, so I have actually what I wanted.”
Lijnders believes Klopp’s mastery in being able to carefully and cleverly construct teams based on the big picture has resulted in Liverpool's metamorphosis.
“He explained what he wanted and expected very well,” the Dutchman says.
“If you look back at his message and see how we made all these steps over the years to get closer and closer to it, it is incredible.
“He is very organised in that way - he knows the end picture. The character of the leader can be the most powerful tool and his character defines this team. We could see that from the beginning.”
It has been the psychology of the squad that has taken the most work, but the players have drastically improved on reducing the background noise and circling around Klopp’s voice.
“That was one of the first things I told them - the only criticism which is really important is mine,” the Reds boss says.
“Whatever anybody thinks doesn’t matter, yes it’s still there, but you just ignore it. I can ignore it easily to be honest, because if somebody came to me and said I did a bad job because we lost, I knew already.
“I would be the first to know it. If you lose a game it’s ‘the manager knows nothing’ and if you win, it’s ‘he’s a genius’ .
“The truth is always somewhere in-between. We have created, for sure, a better atmosphere to work. When I came in, nobody liked the team - not even the team liked the team!
“They didn’t say it, but they didn’t have to because I could see it. They thought they were not good enough to be in a Liverpool side because everybody gave them that feeling.
“The only person who was happy with the team was me, I thought ‘oh that’s a good team’ and all the others said ‘no we are not good here, we are not good there’. No, no, no it’s a good team, especially as it’s our team. When you cannot change it the moment, why do we think about it anyway? I don’t understand it.
“Always in life we have to make the best of a situation so I came in and I was completely enthusiastic about the potential of this team and their quality, which gave the boys a little lift.
“It was clear that we had to develop, and a lot of players that are key today were young.
“We had really different challenges with all the players, and of course, if you put our final defeats aside, which is actually not possible but let’s allow it still, then it is a success story and nothing else.”
Klopp reasons that if you solely look at one scoreline - like the 3-1 defeat in Kiev - you cede everything you experienced, absorbed and shared together during a season.
“For getting more confident, you need results on the way there and we had them,” he says. That has made us stronger today.
“We have brought in new players, but they alone cannot change everything. We all need to remember this.
“I know what people think about Virgil van Dijk - he is a fantastic boy and a world-class player, but he did not sort our defensive problems on his own. Football does not work like that.
“Just like how Alisson cannot keep 500 clean sheets in a row by himself. The game does not make that possible.
“We have developed, kept the majority of the team together and made a few, strong adjustments.
“Our process has been step-by-step. You cannot give everyone a book, where you write all your requirements down and players read it and immediately understand it.
“You have to feel it you, have to do it plenty of time over and over on the training ground and you have to get used to it.
“In the moment, we have a really good football team.”
COME ON, WE DO IT TOGETHER
On 13 December 2015, a deflected Divock Origi strike on 90 minutes against West Bromwich Albion at Anfield prompted Klopp to maniacally beat his chest before assembling his players at full-time, hands interlinked, as they walked towards the Kop.
The scoreboard read 2-2, not usually a stimulus for such happy scenes, but given what had come before and what he wanted to follow it, the gesture - heavily derided externally - made sense.
A month earlier, Klopp suffered his first Liverpool defeat when Scott Dann headed Crystal Palace 2-1 up eight minutes from time.
The goal promoted home fans to exit Anfield en masse.
“Eighty-two minutes—game over,” he said at the time. “I turned around and I felt pretty alone at this moment. We have to decide when it is over.”
The late strike against West Brom had illustrated that both the players and supporters believed they could extract something from the game despite the clock ticking down.It was a significant development.
“I really wanted from the first day that the people know about their importance,” Klopp explains.
“In football, people always say it - that supporters are important - but then you don’t treat them like that so you have to make sure it’s really a healthy relationship.
“We know without them we wouldn’t play on our highest level, no chance. You have to appreciate that and it’s very easy for me, but it's still very different routines in England and in Germany.
“There was a big misunderstanding against West Brom. I wanted to say thank you to the supporters after that game so I took my team towards the Kop to do it and there was a discussion everywhere about it. For me, it was 'why should we even discuss that?'
“But I had to learn that English people are not used to that kind of thing.
“I wanted to show that we really we are one unit, 100 per cent one unit. That means I know I am responsible for the performance, but the people are responsible for the atmosphere.
“So it should be a win-win situation. When we play well, it’s easy to get the crowd going and when we don’t play well, we need you to encourage us - get on your feet, tell us ‘come on’ - you have to be the stars then.
“I want us to have the best atmosphere in world football and there is no limit to what we can do actually.
“I love it how people really are involved in the game, but there’s still space for improvement - from our side performance-wise, but also to keep the atmosphere really on the highest level.
“This is a fantastic moment to be a Liverpudlian, because it’s all so positive in a not-so-positive world.
“So yeah, you are welcome to be involved in any way that you want and I say it again, let’s really have the best time of our lives.”
Klopp references “common experiences” on multiple occasions and emphasises that “it feels much better when you do things together than when you do it alone.”
A few of Liverpool’s longest-serving employees have commented that the culture of closeness and excellence fostered under Klopp in West Derby has never been stronger during the modern era.
“That’s what I love most. I’m a team player 100 per cent,” he says. “I prefer football to tennis because I want to have my friends around me, I want to be a member of something bigger.
“I think everybody at Melwood at the moment has the right feeling when they come to work. They are all really important to us, really, really important.
“In the end, there’s always one that person that makes the decisions and that’s very often me, but we’ve created a situation where I can have all the best information from the best people before I reach it.
“I would say one of my biggest strengths is common sense to be honest, because I’m not too smart, but I understand life in a specific way to realise I don’t have to know everything.
“There are people who know much more in specific parts so we brought them in. And I’m naturally confident, because I know that I’m not perfect, so I don’t think that anybody else should think I’m perfect - I have no problem asking questions.
“I brought a few fantastic people together for the benefit of the club and the project, because, as I said when I came in I didn’t want to change things immediately.
“I wanted to understand why English football teams, especially Liverpool, do things the way they did. And so we changed it little by little and we brought quality in for sure. That is something I’m very proud of.
“One of the things that I love most about my job is that I’ve met some really good, good people, which has made my life much more enjoyable.”
A GOLDEN SKY?
Three years of Klopp. Zero trophies.
That zinger is omni-present - crafted in all social media shapes and sizes, on the line in every radio phone-in show and a customary annotation on articles about the manager.
Despite Klopp's restoration of Anfield as a fortress, his rebuilding of Liverpool as power domestically and on the continent, as well as his sizeable influence on the long-term vision of the club in terms of recruitment, facilities and its identity, the 51-year-old is aware the focus will be on what he hasn’t done yet.
“If somebody wants to judge me because of the last three years then I know what people are saying, and it’s the truth,” Klopp offers.
“I lost the last six finals [three with Liverpool: League Cup, Europa League, Champions League], it’s not something that’s really enjoyable, but you can see it from two points.
“Yes we lost, but at the same time we reached them, that’s not cool but in most sports second place is OK.
“If you go to the Olympic games and you come home with a silver medal, its still something but in football it’s nothing. It’s nothing for me as well, so I don’t get up in the morning and say ‘I’ll reach another final’ or whatever.
“It’s not like this, I want to win and I know that’s the responsibility.”
Is Klopp able to step back and analyse everything he has achieved at Liverpool positively in the absence of silverware?
“Not yet, I don’t want to do that, because why should I judge my time here before it’s over,” he responds.
“Nobody wants to look back in 10 or 20 years and say ‘so the best time we had without winning anything was when Klopp was here. It was so funny and all that stuff’.
“That’s not really something you want to achieve, we still have time to do something special and we know that to underline the development and progress, we have to do it.
“Times change, and to be honest, it is much more difficult than it was in the past. If you think about it, we are maybe in the best moment for ages, but a few other clubs are the same and they made the same steps so that makes it really hard.
“It looks like we are really on a good way and the only thing I can guarantee is that we constantly develop. Our little problem is many other clubs develop as well so it’s never that you improve 20% and the others get 20% weaker. They try to do the same, to reach the next level, and that’s the challenge we all face. It is interesting, but tough as well.
“As I said in my first press conference here, if anybody thinks that I can perform wonders, then it could become really difficult in the future, because I can’t.
“I’m a pretty hard-working person, I’m pretty well paid, so I should work hard actually. That’s what I do, I try to find solutions for different problems or situations and that’s how I understand the job.
“The only thing I can do is to put all I have - my knowledge, passion, heart, experience, everything - I throw it into this club, 100%.
“I don’t keep anything back and it should work actually at one point.
“You have to bring yourself in the best situation that you are able to and use it - that’s what we do.
“When we win something, this city will explode - I’m sure - in a very positive way.”