Sport Editor Adam Robertson discusses Jurgen Klopp's transformation of Liverpool FC following their confirmation as Premier League champions.
“I am the normal one”, said a beaming Jurgen Klopp in his inaugural press conference as the Liverpool manager in, remarkably, October 2015. At the time, one of the biggest clubs in England sat 10th in the Premier League table and had just parted ways with Brendan Rodgers. Liverpool had won just three of their first eight (none of which came in convincing fashion) and its hierarchy had decided it was time for a change of leadership.
Since 2010, the club had only one honour to its name — the 2012 league cup which only came after a tense penalty shoot-out against championship side Cardiff. The 2013/14 season provided a lot of excitement but ultimately ended in heartbreak after Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip and then when the side surrendered a 3-0 lead away to Crystal Palace. It was not a great state of affairs for a club supposedly built on greatness.
The club had also failed to act diligently in the transfer market. Whilst we all might be quick to point out the likes of Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho (who together would make the club a profit of £190 million), the years before had seen the club acquire players like Fabio Borini, Mario Balotelli and Danny Wilson, none of whom were up to the standards at what was expected of a club of Liverpool’s stature.
Flash forward to June of last year. Divock Origi drills a shot with his left-foot past Spurs’ goalkeeper Hugo Lloris on a roasting night in Madrid to secure the club’s sixth European cup. In spite of the way the lovable German portrays himself, there was nothing “normal” about the time that elapsed between that initial press conference and last Thursday night when his side were crowned champions of England for the first time in thirty years.
Ironically, Klopp’s journey as manager began away at white hart lane in a chaotic 0-0 draw. Despite only having had a few days with his new players, the relentless style of “gegenpressing” made popular by Klopp was in full swing. Players at the club all noted there was a new intensity to the training and the manager’s vibrant personality was bringing a new sense of positivity to the club. He told the fans that they had to change from “doubters to believers”. His first season saw the club reach two finals – they had not reached one since the two domestic trophy campaigns of the 2011/12 season. They lost to Man City in the League Cup final on penalties. The real heartbreak though came when, after a stunning run to the Europa League final in Basel – a run which included a remarkable comeback over Klopp’s old club – Liverpool fell short to Sevilla. It was a stern reminder that Liverpool still had a lot of work to do and were not yet ready to compete amongst Europe’s elite despite Klopp’s positive impact. He defiantly declared “we will use this experience and we will come back”.
Klopp did have his doubters though. He had faltered slightly towards the end of his tenure at Borussia Dortmund. His side had been fighting relegation almost half-way through his final season although he did manage to guide them to a seventh-place finish to bring his period at the club to an end. However, Liverpool would continue to make progress, with the acquisition of Senegalese winger Sadio Mane from Southampton (now considered one of the best wingers in world football) propelling them to 4th place and Champions League qualification.
What was most exciting though was that Liverpool had started to act far more diligently in the market. Whilst Liverpool’s closest rivals in recent years turned to Europe’s powerhouses for their talent – Man City have spent over £100 million on full-backs alone since Guardiola took charge – Klopp and co scouted players further down the leagues. Left-back Andy Robertson, central midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum and winger Xherdan Shaqiri were all bought from relegated clubs. The two formers have gone onto become established internationals and key figures in the Liverpool squad. Initially, Klopp was reluctant to splash huge amounts of cash, but it eventually became unavoidable.
The 2017/18 season would see this approach change though. A nervy defence had meant Liverpool only really scraped 4thand so began their pursuit of Dutchman Virgil Van Dijk. However, accusations of an illegal meeting between the player and Klopp meant the deal was off. Unlike previous seasons though, (see Alberto Aquilani as a replacement for Xabi Alonso) Klopp was willing to wait rather than panic-buy and got their man in the same season’s January window. If other players took time to adjust to Klopp’s system, Van Dijk was the opposite – providing an immediate, calming and commanding presence on Liverpool’s back four. He played a huge role in the side reaching the Champions League final in Kyiv where two cataclysmic errors from then goalkeeper Loris Karius led to a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Real Madrid. Despite his friendly persona, Klopp was forced to be ruthless and the club’s hierarchy again splashed the cash on Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson.
In spite of the big-money singings of Alisson, Van Dijk and Naby Keita though, Klopp’s net spend sits at just £90 million – not that great a sum in today’s heavily inflated footballing market. The credit here should go to sporting director Michael Edwards who was able to sell fringe players for large sums of money. Christian Benteke, out of favour and with just ten goals to his name in a Liverpool shirt went for £27 million pounds. Dominic Solanke, with one goal to his name, was offloaded to Bournemouth for £19 million.
The decision to sell Philippe Coutinho, whilst initially met with unease, proved to be a great success. It allowed for the acquisition of the two players who allowed Liverpool to reach that next level. Whilst the Brazilian playmaker would go onto a difficult spell at Barcelona and then be shipped out to Bayern Munich on loan, Liverpool would win their sixth European cup and become English champions in his absence. Van Dijk meanwhile would go onto finish second in the ballon d’or behind Lionel Messi and pick up the PFA player of the year award. Klopp’s patience had paid off. The absence of Coutinho also made Liverpool less one-dimensional and forced other players to take responsibility. Rather than having everything go through one player and turning to an individual for inspiration, it became far more of a team effort – the jigsaw was at last complete.
Perhaps Klopp’s greatest achievement though comes in the ability to rally his side after disappointment and the two seasons following their defeat in Ukraine epitomised that. The result in Kyiv motivated them to the final the following year where they dispatched Spurs 2-0. They collected 97 points in the Premier League and still did not win cueing more “next year is our year jokes”. Ironically, of course, it finally was. It would have been easy to sulk in disappointment – just ask Mauricio Pochettino, who was sacked just a few months after guiding Spurs to their first European cup final. Liverpool went the opposite way, currently having collected 86 points out of a possible 93. Should they continue at this pace, they are well on course to smash Man City’s records points tally. It’s no wonder Klopp describes his side as “mentality monsters”.
Klopp would have by no means been a failure had he not succeeded in winning the league; he would, however, probably not have been given the legendary status that will now be attributed to him. Rafael Benitez is remembered fondly by the fans for his European and FA cup successes. Gerard Houllier succeeded in winning four major honours at the beginning of the noughties. Still though, that coveted league title which had eluded them for thirty years, what legendary Reds manager Bill Shankly described as the clubs “bread and butter” continued to elude them. It’s no surprise Steven Gerrard was calling for a statue in a recent interview. The only question that remains is just how far Klopp can take his team. All his best players are tied to long-term contracts and the youngsters who came on as subs against Crystal Palace all made a positive impression.
Regardless of anybody’s allegiance, there is no denying that this Liverpool side are an exceptional one to watch when they are at their free-flowing best. Debates will no doubt rage on as to whether they are the greatest Premier League or, depending on how the next few years pan out, club side of all time. Wherever they rank amongst everybody’s individual hierarchies, the fact Klopp took a club who spent the first half of the decade winning one league cup and finishing in mediocre league positions to successive European cup finals and eventual Premier League glory, is nothing short of extraordinary.