KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool were obviously meant for one another long before the formal appointment one year ago this weekend. Not only meant for each other but needed each other: The right club to breathe life back into a coach who had flailed himself to a standstill at Dortmund and the right manager to rekindle the fire of ambition in a great club which had slipped into the shadows.
Those initial demands have been fulfilled in terms of both coach and club.
Now comes the tricky part, converting a passion shared between club, manager and remarkable fans into the statistics of success which matched the legendary personalities of Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley above all, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish.
Owners Fenway Sports Group made their feelings obvious a mere three months ago in tying Klopp to the club with a contract extension running up until 2022.
This past week Arsenal have celebrated the 20th anniversary of Arsene Wenger’s management. No other manager in this era is expected to rival such longevity. But if anyone possesses the personality and potential to head in that direction then Klopp is the man.
That said, however popular Klopp is at Anfield now, such popularity would not survive a 12-year stint without a league title. Not even half that time. Liverpool have not lifted the champions’ trophy since 1990 and ending that drought remains a priority.
Gerard Houllier took Liverpool to five trophies in one year; Rafa Benitez took them to two Champions League finals (winning one, famously, in Istanbul). But neither man could survive the failure to land the Premier League crown. Each lasted six years. Klopp, amid all his optimism about the future, should heed that lesson from the not-so-distant past.
He is not a man to glory in anniversaries but he feels positive about his high-speed first year in English football.
This past weekend he said: “I have no time and I am not in the mood for reflection, to be honest. It’s a year, I’m a year older and all this shit, but everything else is good. Not perfect, but in a good way. That’s what we hoped, that’s what we said.
“After one year standing here, we can talk like this. There was doubt, there was a lot of rumour around me. People said: ‘Obviously he was a good coach at Dortmund but a German managing here doesn’t work’ – things like this. That’s better now.
“But the thing is, I’m not here for a year, I’m here hopefully for the long term and it means we have to use all the information we have until now and learn from it. That’s how life works, collecting experience, learning from it and being ready for the next challenge.
“My year is what, the 8th of October? We will not celebrate, I can tell you that. Hopefully nobody brings me a cake.”
Klopp is a man with a powerful ego, great self-confidence and enormous self-belief. No manager can survive without this odd mixture of qualities. This, presumably, was one of the factors which led him to appear on a recent edition of Sky Sport’s Monday Night Football programme, providing some tactical insights into Liverpool’s progress so far this season.
This did not go down well with fans who are mostly united in support.
As one irritated critic wrote: “Klopp had his ego stroked by Sky TV. It seemed like he was explaining how it had all been done. What had ‘all’ been done, exactly? It’s a few wins, some of them impressive for sure but can we just have a few moments of calm? Just once?
“There was the disclaimer about there still being a long way to go but that felt obligatory, like the death warning on cigarette packets . . . it was uncomfortable viewing.”
In truth, the pace and pressure of the ongoing season – even without the midweek distraction of European competition – means that Klopp will not have any more opportunities for a repeat. This is the good news. Liverpool have not come so far in one year that their manager can take his eye off the ball for a second, let alone an hour’s television show.
He has yet to win even a minor cup competition let alone a major prize. He did take Liverpool last season to the finals of the League Cup and then the Europa League but in each case they were decisively beaten by better teams. Manchester City and Sevilla underlined the gulf in quality and class which had to be narrowed then closed.
Already Klopp has vigorously set about achieving precisely that. Last season he had merely inherited a squad from Brendan Rodgers with many elements who did not suit Klopp’s vision or the all-action uber-pressing he demands. Thus, before the transfer deadline at the end of August, he strengthened Liverpool’s goalkeeping section, defence, midfield and attack yet by spending ‘only’ £70m.
After years of erratic work in the transfer market, the signs are that Klopp is an excellent judge when it comes to persuading the board to part with big sums. Liverpool paid Southampton £34m for Sadio Mane who had scored 11 goals last season but already has three this term.
Practically every player in Klopp’s charge has improved since he arrived, even if in some cases that will not be enough to meet his demands. He has also shown himself adept at judging whether a player can benefit from a change of position.
James Milner is a perfect example. A winger than hard-working midfielder for almost all his career, Milner was switched to left back in emergency after Klopp lost patience with the error-strewn performances of Alberto Moreno. Milner has a proved a revelation, a natural leader with great personal authority both on and off the pitch.
Club captain Jordan Henderson has been one of the team-mates to benefit the most from Milner’s leadership qualities. When Henderson took over the armband from departing Steven Gerrard the weight of responsibility looked too much. Now, with Milner enjoying a second youth, Henderson has been freed to concentrate on his own game.
‘Flexible football’ is one of the phrases Klopp has brought to the Premier League. This is his own mini version of total football, the idea that footballers in the modern game cannot stick to rigid lines of defence, midfield and attack. Daniel Sturridge did not understand it at first and looked unhappy out on the right wing. Now Sturridge has been won over by the realisation that Klopp wants perpetual movement from his players.
For Klopp, Liverpool’s absence from Europe is a blessing. It gives him the opportunity to work more intensively with his players on the training ground. This, he believes, will be reflected in a consistency of performance which is essential if his promise of a league title within three years is to be realised.
Klopp takes training seriously and expects the same from his players. So, last weekend, he could reflect: “We had one session this week where everybody was ‘wow’! We had 22 players on the pitch and every single one was angry, greedy, clear, hot, however you want to say it. Then you think: ‘Oh my God, what was that?!
“The problem is, there is one other time in the week where you really need all this stuff – and that’s in the game. We have to learn to push the right button in the right moment.”
A positive atmosphere now pervades the newly-expanded Anfield. The days of selling star players for the money – like Fernando Torres, like Andy Carroll – have gone. To keep Klopp happy Fenway has had to guarantee that he can build a squad for the long term, not to keep rebuilding in the short term.
Roberto Firmino, who moved to Liverpool to work specifically with Klopp, has described ‘the gaffer’ as “a good guy who shows his footballing passion. He does his job with love and enjoyment which we all like. He’s an excellent manager, the best I’ve worked with. Working for him is incredible.”
Now Klopp just needs deeds to go with the words.