It’s a Long Way to the Klopp

How Liverpool learnt to Rock-N-Roll with the Heavy Metal Manager.

By Will Guthrie

For so long it seemed that Liverpool FC were searching for their ‘missing piece’ to take them back to the summit of English football that when they signed Alisson Becker and Virgil Van Dijk, many were claiming that they had finally found it. Whilst this makes a lot of sense, the reality is that they’d found the missing pieces years before. The arrival of Jurgen Klopp, following the takeover in ownership by Fenway Sports Group (FSG) signalled a new era for the club, perhaps hard to see at the time, that has since ushered in what appears to have the makings of a dynasty. With last season’s UEFA Champions League in the cabinet and now the Premier League trophy, the Klopp/FSG combination has already been a roaring success, with the club well placed to compete on multiple fronts for the next few years. It’s been a remarkable turnaround for a team in 10th place when the German genius walked in and the explosion of joy at the final confirmation of their Champion status served to highlight the incredible progress that’s been made. This is the story of how Liverpool learned to Rock ‘N Roll again.

The Takeover

American owners don’t have a great reputation in the Premier League. Think Randy Lerner almost ruining Aston Villa, or the Glazers prioritising whoring out Manchester United for any commercial deal possible over success on the pitch. It was much the same at Liverpool, with American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks proving a disaster for the club. They not only managed to alienate one of the most passionate fan bases in world sport, they also ran the club into £350 million worth of debt, so when news broke that Boston based Fenway Sports Group had bought the club, it was met with plenty of scepticism. Initial progress was slow, however FSG were adamant they were in it for the long haul, acknowledging it might take a decade to get the organisation to where they believed it should be.

The rebuilding of Anfield and the famous “four promises” made on completion of the takeover has been a large part of their success and acceptance within the fan base. The key pillars they identified were to attract the best players, turn losses into wins, compete for trophies and create a winning culture. On all fronts they’ve been successful, though they took slightly longer than fans hoped. Their appointment of Brendan Rodgers was revealed to be a misstep and although a capable manager, he was unable to deliver what was required. After it was eventually concluded that a new manager was required, there was only ever one man for the job.

The Right Man

Liverpool’s status as a dominant force in European football had slipped at this point yet a silver lining remained; there was significantly less pressure to deliver instant results meaning FSG could give their new manager time. There are few more likeable and charismatic managers in world football than Jurgen Klopp. As innovative as he is passionate, when he left Borussia Dortmund to take a sabbatical from the game, it seemed inevitable that he would end up at Anfield. The similarities between the two clubs are plain for all to see; both have incredibly passionate fan bases, a shared devotion to iconic song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and a heated rivalry with the most despised team in their league. At Dortmund he’d led an unheralded squad to two Bundesliga titles, and two Champions League finals. He also turned them into one of the most watchable teams in Europe, packed with young stars. His ability to improve players immeasurably was perhaps his best quality, with a handful of his squad securing high-priced transfers all across the continent. Eventually suffering from burnout his timely break gave FSG an opening and they duly pounced.

Right from the start, Klopp was given the freedom to make big calls, jettisoning players in the squad who didn’t fit his style of play. Out went a host of regulars such as Daniel Sturridge, Christian Benteke, Alberto Moreno and Joe Allen. Perhaps the most controversial of all of these was the sale of Philippe Coutinho, who at the time was Liverpool’s star player, yet for a fee of £140 million, Klopp recognised this presented an opportunity to finalise his project (more on that later). Crucially, he laid down an early marker in terms of culture; on a pre-season tour of the US, Mamadou Sakho nearly missed the flight, then missed a recovery session, then arrived late for a team meal. Klopp sent him home and he aired his grievances on social media, which prompted the manager to call a team meeting and tell the entire squad that under no circumstances would he tolerate any form of rebellion like that. Sakho was frozen out of the first team and sold to Crystal Palace a few months later. A man of his word, Klopp recognised that trust goes both ways, to build the culture he desired, he’d need to prove to his players they would be listened to. He controversially fielded a team of reserves for an FA Cup fourth round tie. What’s not widely known is that Klopp had promised the first team a proper mid-season break, so stuck to his word. He was rewarded with big wins over Tottenham Hotspur, Man United and Wolves to put them on the verge of winning the title.

A firm believer in improving his existing players through coaching, Klopp set about raising training standards, tailoring training to maximise the performance of each player, which after an initial downturn in results, led to his team being one of the fittest in the Premier League. Internally, Klopp has not been resistant to feedback, ensuring that sessions don’t impact player energy levels in games. This focus on training standards has accelerated the development of a lot of players, notably Andy Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Sadio Mané.

One other factor of note was Klopp’s mission to “fill the stands with life” after being dismayed at seeing fans leave a game early just a month into his tenure. He’s been successful at reinvigorating the support base and bringing back Anfield’s cult-like feel, led by community leaders to help re-engage the club with their city.

The Market

Just as important as having Klopp in place, was Liverpool’s use of the transfer market. Aside from selling players that didn’t fit Klopp’s vision for reasonable amounts, there’s been a high degree of success with the players that have been brought in. What’s most notable is that it hasn’t always been about the biggest name. Rather than someone who would grab the headlines, it’s been about getting the right players to fit the squad, or who had the potential to go to another level under Klopp’s guidance. The obvious names of Robertson, Mane, Fabinho, Van Dijk, Alisson and Mo Salah need to be mentioned, but it’s the next level of depth that has been crucial. Players that can perform roles when required and maintain squad harmony have been the key to success here and names such as Divock Origi, Naby Keita, Georginio Wijnaldum, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (who was convinced to play different positions) and, to a lesser extent, Xherdan Shaqiri have all played notable supporting parts in the success of the past 12-18 months. The recruitment has been some of the best the Premier League has seen in recent times.

Just as important as having Klopp in place, was Liverpool’s use of the transfer market. Aside from selling players that didn’t fit Klopp’s vision for reasonable amounts, there’s been a high degree of success with the players that have been brought in. What’s most notable is that it hasn’t always been about the biggest name. Rather than someone who would grab the headlines, it’s been about getting the right players to fit the squad, or who had the potential to go to another level under Klopp’s guidance. The obvious names of Robertson, Mane, Fabinho, Van Dijk, Alisson and Mo Salah need to be mentioned, but it’s the next level of depth that has been crucial. Players that can perform roles when required and maintain squad harmony have been the key to success here and names such as Divock Origi, Naby Keita, Georginio Wijnaldum, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (who was convinced to play different positions) and, to a lesser extent, Xherdan Shaqiri have all played notable supporting parts in the success of the past 12-18 months. The recruitment has been some of the best the Premier League has seen in recent times.

Klopp’s net spend on transfers has been incredibly impressive in the current climate – Just under £64 million in total (before any dealings this summer), , while in comparison, nearest rivals Manchester City have now spent somewhere in the region of £361 million on defenders alone. It’s down to more than just unearthing bargains, picking the right players who will respond to his methods has been crucial. As ex-Manchester United player turned football pundit Gary Neville put it, “he’s turned £30 million players into £130 million players and… other clubs have turned £130 million players into £30 million players.”

Leave No Stone Unturned

For many clubs, the use of specialists is crucial, and Liverpool under Klopp have been no exception. They are one of the top clubs when it comes to the use of data and science to enhance their performance in everything from their play on the pitch to their use of social media. Klopp has embraced the idea of surrounding himself with as many specialists as possible, saying “you cannot have enough specialists around you…. I must always be the guy who makes the decisions on when you use all these specialists, but you cannot have enough.” He’s embraced them to the point of having one for almost everything, even appointing a throw-in coach. His strength here has been to delegate and defer things to those specialists and trust them to do their jobs, which has seen rich rewards in performance as a result. Klopp has reserved plenty of praise for nutrition specialist Mona Nemmer, who he’s singled out in plenty of press conferences, for her tireless work in fuelling the players with specially tailored meal plans for four meals per day, each. On top of that, crucially, she ran cooking classes for players and their families and tailored meal plans to ethnic and cultural backgrounds (per The Athletic).

The “Transfer Committee” that got plenty of attention in the Brendan Rodgers era has not been mentioned since and deliberately so. While the committee still exists, the main transfer business has been done between Klopp and Sporting Director Michael Edwards, whose inside knowledge of the transfer market has proved crucial in finding the key pieces that Klopp wanted. Having worked with a Sporting Director for 14 years in Germany, Klopp has embraced this system at Liverpool. Whereas Rodgers would trot out the line “players the club brought in”, Klopp has been more willing to work with the football department to “get the perfect information” he requires. As a result, Klopp was able to sanction the sale of Coutinho, knowing the loss could be covered and with the money made from his sale, finally get Van Dijk and Alisson, two players he had long coveted and knew would complete his vision for the squad.

Klopp Guns

Being such an advocate for developing players through his training methods has been perhaps the final important part of Liverpool’s ascent. Klopp has taken most of his squad to levels people thought were beyond them. It’s not just the obvious names of Van Dijk and Salah but also taking a kid from the academy in Alexander-Arnold, largely unheralded at the time, and turning him into the most damaging attacking fullback in world football has been a prime example of why Klopp has succeeded. He’s done much the same with Robertson on the opposite flank, a bargain £8 million buy from Hull City who provided the third most assists in the Premier League this season, with Alexander-Arnold in second.

Joe Gomez, a £3 million signing as a teenager has gone from an injury-prone and inconsistent bit-part player, to a rock in defence and a reliable starter for club and country under Klopp. His versatility had meant he could play almost any position in defence, however Klopp has opted to use him at Centre-Half where he has truly flourished as a partner for Van Dijk. These youngsters are just the tip of the iceberg – Klopp has been open about his dreams of one day fielding “a team full of Scousers”, which, while unlikely in this globalised league, is still an extremely noble, and potentially very savvy, dream to strive for. Many Premier League clubs invest and invest in their youth academies and rarely see any spoils for this spending, but such is his commitment to the club, Klopp is intent on seeing this area excel as well. He’s already started giving chances in the Premier League to youngsters such as Neco Williams, Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones. Who knows how many more Trent Alexander-Arnolds might be about to be discovered?

Perhaps his most important work has been with Roberto Firmino, who under Rodgers was marooned on the left and unable to have the impact his obvious ability could deliver. To Rodgers, Firmino was a “player the club had brought in” and Christian Benteke was his man, so the Brazilian was criminally under-utilised. One of the first things Klopp did on his arrival was play Firmino as a centre forward and suddenly everything changed. In came Mané and Salah, and with Firmino as the creative fulcrum of the team going forward, goals began to flow with ease. The work the Brazilian does off the ball is what makes Liverpool tick, he chases, he creates openings, he’s the lynchpin that holds it all together and Klopp was able to see this immediately.

You’d be hard pressed to find a player that hasn’t improved under Klopp, such has been his impact on the training culture at Melwood. In fact, you’d struggle to find an area of the club that hasn’t improved since his arrival. Whilst FSG deserve plenty of credit, Klopp is the man that ties it all together and has taken them to the next level. His dedication to ensuring that every aspect of the club is world class has been the driving force behind Liverpool’s ascent and it’s what has made them worthy English and European champions. The sternest test of all awaits, defending titles is now harder than ever and it remains to be seen how Liverpool reacts to being the hunted, but it would take a brave man to bet against them being the benchmark of the competition again next season.

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