The fourth month into the new decade, the last one of the 20th century. April 28, 1990, to be precise. The date Liverpool FC fans recall with extreme delight. The club was crowned the champions of English football. Sounds like a different era, isn’t it? Kenny Dalglish led glory to a squad that had names etched in Anfield’s history. Ian Rush, John Barnes, Bruce Grobbelaar, to name a few. It was the No 18 local crown for the Reds, who were entering a prolonged period of drought. The Premier League, which began in 1992, became an elusive, elusive trophy, practically a cursed prize.
While Liverpool celebrated that conquest, a young Jurgen Klopp began his career as a professional footballer at Mainz 05 in Germany where he went on to be a star in an 11-year-long tenure. Thirty years since his Mainz days, he would be the one to flood the drought and become the architect of a historic moment for Liverpool FC.
This season, though, a magical journey was about to collapse courtesy the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
“When he started talking about the cancelled season, I worried, and I got to feel him physically: it would have been very hard,” admitted Klopp, who during the forced recess heard the plea of a boy, a fan of the City, asking him to lose Liverpool.
The German, 53, had his reasons for being restless: without competition, he was left empty and the image of the elimination of the Champions League, against Atletico Madrid, would be the one that would close the season. Injustice for the coach who in October 2015 took over the Red’s reins convinced to provoke a revolution, as he did before in Mainz and Borussia Dortmund.
Less than five years later, Liverpool was crowned champions. The 4-0 win over Crystal Palace at Anfield opened the door. But Chelsea’s 2-1 victory over Manchester City untied the knot and established an impossible distance to cut for Pep Guardiola’s citizens: 23 points with seven rounds to go. No one in 123 years of British football history managed to claim the trophy with such anticipation; Now, with 86 points - 28 wins, two draws and just one stumble - and 21 points at stake, he has a chance to break the record for 100 points that City set in 2018. The numbers are the product of the joint virtues that Klopp exploited, the man who first knew the sour taste of defeat, although he did not give up a style or the dream of restoring the shine to Liverpool.
More than anything, Klopp has accomplished something almost impossible in an era of growing soccer tribalism. Virtually everyone likes it. One must ask Manchester United and City supporters what they think about this man who relegated their teams to inconsequential roles this season. Most will express respect and admiration for the strategist. It is easy to see why. It is not just for his infectious energy and passion alongside the side-line, nor for his apparent talents in guiding players.
How different everything would have been if Klopp had decided to join Manchester United, with whom he had talks in 2014, according to his biographer Raphael Honigstein. Instead, he decided a year later that he would take the reins of Liverpool, after leaving Borussia Dortmund, a German club with roots in the working class, a strong heritage, and a group of passionate fans, just like the English team he ended up joining to replace Brendan Rodgers.
Klopp has turned out to be the perfect candidate, a far cry from the label of “El Normal” that he gave himself in October 2015, during his presentation in Anfield, referring “El Especial”, as Jose Mourinho usually describes himself.
Klopp’s management in Dortmund, from 2008 to 2015, had already revealed his charisma and talent. With his peculiar character and witty phrases, he was considered one of the greatest personalities in European football. His stay in Dortmund made him a cult figure. He not only began to gain notoriety for his aggressive style of play. His so-called ‘anti-Bayern’ football, derived from everything that the Bavarian scene transmits from opulence and economic exuberance, transforming the complete culture.
“Bayern operates like the industry in China. They look at what everyone else is doing, they copy it and then they invest money and hire different people to be able to overcome the original,” said the coach at a press conference.
Klopp came to Merseyside with his “heavy metal football”. With its offensive style, Liverpool challenged City as the most attractive team to watch on TV in England during 2017-18. But only when Klopp moderated the reckless attacks, the Reds were able to overcome the Citizens’ results.
Reconstruction was slow and painfully stumbling
Liverpool, the giant of England (is just one title less than Manchester United) and also of Europe, did not wake up from the nightmare.
“I was never fired in my career, so I had no experience with that, but I knew it was a different level, and if there were no results fast enough, I would be fired,” said Klopp, who did not falter after losing the Europa League in 2016, with Seville, and the League Cup final, against City; two years later, a title campaign was aborted by a fabulous Manchester City, who surpassed him by one point (98 to 97). The defeat against Real Madrid, in the Champions League final, seemed to sink the project.
“The experts said that if I did not win the next final, everything would change, although internally it never thought that way. The owners of the club had faith and confidence and assured me that we would stay on the road,” recalls the headliner, who loves the Forrest Gump and Rocky, and listens in his spare time, the Beatles, Genesis or Kiss and the one who jokes with his teeth and does not believe in impossibilities.
Seven players from the current squad were at the club when he took over: Jordan Henderson, Roberto Firmino, James Milner, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Divock Origi and Joe Gomez.
His predecessor, Brendan Rodgers, left a team without identity and confused, so Klopp applied shock therapy to psychologically relaunch a structure that lacked confidence. After a dozen games, Liverpool underwent the change: fast exits, pressure, incorporation of the wings to the attack, alternation of the external midfielders to offer positional play on the inside and overflow on the outside.
The first hires to design the team that everyone is talking about now were players who did not have star status: Sadio Mane (Southampton), Georginio Wijnaldum (Newcastle) and Joel Matip (Schalke 04), in 2016; Mohamed Salah (Roma), Andrew Robertson (Hull City) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal) joined the following year.
The market broke in 2018
Virgil Van Dijk (Southampton), for whom he paid 83 million euros, while the mistakes of goalkeeper Loris Karius against Real Madrid motivated the hiring of Allison Becker (Roma), with disbursement of 72 million euros. The hiring policy had an ideal partner in sports director Michael Edwards, the same one who convinced Klopp to renew until 2024.
Klopp assembled the pieces
The trophies reappeared in the showcases in 2019 with the Champions League, the European Super Cup, the Club World Cup and now the Premier League. A series of conquests that had the indelible stamp of Klopp, the one that in 2015 felt that he and Liverpool were perfect, for each other.
“Tonight is for you, it is incredible how great the history of this club is,” said the German after the Premier League win, the one that reflects the legacy of Dalglish and the one that is reflected in the statue of the coach who motivated the supremacy of those of Merseyside – Bill Shankly.
“I don’t want to disrespect the other coaches who came before him, but I felt this from the day he walked in the door,” said Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, referring to Klopp. “It just changed everything, and everyone followed it.”
In interviews and press conferences, Klopp feels at home. The same makes jokes that address current and political issues. He was one of the few Premier League coaches who dared to divulge their opinion on Brexit. “There was not a single time in history that the division generated success,” he said in an interview, calmly and thoughtfully.
Klopp has strong convictions about the well-being of the players, even if it means openly criticising the governing bodies of the sport.
“As long as nothing changes, I will keep saying something all the time,” he warned this year when he described himself as “The Liverpool Complainer.”
“It’s about the players, not me, not for a second,” he added.
Thirty years ago, Klopp was starting to deliver signals and put together his resume, at the same time that Liverpool entered a shadow cone in English football: now they walk together because Liverpool will never walk alone.
(Jeet Ghosh is a Kolkata-based football journalist and an alumnus of Jadavpur University.)