On the eve of this season, Liverpool, for the first time during Jurgen Klopp’s time at Anfield, hired a dedicated sport psychologist, Lee Richardson.
It was an appointment that said several things. While Liverpool had been ‘mentality monsters’ to overcome Barcelona, win the Champions League and amass 97 Premier League points the previous season, Klopp obviously felt they and his staff could improve even further; no matter how much they won, they were always all works in progress. And it showed how open Klopp himself was.
But what would have struck Richardson right away is that Liverpool was a classic example of what his colleagues in the field might call a PIE — a psychologically-informed environment. This was no Gilbert Enoka commissioned by Graham Henry and the All Blacks to radically transform a team culture. Virtually all the heavy lifting has been done by Klopp.
‘Culture’ is a term that is bandied about everywhere nowadays, especially in football, but Klopp is an exemplar of how to create the right one.
For one, he embodies the root of the term. As Daniel Coyle reminds us on the first page of his 2018 book The Culture Code, the word comes from the Latin ‘cultis’, which means ‘care’. And no one quite does care in football better than Jurgen Klopp.
Most Premier League clubs will head off at some stage before or during the season for a little sun break, but what is not the norm is for the whole staff, from the canteen to the ticket box, to head off with them. Yet, as Klopp revealed to John Bishop in the book A Game of Two Halves, three times he’s done just that, bringing the whole staff and their partners and children to Tenerife with the players.
“LFC pays for a decent hotel and they have a phenomenal holiday with brilliant weather. It creates an atmosphere and brings everyone together. Clubs often talk about the team behind the team, but it’s not just words here.”
Right from the start that was his approach. Within a couple of weeks of being at Anfield — or rather, Melwood — he had learned the name of all 80 non-playing employees.
Then he lined them all up in the dining hall and introduced them to the players, explaining how they were all dependent on one another for the club — the family — to achieve its best. Bishop, on his visit to Melwood, found that connection tangible, even in just small gestures how they players interacted with the kitchen staff when being served food.
Roy Keane mightn’t approve, but Daniel Coyle would. In the extensive studies on what make the best organisations, time and time it’s coming up that they offer ‘psychological safety’, a term coined by a psychologist called William Kahn the same year Liverpool last won the league. Basically it can be defined as removing fear and replacing it with respect.
You create this connection of safety through ‘belonging cues’, all that basically state: You are safe here. And no one in football is better at offering belonging cues than Jurgen Klopp. Fist bumps, hugs, smiles, embraces, he displays the whole gambit.
Coyle found such belonging cues had three essential qualities — energy, individualisation, and future-orientation. They invested an energy in the exchange. They treated the person as unique and valued. And they signalled that the relationship would continue.
That is Klopp. Individualisation is huge with him. Shy staff members have thrived under him. Players too. And there is always a future-orientation with him. Even players he has sold he still cares for.
After Bournemouth made a remarkable 4-3 comeback against Liverpool in December 2016, Klopp darted immediately towards Jordan Ibe, who he had sold the previous summer; before he commiserated with his current players, he wanted to convey his happiness for a former one. Players pick up on that. When Loris Karius had a misfortunate 2018 Champions League final, Klopp could have had censured him but he didn’t.
“It’s a shame. I really feel sorry for him. Fantastic boy.”
“You have to create this atmosphere [where] the boys know that they can mistakes,” Klopp once said. “Football is a mistakes game. Without mistakes, you can’t play it.”
Klopp has high standards, but he watches through gentle, non-judgemental eyes. He will lambast a lack of effort, but, by allowing for mistakes, he allows players to take risks, like Trent Alexander-Arnold’s corner against Barcelona.
If Roy Keane’s rant about Harry Maguire as well as David De Gea showed why the Corkman is struggling to get a head coaching job these days, Klopp’s handling of his players shows why Liverpool are where they are now.
Naby Keita was a big-money signing that in another environment could have been labelled as a waste of money, but Klopp hasn’t rushed him:
Again, as he’d explain to Bishop, he’s offered him a form of psychological safety, allowing him time to adapt to a new country. “A player like Naby isn’t playing all the time because he only understands about 30% of the things we’re talking about. Everyone likes him, but he doesn’t understand enough yet.”
Dejan Lovren is still at the club. Maybe not the kind of player you’d want starting 25 games for you but a good enough back-up to come in for 10 to 12 games. Klopp admitted to Bishop that he listened to BT Sport to improve his English and football language, but that in terms of analysis it was “absolute bullshit”, probably for reasons explained elsewhere by his coaching assistant and chief scout Peter Krawietz regarding Lovren.
In England, they found, there was a tendency among the media and supporters to label a player as ‘shit’, not just for a while but ‘for eternity’.
“They will wait as long as it takes until he makes a mistake and then say, ‘We told you so.’ It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy, in a negative sense.”
Klopp found it was affecting the players and had to train them to disregard external noise. To win, they had to shut out what the outside world thought of them, because otherwise, they would indeed be ‘shit’.
But breaking this vicious circle also included challenging and educating The Kop.
Klopp himself got some stick a few months into his reign when he took his team out and they took a bow after a late equaliser against West Brom.
He wasn’t revelling in squeezing out a point. Instead it was a reaction to a defeat a few weeks earlier when parts of the crowd had left when his team had gone down 2-1 to Crystal Palace.
It was part of a defeatist atmosphere that was pervasive throughout Anfield and the mentality of their supporters — and former players working in the media.
Learned helplessness is by definition “a state that occurs after a person has experienced a stressful situation repeatedly. They come to believe that they are unable to control the situation, so they do not try.”
The West Brom game offered the ideal opportunity to break that sense of déjà vu. It wasn’t a case of ‘here we go again’ when Liverpool went 2-1 down. They’d fight to the end, regardless of the score.
And eventually everyone picked up on it. By the end of that season with a remarkable comeback against his old club Dortmund in the Europa League semi-final, the Kop had learned that even a three-goal deficit couldn’t rule Klopp’s Liverpool out, restoring the ground to the most atmospheric in Europe.
Klopp is no one’s idea of a soft touch. A key man in that comeback against Dortmund was Mamadou Sakho but within a year he had been let go by Klopp, having breached a drug test protocol and repeatedly showing up late for team meetings. He does not promise any new signing that they will start, only that they will improve if they’re willing to work. In Jose Mourinho’s last game at Man United, he bewailed the contrasting physicality and intensity between his players and Liverpool players like Robertson, Salah, Mane, Keita, Fabinho.
And in his eyes there was nothing he or they could do about it. “There are qualities that a player has or he doesn’t have,” he’d claim. “You cannot improve, you cannot make them have [these qualities].”
Klopp could not disagree with him more. While Mourinho’s thinking would be classic — and undesirable — fixed mindset, Klopp’s would be vintage — and desirable — growth mindset. As Raphael Honigstein observed in his book, Klopp: Bring The Noise: “His trick was to stress the link between performance and effort, rather than with ability.”
Adam Lallana told Honingstein about how, in his first week, Klopp put his arm around his shoulder and told him to just work hard for him.
“That’s all he wants,” says Lallana. “He can handle mistakes, he can handle bad games. ‘Work hard for me and give me everything.’”
Now that message and culture of psychological safety has given Liverpool and its supporters everything they wanted.