Let me tell you about the time I met Jurgen Klopp. I don’t mean this in a lame, I-saw-David-Bowie-buying-fish-fingers-in-Tesco sort of way. I just think it’s instructive.
It was at the Liverpool media day before the 2016 Europa League final.
I was one of a number of TV reporters herded into a room at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground and divided into little pens set up like a soundbite-gathering battery farm.
The Liverpool manager was to drop in and spend five minutes in each cubicle holding forth on the big game, divvying up a little of his wit and wisdom for each of the pan-European quote piggies to gobble up.
After an interminable wait spent pacing nervously, going over our questions, Klopp burst into the room, announcing his arrival with that familiar throaty guffaw. Soon he was loping from camera to camera, delivering his usual mix of weird vocal sound effects, gravelly earnestness and Germano-English Cool-Ja! speak.
Finally, he arrived at my station, a tall, scruffy presence accompanied by a rather pungent cigarette stench.
There was none of the cologne-dashed, designer-suited distance of your typical Euro-super-coach, rather a firm handshake and a yawping laugh.
“Where are you guys from?!”
At which point Klopp, for some reason, started saying the word ‘sure’ in an exaggerated Irish accent, presumably as a comedic riff on the phrase ‘to be sure’.
“Shurrr! Shhhhurrrrr! Schhhhuurrrrrr!”
To his side, Liverpool’s press officer shook his head in mock admonishment.
“Jurgen, please don’t. Alright, that’s enough Jurgen…”
More guffaws and the interview went on, Klopp answering each question thoughtfully, interspersing his answers with self-deprecating asides and hearty laughter.
And then he was gone, with yet more guffaws, presumably for a cheeky fag.
The lingering impression — casual national stereotypes aside — was of someone who made everyone they met feel better about themselves for the experience.
The staff at Melwood smiled at the mention of his name. Everyone he passed got a goofy gag and a smile. Even the press officer seemed to be enjoying the fun of shepherding Klopp around, apologising for his f-bombs and curtailing his surreal asides.
And I thought: If he makes the people he brushes past going about his daily business feel good, what must he do for his players?
Celebrating their 5-1 aggregate victory over Manchester City on Tuesday night, the Liverpool away support and the players in front of them cut an unusually intimate picture. The small away group of fans, the satisfied ease of the players, and then Klopp, hugging and clapping and just broadly, proudly smiling: It felt like a family.
Maybe team spirit is, as Steve Archibald famously said, an illusion glimpsed in the aftermath of victory, but if so Klopp has the trick off to a tee.
At a time when top-level professional soccer has never seemed more technical and system-based, and when clubs with their vast investments in playing personnel increasingly behave like Dow Jones hedge funds, Klopp’s success has been based on humanity.
When he joined Liverpool in 2015 Klopp seemed like a perfect fit for a club whose passion and romanticism provided its richest seam of potential. The buccaneering, high-intensity football and the mosh-pit choreography of his touchline antics suggested he was the right man to set Anfield aflame again.
But what most connected club and new manager was a shared sense of the importance of human feeling, of the possibilities of community, of what can be done when people come together.
The essence of Liverpool is in that hinterland of triumph and tragedy that explodes at Anfield on those nights, like last week against Manchester City, when team and support are in unison and it all seems to matter just that bit more.
Klopp instinctively got this and spent much of his early time at the club openly geeing up the crowd at the stadium, as if telling them that it was okay to show their feelings again.
“Jurgen creates a family,” his assistant Pepijn Lijnders told the Dutch newspaper De Volksrant in 2017. “We always say: 30% tactics, 70% teambuilding.”
This is what I saw at Melwood that day, and what we all saw last week at Anfield and again at full-time on Tuesday night, illusory or not.
Behind what we blithely describe as Klopp’s ‘passion’ is the fact that everything — football, family, feelings — are intertwined in one messy human ball. Klopp became a father — unexpectedly — at the age of 21 and the experience informs his coaching philosophy.
“I was not prepared for it [fatherhood],” he said in an interview with Soccer.com last year. “I felt a lot of times I have no idea what I am doing here, but I tried my best. It gave me the opportunity to learn to handle much younger people than myself. Young players, they have the same problems as I had. It’s like a father role… when I sign a player I feel it’s 50% my responsibility to get the best out of him.”
How often have we seen that father role played out at Liverpool? For example, in the refusal to publicly castigate his various underperforming goalkeepers and centre-halves.
“They are human beings. It was misjudgement,” he said after they gave up a 3-0 lead at Sevilla last November with a staggering display of defensive slapstick. Two of those hapless humans, Loris Karius and Dejan Lovren, will now play in a Champions League semi-final.
Lovren, in particular, has benefited from the manager-as-father-figure approach.
“My self-confidence disappears in some moments,” he said in reference to the disastrous performance against Tottenham in October that saw him substituted after 31 minutes. “And he believes in me, you know? And I believe in him.
“He said: ‘If you just think about yourself like I think about you, you will be one of the best players in the world.’”
A father’s love indeed.
Most of all there is the reticence to champion the individual over the collective. Mo Salah, with his 39 goals, has clearly been Liverpool’s outstanding player, yet the manager never places him outside the context of the team.
“I think Mo has made strides forward within this team through the way in which the team play and the way the other lads interact with him on the pitch: The way they look to him as such an important player and the way everyone unselfishly tries to play him in,” Klopp said recently.
“The defensive work is done for him, that way he regularly gets into goalscoring positions.”
Key words: Team, interact, unselfish, work.
That philosophy, built around the potential of the collective, even informs Klopp’s views on Brexit. “If such a fantastic country and a strong partner like Great Britain wants to try to go the way alone I don’t see the benefit. I can’t see it,” he told the Daily Telegraph
. “If it’s sometimes not good then let’s improve it. Let’s sort it together.”
There is much to Liverpool’s achievements under Klopp that is about more than fuzzy, feelgood, human interest stuff. The adaptation of the all-action Gegenpressing
style to a more balanced tactical approach. The financial heft to make a critical signing such as Virgil van Dijk, at a stroke sorting out a major problem area. The rotation of players that left his team looking fresh when City appeared jaded.
But what resonates most is that big goofy grin and the emotional intelligence behind the whole project.
“Having memorable games,” he told Gary Lineker in a 2016 BBC interview when asked about his footballing philosophy. “People leaving the stadium who want to see the next game, you can’t wait to see the next game. That’s what football should be. And if you can do this very often, then you will be successful, 100%.”
Klopp makes people feel good, and right now Liverpool feel very good indeed.
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