Jurgen Klopp took two minutes of his first press conference as Liverpool manager to play down the urgent demand for silverware, but he could not help setting himself a target.
“It’s not so important what people think when you come in, it is more important what they think when you leave,” Klopp told the country’s media in October 2015. “I don’t want to say we have to wait 20 years. If we sit here in four years, I think we win one title.”
Klopp now faces his last shot at that title before the four years expires. If August’s Community Shield would technically count as a trophy, that was not what Klopp meant. He is a manager who sets high targets for his teams and himself.
This is one of the dichotomies of Klopp’s time at Anfield. By any reasonable metric, he has performed way above expectation. Klopp took over a team that had finished sixth in their previous season and led them to eighth in his first campaign. Forget the title — Liverpool had only made the top four once in six seasons before his appointment. He has turned also-rans into contenders.
And yet Liverpool are currently enduring their longest wait for a league title in the club’s history, and their longest trophy drought for 55 years. If Klopp carries no blame for the former, he must for the latter. Exactly half of the seven years since the League Cup win in 2012 have been under his watch.
As with all ambitious managers at ambitious clubs, Klopp has become a victim of his own achievement.
The notion among supporters raised in a society of football as consumer culture is that success must breed more success and standing still is going backwards. We demand more: wins, signings, glory. Klopp can count himself hugely unfortunate to come up against Real Madrid (Champions League final) and Manchester City (League Cup and Premier League), two financial behemoths.
But the exception to that rule is the 2016 Europa League final, when Liverpool were favourites having beaten Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund and took the lead against Sevilla before crumbling. Klopp would argue that it came very early in his tenure having signed only Marko Grujic and Steven Caulker on loan, and that reaching the final was some achievement. Of the 14 players used in that final, only Roberto Firmino and James Milner could reasonably still call themselves first-team regulars at Anfield.
That Sevilla defeat is particularly interesting because Liverpool were favourites, as they are against Tottenham. There is an accusation — and it may carry some weight — that Klopp thrives when in charge of the underdog but finds management harder when burdened by expectation. The disappearance of Liverpool’s seven-point lead in the Premier League adds some weight to the theory, albeit assisted by Manchester
City’s own sumptuous form. Trophies are not everything to Klopp, or at least not the sole purpose. His aim is to grab a club by the scruff of its neck and make it hum and buzz and sing and feel at one with its supporters and its community. As he said in his first press conference: “You can’t have the best atmosphere in the world and play like this, the way they have. It doesn’t work.”
This isn’t just sugary PR spiel. Klopp believes that only by matching the ethos of the club with the performances on the pitch can a team truly improve sustainably and become far greater than the sum of its parts. Get that right, and trophies will come. They are a product of the process.
But then that’s the other Klopp dichotomy. He constantly champions the importance of the ethereal — passion, hope, belief and hunger — to the point where you might be persuaded that he considers them as the foundations of his management. And yet there is a thoroughness to his coaching methods that belies the public persona.
See Liverpool’s improvement at set pieces, founded upon hours of video analysis, for details. The idea is to train the body and inspire the mind in combination. Klopp still has time on his side, despite his four-year prediction soon expiring.
He remained in charge of Mainz and Dortmund for seven years apiece and may consider himself immune from the recent rush of sabbaticals taken by high-profile managers after three years on the job.
But he also knows how this works, and how reputations can stick. Liverpool have had chances to lift silverware and missed out. In an age of absolute opinion that has drowned sporting analysis, it’s a short leap between genius and fraud. And if Klopp is intent on creating a legacy at Anfield, nothing lasts longer in the memory than the aftermath of a trophy lift.
EFL Cup runners-up; Europa League runners-up; Champions League runners-up; Premier League runners-up. Liverpool don’t want to be known as the nearly club. Jurgen Klopp doesn’t want to be known as the nearly manager.
If both have time on their side beyond this season to steer themselves away from that tag, Madrid tomorrow evening provides an opportunity that must not be wasted.
This team needs a trophy. This manager needs a trophy at this club. This remarkable season needs a trophy.