A Change In Psychology
‘When you agree on a common idea and work towards it together, you can create something very special. We are at a club that helps us now. That wasn’t always the case. When I came here, the size of the club was a burden. Now it’s our safety net, it’s our trampoline, it’s our home, it’s our basis, it’s everything to us. Now we are Liverpool, before the club was Liverpool and we were just the guys who were trying to be good enough.’ – Jürgen Klopp
Liverpool’s faith in themselves was a step-by-step process aided by superb performances and results, evolving together and adding greater quality to the squad — especially through the spine of the team with Mane, Mo Salah, Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho and Alisson. But Henderson stresses that Klopp is owed the biggest chunk of credit.
“I remember I wrote in big letters on a paper the word “TEAM” and I said that is what I want us to be,’ Klopp explained on his third anniversary at the club. ‘I said
- “T” is for terrible to play against — I had not a better word unfortunately … I don’t know if I have a better one now.
- “E” for enthusiastic.
- “A” for ambitious.
- “M” for mentally-strong machines.
‘Sometimes, we are exactly that! We can be terrible opponents to face, we have this kind of excited — a bit crazy if you want — style with organisation. We are for sure very enthusiastic and very ambitious and we have become stronger and stronger mentality-wise. Pretty much all of my players work like machines too, so I have actually what I wanted.”
The Big Picture Mentality
“He’s always looking at the bigger picture and in that game, he could start to see the change of mentality from us and the fans. It was really important because he would drill into us that a football game is 90 minutes, so if you’re losing and they still have 20 minutes left, it’s all about body language for him. If you lose momentum within a game, people’s body language may change. Or even if you take the lead, your body language can change and you might drop deeper. He always pushed us to be on the front foot and keep going, no matter what the score is and no matter what stage of the game is.” – Jordan Henderson
He’d say, “That’s who we are, we’ll keep going and going and going right until the referee blows his whistle.” It wasn’t, “Go and be all-out attack”, he wanted us to control a game our way and not let the game happen to us. I can remember him being really assertive and repetitive with that kind of message.
Harmony is the Priority
Another element flagged by the players is the confidence they’ve derived from Klopp having their backs. One such insistence was when he took a stand against an insane fixture schedule, declining to let any senior players feature in the FA Cup fourth-round replay against Shrewsbury in February 2020, which coincided with the mid-season break he had promised the squad for their relentless efforts. He was pilloried for the decision by pundits, the press and the opposition, but it was massively appreciated in Liverpool’s dressing room.
The way Klopp had protected Coutinho after Liverpool refused to accede to his transfer request in the summer of 2017, only selling him to Barcelona for £142 million the following January, also drew great respect from the players. The aggrieved playmaker was unavailable for selection at the start of the season due to a ‘back injury’ that was heckled and met with inverted commas each time it was mentioned. Klopp never deviated from that line — even when the player turned out for Brazil and the national team doctor said the issue was ‘only emotional’. Squad harmony was prioritised by Klopp, who did not mind being the subject of ridicule to preserve it.
A Model For Discipline
Conversely, the team had also learned that there would be no tolerance for a player who showed a lack of respect for the rules. That schooling was provided by Mamadou Sakho. The French centre-back was not involved in the 2016 Europa League final after copping a Uefa doping charge that was later dismissed after it was established that no rules had been broken. That summer, Liverpool travelled to the United States for their pre-season tour, but the French centre-back delayed the flight out, having arrived late to travel.
Sakho continued to be a problem that September, going on a 3 am Snapchat rant about being frozen out of the first-team and hurling accusations about lies. The defender was exiled from squad and trained with the Academy players before joining Crystal Palace on a loan deal which was then made permanent. That was the first and last repeated rule breach by a player under Klopp.
Method Over Money
Many football clubs have an analytics department, but not all of them are empowered. There is still a high level of distrust in stats or a dismissive take on ‘laptop nerds’. At Liverpool, traditional methods and a cutting edge have combined to powerful effect because as one source states ‘there’s a clear, strong decision-making process where the club wants to get as much information as possible from all the experts, rather than just wanting to check a box and say, “Oh, we have that.” There hasn’t been any turf guarding or fear of new approaches or new ways to look at things.’
One recruit that stood out in both the video and data breakdowns was Naby Keita, a midfield hybrid who is both a destroyer and a creator. A slow settling-in period and injuries have prevented the Guinea international from showcasing the extent of his brilliance, but his progressive numbers — how many of his actions led to positive events — already indicate how much of a difference he makes to Liverpool’s front-foot play.
Amongst others, the research team’s rigorous homework also informed the decision to hire Klopp, to discount Mohamed Salah’s spell at Chelsea and sign him from Roma, and to wait on Van Dijk because no other centre-back was close to comparable. There are no pats on backs and feet up on desks. Models are continuously being built and improved for all sections of the club, from the fitness coaches to the commercial team, to assess whether they are making the most effective choices possible
Reality Over Public Opinion
Klopp, Edwards and Gordon have shunned football’s buy or bust culture. Transfers centre around what the team requires rather than public opinion. After winning the title, the manager was asked about strengthening his team — a matter complicated by the ruinous financial effects of coronavirus.
Liverpool declined to follow through with a move for Timo Werner, who ended up at Chelsea, due to the uncertainty surrounding future income as well as the millions already lost. ‘I am happy with my squad 100 per cent,’ Klopp said. ‘I was last year when people wanted us to sign him and him, but because of our reasons we did not do it. It’s not that we don’t want to, we try to make the right decisions constantly and then Covid-19 came. The situation changed and not for the better. It’s not that we think we cannot improve with transfers, we do what is right for us and what we are able to do, that’s all.’
Empowering Off The Pitch
Aside from elevating the football operation at the training ground, Klopp has had a sizeable impact on advancing infrastructure at Liverpool and growing revenue streams. When FSG hired the German, they were certain he could holistically upgrade the club as he had done so at Mainz and Dortmund. He did not only count flipping a finger to the odds, playing superb football and collecting silverware as success. For Klopp, the true measure of any manager is how much you can still feel their influence long after they’ve gone.
Even the work around redeveloping the Anfield Road End has Klopp’s fingerprints on it, and when it comes to how finances have been bolstered since his appointment, there has been a 113 per cent increase in broadcasting revenue, 62 per cent in commercial and 43 per cent from matchday income. He has made Liverpool hugely successful on the pitch and has laid foundations for long-term progress with better infrastructure, all the while operating within the confines of a sustainable model that does not rely on massive owner investment.
An Eye for Details
Klopp gets involved in the little details, too. When Liverpool were designing a new team bus that is regarded as the benchmark in England in terms of facilities, boasting reclining seats and a full kitchen, the manager was part of discussions from start to finish. He even selected the words on the wrapping of the coach, with ‘We are Liverpool’ across each side, the club crest taking pride of place at the front and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ across the rear window.
‘He cares so much about this football club, about the players, about the staff, about the fans and you see it every day over and over again,’ McNally says. ‘Jürgen gives all that he has to making sure Liverpool is the very best it can be in whatever way and that’s noticeable wherever you look.’
Reawakening The Fanbase
Right from the beginning of his Liverpool tenure in 2015, Klopp spoke directly and powerfully to Liverpool fans when he needed to. On 8 November, he suffered his first defeat, when Scott Dann headed Crystal Palace 2–1 up in the closing stages at Anfield. The goal promoted home fans to exit Anfield en masse. ‘Eighty-two minutes – game over,’ Klopp said at the time. ‘I turned around and I felt pretty alone at this moment. We have to decide when it is over.’
Neil Atkinson, host of fan channel The Anfield Wrap, believes the messaging connected with the fanbase due to the way it was delivered and the fact the manager was including supporters in the process of forcing late goals. ‘What Jürgen did really well in the aftermath of that game was he spoke quite emotionally,’ Atkinson says ‘He spoke personally about how he felt really alone in that moment. And I’ve always thought it’s a really interesting sort of use of language, you know, the idea that he’s stood and he’s so bereft of the people around him. And I think that what he sort of got right, and has got right quite repeatedly, is knowing when to appeal to Liverpool supporters practically, and also know when to appeal to Liverpool supporters on an emotional level. That was a really sort of powerful, emotional one.’
Attracting Mentality Monsters
It’s true that when you look through the names in the Liverpool squad, the first thing you notice is the contrasting backgrounds of the players, from established internationals and foreign talent from around the globe to those who were told they would never make it; from Premier League second-chancers to unpolished gems given a chance to shine brightly. All with the common bond, as Klopp puts it, that they battled hard to reach the top.
- In 2012, everything Naby Keita thought he knew about his footballing ability was cast in doubt. Aged 16, he was dodging cars while scoring goals in makeshift street games in Koleya, an area of Guinea capital’s Conakry, before going on to attend professional club trials in France. His parents were terrified to let him leave the country, let alone the continent, but supported the youngster’s desire to seek a future for himself abroad.
- In the same year over in Scotland, an unemployed Andy Robertson tweeted ‘life at this age is rubbish without no money, #needajob’. After being rejected by his boyhood club Celtic at 15 for being too small and weak, the left-back found himself at amateur side Queen’s Park, who only covered his travel expenses. He found employment at Marks & Spencer in Glasgow and did odd-job work in the offices at Hampden Park to earn some cash in-between training and lining up for matches on a Saturday.
- Virgil van Dijk, meanwhile, was battling a potentially lethal abdominal abscess in 2012. ‘I was seriously ill,’ the centre-back, then at Groningen in the Dutch Eredivisie, recalled. ‘The doctors said it was very, very dangerous. I lost around 15 kilos. I had poison in my system and the abscess almost burst. It was dangerous and I was in hospital for 12 days.’ A year later and the 21-year-old was on his way to Celtic
- Over on Merseyside, Jordan Henderson planned to use a Europa League fixture against Anzhi Makhachkala as part of a campaign to prove he deserved to remain at Liverpool. The midfielder had been offered to Fulham in a failed part-exchange for Clint Dempsey the previous summer and did not want a similar fate to follow in the winter window
- Sadio Mane was in the process of transferring from Metz to Red Bull Salzburg for just over £3 million, a fee that was criticised as too much for someone so raw. The Senegal international was already accustomed to making people look silly for underestimating him, having turned up to a trial for the club Generation Foot in Dakar — a near 500-mile journey from his home in Bambali — with torn boots and no football shorts
- At the start of 2012, Mohamed Salah was still in Egypt with El Mokawloon, while Hoffenheim’s Roberto Firmino was a complete non-entity in Brazil. Fast forward and Gini Wijnaldum was relegated with Newcastle, Thierry Henry went viral when he claimed he didn’t know what Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain did at Arsenal or was even good at, and Charlie Adam laid Stoke City’s failures on Xherdan Shaqiri, despite him being their creative heartbeat and gamechanger.
As you wade through Liverpool’s squad, there is a wealth of tales of resilience. ‘That is not a coincidence,’ Henderson says. ‘The manager knows exactly the kind of footballers he wants to work with and the kind of character they need to have. When him, Michael [Edwards] and the rest of the recruitment team are looking at players, they assess the whole package and not just how good someone is on the pitch.’
Leaving a Legacy
The character of the leader informs the character of the team,’ Pep Lijnders says. While Klopp admits it was ‘absolutely overwhelming’ to see all the trophies together which ‘felt big and was so special for the people involved,’ he makes it clear, ‘I don’t carry it around with me.
‘How silly would it be to wake up in the morning and think “we are champions of England, Europe and the world” when all the other clubs don’t sleep to catch us. What we did was good, but it’s gone. We have to do the highest preparation again, keep the highest focus because we want to stay successful. We think constantly about how we do that. That is what is in my mind and nothing else.’
No one at Liverpool can contemplate the post-Klopp world. ‘I don’t want to think about that,’ Henderson says. ‘Right now, we’re at our highest moment, but we have to maximise it and get all we can from it and that’s on us. Whether you’ve won the Champions League or Premier League or lost those trophies, the mentality and desire has to absolutely be at 100 percent. It can never be anything less and that’s really something the gaffer has worked into us. There is so much he has given us.’
In 2008, Klopp told Stern magazine that life was ‘about leaving better places behind. About not taking yourself too seriously. About giving your all. About loving and being loved.’
He has mastered that essence of life. When he leaves Liverpool, he will be missed. But Klopp’s impact will linger, his legacy extending beyond silverware and full-throttle football — touching a club and its people so deeply, rejuvenating it and them so comprehensively.