St Mary’s GAA Club man and Liverpool fan John Daly tells us why Jürgen Klopp deserves all the kudos
A CLASSIC European Cup final awaits us as Liverpool do battle with Zinedine Zidane’s three-in-a-row-chasing Real Madrid at the Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex, Kiev, on Saturday. Indeed, we are talking about a clash of European footballing royalty here, a joust between the true aristocracy of the European game.
Between them, Liverpool and Real hold a combined seventeen European Cups, five for the Merseyside club, a dozen for Los Blancos. It really is a contest of footballing nobility and, in Mohamed Salah – Liverpool’s very own Egyptian King – and Real’s Ronaldo, the de facto Prince of Portugal, we have just that.
While it is certainly a final featuring teams of rich European Cup tradition, for us Liverpool fans the last decade or so has been blighted by a dearth of European football’s premier club competition at Anfield. Thankfully, the five-time winners are back pitting themselves against Europe’s elite once again and kudos really must go to Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp for the club’s recent renaissance.
In 2015, the German inherited a stagnating Brendan Rodgers team which was clearly suffering from the loss of Luis Suarez to Barcelona. He has since transformed this Liverpool side into a clinical attacking outfit competing for honours regularly. Reaching a League Cup final, a Europa League final, the upcoming Champions League final as well as achieving back-to-back Champions League qualification in two-and-a-half years is no mean feat.
How the German has turned Liverpool’s fortunes in such a short period is remarkable. The most appealing aspect of his management is unquestionably his ability to cultivate strong bonds with his players. Along with his post-match paternal hugs, he instils in his players a confidence and a self-belief.
The manager’s nurturing qualities mean players are given time and, in return, the team has improved both collectively and individually. It is reasonable to think that under the tutelage of another manager neophytes Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold would be mere squad players. But, despite their age and experience, Klopp gave them a chance and stuck with them.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose career at Arsenal was at an impasse has, too, been revitalised under Klopp since signing last summer. And what about the inimitable Mo Salah? Essentially rejected by then Chelsea manager José Mourinho in 2014, Klopp brought him back to England from AS Roma for the paltry sum of £35 million and he has since flourished into a Ballon d’Or candidate.
The manager’s effect on the supporters must also be lauded. I was lucky enough to attend Klopp’s first game at Anfield in October 2015 – a 1-1 draw against Southampton where, coincidentally, Sadio Mané and Virgil van Dijk, who will line out for the Reds in Kiev, were in the Saints’ side with the former nabbing a late equaliser. Despite the result, Klopp curried favour with the Anfield crowd from the get-go.
The rambunctious touchline behaviour which has come to endear us to him was evident even then. Apart from big games, in recent years the Anfield atmosphere has been far too reticent.
However, since the arrival of Klopp and his pantomime-like geeing-up of the supporters, this has gradually begun to change, and the decibel levels at Liverpool’s home ground have been rising. In an age where football clubs have become mere corporate shells devoid of personality and character, having an extroverted and charismatic man at the helm gives a club a distinctive quality, and this is important for a storied club in Liverpool with such a passionate fanbase.
Like his touchline manner, the ‘Normal One’s’ spell on Merseyside has been the antithesis of anything ‘normal.’ In Klopp we have an unpredictable figure. In December 2015, he lined his players up in front of The Kop to celebrate coming from behind to earn a 2-2 draw against West Brom – a moment for which he was largely derided.
There have also been moments which have downright defied belief. A 4-5 win against Norwich in January 2016 where Adam Lallana snatched a last-minute winner, and where Klopp’s spectacles were broken in the ensuing celebrations, was straight out of ‘The Theatre of the Absurd.’
Notwithstanding Liverpool supporters, neutral football fans should be grateful for Klopp’s presence in the game. Since his arrival, Liverpool have scored 313 goals, while they have conceded 165. That’s a combined goal count of 478 goals in 154 games – over three goals a game in which the German has been involved. It is the type of entertainment which almost justifies the exorbitant sums paid for Premier League TV rights.
To the chagrin of us Liverpool fans, however, more than a few of these concessions have been a result of some calamitous defending and, despite the signing of Van Dijk, their foibles at the back as well as their naïve game-management when protecting leads are still a cause for concern.
Progress has been made though and the difference Klopp has made on the pitch can be seen none more so than in the disparity between Liverpool’s 2014/’15 Champions League campaign and their 2017/’18 run. More specifically, Liverpool’s tie with upcoming final opponents Real Madrid in October 2014.
That night, Real ran Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool ragged in a 0-3 defeat; it was a reality check for players and fans alike highlighting just how far off the Champions League pace Liverpool were.
The players, as well as the typically raucous Anfield crowd, were pliant spectators of the reigning winners. Liverpool were back with the big boys, but as minnows against the mighty Madrid — not as the evenly matched heavyweights they once were.
This season’s campaign, in contrast, has seen Liverpool gradually reinstate themselves among the top brass in Europe, and the manager’s playing philosophy must be acknowledged for this resurgence. Klopp’s espousal of the gegenpressing (high-press) tactic and the alacrity in which the red-hot trio of Salah, Firmino and Mané counter-attack has been the template for Liverpool’s obliteration of opposition en route to Kiev. And, it has been most impressive: Liverpool have dispatched of 2018 Portuguese champions Porto, 2018 English champions Man City and Italian side AS Roma in the knock-out stages in a combined aggregate score of 17-7.
It is the same brand of breakneck attacking football which, under Klopp, saw Borussia Dortmund win back-to-back Bundesligas, a German Cup and reach the 2013 Champions League final to boot.
Then, as now, it has left football purists salivating and, for me, the 2017/’18 European campaign has been a genuine throwback to the club’s halcyon European Cup days.
Liverpool’s ascension under Klopp has been impressive and, if Saturday’s final is to be a repeat of the ’81 final, and another European Cup (number six) comes back to Merseyside, he will have cemented a place in Liverpool Football Club folklore. A loss would be a setback and it would further bedim Klopp’s already poor record in finals.
Nevertheless, Reds fans should be sanguine about the future under Klopp. His team are far from the finished article and their immense improvement under him will only continue. Whatever happens in Kiev, Liverpool will meet Real as equals this time around, as European footballing royalty, just like the good old days – and the good old days are well and truly back again thanks in no small part to Jürgen Norbert Klopp.