Klopp, the Kop and Being on Top
After conceding three goals at home to Crystal Palace on Saturday, Liverpool fans could be forgiven for detecting a hint of déjà vu in the air. Spineless performances against regulation fodder have become routine in an era where last season’s fourth place finish was their first campaign since Rafa Benitez left in 2010 that Liverpool conceded under forty league goals. No Premier League champion has racked up this tally since Sir Alex Ferguson’s final domestic title with Manchester United and since the great man’s departure from the managerial top table, the Premier League’s footballing landscape has changed dramatically.
The likes of Pochettino, Guardiola and the red’s own Jürgen Klopp have been joined this season by Sarri and Emery in developing the tactical approach and technical qualities of English sides. These forward thinking coaches are aided by their clubs’s vast finances, in addition to innovative and joined up thinking at boardroom level. This is particularly true of the structures in place at Manchester City and with the Fenway Sports Group (FSG) at Liverpool. Klopp was identified as a future Liverpool manager back in May 2013 following Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League final defeat at Wembley and since then, FSG’s confidence in Klopp has allowed them to build the team in his image, a young, versatile side ready to be moulded by the German into Premier League champions.
Klopp was made for Merseyside. A club built on its fanatic fan base meets the manager who truly thrives on this. This is something he managed to utilise during his time at Dortmund, where Borussia were urged on and opponents intimidated by the famous ‘Yellow Wall’ and Klopp has built a similar symbiotic relationship with the Kop. Yet he is not an anti-hero like Mourinho, there is no us against the world with Klopp. Something about his passionate, overly exuberant touchline demeanour and blinding, joy filled smile can intoxicate even the dourest ‘proper football fan’. You simply cannot dislike the man. His personality and footballing philosophy have won over fans and neutrals alike, leaving many (perhaps excluding City, Everton and United fans) wishing for something they never thought they would – for Liverpool to win the title.
Yet do not be fooled by any perception of Klopp as a glorified cheerleader. Whilst his emotional intelligence – a quality largely underappreciated in the modern game – is certainly a key asset within his managerial armoury, he is also an astute and adaptable tactician. This has been confirmed since Klopp’s right hand man at Mainz, Dortmund and Liverpool, Željko Buvač left in April last year. The narrative that Buvač was the brains behind the whole Klopp machine has since unravelled with the Red’s further tactical development displaying Klopp’s ability as an innovative tactician.
The notion that this gentle giant from the Rhine valley’s Black Forest is simply an overly excitable, gegenpress obsessed madman is long outdated and Liverpool’s current campaign is only enhancing his credentials. Four points clear after twenty-three games, just thirteen goals conceded and not a single point dropped to a team outside the top six, these stats are certainly persuasive but even they cannot describe just how impressive Klopp’s management has been throughout the last eighteen months. The decision to wait for Van Dijk and a shift to a more pragmatic and efficient approach in Premier League has reaped its rewards, with a lead at the top of the league established and a moral boosting run to the Champions League final.
Perhaps fellow elite managers should take note of Klopp’s willingness to adapt his initial approach, with the obsession of rigidly sticking to philosophy seeing the division’s best defensive midfielder played out of position at Chelsea and Manchester City invariably hitting the wall during the Champions League knockout phase. This versatility coupled with his unrivalled ability to get the absolute maximum from his players has resulted in a fully functional winning machine, consisting of over-achieving individuals, many of whom it is difficult to imagine performing as impressively or consistently for any other side.
For these reasons, Liverpool fans should banish any lingering feelings of déjà vu after yesterday’s rare defensive blip. The score line was the exception and not the rule, the club and its management have developed a transfer approach and tactical system currently on course to achieve what they have never before, a Premier League title and there is little doubt over who is leading the charge.