April 15, 2015.
It’s Champions League quarterfinal week, one day after Real Madrid drew with Atletico Madrid and the day that Paris Saint-Germain lost at home to Barcelona. Europe’s elite clubs are all in action, but the biggest story is in Dortmund, who is not in the competition and languishing in 10th place in the Bundesliga. Jurgen Klopp, its charismatic coach who took over when it was 13th and guided it to two league titles and a run to the 2013 Champions League final, has just announced his resignation.
Two things were different about this announcement: one, Borussia Dortmund president Hans-Joachim Watzke was sitting next to Klopp at the time, and he looked devastated. He did not want Klopp to go. That doesn't happen very often (in fact, not at all). And two, the list of clubs being linked to Klopp were all A-List. They included Real Madrid, Barcelona and PSG, as well as Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea.
That does not mean that he will be a guaranteed success at Anfield. But it does mean that Fenway Sports Group has pulled off an almighty coup in luring one of the brightest personalities in the game to a side currently 10th in the table, albeit only three points away from the Champions League places.
Klopp at one of the big boys would not really make sense. He is the upstart who wants to rock the boat.
“Vitality” is the word he used when he described what Dortmund needed after it went bankrupt in 2005 and was looking for a way forward. He was the man to provide it.
“They had to regain vitality,” he said in an interview with El Pais. “And they looked for a coach that was full of life, that played a bright style of football, that had fun, that laughed…”
Liverpool, the side with the fifth-highest budget, looking to break into the top four, is in a similar position. It needs vitality. Not that the budget bothers Klopp. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“If you don’t have money and, despite everything, you want quality, you have to be brave,” he has said.
“Not having money doesn’t mean not being able to carry on working; it just means that you have to find other ways. I’m not interested in who is the best but in who makes the most out of their own possibilities. Everyone knows the best and everyone knows who is best. But how is that interesting?”
That’s why he has wondered how Vicente del Bosque would get on as coach of a club like Osasuna.
Klopp talks like a fan and at a club like Liverpool, which is built into the fabric of the community like no other, that will play into his hands. He is the maverick who likes to upset the hierarchy. In his penultimate season at Dortmund, after a loss to Borussia Monchengladbach and the eighth red card of his career, he had a row with Bayern sporting director Matthias Sammer.
“If I were him, I'd thank God that someone had the idea of hiring me every time I walk into the Bayern training ground," Klopp said, in response to Sammer’s suggestion that Bayern’s rivals lag behind because of their attitude to training.
"Klopp’s comment that Sammer does not contribute anything to Bayern was disrespectful and shameless,” wrote Oliver Kahn in his Bild column.
“Jurgen is an emotional coach,” Dortmund’s Kevin Grosskreutz (who until recently slept in a bedroom bedecked in Dortmund club colours) responded. “His style suits Dortmund. I don’t believe in trying to change people. He is how he is.”
Football and emotion go hand in hand at Liverpool, even if there may not be many players sleeping under club-branded duvets.
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FSG thinks that Klopp can break into the top four this season with the current squad. It’s true that with Chelsea struggling and Manchester United looking beatable, the race for Champions League places is an open one. On the other hand, Liverpool’s players have been bought to play the possession-based football that Brendan Rodgers wanted. Klopp’s teams are used to less possession, cover more ground, and make more tackles and interceptions.
“The creation of goalscoring opportunities [at Dortmund]… was the logical, mathematically calculated consequence of relentless, frenetic work,” explained Raphael Honigstein in Das Reboot, his excellent book analyzing how Germany won the World Cup.
Klopp put it another way: “Gegenpressing is the best playmaker in the world.”
Klopp has come up against Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho and Manuel Pellegrini (while he was at Malaga) in the Champions League and beaten them all. His win over Mourinho, when Dortmund beat Real Madrid 4-1 in the Champions League semifinal first leg, marked the apotheosis of gegenpressing. In Germany, they call Mourinho ‘the German Klopp’ rather than the other way around.
Liverpool fans might wonder just how great Philippe Coutinho can become under Klopp, or how the coach might revitalize the likes of Emre Can, Mamadou Sakho and Roberto Firmino. In a way, the specifics of those decisions matter little. The beauty of appointing Klopp is just that; it’s recognition from a top coach that this club is still important. Roy Hodgson and Rodgers were grateful to Liverpool for the opportunity. This time, Liverpool is grateful to Klopp.
This is the best decision that FSG has made in five years of ownership. It will allow fans to dream big again, and in Liverpool that’s what football is all about. Klopp is vitality, and Liverpool already loves him.