The heavy metal football. The broad, mirthful smile. The insistence on hugging each and every one of his players – and often the opposition – with the fervour of an overly friendly uncle at a Christmas party. To identify the most distinguishable aspect of Jurgen Klopp’s management style is an almost impossible task. Just seven months into his reign at Liverpool, the German has already left an indelible mark on the club.
Above everything, it is Klopp’s stance on coaching and transfers that sets him apart. The transfer market continues to grow almost beyond comprehension, but the German remains steadfast in his ideals. “I believe in training,” he said in November. “Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one in this country who believes in training. Only others believe in transfers.”
Those who doubted Klopp’s message, felt those were empty words he would soon betray, were confounded in a matter of months. The January transfer window came, and just two players arrived. Marko Grujic would join for £5m, but was immediately sent back on loan to Red Star Belgrade. And no disrespect to Steven Caulker, but his emergency loan hardly set pulses racing – aside from for those with a fetish for one-cap England defenders. While others relied on purchasing new ingredients, Klopp sought to make a meal out of what he already had.
Fast forward to this summer. In a window where West Ham – who finished seventh last season – have already signed four more players than Liverpool – who finished eighth – Klopp will once again seek to rely heavily on the players previously at his disposal. Sadio Mane, Loris Karius and Joel Matip have arrived, with Grujic finally joining his new teammates, providing reinforcements in every position. Seven clubs have made more signings; two have made as many; few are as content with their business thus far as the 49-year-old.
Some supporters, as ever, remain unsatisfied. On Sunday, the Liverpool Echo tweeted the following from their official account: ‘BUY BIG: #LFC fans demand that Jurgen Klopp delivers another marquee signing.’ It was based on the results of a poll, which asked: ‘Does Klopp need to make another marquee signing?’ Almost half (48%) answered yes, 30% said no, and the other 22% were satisfied with Mane as the club’s biggest purchase of the summer. Forget ‘training’ players, some fans wanted to see money spent and statements made.
Those same fans completely misunderstand Klopp’s missive. His mantra of ‘coach first, buy second’ is not a gimmick, it is a belief around which he has built his career. Mane became not only the German’s most expensive signing ever at £34m this summer, but the forward is only the fifth purchase he has made for more than £10m. The first, Marco Reus, has become one of the best players in world football having been signed for just £14.5m. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was transformed into an elite star after joining Dortmund for £11m. Ciro Immobile would not make a similar transition after moving for £14m. Henrikh Mkhitaryan struggled initially after moving to Germany for £21.5m, but he now finds his reputation enhanced as he settles into new surroundings. Klopp has managed some of the finest players of their generation over 15 years at Mainz, Dortmund and Liverpool, but they would not have represented the ‘marquee signing’ some fans now crave.
Would Liverpool fans celebrate wildly if they were to sign an Everton youth product who had made only one league appearance for their most bitter rivals? Dortmund fans did not when Mats Hummels joined from Bayern Munich in 2008. Would delirious Anfield fanfare have greeted the £3.7m signing of a striker whose previous experience was limited only to the Polish leagues? It did not for Dortmund when Robert Lewandowski joined from Lech Poznan in 2010. Many supporters fans are underwhelmed by the prospect of Mane being their headline-grabbing purchase this summer, but his league goalscoring record at Southampton (0.31 goals per game) is similar to that of Reus’ in the Bundesliga when he left Borussia Monchengladbach for Dortmund in 2012 (0.37 goals per game). Marcel Schmelzer once lingered in the reserves but is now a Germany international; Shinji Kagawa joined for under £300,000 in 2010, and left for Manchester United two years later for £17m; Ilkay Gundogan had already played for two clubs before moving to the Westfalenstadion in 2011, and would instantly become a first-team star. Klopp has shown time and time again that he does not sign ‘marquee players’; he creates them.
But what even is a ‘marquee signing’? It was once based on how much a player cost, but Mane is the most expensive signing made by a Premier League club this summer. Instead, the emphasis on reputation has never been heavier. “Everyone expects big names and a big improvement because of big names,” Klopp said last week. “If you don’t know the players it’s like ‘what are we doing? What are they doing?’ At the moment nobody thinks about the good games we played last season or the bad games. They only think Manchester United have taken this player or Manchester City have taken this player and we have taken ‘what is the name?’ and that is it.”
Mane is considered by many not to be a statement signing at £34m, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s move as a free agent to Manchester United is accepted as a signal of their intent. The Swede is as much a vanity purchase as a necessary one – the Ferrari bought by the middle-aged man who, to be fair, did need a new car. Despite joining a club who have spent £30m and £26.3m on other players this summer, Ibrahimovic is the headline arrival. Reputation first, everything else second.
Klopp will know that pleasing certain fans is impossible. Many influenced by a like, want, need culture were left despondent at missing out on Alex Teixeira in January; the Brazilian forward instead moved to China, where he has scored just six goals in 22 games. Signing Christian Benteke for £32.5m one summer ago was a purposeful proclamation, but initial excitement over securing his signature ignored his unsuitability. Gotze’s imminent return to Dortmund is perceived as a failure to act on Liverpool’s part, but the German started just 11 league games for Bayern last season, and faces a battle to rediscover his form. The club do not have a successful history with ‘marquee signings’, yet the clamour to make one is more intense than ever before.
With the transfer window now regarded as a sport within a sport, fans compare the signings made by their club to the business another side has conducted, and judge accordingly. Just four clubs have spent more on signings than Arsenal by mid-July, yet their transfer window is looked upon in a dim light. West Ham have spent just £12m, yet their transfer window is regarded as one of the most effective among Premier League clubs so far. The balance between the amount of buys, expenditure and calibre of player bought is a delicate one to master. The season starts in August, but clubs have already been competing at the negotiation table since before the end of the last campaign. It is a battle which never stops – a battle which Liverpool, who have improved both depth and quality in every position, are fighting hard to win.
“I cannot make the transfers everyone wants,” was Klopp’s warning to fans last week. He will take solace in the fact that many Liverpool supporters recognise the same virtues of coaching over buying that he does, and are pleased with the club’s business so far. For those still demanding a statement signing this summer, the message is clear: Why buy a marquee when the foundations of the new house are barely in place?