“I didn’t dream it in this way but I’m something of a football romantic. I love the stories and Anfield is one of the best places in world football. Now I’m here. It seems as though I am a real lucky guy, huh?”
Speaking at his unveiling as the new manager of Liverpool in October, Jurgen Klopp immediately endeared himself to his new disciples. A two-time Bundesliga winning manager, a Champions League runner-up, a man courted by Europe’s leading clubs, taking over a side whose last trophy came in 2012, whose start to the season had left them 10th in the Premier League, and whose last five league finishes read: sixth, second, seventh, eighth, sixth. And he was the lucky one?
Some expressed consternation at the opposing theory: that Liverpool, not Klopp, were the main beneficiaries from this marriage. In every relationship there is a ‘reacher’ and a ‘settler’, and the Reds had somehow raided the top shelf. ‘Anfield needs to rediscover its self-belief and realise their new manager is lucky to have them – not vice versa,’ wrote Gary Neville for the Daily Telegraph in October.
‘Liverpool need to get their belief and confidence back, and feel – actually, this guy is being given a responsibility, and it’s a privilege,’ he added. ‘It is almost as if Liverpool have to impress Jurgen Klopp. It should be the other way round.
‘It’s almost as if Liverpool Football Club feels blessed to have him – and I’m uncomfortable with that.’
Six months on, you wonder whether Neville’s stance has changed. Is he now more comfortable with the concept that Liverpool are fortunate to have one of the leading managers in world football at their helm?
On Thursday evening, Klopp revisited his second true love. Borussia Dortmund welcomed their returning hero with open arms. The following spectacle was engrossing. The crowd was raucous, the game engaging, and the tie finely balanced for the return leg next week.
Liverpool put in an almost perfect European away performance. Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren were excellent in central defence, Emre Can was commanding in central midfield, and Divock Origi was the ideal lone striker.
The selection of Origi was Klopp’s only change from the 1-1 draw against Tottenham last week. Daniel Sturridge was dropped to the bench in favour of, in the German’s words, a desire for more “physical strength” and “speed”. “And more pressing” was conspicuous by its lack of a mention. The gamble paid off; the young Belgian was the best player in a red shirt.
Dropping a striker with 47 goals in 82 club appearances for one with five in 24 is not an easy decision, especially in the biggest game of your season. But these are the choices which separate great managers from good ones. Klopp has proved time and time again that he sits firmly in the former category, and Liverpool must be eternally grateful to benefit from his experience and tactical acumen.
It was a delicate set of circumstances which heralded Klopp’s arrival six months ago. The 48-year-old was in the midst of a self-enforced sabbatical after leaving Dortmund, but Liverpool’s struggles under Brendan Rodgers were sufficient to pique his interest. Had the Reds sacked the Northern Irishman a month later, they would have been ruing their inaction. Klopp could be managing Chelsea. Or perhaps Manchester United. Or maybe even Manchester City.
But the Anfield club were the lucky recipients of the golden ticket. The improvement in performances since has been stark, yet Klopp’s biggest achievement is that he has restored belief in the support. In his Telegraph article in October, Neville discussed what made Klopp’s relationship with Dortmund so special. ‘The noise, the connection between manager, fans and players, the electricity, the feeling that everyone was one,’ he wrote. The German club had finished 13th and were in disarray at the time of their saviour’s appointment. By the end of his seven years in charge, he had unified a broken club. Sound familiar?