Looking back on the two Champions League finals he lost, one of Jurgen Klopp’s lesser regrets might be that, in both 2013 and 2018, his sides were unable to realise his footballing vision on the grandest stage. The German is not vain, he is not an egotist, but he and his philosophy are still reflections of each other. And, unfortunately, against Bayern Munich at Wembley and, five years later, against Real Madrid in Kiev, his raging football lost its power.
Dortmund’s loss in 2013 was unlucky. Arjen Robben’s scuffed last-minute winner was brutally cruel and, after conceding the penalty from which Ilkay Gundogan equalised, Bayern centre-half Dante really should have seen a second yellow card. Klopp might also point to the injured Mario Gotze and a half-fit Lukasz Piszczek as cause for Dortmund’s low-wattage performance and to the outstanding display of Manuel Neuer as reason for their defeat.
In Kiev it was different, because Liverpool did burn brightly. They did so briefly, though, and never again after Mohamed Salah left the field. Had he not been injured it’s impossible to know what effect it had on the outcome, but that opening half-hour had an inevitability about it which was impossible to ignore. Liverpool were quicker, more intense, and ultimately better than Real, but that became an irrelevant detail lost within a horribly dark night.
Again, as before, a Klopp side had thrust their way to a final, winning hearts, minds and admiration, only to then show its limitations when it mattered most.
There isn’t a conclusion to draw from that. Winning finals is difficult and those two were decided by the most slender of margins. Neither defeat should alter the perception of who Klopp is or what he stands for, but Saturday still provides the opportunity for a mild redemption. Liverpool are in tremendous form, Tottenham are a clear underdog, and Gegenpressing is in position – again – to leave its footprints on football’s summit for good.
At the moment, little matters more than the binary imperative of scoring more goals. In time and with historical context, though, a comprehensive triumph of system in this competition, as a Liverpool win would represent, would place them as an anomaly within the modern era. Four of the last five European Cups have been won by Real Madrid, each of those on the back of Cristiano Ronaldo. The fifth was won by Barcelona who, for all their collective merits, were still led by one of the greatest players of all time and supported by seven or eight members of anyone’s World XI.
Liverpool have individual class, too, but none of their players reside in the game’s stratosphere. They’re supremely talented, just not supernaturally so. Any dispassionate analysis of the squad would conclude that, on a pound-for-pound, sum-of-their-parts basis, they should not be about to play their second Champions League final in successive years. Which, of course, is not the same as saying that they don’t deserve to be there. They inarguably do, in spite of any superficial deficiencies – and how well that frames the nature of Klopp’s success.
He hasn’t succeeded through buying the finest players – although the additions of Alisson and Virgil van Dijk certainly helped – nor even by being the smartest mind or the most diligent in preparation. Instead, this has been an emotional triumph. The result of the right person occupying the right job at precisely the right time, and of a club and a team entwining around that individual.
‘His ideas were Liverpool’s ideas. His personality was Liverpool’s personality’
It’s a perfect description. Unfortunately, it’s not about Klopp. Jonathan Wilson, writing in The Anatomy Of Liverpool, was actually describing Bill Shankly, but that it could apply to either is telling. Shankly’s effect was deeper and broader, with “ideas” and “personality” extending well beyond the pitch, but the parallels are seductive. The importance of oratory, the unusually deep bond with the players, the community-centred politics; there are some deep, familiar tones at work.
And because there are, it’s fitting that Klopp should be leading this club towards its continental apex. That’s a bold claim, of course, given how decadent Liverpool’s history is, but it’s not outlandish. The literal worth of one European Cup is as much as the next. But winning the competition now, with a few more perfect power chords, would blend the club’s DNA in a way which, from a sensory perspective, would match and likely surpass anything that has come before.
Liverpool are an underdog in this era and that’s an identity the city has always worn proudly. They have also overcome tremendous disadvantages in getting to this final, and that’s a tradition which can be traced all the way back to Raisbeck and Watson.
Other European successes have shared those qualities, 2005 being the most obvious, but the virtue missing across all five is that signature style. It’s one of the tenets of the club’s modern identity and yet, in finals, Liverpool have often been inhibited and imperfect. They played with fleeting first-half expression against Moenchengladbach in 1977, but were uncharacteristically negative during the second-half. They won by a single goal in 1978 and 1981, and on penalties in 1984.
It’s an observation rather than a criticism, relevant only in the sense that those finals weren’t testament to just how good Liverpool were; to how well they could pass the ball or how superior they could look. The overall achievements were a wonderful endorsement, of course – Paisley and Fagan stand alongside Shankly for good reason – but on each occasion the journey was greater than the ending.
Maybe that’s what Brian Clough was getting at all those years ago, in that surreal interview with Austin Mitchell when he and Don Revie sat side-by-side. Clough wanted to win the European Cup. That’s why he took the Leeds United job he’d just been dismissed from. But he also wanted to win the league “better”. It was a dig at Revie’s reputation, really, aimed at his former players and their more agricultural habits. That’s not relevant to Liverpool, but the broader implication tenuously is. The “better” comment baffled Revie, but Clough was right: there are different ways to win, ways which can enhance an achievement.
This weekend, Klopp’s thrillingly vibrant side can certainly accentuate theirs. They can light their cannons and singe the earth with their football, producing not just another immortal moment, but also an ending which trembles with resonance. It would be a very soulful victory; one that would echo back through the past and leave the pantheon’s residents nodding their approval.
For Klopp personally, it’s another chance to hang his vision of the game on football’s marble walls. He’s earned that chance and he deserves to go back. For Liverpool, though, the combustion of their ancient elements could be the greatest crescendo of them all.
Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter