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25 May 2022

Jürgen Klopp and the mystique of the team

How the Liverpool manager transformed the club and its players, and transcended the tribalism of its fans.

By Michael Henderson

We are bound for heaven, and Jürgen Klopp is of the company. Supporters of Liverpool football club may feel like amending the painter Thomas Gainsborough’s celebrated remark about Anthony van Dyck as they contemplate the Champions League final against Real Madrid. Victory in Paris would cap a magnificent campaign, in which they won both domestic cups and finished second in the Premier League, a point behind Manchester City.

Under Klopp, only the second manager of an English club to claim a clean sweep of the three domestic trophies and the Champions League, Liverpool have won friends everywhere with their bracing style. City, managed by Pep Guardiola, are more beautiful. But Liverpool’s explosion of flavours stirs the taste buds.

The first person to accomplish that quartet of prizes was Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United during the two decades (1993-2013) they dominated the English game. Klopp, however, has performed the feat in a shade under seven seasons. When he joined Liverpool in October 2015, they had not won the championship since 1990. Now they are back, and United – a rest home for has-beens and never-weres – have been knocked off their perch.

Through expert acquisition of fine players, and exceptional personal qualities, Klopp has transformed the club. Five players (full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, centre-half Virgil van Dijk and forwards Mo Salah and Sadio Mané) would be strong contenders for a place in an all-time Anfield XI. Klopp has also “got” the city, and no city is linked so umbilically to its figurehead club as Liverpool.

[See also: We should mourn the loss of the innocent pitch invasion]

It has been a consummate team performance, supervised by a man who has always taken a broad view of the world. Born in Stuttgart, Klopp coached successfully at Mainz and mighty Borussia Dortmund before Liverpool offered him the chance to revive their fortunes. Liverpool have not always been popular. The great football writer Brian Glanville described their all-conquering Eighties team as an exercise in “inspired pedestrianism”. How distant those days are now.

What makes a great team? In football the first point of reference must be the Brazilian World Cup winners of 1970, led by Pelé, the greatest player of all. At club level, the standout Europeans remain the Real Madrid side of Alfredo di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás, and Ajax of Amsterdam, when Johan Cruyff, their star forward, became, in Brian Clough’s lovely phrase, “the human Catherine wheel”.

In rugby there have been many outstanding New Zealand teams, though to British eyes the great Welsh XV of the Seventies, led by Gareth Edwards, tops the list. Followers of the 13-man code will respond with the Wigan rugby league team dominated by Ellery Hanley, Shaun Edwards and Joe Lydon.

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It was Ian Chappell, captain of Australia’s outstanding cricketers in the Seventies, who said the knack of leadership was keeping the players who thought you were a bastard away from those who weren’t quite sure. Nobody ever said great teams had to get on.

Duke Ellington’s band in 1940 was unsurpassable. Ellington could call on the tenor-alto-baritone trio of Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, supported by Rex Stewart, Ray Nance, Lawrence Brown, Jimmy Blanton and Sonny Greer. Stars all, who blended their talents into a formidable ensemble.

The Beatles, between October 1965 and June 1966, recorded Rubber Soul and, going up a notch, Revolver. The partnership of Paul McCartney and John Lennon had ideal balance: left and right, tenor and baritone, bass guitar and rhythm, sweet and sour. Alone, one man wrote the feeble “Mull of Kintyre”, and the other that revolting dirge “Imagine”. Together, in one golden year, they gave the world “We Can Work It Out”, “Day Tripper”, “Eleanor Rigby”, “For No One”, “You Won’t See Me” and “Norwegian Wood”.

[See also: Joyous fans, strange signs and football to savour – it’s been a remarkable season]

Under Herbert von Karajan, the Berlin Philharmonic set standards of orchestral playing beyond words. In this country, John Barbirolli’s association with the Hallé (1943-70) stands a-tiptoe with Simon Rattle’s stewardship of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (1980-98). “JB” took over an orchestra in wartime, Rattle a band in a city emerging from industrial unrest. Both succeeded through force of personality as well as remarkable talent.

The Moscow Art Theatre, which produced Chekhov’s four great plays under Konstantin Stanislavski. The Ballets Russes, where Sergei Diaghilev ruled like a monarch. A real monarch, King Alfonso of Spain, once asked the impresariowhat he did. “Like your Majesty,” replied Diaghilev, “I do nothing. Like your Majesty, I am indispensable.”

Michael Balcon led Ealing Studios through its glory days in the Fifties. Peter Hall established the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960. Sidney Bernstein created Granada Television in 1954, and saw it become the finest independent company in the world. Nor should we overlook the Carry On team, and all those films (well, some) we secretly love. Even they must bend the knee to “the Archers”, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who made nine classics in a row between 49th Parallel (1941) and The Small Back Room (1949).

Football usually disgraces itself once a week, through the tribalism of its followers and the sickly sentimentality of a sport that too often takes itself too seriously. Liverpool supporters, with their tiresome “Scouse, not English” proclamations, are the most sentimental of all. Three cheers, then, for Jürgen Klopp, who has created a team that transcends tribalism. It isn’t hard to cheer on these modern Liverpudlians.

[See also: Does the FA Cup need saving?]

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This article appears in the 25 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Out of Control