The manager as messiah: Jürgen Klopp’s mission for Liverpool

Communication skills are central to Klopp’s method and, like Shankly, he is not afraid to use them to discuss politics, speaking out against Brexit and on humanitarian issues.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

It was Bill Shankly who popularised the image of football manager as messiah. At Liverpool he wasn’t just the secretary who sorted out hotels and acted as a conduit between the board and the coaching staff, nor was he the drill sergeant bawling his players to greater effort. He was rather a benign dictator, canny, tough and charismatic, and his job was not merely to pick the team, but to rally support behind the club.

Shankly set the mould for the British manager. Jock Stein, Matt Busby and Don Revie might argue they were doing much the same, just in a less eye-catching way, but after him came the likes of Brian Clough, Malcolm Allison and Tommy Docherty, larger-than-life figures whose greatest gift was their capacity to inspire.

After Shankly had retired, Liverpool went on to even greater successes under Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and a great player of the Paisley era, Kenny Dalglish. But since the club lost its way in the Nineties, struggling with the ramifications of the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 and slow to react to the new financial realities of the Premier League, there has been a yearning on Merseyside for another Shankly figure. The rest of the world may have turned to technocrats and data analysts but Liverpool wanted another messiah to re-establish them at the summit of the English and European game. Finally, in Jürgen Klopp, they may have found him.

Like Shankly, who grew up in a mining community in Ayrshire, Klopp is of staunchly working-class origin. His father Norbert, who had been a promising enough player to have a trial at Kaiserslautern, was a travelling salesman for a wall fixings company, living in Stuttgart. Norbert had already had two daughters, but Klopp was the son he had always wanted, and he was determined to turn him into the footballer he felt he should have been. To say he was demanding would be an understatement: Klopp remembers watching his father’s red anorak disappearing into the distance as he learned to ski, and endless tennis matches in which he would lose 6-0, 6-0. “Do you think this is fun for me?” he would shout, to which his father would reply, “Do you think this is fun for me?”

Brutal his love may have been, but it instilled in Klopp a resilience. He became a player, supporting himself by working in a video shop and loading lorries before he was offered a professional contract at Mainz in 1989, by which time he was 22. He started out as a committed but technically limited centre-forward and became a committed but technically limited central defender. Shankly, who won the FA Cup for Preston in 1938, was a far better player.

Crucially, at Mainz, Klopp played under Wolfgang Frank, who in the Nineties was one of the earliest exponents in Germany of the pressing game that had been common in other parts of Europe for 30 years. Rather than each player simply marking his opposite number, this style saw the team as a system comprised of 11 units. Players marked zones rather than direct opponents and they pushed high up the pitch, trying to drive their opponents back and force them into mistakes. Shankly had been one of the pioneers of the approach in Britain; like Klopp, his tactical acuity was disguised by his force of personality.

Germany had been weirdly resistant to the pressing game, their success of the Eighties leading to a developmental stagnation. A disastrous performance at Euro 2000 changed that, and began what the journalist Raphael Honigstein called Das Reboot, the systematic and hugely successful restructuring of German football academies.

Klopp was part of the cultural shift. He had become manager of Mainz in 2001 and, three years later, he led them into the Bundesliga for the first time. Then, in 2005, he was a studio pundit on the state broadcaster ZDF’s coverage of the Confederations Cup. Previous attempts to introduce tactical analysis to German TV coverage had failed, but Klopp, with his charm, humour and capacity to explain, was a hit. Those communication skills are central to Klopp’s method and, like Shankly, he is not afraid to use them to discuss politics, speaking out not only against Brexit – it “makes no sense” – but also on humanitarian issues, being critical, for instance, of Austria’s immigration policy.

In 2008, Klopp left Mainz for Borussia Dortmund – like Liverpool, a down-on-its-luck giant from a large industrial city with a passionate fan-base – and led them to two league titles and the 2013 Champions League final. He came to Liverpool in 2015 and on 26 May faces another Champions League final, in Kiev against the might of Real Madrid, the most successful club of all time.

It’s over-simplistic to portray the match as the swagger of grandees against the sweat and organisation of Liverpool, but only a little. Liverpool’s annual revenues, after all, are only around two-thirds of Madrid’s. The question then is whether Klopp’s charisma and tactical nous can make up the shortfall – whether he can win the club’s sixth European title and consecrate a new age at Liverpool.

This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman