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Inside Klopp's Liverpool - Paul Joyce

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https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/sport/inside-klopps-liverpool-paddle-tennis-chocolate-digestives-and-car-pooling-g679mdv3p

 

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE | IN DEPTH

Inside Klopp’s Liverpool: paddle tennis, chocolate digestives and car-pooling

After defeat in last year’s Champions League final, the Liverpool manager realised things needed to change. Paul Joyce explains how he went about it

 

The scene was a meeting room at the Hilton Munich Park hotel and as Jürgen Klopp cleared his voice and prepared to hold court, Liverpool’s players fell silent. Unbeknown to them all, they were about to be taken to task. Not in anger, with the kind of ear-splitting rant that would peel the paint off the walls but, rather, in frustration at the lack of self-belief he sensed was eating away at the hushed throng.

 

It was the eve of the second leg of the Champions League knockout tie against Germany’s best, and Klopp’s patience had run out. The March showdown with Bayern Munich in the Allianz Arena was finely balanced after a goalless draw at Anfield in which the visiting side had performed with less pizzazz than normal, content to stymie the hosts and then make home advantage count to smooth their passage to the quarter-finals.

 

Their approach in that first leg had reminded Liverpool’s coaches of when Manchester City arrived on Merseyside for a Premier League game last October. With the memory of a 4-3 league defeat in January 2018, together with the damaging Champions League losses last season, City had chosen to play with more restraint. A little more cautious, a little less cavalier.

 

They would have won had Riyad Mahrez not skied a late penalty over the crossbar. Instead, they left relatively happy with a draw and on course for the title. Liverpool also took positives from the encounter, against a side accustomed to dominance. “It was the biggest compliment in the world,” one member of the backroom staff said.

 

Two of Europe’s elite clubs had recognised the potency in Liverpool ranks and Klopp decided now was the time to make that the centrepiece of a team-talk designed to boost confidence not just for the contest ahead, but also for the remainder of the season.

 

The speech was short and sharp, but served to whip up belief among a group who had lost their previous five games on the road in the competition. “I don’t think you believe how good you are,” he told his players. “City think you are a great side, Bayern think you are a great side. The only one in the football world who don’t know seems to be you.”

 

It was, according to those present, a spine-tingling moment that left no one in any doubt that they would leave Bavaria victorious.

 

They duly did, triumphing 3-1. Liverpool’s quality had been laid bare.

 

***********

 

The secret behind the strides Liverpool have taken is actually quite mundane. Beyond the tub-thumping team-talks, all the Hollywood moments have come on the pitch and, in order for that to be the case, the talent has to be in place. That transformation has come as a result of evolution and improvement off it, with recruitment and the way that the club is run slicker than ever before.

 

Mike Gordon, president of Fenway Sports Group, Liverpool’s owners, is not as high-profile as his partners, John W Henry and Tom Werner, and has a natural aversion to accepting praise. Yet he has been central to a giddy ascent, working closely with Klopp and the sporting director Michael Edwards.

 

Gordon’s strength is in channelling his intelligence and integrity into his judgment. He seeks out opinions — “Speaking your mind openly is not allowed, it is required” is one of his maxims — and then makes good calls.

 

Of course, it is easy to equate FSG’s willingness to spend more money than ever before — £70 million for Virgil van Dijk and £65 million for Alisson Becker the primary examples — with Liverpool’s rise, but that overlooks how the cogs turn in unison.

 

Van Dijk turned down Manchester City’s advances because of the vision that Klopp sold him and because of the fervour of the supporters. Without that, Liverpool were not in a position to win the race regardless of whether they had the funds or not. That they did so highlights the strong leadership that has brought clarity to operations.

 

The decision to wait six months for Van Dijk, rather than pursue alternative defensive options when Southampton initially would not sell in the summer of 2017, has been transformative.

 

Cold logic was also applied to the sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona in January 2018, the Brazilian having once again pushed to leave; and there was an impressively calm response to the collapse of attacking midfielder Nabil Fekir’s proposed move from Olympique Lyonnais on June 8 last year.

 

Edwards and his team — notably Dave Fallows, the head of recruitment, and the chief scout Barry Hunter — work two years in advance on transfers and a £53 million deal for Fekir was seen as a key element of last summer’s policy.

 

Club media had travelled to France in the countdown to the World Cup to conduct interviews with the player, and the announcement was set — until medical scans revealed a knee injury that decreed the deal could not proceed. Four doctors assessed the results separately. Even when the player’s representative was attempting to renegotiate the transfer, there was never any appetite to take a chance.

 

Klopp is said to have taken the setback in his stride. Not ideal, but not a situation he could influence, so move on. Liverpool signed Xherdan Shaqiri from Stoke City instead and believed that with him, Naby Keïta and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain the blow could still be absorbed. The season they have enjoyed validates that view even with the contributions of Keïta and, in particular, Oxlade-Chamberlain restricted by injury.

 

What has never been established is whether, if Fekir had arrived, there would still have been the money in the pot to recruit the goalkeeper Alisson from AS Roma. Liverpool are both pragmatic and opportunistic in their transfer dealings, so perhaps the cash would have been found or someone would have been sold once the scenario presented itself.

 

Certainly, the signing of Alisson was necessary after the collapse in confidence of Loris Karius after his errors in last season’s Champions League final defeat by Real Madrid.

 

Alisson met up with his new team-mates in Evian, southeastern France, at a pre-season camp after a short, post-World Cup holiday and there was a collective sense of wonder as the imposing, 6ft 3in figure walked into the room. His new team-mates had played against him twice in last season’s Champions League semi-final but, as he emerged, the overriding feeling was: get him in goal.

 

***********

 

The sense of togetherness around Melwood is natural. There are cliques yet they are not seen as negative. The Brazilians are a close-knit group but that has helped Fabinho and Alisson integrate. Sadio Mané, a joker in the pack, also spends a lot of time with Keïta. Van Dijk and Georginio Wijnaldum will transcend any group.

 

No one has felt the need to question that and try to manufacture a dynamic. The only exception was when Keïta first arrived from RB Leipzig for £53 million and there were occasions when the Scottish full back Andrew Robertson, and others, were asked to drive the midfielder to training to strike up conversations with him and improve his English.

 

Otherwise, Keïta might have spent the 30-minute journey from Formby speaking French to his friends.

 

“In football, generally, there can be a lot of vanity,” Alisson said. “Some players only look to themselves and can be selfish in only focusing on their own interests. At this club I don’t see that, I see everyone looking for the same goal and working to achieve it.”

 

That energy around the group has further fuelled Klopp’s natural optimism. After the Premier League title went to City on the final day, he told his players they were the best group he had ever worked with.

 

His managerial career has been about improving talent and building clubs whether that was FSV Mainz 05, or Borussia Dortmund, and he perceives the journey Liverpool are on as natural. If they are not better in year three than year one, then he is not managing properly. There are plenty of examples of players he has refined, from Mané to Roberto Firmino, Oxlade-Chamberlain to the prodigiously gifted Trent Alexander-Arnold.

 

When Mohamed Salah and Van Dijk win PFA Player of the Year awards within a year, and 18 months, respectively, of working under Klopp, it is a powerful advert for the 51-year-old’s methods.

 

However, it is the development of Robertson into one of Europe’s best left backs after his arrival from Hull City in an £8 million transfer in July 2017 that arguably acts as the best case study of how Klopp works.

 

Robertson was told at his first meeting that he needed to improve defensively and that the onus would be on him to do so. The manager pointed the player in the right direction but the credit for rising to the challenge lies with the 25-year-old, who has matured into a leader in front of everyone’s eyes.

 

“Defending is attitude: ‘I want to win the ball, I want to be close, I want to win the challenge,’ ” Klopp said. “I knew he needs to feel it by himself. If he does it because I am constantly telling him … [no] he has to do it because it must be natural. ‘I want to be a defender and, when I have the ball, I want to be a winger.’ That’s the full back’s job.”

 

The 13 assists Robertson has delivered have been crucial, and it is the advancement in his all-round game that speaks volumes, dismantling the perception that without Zeljko Buvac, a once-trusted lieutenant of 17 years, Klopp would be bereft.

 

The departure in May 2018 of the Serbian, who carried the grandiose nickname of “The Brain” but who grew increasingly detached, has not been the end of anything, more of a start. There has been a new-found freedom that Klopp has enjoyed. The chance to bounce ideas back and forth, rather than sticking to the tried and trusted that had inevitably formed, has been like sucking in fresh air. The end decision always rests with Klopp; he has become more authoritarian but the process by which it is reached is much more open now.

 

Pre-season was about problem-solving in the aftermath of the Champions League final defeat by Real Madrid. Liverpool’s surge to Kiev had been fuelled by exhilarating bursts of blitzkrieg football that left rivals trampled underfoot before they could regain their senses. One goal became two, sometimes three or four, in a matter of minutes.

 

A streetwise Real Madrid proved the exception, but Liverpool’s think-tank expected it to be different this season with the space they had been allowed to explode into on the counterattack restricted and opponents no longer overplaying in their own half and inviting being pressed into submission.

 

If the opportunity to go from one end of the pitch to the other in 12 seconds flat was there, they would take it, but if not, then Liverpool had to be ready to find different ways to win.

 

One idea was deploying Mohamed Salah centrally as they looked to squeeze even more from a player who had scored 44-goals in his first season at the club. Extra emphasis was placed on the importance of set pieces, and much of the focus was on improving the play in midfield and closing the spaces between the players, with a view to gaining more control and moving the ball more quickly. These would be tools to challenge the view that Liverpool were only truly effective when their high press was steamrollering rivals. Now it was about learning what to do when patience was required.

 

***********

 

Klopp’s routine at Melwood, Liverpool’s training ground, is largely set. Every day, he will play paddle tennis against Pep Lijnders, one of two assistant managers. It is his chance to relax before the pressure of leading the club forward kicks in once again, although the standard — and competitiveness — is high.

 

After eggs [usually omelette] for breakfast in his office, Klopp will hold meetings with his staff to plan training and reflect on previous sessions. Lijnders is charged with finding the right training exercise to work on the ideas they have come up with and, with the Dutchman back in the fold after a brief spell at NEC Nijmegen, Klopp tends to cast more of an analytical eye over proceedings. Not directly overseeing every cough and spit that unfolds does not mean he is hands-off.

 

On the contrary, Klopp would argue he can do more because he can see everything now and is always in control. If he does not like the session, he will interrupt and standards are reset.

 

“He is the motivator, the stimulator behind every forward step we make but he gives responsibility to the ones he trusts,” said Lijnders.

 

One of the differences between this season and last, when reaching the Champions League final dovetailed with finishing fourth in the Premier League, is the amount of time off that has been afforded. Even though the schedules are similar, there has been more downtime. Liverpool recruited Lee Nobes as head physiotherapist after 11 years at Manchester City in November and his views have been factored into the decision-making. It has not been a case of copying what the City manager Pep Guardiola would do, but merely listening to someone who has swapped one elite environment for another.

 

The day after a match, Klopp, usually in his New Balance hoodie, will sit back and watch a presentation led by the assistant manager Peter Krawietz and also attended by Lijnders, the goalkeeper coach John Achterberg and his assistant, Jack Robinson. A packet of chocolate digestives is close at hand.

 

It is an inclusive set-up and Klopp has publicly praised his backroom staff this season, including the analysts, Harrison Kingston, Mark Leyland, James French and Greg Mathieson.

 

Opposition analysis kicks in two days before a game and the clue that Klopp is starting to think about team shape is signalled by the green curtains being wrapped around the pitch to keep out prying eyes.

 

There is seldom any guessing Klopp’s mood. “If you have pissed him off, whether a player or a member of staff, you will know,” said a source. “But one of Jürgen’s strengths is that he does not let things fester. He moves on. That way, it doesn’t affect the dressing room, which is strong.”

 

Further evidence of that arrived on the morning of Tuesday, May 7. Liverpool’s players reported for training at around 9am on the day of the semi-final second leg against Barcelona with their season perceived to be over. Manchester City’s victory over Leicester City the previous evening had effectively sealed back-to-back title successes and, outside the club, few vouched for their prospects of overturning a 3-0 deficit against the Catalan club.

 

Senior players would come into their own. The order was given for Sky Sports News, which had Vincent Kompany’s piledriver playing on loop to be switched off in the canteen at Melwood. After all, Liverpool had a Champions League final to reach. There was a mix of belligerence, defiance, noise and swagger. Barcelona were the enemy now. Klopp would later demand his players, “show some f****** balls”.

 

The season was ending as it began.

 

*************

 

Evian, France, early August. Klopp meandered between the exhausted bodies spreadeagled on the turf in front of him as the second training session of the day came to a sweat-stained end.

 

For once empathy was in short supply for the players left gasping in the midday sun. Their day had begun with running at 7am, a 1,000m circuit, a short rest then go again, before an 11am football workout in which Liverpool’s squad had been pushed and pushed and pushed until the point of fatigue.

 

As they lay strewn across the pristine grass pitch, Klopp barked out a warning: “If you think you are tired now, gentlemen, wait until this evening. I promise you, you will know what tired is.”

 

The countdown to a third get-together at 5pm had begun and the phoniness of pre-season was well and truly over. There were no sponsors to satisfy here, as there had been on the mini-tour of the United States, no commercial activities to attend, no fans and the youngsters who had previously helped bolster numbers had returned to the junior teams.

 

The opulent splendour of the five-star Hotel Royal in this small town struck a contrast with those stripped back, energy-sapping drills. Klopp had his game face on, and the toothy grin and penchant for bearhugs for which he is renowned were off-limits as the tenets of the 2018-19 campaign were laid down.

 

His demeanour was deliberately serious not as a punishment because he had spied a lack of effort, but rather he recognised that over the coming months Liverpool would have to do everything perfectly in order to achieve their aspirations.

 

He was coaching bodies and minds to cope with the relentless intensity and moments of pain he believed would follow. Klopp was setting the tone.

 

Pain came on the final day of the domestic season. Pleasure is overdue.

 

Nine times the bridemaid

Jürgen Klopp has finished as a runner-up nine times since he last won a leading trophy as a manager.

 

With Borussia Dortmund
2012-13 — Second in league; lost Champions League final 2-1 to Bayern Munich
2013-14 — Second in league; lost German Cup final 2-0 to Bayern Munich
2014-15 — Lost German Cup final 3-1 to Wolfsburg

 

With Liverpool
2015-16 — Lost League Cup final on penalties to Man City after 1-1 draw; lost Europa League final 3-1 to Seville
2017-18 — Lost Champions League final 3-1 to Real Madrid
2018-19 — Second in league

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