Daniel Harris says Jurgen Klopp's comments about Paul Pogba could have revealed a flaw in his otherwise impressive managerial philosophy.
In the history of football, there are lots of successful managers, but relatively few who manage sustained success with the same club, or succeed everywhere they go. This is because circumstances change – just ask Arsene Wenger – circumstances elsewhere change – just ask Arsene Wenger – and the game changes – just ask Arsene Wenger. As such, it would not be surprising if Jurgen Klopp failed at Liverpool, nor would it necessarily mean he is not excellent at his job.
But it is easy to believe that things will go well: Klopp is well endowed with both fundamental and transferable skills, and is perfectly suited to the “Liverpool way”. Most importantly, he understands that football is about community and identity, central pillars of the club that Bill Shankly built. “The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards,” he said. “That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life” – a philosophy further fortified by Thatcherism and Hillsborough. As much any city in the world, the city of Liverpool is represented by its football teams.
Klopp knows how this works from his time in Dortmund, equally obsessed with the game. From its famous Florianturm viewpoint, the beautiful Westfalenstadion is definitive, and on windy days, the chants of the crowd percolate through town. To that, Klopp brought a relatable charm along with the certainty that nothing excites like football played with requisite conviction, each reflecting the other. This allowed him to harness the enthusiasm of supporters to empower his team, skills that are similarly effective in Liverpool, where there is strong history of activism and action.
Klopp’s biggest gift to Liverpool, though, is his levity. With all the impenetrable speeches on banners, general attempts to sound rousing and peculiar antipathy to solo perambulation, events at Anfield are sometimes overwrought. But Klopp, though not averse to stroking these aspects with his particular brand of cheesemeister exhibitionism, primarily sees a game intended to be fun, and his teams play accordingly.
Traditionally, this is not an especial part of Liverpool’s culture, the focus solely on winning since the days of Shankly and epitomised by the “red machine” of the 80s. To Klopp, though, style is substance and substance is style; supporters are entitled to expect entertainment, though must take responsibility for their role in the virtuous circle that inspires and is inspired by it.
But, while Klopp has the non-football stuff bang-on, there remain doubts about the actual football. In Germany, the general rule is that if you finish above Bayern Munich, you win the title; in the last 20 years, they have come outside the top two only three times. And in winning his first title, Klopp had the good fortune to happen upon one of them, grabbing a second while Jupp Heynckes cleared up Louis van Gaal’s mess. A good but not great manager, Heynckes retorted by winning the treble, beating Klopp’s Dortmund in the Champions League final, after which Pep Guardiola arrived, and by the time Klopp resigned two seasons later, Dortmund were in something of a mess.
Now, Klopp will again compete with Guardiola, as well as Jose Mourinho – two established greats – along with Wenger, a fading great but a great nonetheless, and Antonio Conte and Mauricio Pochettino, two potential greats. All bar Pochettino have greater transfer funds available to them; all bar Conte and Guardiola have more experience in England; all bar none have better players.
And this is significant, despite Klopp’s opposition to Manchester United’s purchase of Paul Pogba. “The game is about playing together,” he said. “You always want to have the best, but building the group is necessary to be successful. Other clubs can go out and spend more money and collect top players. I want to do it differently. I would even do it differently if I could spend that money.”
Liverpool's German manager Jurgen Klopp arrives for the friendly football match 1 FSV Mainz 05 vs Liverpool FC in Mainz
Image credit: AFP
Denying any correlation between his unwillingness to sign the best players and his inability to sign the best players is not unsuspicious. How, for example, does such principle operate regarding the appointment of managers – the appointment of Jurgen Klopp as manager of Liverpool, say?
But Klopp is an easy man to take at face value, in which case the question is different. Pogba returned to a former club for which he retained affection, is a reliable source of competitive charisma, and has proved himself in both in Serie A and the Champions League. Is playing £89m for him really any less moral or more extravagant than paying £34m to muscle unproven, inconsistent Sadio Mane out of Southampton?
More importantly, though, his sentiments might just evidence a misunderstanding of the Premier League, in which nearly every team has excellent attacking players and the standard outside the top four never been as high. Finishing at or near the top is likely to take more than a cohesive, well-drilled team – and despite his inference, Klopp is not the only manager seeking to build one.
And with any team, there will be days when things don’t work and transcendental individual brilliance is required. And the more transcendently brilliant individuals you have, the more ways you have of forcing things to work – and just because a team has transcendently brilliant individuals, it is no less a team for that. It is possible to be expensive, a star and a brand, but still assimilate into a formidable unit.
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For proof, Klopp need simply consult the history of his own club. During Liverpool’s generation of dominance, by far their most exciting team were the champions of 1987-88, their attacking play fired by the purchase of John Aldridge, Peter Beardsley, John Barnes and Ray Houghton. Likewise, Liverpool’s two most recent bids for the title were catalysed by expensive signings, Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez, while similarly and conversely, Leicester’s success last season was aided by a league lacking elite players and managers.
Even Guardiola’s Barcelona, referenced by Klopp as a “real team”, did what they did only because their academy produced the best midfield of all-time and one of the best players of all-time, at the same time. This is unlikely to happen at Liverpool simply because it is unlikely to happen anywhere, and is why, since then, Barcelona have spent huge money on global stars. A better model for Liverpool would be Atletico Madrid – though they are underpinned by defensive organisation outside the ambit of any manager who is not Diego Simeone.
Of course Klopp should, like every other manager, be “trying to find out who will be the best next year”; just with the awareness that the answer is usually “those who were the best the previous year”. Which is to say that he would be unwise to believe in his shamanic qualities to such extent as to forget that talent is neither democratic nor artificially formed. His work at Dortmund was important in moving the game on, but it has moved again since then, and though Liverpool will give him time, he must remember that it will not stand still for him.