The end of an error: Klopp replaces Rodgers at Liverpool
‘I'm the normal one!’ Less than 24 hours into his tenure at Anfield, Jürgen Klopp is already laughing off comparisons to José Mourinho.
Unfazed, he proceeds to tear up the rule book of the managerial press conference. He asks English sports journalists for help with German translation.
He orders photographers to pause so that he can better hear a journalist seated towards the back.
The assembled hacks are as much on show to him as he is to them. In short, he’s taken hold of the occasion and turned it completely upside down.
Over the course of his first two press appearances, Liverpool’s new manager proves himself a man of fascinating contrasts. In one of his more telling moments, he somehow finds a way to challenge Shankly’s well-worn mantra - football is more important even than a matter of life and death.
‘Football is not so important, of course not,’ he concedes. ‘We don’t save lives, we are not doctors. It’s our job that they can forget their problems for ninety minutes. We have to entertain them,’ he says, struggling to contain the self-effacing laughter that belies his unerring confidence in his own words, ‘we have to make their life better.’
Etched in gilded letters on the statue of the man who brought Liverpool from the old Division Two to the pinnacle of European football are the words, ‘He made the people happy.’ Klopp, it seems, is already well on his way to doing the same.
But far from channeling ghosts of Shankly, Paisley and Fagan, Klopp’s plan is to exorcise them. Liverpool’s history may have swayed his decision to accept the job. But history has no special status in his methods: ‘History is great but it’s only to remember.
Now, we have the possibility to write a new story if we want.’ Ingeniously, Liverpool’s new boss has removed the monkey of a 25 year wait without a league title from the players’ backs, and has set them the challenge not to be the future of Liverpool’s history, but to be the history in Liverpool’s future.
A distance the length of the Anfield pitch separates all this from Brendan Rodgers’ first media appearance as Liverpool boss in 2012.
The avuncular Ulsterman made a point of the ‘frustrations’ of 22 years without a league title which attracted him to the club.
As self-styled ‘student of the game’ presented Liverpool’s board with a 180-page dossier, outlining his tactical vision for the new team. Liverpool fell hook, line and sinker.
His vow to ‘educate players’ amounted to dropping Latin proverbs into training sessions, excruciatingly waving envelopes in front of their face on a television documentary and introducing tactical tweaks which more often served to confuse the Liverpool players than to outsmart the opposition.
To Klopp however, football is visceral, not cerebral.
‘It’s very important that the player can understand easily what you want’ Klopp explains, ‘You have to play from here,’ he says, pointing to his gut,’ and not from here,’ as he points towards his head.
And that distinction is the cornerstone, you suspect, of implementing what he calls his own ‘heavy metal football’ at Liverpool.
Behind the charming smile, infectious laughter and charismatic demeanour lies a skill for practical thinking. Where Rodgers won the Liverpool fans over with promises of a passing-focused ‘death by football style’ which he vowed would ‘make coming to Anfield the longest 90 minutes of opponents’ lives’, Klopp goes a different way.
‘In football, all the world-class teams play possession football,’ he says. ‘But nobody starts as a ball possession team. The first thing, always, you need to have a stable defence. Because you can only stay confident in a game when you know not each offensive move of the other team is a goal.’
The evidence speaks in his favour.
Even during Liverpool’s exhilarating 2013-14 season, when they were within two games of winning their first league title since 1990, they conceded 50 goals in 38 matches. Had they been able to defend in away games to Crystal Palace and Hull, where they shipped three goals, they’d have been champions.
As it happened, they finished second. And when Luis Suárez got on a plane with Liverpool’s attacking verve wrapped up in his suitcase, their goalscoring potential was no longer enough to cover their defensive inadequacies.
The result? 90 minutes at Anfield ultimately became the longest of Liverpool’s lives, and not their opponents’.
Ending the experiment of hiring an unproven manager to construct a team greater than the sum of its parts, and its bank balance, Liverpool have achieved an amazing coup.
This is a man who, let’s not forget, dragged Dortmund from a 13th-placed finish to two consecutive Bundesliga titles and a Champions League Final appearance.
Hiring Jürgen Klopp represents their greatest opportunity to advance since a certain Spanish manager walked through the door 11 years ago.
Asked if he had a message for the Liverpool fans, he looked directly into the camera.
‘We have to change from doubters to believers. Now.’