To tell the story properly, we must start at the end; Stoke City 6-1 Liverpool, May 24, 2015. Rock bottom.
The overriding memory of that harrowing afternoon is not Steven Gerrard playing the last of his 710 games for the Reds, or the sight of five goals in 23 first-half minutes flying past a bewildered Simon Mignolet.
It’s not even the teamsheet, which shows Liverpool lining up with Emre Can at right-back and a front two of Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho, or the fact that Jordon Ibe was the player forced to speak to the club’s media channels afterwards. Ibe was 19, and had only joined the game as a half-time substitute, with his team 5-0 down.
No, it’s anger which sticks in the mind; the image of Liverpool supporters waiting by the tunnel to berate their own manager, their own players. Many had left at half-time, but those who stayed made themselves heard at the final whistle.
“A sackable offence,” wrote the Liverpool ECHO. The manager, Brendan Rodgers, somehow survived that ordeal but make no mistake; that was the day everything changed.
The road to where Liverpool are today, champions of England again after 30 long, painful years, started at the Britannia Stadium…
It was on Thursday October 8, 2015 that Jurgen Klopp was confirmed as Liverpool manager. Four days previously, Rodgers had been summoned by Ian Ayre, the club’s chief executive, to a meeting at Melwood. He knew what was coming.
His team had drawn 1-1 at Everton earlier in the day, but were on a run of one win in nine games in all competitions. They were 10th in the Premier League, and playing like a side devoid of confidence and direction. They’d changed the coaching staff and brought in a raft of new players, but the scars of the previous season had not healed.
The time had come.
In the statement confirming Rodgers’ sacking, Liverpool said that the search for a new manager was “underway” and that they hoped to make an appointment “in a decisive and timely manner.” The truth, however, is that the Reds already had their man.Getty
Klopp had met with Fenway Sports Group, Liverpool’s owners, at the offices of law form Shearman & Sterling on New York’s Lexington Avenue on October 1, three days before Rodgers’ departure. There, it was established that, despite vowing to take a one-year sabbatical following his exit from Borussia Dortmund five months earlier, he could indeed be tempted to make a swift return to management on Merseyside.
FSG, represented by John Henry, Tom Werner and Mike Gordon, had done their homework. Their research amounted to a 60-page dossier on Klopp, covering everything from his training sessions to his personal background. The next day, a second meeting at the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue led to a firm offer.
As Marc Kosicke, his agent, negotiated the terms, Klopp headed off for a walk around Central Park, alone with his thoughts. A week later, he would be stood in front of the Kop, red shirt in hand and the eyes of the world upon him. He was the man with the keys to Anfield.
“Words cannot express how excited we are,” Gordon had texted him after those New York meetings. Klopp’s reply was short and to the point. “Woooooooww!” he wrote. He was ready.
‘Nobody likes this team’
The letters were bold, written in block capitals for extra effect. T.E.R.R.I.B.L.E. In the press room at Melwood, a couple of players wondered if Klopp was delivering his verdict on what he had inherited at Anfield, or the team’s form over the past couple of months.
No, Klopp explained. ‘Terrible’ was how he wanted opponents to feel after playing against his team. They would be drained, both physically and mentally, unable to handle Liverpool’s aggression, energy and teamwork. Anfield, he said, would be the most feared stadium in the world.
He had, in truth, been taken aback by what he found when he arrived on Merseyside. Not necessarily in terms of quality – though it was immediately clear that a lack of pace in attack had to be remedied – but certainly with regards to mentality. There was nervousness, on the pitch and in the stands. The club, he said, had stopped enjoying itself. Liverpool’s history, he concluded, was weighing heavy.
“When I came, I said that nobody likes this team, not even the team!” he told Goal last year. “That was the truth. They thought they were not good enough to be in a Liverpool side because everybody gave them that feeling.”
In his first interview he spoke of turning “doubters to believers”, getting fans to invest in their team emotionally again. The club, he said, had to “restart…we have to make it all closer.” History, he said, “must not be carried in our backpacks.”
Privately, those messages were repeated to his players. “The only criticism which is really important is mine,” he told them. “The rest? Ignore it, it doesn’t matter.”
“He talked a lot about the team trusting itself, about belief, fearing nobody,” remembers midfielder Adam Lallana. “He said ‘work hard for me’. That’s all he wants.” On the training pitch he sought to add energy and organisation, while away from it the focus was on creating the right working conditions; homely, relaxed but challenging.
One of his first acts was to gather all of the backroom staff at Melwood, from the groundskeepers to the kitchen team to the analysts. “Do you know their names?” he asked his players. “Learn them! They are here to help you perform. Everyone is responsible for everything.”
On the field, progress was mixed. There were eye-catching wins at Chelsea and Manchester City, but a home defeat to Crystal Palace left Klopp dismayed. “After the [winning] goal on 82 minutes, I saw many people leaving the stadium,” he said. “I felt pretty alone in this moment. We decide when it is over.”
A month later, Liverpool snatched a draw at home to West Brom courtesy of Divock Origi’s stoppage-time equaliser. At the final whistle, Klopp led his players to the Kop, where they joined hands to salute their supporters. He was roundly mocked – Liverpool were ninth in the table and had played pretty poorly on the day – but the message was clear; the fans had stayed until the end, and so had the team. The ‘restart’ was underway.
Brick by brick
When Klopp arrived, it was widely expected that there would be a swift and dramatic overhaul of Liverpool’s squad. His early press conferences were littered with questions about potential new signings, much to his bemusement. “I believe in training,” he told reporters. “Sometimes I feel I’m the only one in this country who believes in training - others believe only in transfers!”
He proved as good as his word to begin with. His first transfer window saw only one new arrival, with Steven Caulker loaned from QPR to provide emergency defensive cover, although deals to bring Joel Matip and Marko Grujic to Merseyside that summer were arranged.
Klopp also took the chance to look at a host of young players, recalling many from loan spells elsewhere. He gave nine debuts in his first seven months in charge, using 14 players aged 22 or under.
Liverpool finished the 2015-16 season eighth in the Premier League table, losing the finals of both the League Cup and, most painfully, the Europa League. It was after that loss in Basel against Sevilla, which denied them a backdoor route into the Champions League, that Klopp and his recruitment team got to work.
Matip’s signing, on a free from Schalke, added quality at centre-back, but it was the captures of Sadio Mane and Gini Wijnaldum which really got the Reds moving forwards. Mane, a £30million (€34m/$37m) capture from Southampton, added pace and threat, and would finish as the club’s player of the year, while £25m (€28m/$31m) Wijnaldum, picked up from relegated Newcastle, quickly became one of Klopp’s go-to men, a midfielder with chameleonic qualities, capable of playing in a number of roles exactly how his manager needs.
Klopp had initially wanted Mario Gotze, his former star pupil at Borussia Dortmund, but had backed away after conversations with the Germany international, believing he was not fully committed to the idea.
“It is about pushing the train,” he told reporters, “not jumping on the running train.” It was after a move for Gotze was shelved that the deal for Mane gathered pace, Liverpool beating Spurs to the Senegal star’s signature.
Crucially Klopp had, unlike his predecessor, been able to forge a good working relationship with the club’s recruitment staff, in particular Michael Edwards, who in November 2016 was named as the Reds’ sporting director.
“One of Jurgen’s biggest strengths is his ability, and willingness, to trust those around him,” says one Anfield source. “Whether it’s the medical team, the data analysts, the nutritionist or the recruitment staff, he believes in their expertise.
“He will challenge them if he feels he needs to, sure, but his general attitude is ‘they’re here because they’re experts, and I should listen to what they have to say’.” The success of that approach has been clear for all to see.
It was Edwards and his team who pushed, for example, for the signing of Mohamed Salah from Roma in 2017, at a time when Klopp initially preferred Julian Brandt of Bayer Leverkusen. “He will score goals, trust me,” Edwards told him. “They just would not get out of my ear about him,” Klopp would later admit.
Salah, of course, did score goals; 92 in 145 Liverpool appearances so far. Klopp hasn’t always had his first or even second choice – he missed out on the likes of Gotze, Ben Chilwell, Christian Pulisic, Julian Draxler, Alex Teixeira, Piotr Zielinski and Mahmoud Dahoud, for example – but he and Edwards have always been able to come up with the right plan at the right time.
“The relationship is brilliant, absolutely brilliant,” Klopp said back in December. “His whole department is doing a sensational job.” That job, too, has evolved somewhat in recent years as, brick-by-brick, Liverpool’s team has taken shape.
In 2016 it was Matip, Mane and Wijnaldum, the following summer it was Salah, Andy Robertson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the Reds’ coffers boosted in the meanwhile by the shrewd sale of players such as Ibe, Christian Benteke, Mamadou Sakho and Joe Allen for eye-catching fees.Getty
But for the club to get to the next level, two things had to be accepted. Firstly, Liverpool would have to sell prize asset Philippe Coutinho. And secondly, they had to spend that money on at least two ‘slam dunk’ signings.
Coutinho had rocked the club by handing in a transfer request on the eve of the 2017-18 season, but would eventually stay for another five months before getting his dream move to Barcelona. It was a significant blow – Coutinho’s form under Klopp had generally been outstanding – but Liverpool’s plans were already in place.
Days before the Brazilian completed his move to Spain, the Reds had unveiled the £75m (€85m/$93m) signing of Virgil van Dijk from Southampton, the colossus around whom their defence would be built. Slam dunk No.1.
That summer, the final pieces of the jigsaw would be added. Fabinho arrived less than 48 hours after the Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid in Kiev, while Naby Keita’s move from RB Leipzig had been agreed the previous year.
Then came the goalkeeper, Alisson Becker arriving for £65m (€74m/$81m). “The best in the business,” Klopp was told. Slam dunk No.2.
Klopp had apologised after the Champions League final – “I did my best and it was not good enough,” he told reporters – but by the time the new season rolled around there was a spring in his step again.
“We are still Rocky Balboa, not Ivan Drago,” he said, comparing his side to Manchester City on the eve of the campaign, but privately he knew his team possessed the knockout punch. Coutinho had gone, Kiev had hurt, but the bricks were in place. All of them. Liverpool’s time was now.
'F*cking mentality giants'
The form has been relentless. Since that defeat in Kiev, Liverpool have played 69 league games and lost just two of them. There have been 58 wins, the Reds taking 186 out of the last 210 points on offer. Even Manchester City, a truly great football team, have been left in the dust.
The trophies have arrived, Klopp’s side beating Tottenham to win their sixth European Cup in Madrid last June, and following that up with success in both the UEFA Super Cup and the Club World Cup later in the year.
And now the Premier League, wrapped up with seven games to spare, and with a margin of 23 points as well. Records have tumbled at each and every turn.
“F*cking mentality giants,” Klopp has called them, a team capable of meeting any challenge head on; hungry, determined, together. Physically relentless, tactically superb, terrible to play against, they are everything their manager wanted when he walked through the door in 2015.Getty
The quality is everywhere. From Salah, who has landed two successive Premier League Golden Boots, to Van Dijk, the reigning PFA Player of the Year. Had the season not been interrupted, the chances are that Jordan Henderson, Mane or Trent Alexander-Arnold would have succeeded the Dutchman.
Perhaps most impressive is the fact that Liverpool’s success cannot be put down to one individual. Everyone contributes. When the 30-man shortlist for the Ballon d’Or was announced in October, the Reds had seven nominees. From their supporters there is only love and admiration.
“I love the picture we paint for the world,” Klopp told Goal back in August. “A sensational unit with a big heart that is pounding like crazy! Everyone pulls in the right direction.”
It’s not been five years yet, but think of the memories that have been left behind, think of the huge wins and the heroic contributions.
Dejan Lovren against Dortmund, Mane and Origi against Everton, those Manchester City and Roma wins, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s rocket, Alexander-Arnold’s corner against Barcelona, Salah’s redemption in Madrid.
Think of the development of players. Of Robertson and Henderson, Wijnaldum and Bobby Firmino. The relentless standards of James Milner, the growth of Joe Gomez and, just maybe, the arrival of the next generation in Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott.
Off the field, the rise continues. A new training ground will arrive soon, a new Anfield Road stand is planned. Revenues are soaring, a new kit deal with Nike will take the Reds into a new stratosphere, commercially.
Their key figures are here for the long haul. In December, Klopp signed a contract that will keep him on Merseyside until at least 2024. “I couldn’t contemplate leaving,” he said.
How could he? Here is a club at the top of its game, led by a manager at the top of his. From doubters to believers, to achievers.
That Jurgen Norbert Klopp, eh? He’s not done a bad job, has he?