Inside the mind of Jurgen Klopp
By Melissa Reddy
“How is he?”
“Is his family doing well?”
“I remember him telling me the story of how he met his wife, are they still together?"
A gripped Jurgen Klopp continues to rattle off his questions. The subject matter is a former player that featured fewer than five times for Liverpool’s manager at a previous club, almost a decade ago, but it was more than enough for the German to feel an affinity towards him.
This is the norm and not the exception for the Reds boss, who made a dart towards Jordon Ibe immediately after Bournemouth’s 4-3 victory over his side last December. The winger had reached his ceiling at Anfield and was a casualty of Klopp’s first off-season window in a £15 million switch to the south coast, but the support and affection from his ex-gaffer remains.
Relationships with those Klopp used to train, whether at Mainz or Borussia Dortmund too, tend to survive long after a professional severance. It is because he has a genuine curiosity in his players well beyond their abilities on a pitch.
What a footballer can do in and out of possession is easy to establish, but the deeper layers - who they are, what they believe in, how they’ve reached this point, what drives them, what awaits them when they depart training - are the real details.
It is why Klopp was absolutely perplexed that a member of staff had no idea the club’s newest signing, Andy Robertson, is due to become a father. He scolded: “How can you not know that? That’s the biggest thing in his life now. Come on!”
The guffawing, gigantic hug-giving caricature of Klopp is the dominant perspective of his methodology, but it masks his more cerebral tools.
Take, for instance, the WhatsApp group the manager created in order for the squad to stay in contact with him over the past two summers.
Part team-bonding, part fact-finding mission, it allows Klopp to extend his management sphere in a relaxed environment.
Last year, some players sent in footage of themselves on the treadmill as an update on their efforts to stay in shape. That received the response ‘ah interesting, so you think that is what running is? Incorrect,’ from Klopp. He provided reasons as to why he didn’t want them on those machines, and this time around, the imagery posted was of cardiovascular work being done on beaches, tracks, and in parks.
On the 118th floor of Hong Kong’s grandiose Ritz-Carlton, in a room at the OZONE sky bar with sweeping views of the impressive Victoria Harbour, Klopp provides a further panorama of his approach.
He is fascinated by the psychological elements of the game, and thus, highlights Liverpool’s insecurities as a significant factor behind the team’s slump at the turn of the year.
“I would say we were completely confident until December 31 when we played Manchester City,” the 50-year-old recalls to Goal. “It was an outstanding battle for both sides with the 1-0 deserved, but anything could have happened in that match.
“Two days later, we played against Sunderland, a completely different game, but that was a draw. They are a deep-defending side, but twice we got past them and they needed two penalties to get a point, but immediately afterwards there was the feeling from the players of ‘oh, maybe we’re not good enough. We’ve wasted our chance. We had the situation and we didn’t use it.'
“It was only one game! Everybody gave points away, even Chelsea - okay not too often because they were champions at the end, but it happened. It’s all about how you handle these situations and it’s something we are really working on to be stronger in.”
Klopp, in-between sips of an Americano - much-needed fuel during a manic week navigating commercial obligations on pre-season tour in the skyscraper-heavy city - describes his annoyance at the influence of external opinions over Liverpool’s personnel.
“We had two major issues in January obviously: not enough confidence as we should have had in ourselves, and too many injuries plus Sadio [Mane] being away at the Africa Cup of Nations while the games didn’t seem to stop,” he says.
“Then in February, we suffered from the intensity of the month before, and we were back in March. We won games again, but then people were saying, ‘it’s not the same football, they are struggling,’ and this again gave the players doubt.
“They listen to these voices, the whole club listens to these voices that go ‘oh, it’s again like this, they don’t have Plan B for deep-defending sides, they can only play one way.'
“We smashed teams at the start of last season by altering our style in different ways to play to our strengths and minimise the opposition’s like against West Brom at Anfield. We limited their set-piece situations, which we know they are really dangerous from.
“The talk of Plan B shows a lack of understanding. In the moment when you are not feeling confident, you cannot change too many things - that’s insecurity.
“It’s not about showing what you can do - like ‘hey, here is Plan D, F, Q!’ My job is not to prove that I can do 1000 different techniques or no-looking coaching or whatever, it is to do what is best for the players I have, with our skills, in the situation we are in.
“When I hear or read these things about us, I know I 100 per cent do not listen. But oh my god, everybody else listens, so we have to block that out and focus on us and our way.”
How does Klopp ensure that his voice is amplified amidst all the noise, especially as coverage - traditionally and from fans - increases in both output and its unforgiving nature?
“This is very important. What we need to create is where they understand completely that the only criticism they need to take is mine - not because I’m the only one that knows anything, but because I’m the one they have to pay attention to,” he explains.
“I’m the one giving them the direction together with our backroom and support team. So it makes no sense to trust what people who are not involved in the process think.
“I will use the example of Arjen Robben. Whatever the world says about him, or thinks about him - he delivers.
“One time, he will miss the easy pass and everyone will moan ‘why did he shoot?’. Next time, he will not pass and shoot from that angle again - goal! - then it’s ‘oh, good idea to shoot from there’.
“He doesn’t care what the opinions from outside are, he knows how his team needs him to use his skills.
“The rule is that it is better that you have 11 players doing the same thing wrong, than every player doing what he wants.”
Klopp zooms in on how the normal thought process of a footballer could be altered if he bends to criticism.
“For example, with Roberto Firmino people say he does not score enough,” he begins his commentary.
“What?! He is the best player without scoring with how well he reads the game for the benefit of others. Outstanding! But then what if he starts thinking ‘oh, I need more goals’ and starts shooting from all over the place when usually, he would play a clever ball and make a run to open up the space?
“There needs to be one plan, one voice, one belief. It will not always be perfect, because we are not perfect, but it is our way.”
Klopp understands the issue of self-doubt is synonymous with a young squad in a phase of progress, but also underscores what a rousing position Liverpool are in.
“I’m really positive when I look at these boys I have, with their attitude, their skill and willingness to learn,” he enthuses.
“Each player that is here has a reason why they are at Liverpool - a very good reason.
“With this knowledge and with our foundation, we can’t just be happy with how we are or what we achieved last season. We have to work, work, work and reach the next level already and the one higher and higher than that.
“Just look at Trent [Alexander-Arnold]! What a potential! He has to improve on his defending now though, that is the aim. Yes, he is a kid, but the moment he can defend like a man, he can play regularly in the Premier League.
"As long as he defends like a kid and attacks like man, then you have only half of this amazing talent.
"I cannot change this, only he can, and the players know and are excited about the improvement they can make.
“Look at Ben [Woodburn], what a player! He was put as a No.8 against a strong Crystal Palace side and it was like he has never been in any other position in his life even though he’s only been there a few times.
"When Gini [Wijnaldum] pushed up, he dropped to become our ‘six’ so game intelligence is a big skill of Ben’s and he can only get better.
“Look throughout the squad - can Roberto still develop? Of course. Divock Origi? Yes. Sadio? He hasn’t even got started yet!
“Players make the right decisions when they have confidence, when they don’t have it, then they feel ‘next pass needs to be the goal’ or ‘now we are under pressure and need to force it’.
“No! You stick to what you’re doing, try, try and try again. Each missed chance is not a failure, it is information - use it and go again.”
Klopp will hope these messages are delivered, digested and acted upon just as his WhatsApps have been.