AT THE START'
Jürgen Klopp is hoping it will be third time lucky as he returns to the final with a team built in his own irrepressible image
INTERVIEW SIMON HART AND ANDY BRASSELL
Jürgen Klopp congratulates an emotional James Milner after victory against Barcelona
Virgil van Dijk keeps a step ahead of Lionel Messi
There is a line that Liverpool fans sing in their Allez, Allez, Allez anthem that promises “We’re never gonna stop”, and it comes to mind in conversation with Jürgen Klopp.
The Liverpool manager is sitting in a small interview room beside the press conference suite at Melwood, the club’s training ground, pondering the road travelled to a second successive UEFA Champions League final. It has been some trip, but for Klopp the wanderlust will go on, whatever the outcome against Tottenham Hotspur. “The journey is not over, not for anyone,” he vows. “This is why we feel like we’re only at the start, and that there is still a lot to come.”
That Klopp’s words should chime with a terrace cry should surprise no one given the bond the tall German with the baseball cap and Austin Powers grin has forged with the Anfield crowd – the strongest since Kenny Dalglish. History can be a double-edged sword at any club and, when Klopp arrived on Merseyside, he found Anfield “a little bit too nervous, a little bit too pessimistic, a little bit too much in doubt”. There was surprise at the sight of spectators leaving early during his first defeat at home against Crystal Palace. His mission, he declared, was to convert Koppites “from doubters to believers”.
The evidence of Liverpool’s astonishing semi-final fightback against Barcelona – that surge of player/ supporter power which left even Lionel Messi short-circuited – underlines how he has done that and so much more. The 51-year-old is the power source, and nobody is leaving Anfield early these days, not with a team that has scored after the 80-minute mark in 11 of their last 16 matches. It is fascinating, then, to hear him relate the process undertaken to get this far. “I think the players knew after five days what my ideas were. It was clear that the players knew me and knew Dortmund. This is why it was clear how we wanted to play, but we didn’t want to push everything that way right from the start. We wanted to utilise the qualities of the players and give them more confidence so they would have that belief that they’re the right players for Liverpool. But, of course, you
need time until you can see that on the pitch. I don’t know how long it took, but it certainly took some time.”
Within four months of his arrival, Liverpool had reached a final – of the League Cup – which they lost on penalties to Manchester City. They ended that first campaign in the UEFA Europa League final but succumbed 3-1 to Sevilla. “We lost them both, but it was a very strenuous season,” continues Klopp.
“We qualified for the Champions League in the second season, in our third year we reached the final of the Champions League, and in the fourth season here we are again in the Champions League final.”
With each season, Klopp has made Liverpool better. In Kyiv last year, his starting XI featured only three survivors of the Basel loss to Sevilla two years before: Dejan Lovren, James Milner and Roberto Firmino. The evolution continued after that dismaying night in the Ukrainian capital, the night of Mohamed Salah’s injured shoulder and goalkeeper Loris Karius’s two goal-costing mistakes and an eventual 3-1 reverse against Real Madrid.
Within weeks, Alisson Becker had arrived to take over between the posts and strengthen a spine already bolstered by Virgil van Dijk’s arrival seven months earlier. That pair have brought another dimension, though Klopp’s gift is surely the way he inspires even his bit-part players to produce their best – witness Divock Origi’s match-winning turn against Barcelona.
“The development of the players who were there helped us a lot,” he reflects. “Of course, the new signings helped us a lot as well. Alisson and Virgil, for example, have had the biggest impact because they have played in almost all the games. But players such as Fabinho and [Xherdan] Shaqiri are very important too. I’ve always tried to make the most of the standard of my players so we could take the next step. I’ve accomplished that relatively often and I don’t think it will ever change. I think that the likes of James Milner, who’s 33 years old, still have the chance to develop even further. I think you don’t have to stop learning in life. So why should a football player stop their progression when they’re 28 or 29 years old? There are always one or two more steps.”
The next step, for Klopp and a team that finished just a point shy of champions Manchester City in the
Premier League, is a trophy. In Klopp’s case, this is his third European final as Liverpool manager. It is, moreover, his third UEFA Champions League final as a coach, following last year’s loss and his 2013 defeat with Dortmund against Bayern. Luckily, he is a believer in third time lucky.
“In Germany we have a saying, ‘All the best things come in threes,’” he says, citing events in his first managerial post at Mainz, where his team finished fourth in the 2. Bundesliga in consecutive seasons before finally gaining their reward in 2003/04. “We hope that it will repeat itself for the Champions League.”
The lesson learned at Mainz, he adds, was that “the greatest defeats are there so you can come back feeling stronger, because we didn’t get promoted at the first attempt, we didn’t get promoted at the second attempt either. But we did get promoted the third time, and that was the biggest success in the club’s history back then, and that really forged our personality.”
Irrepressible is one way to describe Klopp’s own, larger-than-life personality. Infectious is another. In his interview seat, his hands rarely stop moving. His team have a personality to match – a team built to go again, to never stop.
This is why Anfield today is a place that crackles with the anticipation of something special unfolding, a place where the extraordinary has become almost the norm. “Last season in the Champions League, we knocked out a strong Manchester City thanks to Anfield. This year, we knocked out Barcelona thanks to Anfield, and of course we beat Bayern. We know that we’ve managed to achieve all that together.
“Anfield is a crucial factor for us in Europe, but the boys have done a great job: we’ve played great football. The away game at Bayern was the best away game my team have played at the European level. It’s great to see that such a development is possible and that we can become even more dominant.”
It is the semi-final, though, that will warrant a chapter of its own in the history books. Klopp recounts the message in the Camp Nou dressing room after their 3-0 first-leg defeat: “I think that it is impossible, but because it’s you guys we have a chance. We have to win our home game 4-0; it’s hard to imagine now, but if we go step by step it could work.”
Work it did on a dream night, and now for one last push against Tottenham Hotspur. “We know each other pretty well, and that’s it,” he says of the all-English contest. “In the Champions League, there are no easy games, so why should the final be easy? Certainly not. So far, we’ve always used our experience in these moments, during every moment in our season. Last year, we were 25 points behind [Manchester] City and this year we were one point behind.
“That’s what we have to do. We have to play the football we stand for. We have to play LFC football.” Thanks to Klopp, that means a brand once more feared across Europe.
IN THEIR WORDS
He’s had a huge impact and influence on not only the group of players but the whole club, the fans – everything has just gone to another level.
The way Jürgen trains, he wants the full 100%, all the time. He does not accept anything less, and that’s why it’s often so intense, but as a player you learn from that.
VIRGIL VAN DIJK
When I signed, I remember talking to the manager about the transfer fee and he just said, “Listen, all good things cost a lot of money.” Klopp makes you feel great. He is genuinely pleased to see you in the morning and that has a big effect.
Jürgen’s really good at switching off. When the game is on he’s very emotional but once it’s over he can park the emotion. That’s why he’s so good at handling the pressure. I love Jürgen Klopp.