Brendan Rodgers’ time as Liverpool manager, of late, was a symptom of bigger problems: ideas, but not answers; potential, but no certainty; journeys, but no arrivals. The final chapter of his reign had taken on the same feeling of Roy Hodgson’s short, ill-fated stay with Liverpool, where you knew a good coach roamed Anfield’s technical area just as much as you knew something was amiss, and for the best of both parties, a changed needed to happen. Hodgson found his salvation at West Brom, where there never seemed to be any doubt as to whether he’d succeed, just as Rodgers’ thin confidence might seem to have gravitas were he at a Fulham, Birmingham City, or even Newcastle. Now that he’s been sacked, Rodgers can find another home, where he can be a hero instead of a target.
Rodgers is, without a doubt, a good coach on some level, but Liverpool’s a level that can still draw bigger names. And as long as a name like Jurgen Klopp remains in the conversation, and with reporters like The Guardian’s Rafael Honigstein confirming the former Borussia Dortmund boss’s interest, Rodgers’ potential for progress doesn’t matter. Now that there’s been a change at Anfield, the door is open for a manager of Klopp’s caliber.
That Klopp appears to better than Rodgers should be beyond debate, but around Premier League circles, the obvious sometimes gets obscured. This is, after all, an environment that steadfastly believes that Spain is still a two-team league (it’s not), or that the circuit they watch still offers the highest quality soccer in the world (it doesn’t). In much the same way, Klopp has been tainted by ignorance, with too many people focusing on a 2014-15 season where Borussia Dortmund largely out-performed their record. Constantly out-shooting and creating more good chances than their opponents, BVB’s slow start was tied up in variance, bad luck, and yes, diminished performances, but as the last five months of their season showed, they were still capable of being their old, dangerous selves.
The slide, however, allowed for a convenient breaking point. Klopp had been at Signal Iduna Park for seven years – far longer than most managers should stay in their jobs. He’d taken the team from one with some history and infrequent results to a club that repeatedly toppled Germany’s giant. Dortmund became more than the type of well-run, strongly supported team that inhabits Bundesliga clichés. It became a continental force.
It’s far more than Rodgers has ever done, which is not a slight on Rodgers. What Klopp accomplished at Dortmund makes him more impressive than 999 out of 1000 people who’ve every coached, if not more. Yet as it concerns our main question, whether Klopp is riht to succeed Rodgers, that isn’t enough. Each job is unique, and just because a man has superior skills doesn’t mean those skills map neatly onto the task. Klopp may not be the right fit at Anfield.
It seems evaluating that fit comes down to three vectors. The credentials, we’ve already touched on, but there is more to say on that. Klopp’s style is another concern, as the pressing that he built Dortmund’s success on is not ideal for all squads. Then, too, there’s the task at hand at Anfield, where a once great club appears to be in need of another rebuild.
Twice Klopp has coached teams. Twice they rose through the Bundesliga, and twice they eventually fell, spectacularly so. At Mainz, where he began managing at the end of his playing days (2001-2008), Klopp saw the team into the Bundesliga before, one year before he left, seeing them out. In the 2. Bundesliga, he was unable to push the club back into the top flight and left his job.
He quickly moved to Dortmund, inherited a team that finished in 13th place the season before his arrival, and build a champion. Within three seasons, BVB won the Bundesliga, doing the same the following year. It won a German Cup, two German Super Cups, and appeared in a Champions League final. In the seven years before Klopp’s arrival, BVB had won one major honor – the 2001-02 Bundesliga. During his seven years in charge, they claimed five major honors and finished runners up for seven more.
Doubting Klopp’s success is an ignorant affair, but it would be just as ignorant to ignore the context of that success. Three years before Klopp arrived, Dortmund was on the brink of bankruptcy. A year later, the club was nearly relegated. A year later, Thomas Doll guided the team to the German Cup final, but BVB was still entrenched near the bottom of the league table. It was a historic club with a great fan base, hinting at huge potential, but it wasn’t good.
Klopp changed that. The same type of success he brought to Mainz was replicated at Dortmund, only one a large, more supported level. The club jumped to sixth, then fifth, then won two straight titles. Initial struggles in Champions League were replaced by a run to the 2012-13 final, where the team nearly defeated Bayern Munich. When Klopp left BVB last summer, the team had just completed its fourth straight season in Champions League. It had missed out on European soccer entirely in the four years before his arrival.
Perhaps the most discussed part of Klopp’s style was his team’s pressing, though it certainly wasn’t the only hallmark of BVB’s approach. Still, the intensity Klopp instilled in his squad, including a tactical attention to detail that was both successful and, in the end, exhausting, dovetails with a defensive approach that made gegenpressing a buzzword for years.
Lose the ball? Okay, win it back, as quickly as possible, before the other team can transition. And if you can’t win it back, well, at least stunt anything they were trying to do. Eventually, we’ll fall back into our defensive shape, but if we do our job right, they’ll be kicking the ball around the back, enjoying a sigh of relief while we’re setting up.
There are a number of qualities that go into this approach, not the least of which are the physical and technical qualities of the players. You need players who are intelligent, fast and disciplined in defense, but in attack they must have the passing, movement and (again) intelligence to play in the restricted spaces required to make the press work. If your team is spread across too much of the field, you won’t have the numbers in small spaces to press the ball winner, or shut down passing lanes, or mark the men needed to instill whatever version of the “counter press” you need.
How does this style fit with Philippe Coutinho, an undoubtedly talented player, but not one whose work rate will be confused with Shinji Kagawa? How do Jordan Henderson and James Milner – quality players, but not known for the speed with which they move the ball – fit this approach? Can Martin Skrtel be relied on to win one-on-one, open-field battles without finishing a season with 20 yellow cards? And what of Christian Benteke, a man more akin to a tank when targeted out of your defense. Can he be relied on to do the defensive work we’ve seen from strikers in successful versions of this system?
For other players, the fit could be glorious. If Daniel Sturridge stayed healthy, he’d be a brilliant number nine. Emre Can could conceivably round out into a poor man’s version of Sergio Busquets. Nathaniel Clyne playing a role which would demand a midfielder’s mentality with a wing back’s range might take his career to another level. A player like Adam Lallana might, in time, adapt nicely to a Marco Reus-esque wide role. Maybe Joe Allen could, once again, have new life in a system that prized quickness of both mind and foot.
But it will take time, and for most of the squad, it seems like a poor fit. All the money Liverpool has invested in the Roberto Firminos of the world could be wasted, making the cost of a coaching move greater than merely replacing Rodgers. And even if Fenway Sports Group were to make that commitment, the Klopp effect would take months, if not an entire summer, to bed in. Right now, Liverpool’s not ready for Klopp.
Trumping all of that, though, may be the man behind the results. For all his success on the scoreboard, Klopp has had a more profound effect emotionally at his clubs. With Mainz, he was inspirational partly because of his connection as a player, but with Dortmund, has was able to replicate that with his intensity, passion, honesty and, of course, results.
This is part of the reason why Dortmund, amid a highly competitive transfer environment in the Bundesliga as well as abroad, has been able to convince Mats Hummels to stay. They were able to keep Reus away from Bayern when he was moving from Borussia Moenchengladbach. They’ve been able to draw played like Robert Lewandowski, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, as well as less renown (or, less successful) players like Adrian Ramos, Ciro Immobile, and Gonzalo Castro. Dortmund has become a destination of choice, not only because of its success but also its style and environment. Partially because of what Klopp built, players want to go to the Westfalenstadion.
In that sense, Klopp is the perfect choice for Liverpool. He has said he doesn’t need to go to a club that’s sitting atop its league’s table, comments that dovetail nicely with his previously reported preferences for clubs with history, and established support. They were the comments that had people wishfully linking him to West Ham last spring but make him an even better fit for Liverpool now.
The seemingly constant hum of disappointment we hear around Anfield is what’s creating that link to the Hodgson era, but it’s also a hum of potential: potential for this team to improve; potential for the Kop’s mood to improve; but potential for Liverpool to be an influential club once more. In their disappointment, in their anticipation, supporters are demanding this, and their cross-armed glares from Anfield’s stands have become a verdict on Rodgers.
Even if Klopp’s style doesn’t fit, his personality would. Anfield would stand behind a man who brings his emotions to the touchline. He’d support a coach who strives to connect with them. They’d give time to a man who had a clear vision, even if that vision meant turnover, and they’d relish a boss who made Liverpool’s bench prestigious once more.
As evidenced by the ways he left both Mainz and Dortmund, Klopp doesn’t exist on a cloud above the fray. He became entrenched, sensitive to what’s been built. He’ll know the expectations, as well as when he’s failing them. He won’t be like Benitez, or like what Rodgers has become. He won’t be oblivious to what’s wrong.
Fortunately for Liverpool fans, should Klopp arrive on Merseyside, his failures have only come years and years down the road, and only after great successes. And in that way, Klopp is not unlike most great coaches throughout the history of the game. Though his last year in Dortmund may linger in fans’ memories, it’s the broader, 14-year picture that should matter more, because not since Benitez left the Spanish coast for England’s northwest has the club had a chance to draw somebody so renowned.