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Liverpool faces testing times as the Klopp era winds down

When Jurgen Klopp explained his decision to leave Liverpool after a successful but demanding eight and a half years, he again showed why he is such an effective, unique communicator. “We’re not young rabbits anymore,” he said, “and we don’t jump as high as we once did.” 

For those who prefer mean machines to fluffy animals, he produced a different turn of phrase. “I am like a proper sports car,” he said. “Not the best one, but a pretty good one. I can still drive 160, 170, 180 miles per hour, but I am the only one who sees the tank needle is going down.”

Energy demands

Excellence demands near-limitless energy, especially for those whose methods rely heavily on it. “My coaching, my managing style is based on energy, I usually have enough to give it to a lot of people,” Klopp said. “And if that’s not there I am not the same.”

The Liverpool job also took a lot out of the German. Having built up a reputation as a winner by leading Borussia Dortmund to back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012, he faced an even more challenging task on Merseyside: that of resurrecting a giant.

Trophy hunter: In addition to guiding the Reds to their first league title for 30 years in 2020 and to Champions League glory in 2019, Klopp presided over triumphs in the FA Cup, League Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, UEFA Super Cup and Community Shield. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Klopp changed Liverpool’s fortunes after arriving at Anfield in 2015, returning the club to one of European football’s powerhouses. In addition to guiding the Reds to their first league title for 30 years in 2020 and to Champions League glory in 2019, Klopp presided over triumphs in the FA Cup, League Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, UEFA Super Cup and Community Shield.

These successes, in isolation, merit high praise. When you consider that Klopp was up against Manchester City’s seemingly unlimited resources — it has been charged with 115 breaches of the Premier League’s financial regulations — and Pep Guardiola’s genius, the value of these trophies increases substantially. 

Klopp has been the perfect manager for Liverpool. His force of personality, charisma and coaching nous have resonated with an emotive fanbase. The club’s history has been marked by tragedy as much as triumph. He quickly understood the emotion that drove the club, the impact of Hillsborough (the disaster, which killed 97 Liverpool fans in 1989, has left indelible scars), the respectful city rivalry with Everton and the far more visceral rivalry with Manchester United.

He knew the power of The Kop and engaged with the fans to gain the maximum benefit from that famous Anfield atmosphere, as he ran to them with his famous fist-pumping celebration, with his frenzied, toothy laughter, and they roared their appreciation and loved him back for recognising it.

Poignant moment: Klopp’s first match at Anfield after making his decision public, the FA Cup game against Norwich City, was even more emotionally charged than usual. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Poignant moment: Klopp’s first match at Anfield after making his decision public, the FA Cup game against Norwich City, was even more emotionally charged than usual. | Photo credit: Getty Images

So it was not shocking that his first match at Anfield after making his decision public, the FA Cup game against Norwich City, was even more emotionally charged than usual. “I get it, it’s very emotional,” Klopp told the BBC. “I just have to make sure that I don’t get on that side of it. In the games, we need to be warriors and not celebrate the old man on the sidelines.”

Four-pronged pursuit

Liverpool players have said they want to harness the emotion, so Klopp’s trophy-laden reign can end with more silverware. The Reds’ four-pronged trophy pursuit is alive, having secured a place in the League Cup final, advanced to the fifth round of the FA Cup and the knockout stages of the Europa League, and positioned themselves at the top of the Premier League.

But Liverpool will, like it has so often in the recent past, find City in its way. The clubs have jousted in several epic title clashes since Guardiola and Klopp both took charge, contributing to the most storied managerial rivalry since Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger locked horns. There are echoes of Ferguson-Wenger in Guardiola-Klopp — not unlike Wenger at Arsenal, Klopp has had to overcome an adverse balance of financial power.

Both Klopp and Guardiola have also pushed each other to become even better — their tactical battles have redefined football, changing the way the game is played across the world. “He’s an absolutely incredible manager… personally he has been my biggest rival,” said Guardiola. “I will miss [him], [but] I am pleased because without him I will sleep a little bit better!”

Klopp’s impact on Liverpool extends beyond the field. His reign has helped Fenway Sports Group (FSG), its US owners, to reap a massive increase in valuation. FSG bought Liverpool for $383 million in 2010; the club is now valued about $5 billion, according to Forbes

It’s not surprising, therefore, that Klopp will go down as one of Liverpool’s greatest managers. He is statistically the best the club has ever had in terms of win percentage (about 61%). His on-field success ranks him alongside other managerial greats at Anfield — Bill Shankly (11), Bob Paisley (20) and Kenny Dalglish (9), the only ones to have won more trophies for the club than Klopp’s 7. 

Shankly will always be the man who turned the club into a world power and Paisley will probably never be surpassed in terms of domestic and European silverware. Dalglish was worshipped as a player and manager and adored for his conduct around and since the Hillsborough tragedy. 

These men all flourished when Liverpool was invariably the strongest team in England whereas Klopp has dealt with a more competitive era and overseen a transformation that has not been witnessed at the club in several decades. “Over the years my role was a pretty dominant one,” said Klopp. “It was not intentional, but it happened.”

Filling a vacuum

It’s why replacing the 56-year-old will be so difficult. Legendary managers often leave behind a considerable vacuum, regardless of the talent at the disposal of their successor.

Liverpool is keen to avoid the fate suffered by United after Ferguson left, when the success dried up. The Merseyside club has said an “orderly process” to pick a new manager will be conducted privately, but that has not stopped the speculation from moving into hyperdrive. 

Xabi Alonso, the Spanish former Liverpool player who has guided Bayer Leverkusen to the top of Bundesliga this season, is the bookmakers’ favourite. Brighton boss Roberto De Zerbi is also in the running after leading the Seagulls into Europe this season for the first time. Julian Nagelsmann, Ange Postecoglou and even Steven Gerrard have been linked to the job, too.

Klopp said the solidity of Liverpool’s foundation means he will step away without reservations about the team’s future and he won’t be offering his two cents on the way out.

“So many people work here with only one idea: to find a perfect solution for Liverpool FC,” he said. “And the last thing they need is advice from the old man walking out telling them, ‘By the way, make sure you bring him in,’ or whatever. I will definitely not do that.

“This team is set up for the future… Whoever comes in, you cannot ever guarantee to win trophies, but has a really good chance to play really good football.”

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