Jürgen Klopp is building a squad to be intense, the heaviest of heavy-metal football. In three acts, Neil Atkinson looks back at first season in charge.
Act 1, Scene 1
— An Exodus —
‘After 82 minutes, I saw so many people leave the stadium I felt pretty alone at that moment.’– Jürgen Klopp, after Liverpool were defeated by Crystal Palace
If football is about one thing—if Liverpudlian football is about one thing—it’s about not being alone. There’s a song we sing about it. Eleven on a team, 45,000 in a stadium, millions and millions in a worldwide diaspora, a culture and a community coming together to focus on this one event, collective longing in a globalized era, focused on 11 lads and their manager. Never, ever be alone.
Jürgen Klopp: pretty alone at that moment.
“We decide when it is over. Between 82 and 94 minutes, you can score eight goals if you want, but you have to work for it,” he said.
Yannick Bolasie had scored for Crystal Palace. Philippe Coutinho equalized for Liverpool. In the 82nd minute, Scott Dann scored for Crystal Palace and triggered a mass exodus of fans.
In October, Klopp had turned up at a Liverpool that was unbeaten in six, but defeated and depressed. Unbeaten in six, but five were 1-1 draws where Liverpool had scored first. The season before, under Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool had gone on an unbeaten run of 13 games, but when that stopped, the wheels came off: defeated by Manchester United, embarrassed by Arsenal, embarrassing against Aston Villa in the FA Cup semifinal before being humiliated by Stoke in the last game of the season.
There wasn’t a lot of resilience around Anfield, not on the pitch, not in the stands. Dann’s header hit the net, and approximately 10,000 Liverpool supporters decided enough was enough and headed for the exit. Klopp’s point: They were wrong to do so. Football teams are expressions of football clubs, and football clubs fight together until the end. Klopp’s other point: They were right to do so. Liverpool’s football team had gotten into the habit of deciding when it was over, and it wasn’t at the final whistle. You have to work for it—keep working.
Liverpool needed to become resilient. The issue wasn’t that these players didn’t care. If anything they cared too much. Caring led to nerves, nerves to fear, and then before you know where you are, the slenderest of leads has been squandered. The weight of the shirt, the weight of expectation. Your manager, your teammates, your crowd. What should be a joy had become a lonely burden.
Klopp turned up, and he smiled. He encouraged. He was continually at pains to point out to everyone that these were just games of football. Work as hard as you can. You are all good players.
Klopp turned up. He said, “Lads, you’ve been worrying too much. Don’t worry about a thing. Every little thing is gonna be all right. If you concede a goal, you can always go and score another one, another eight.”
Klopp turned up and he said to the diaspora, to the congregation, that the players needed them. Forget obsessing about transfers and committees. It’s just football. Eleven lads face 11 other lads. If we are better, we win; if we are worse, we drag them down to our level and kill them.
Klopp said these things and kept saying them. It’s football. It’s everything, yes. But it’s also not worth wrecking your head over. He said this to all of us: red shirts on the pitch, red scarves off it. Love it more.
He said one more thing: Never, ever be alone.
Act 1, Scene 2
— An Explosion —
Liverpool went 1-2 down with 15 minutes to go. But this time there was no exodus. Nobody in that ground was alone. Anfield collectively shook with righteous indignation. West Brom had been agricultural at best, thuggish at worst. Anfield was roused.
A horrific tackle by Craig Gardner on Dejan Lovren felt like a straw about to break the camel’s back. Instead Liverpool roared on, Klopp and the Kop incandescent with rage. Liverpool pushed and pushed before Divock Origi scored a late deflected equalizer. The final whistle sounded as Anfield cheered.
Klopp rounded up his players and took them to the Kop. He lined them up. He made them salute. The Kop roared back. Salute. Roar. Salute. Roar. Klopp turned away clapping and said after the game: “It was only one point, but it felt like three, an explosion. It was the best atmosphere in my time in England, absolutely great, and I wanted to say thank you. Sometimes a point deserved in the right way is more important for the development of the style of play against a team like this. I enjoyed the atmosphere with my whole body.”
There was surprise that Liverpool reacted in such a manner to a point against West Brom. This was, to many commentators and some Liverpool supporters, beyond the pale. Hadn’t we played better, gotten better results elsewhere recently? Beating Manchester City 1-4 and Southampton 1-6? A point against midtable opposition gets that response? What is he playing at?
This is process, not outcome. A point deserved in the right way is more important for the development of the team—the creation and marking of a collective, positive experience.
This was Klopp reacting emotionally to the savage reality of West Brom’s approach, drawing a line in the sand marking how we play, what we stand for, and how we work until the very end, reinforcing the process to everyone, to players, staff, and supporters. Remember that. Hold it close.
But it reinforced, more, the notion that everyone fights together. He took his players to the Kop to say to them that that lot, that crowd, they are you. You represent them. He brought the crowd to the players to emphasize that they are yours. These are your lads, for better or worse, they wear the red shirt. And they won’t stop. Not again. They will never stop.
Klopp’s job, in his mind, isn’t just to get a Liverpool side winning for a few weeks. It is to reassert these truths, put them at the core of everything. You can’t win if you feel alone.
Act 2, Scene 1
— An Occasion —
“You’ll Never Walk Alone” ends in Dortmund. I’ve sung a lot of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”s. They come in different shapes and sizes. Some—too many—have been laments. Others are swaggeringly joyful. This one was, you know, nice. Liverpool and Dortmund, the Yellow Wall meets the Kop, Kloppo. Dortmund expected to win; think of the occasion. A nice, soft-rock, singsong occasion.
All the Dortmund supporters I spoke to that day had expected two things—for Liverpool to be impressed by the Yellow Wall and for Dortmund to win the tie comfortably. They were convinced they’d do the business and show what a team and crowd looked like. They were convinced Liverpool’s team and crowd would wilt. The English supporters, they said, always drink too much. They sing in the pub, sing on the train, in the ground, silence.
The game kicked off and the football was pensive from both sides. Dortmund had a couple of flurries, one or two good chances, but Liverpool grew into the game and their defiance rose, every tackle eliciting a roar.
Then Origi scored, and all hell broke loose. Liverpool found themselves in excelsis Deo—gloria! gloria!—and it goes off, off the most, off with a great rollicking roar all the way till the break, the noise cascading down the steep stand, sheer full-throated insubordination that rocked the ground until the break.
Origi could and perhaps should have made it two just before halftime and the 22 players head down the tunnel, the Yellow Wall silent. But not the Liverpool end. The noise doesn’t stop; it shifts into Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” sung in the memory of Alex Jarmay, a Liverpool supporter who died. “Don’t worry about a thing. Cause every little thing gonna be all right.” Over and over for 10 minutes. I see the Dortmund contingent watching. Who are these people? Where has this come from?
The players come back out. Dortmund equalize. This doesn’t damp the Liverpool crowd or the Liverpool players. They go up the other end, and there is pinball in the Dortmund area, pinball that will stay with me until the end of my days. There is a period between Dortmund’s equalizer and the end of the pinball in their penalty area when Coutinho has the ball at his feet in their area for what seems an eternity, but neither he nor any other Liverpool player can turn it into the net.
The end of that pinball is the de facto end of the game; it has drained the life out of everybody. Dortmund take a draw, thinking they will win at Anfield. Liverpool keep their shape, take their away goal and think that will do too. The Reds leave the Westfalenstadion slowly. That will do. Because we know what’s coming next.
Act 2, Scene 2
— An Education —
“You’ll Never Walk Alone” ends. There are cheers around the ground, with Dortmund scarves waving. And then it keeps going. The Kop insists, and this “You’ll Never Walk Alone” wasn’t nice. It was full of snarl on the one hand and reclamation on the other. It was a line in the sand. Our line. In our ground. The song sung in support of our team.
But their game. Dortmund exploded into the football match. Much the better side, they got in at halftime 0-2 ahead, having blown the Reds away. There was only one team in it.
In the second half, though, Liverpool were better—Emre Can brilliantly set up Origi, and he finished with aplomb. But Mats Hummels stepped out of defense and classily fed Marco Reus, and Dortmund had the tie in the bag.
Anfield isn’t standing for it, and Liverpool aren’t standing for it. There is not even the sniff of stopping, of giving up. James Milner holds the ball up and finds Coutinho and then the corner.
Anfield is in foment. This isn’t synchronized noise and support; it is bloodlust. Dortmund poured their bodies into the first half, and now they are wobbling and Anfield is a cauldron. They concede a corner; Hummels demands they calm down. The ball swings in, and Mamadou Sakho heads home. The hope of calm, the idea of catching your breath, is eviscerated.
Because Liverpool demands. Liverpool wants. Liverpool needs. And Liverpool will not stop working.
Feel it: Throat aching on the stand from roaring, screaming, prompting.
See it: Liverpool are first to everything, to absolutely everything, and every Yellow Wall you can think of is chipped and holed. Dortmund are limp. Liverpool are rampant.
The scent of fear is in the air, and suddenly, Milner takes a free kick and finds Daniel Sturridge. Sturridge finds Milner in return, and then he hangs it up deliciously and there is Lovren, and there is the fourth, and there is simply no coming back from this, the roar deafening.
Liverpool have prevailed, and that angry joy, that joy unconfined, that joy that justifies everything, hits you like a wave and faces are moist with improbability and delight, and there is a third “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as Klopp walks around the pitch.
His head has gone. This is Anfield’s win. This is the aim of the enterprise. This is why he is here and why he isn’t somewhere else, why he didn’t really have any choice. This, over and over and over again. What else could you be in it for?
The Reds. Drag them down and kill them.
Act 3, Scene 1
— An Exhibition —
Klopp in the center circle, white tracksuit top, the players leaving the pitch in dribs and drabs, Liverpool emphatically victorious. Klopp, smile shining like a national guitar, rouses the crowd with his hands—once, twice, three times. Liverpool are heading into their second final of the season, and it is so richly deserved.
Klopp’s men showed shape and assurance in getting rid of Manchester United and just that little bit of swagger. Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino and Coutinho all contributing marvelously across two legs. Liverpool blew Europe up against Dortmund. Villarreal away was the rock that the ship nearly foundered on, but the home performance on May 5 was possibly Liverpool’s finest of the season.
There was an intense certainty about Liverpool at home to Villarreal, confirmed when Sturridge made it two and, rather than waving his arms, showed his raw, red heart. All over the pitch, Liverpool turned the screw through the evening. It was a performance that had everything good about Klopp and Liverpool written all over it.
Act 3, Scene 2
— An Anticipation —
Klopp in the second half, watching the waves of Sevilla attack, as the tide comes in and sweeps his side away; Klopp in the second half, urging his supporters on now but not his team, watching his team capitulate, not reinforcing the midfield despite Lucas Leiva, Joe Allen, and Jordan Henderson sitting on his bench; Klopp in the second half, needing it more than wanting it but wanting it for all time, yet not seemingly doing very much about what was happening.
A change was crying out to be made, but no change came.
Sturridge had done his thing. The thing that Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, and Steven Gerrard had done before him in European finals as Liverpool’s best player—scored Liverpool’s first goal. The thing that should define everything and lead to silverware. Open the scoring. Don’t look back.
Liverpool looked back. They needed a change after conceding a dreadful equalizer. They needed the delusion of regaining control of the game—that there was an intelligence guiding them. But Klopp had never claimed to be perfect. He’s a manager who embraces flaws.
Liverpool looked tired in that second half, a long hard season, before they were limply defeated. A game too far for all parties? Perhaps. An eighth-place side playing like one? Undoubtedly.
Yet Liverpool finished the season only 11 points off second, despite playing a gazillion games in all competitions and changing their manager in October. The bright spots shone—Sturridge and Origi in different ways ensuring Liverpool didn’t need a striker in the summer window. Firmino settled, Coutinho continuing to improve. Lovren and Nathaniel Clyne grew through the campaign. The intensity was there, but not consistently. The game intelligence was there, but not consistently. Huge games had been won, but … you get the drift.
It was clear what was missing, what needed to improve. Liverpool needed a new goalkeeper, another good center back, a left back, and then they needed pace and goals behind the front man. Size, power, and pace. The Reds need to be able to show the intensity that Klopp demands every game, show the speed that Klopp demands in both thought and movement. There isn’t a big-name signing among them, but there is a profile in terms of age and physicality, something that can be seen in both the players who arrive and the players who leave the club.
There will be lots of good sides in the Premier League next season, but maybe not that many great ones—eight or nine sides who really could beat anyone home or away on any given day. Approach will be everything. Intensity will be everything.
Liverpool are building a squad to be intense. The heaviest of heavy-metal football.
Optimism has to be the order of the day; the manager has the tools to do the job. The support behind him is hugely positive. Anfield has been expanded. It needs a team to grace it. There is no better man to pull that together.
Time to do the next part. Heavy-metal football, full-throttle football, bastion-of-invincibility football, make-them-all-submit football.
The only type that matters.
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