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Friday, July 19, 2024

Jurgen Klopp turned doubters into believers – but now the day Liverpool dreaded has come

As football news bombshells go, Jurgen Klopp’s announcement on Friday morning was right up there.

It is one of those stories that initially left you wondering whether someone was having you on. Your eyes narrowed and you took a closer look to check whether that really was Liverpool’s official social media handle and whether that really was an interview with Klopp, rather than some kind of AI creation.

But no, that really was Klopp furrowing his brow, exhaling, taking a moment to compose himself, looking straight into the camera and saying: “I will leave the club at the end of the season.”

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It was the moment Liverpool supporters have dreaded — one that they knew would come, but which seemed to have been consigned to the middle distance after he extended his contract to June 2026. For fans of rival clubs, the instinctive response might have been closer to rapture.

From the moment he arrived on Merseyside in October 2015, taking charge of a club he diagnosed as being weighed down by anxiety and the burden of history, Klopp and Liverpool seemed the perfect fit.

Klopp is presented as Liverpool’s manager in October 2015 (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

It has not all been plain sailing, but the highs have been so exhilarating — and not just winning the Champions League in 2019, the Premier League in 2020 (their first in 30 years), and a League Cup and FA Cup double in 2022, but some spectacular victories and unforgettable nights along the way — that the low points of last season, for example, seem to pale into insignificance.

Had this announcement come a year ago, when Klopp and Liverpool were struggling to find a way forward, it would have been far less surprising. He looked tired and tetchy, the way he did towards the end of his time at Borussia Dortmund.

But this season he has appeared re-energised, relishing the opportunity to work with a refreshed, rejuvenated Liverpool squad. They are top of the Premier League, looking forward to another Carabao Cup final against Chelsea, and still in the FA Cup and Europa League. Leaving the pitch at Bournemouth on Sunday and Fulham on Wednesday, grinning and holding his hand to his breast, he did not look like a manager who was reaching the end of the line.

Under the surface, he says, it has been a different story.

“It is that I am — how can I say it? — running out of energy,” he told the club’s official website. “I have no problem now, obviously… but I know that I cannot do the job again and again and again and again.”

It is worth recalling that the summer of 2024 was the departure date he had previously and openly worked towards. He was then persuaded — by his wife, Ulla, as is often the way of these things — to reconsider and sign a new contract in April 2022.

That deal was due to take him to 2026, but he is calling time early, reverting to his original plan.

What next for Klopp? A break, he insists. Again, that chimes with the plan he had been working towards. He says he cannot imagine working next season. He felt the same when he left Borussia Dortmund in 2015, only to end up at Liverpool a few months later, but he sounds like someone who wants to take a sabbatical even if the German FA might have other ideas.

A mural of Klopp near Anfield (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

The next step for Liverpool is more intriguing. Klopp said he had informed the club’s owners and senior management in November, giving the club time to work on the search for his successor, but the word out of Anfield on Friday is that “the search starts now”.

Naturally, the name of former Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso, who is doing such an outstanding job at Bayer Leverkusen, shot to the top of every bookmaker’s list of candidates for the job.

The difficulty is that there has been something of a power vacuum at Liverpool lately, with Michael Edwards and Julian Ward leaving the sporting director role in quick succession. Jorg Schmadtke has filled that job on an interim basis, but he is leaving at the end of the January transfer window. For all the club’s talk of a long-term vision and strategy under Fenway Sports Group’s ownership and the number of young players who continue to emerge, Klopp’s departure — and the fact that Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk and Mohamed Salah have all entered the final 18 months of their contracts — will test just how well prepared they were.

Manchester United had years to prepare for Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, but they made a mess of the succession and are still paying the price 10 and a half years later. Arsene Wenger’s departure from Arsenal in 2018 was a little different — the club had stagnated and declined for several seasons before that — but there was a long period of readjustment and many mistakes made before they found a way forward under Mikel Arteta.

Klopp’s tenure at Liverpool has been nothing like as long as Ferguson’s at Manchester United (26 years) or Wenger’s at Arsenal (22 years), but nine seasons seems like an eternity in the modern game. Like Pep Guardiola, whose contract at Manchester City expires at the end of next season, Klopp is more than a manager or coach.

He is a figurehead whose powers of energy and inspiration are felt throughout a club.

Energy and charisma are Klopp’s two most immediately striking traits. He is more easily pigeonholed as a tub-thumper than a strategist or a philosopher-coach. But those powers of motivation are underpinned by a deep understanding of the game, human nature and the power of teamwork. At Liverpool and Dortmund, he has turned good players into very good players and very good players into excellence. At their best, the teams he has built — energetic, powerful, creative, relentless, fiercely committed — have been far greater than the sum of their parts.

The news of Klopp’s departure called to mind the famous clip that followed the news of Bill Shankly’s resignation as Liverpool manager in 1974. Granada Television sent reporter Tony Wilson into the centre of Liverpool to reflect the mood on the streets. Nobody could believe it.

You’re having us on.

Who said?

The explanations are the same: tiredness, the need to take a break from a job that consumes your life and your whole being. Shankly was 60 but looked so much older, as men almost always did in those days, having lived through such hard, challenging times. Klopp is 56 but still gives the impression he is the most energetic man in the room — any room.

That energy will be needed over the coming months. The conventional wisdom in football is that an announcement like this can harm a team. Ferguson felt his very public plan to retire in 2002 led some of his players to “put their tools away” — and it was partly his dissatisfaction over the way that campaign was unfolding that led him to delay his retirement for… just the 11 years, as it turned out.

When Ferguson finally did retire in 2013, his decision was kept secret until after the Premier League title was won. Far better that, he felt, than to allow the final months of the campaign to descend into some kind of farewell tour.

It was interesting to hear Klopp say that “in an ideal world I wouldn’t have said anything to anybody until the end of the season: win everything and then say goodbye” — but that this was not possible, not least because the club needed time to work on the succession.

Even the club’s in-house media felt compelled to ask whether the announcement could have a negative impact on a season that has promised so much.

“I understand the question 100 per cent,” Klopp replied. “That’s up to us. After this announcement, we will have a press conference and stuff like that. After that, I am 100 per cent in this season. We can go through it — in an ideal world, we have 30 games coming up or something like that. That is, in other countries, a full season.

“There are so many things to play for and there might be some ideas from the outside to disturb what we are doing, but it is all about us.”

Klopp surveys the scene pre-match at Bournemouth last weekend (Robin Jones – AFC Bournemouth/AFC Bournemouth via Getty Images)

Klopp will recall, through gritted teeth, that Bayern Munich didn’t seem too perturbed in 2013 when it was announced that Jupp Heynckes would be leaving at the end of the season, to be replaced by Guardiola. It was a different situation — Heynckes was in his late sixties and his third stint in charge of Bayern was never for the long term — but, rather than being unnerved, his players seemed inspired by the announcement.

They ended up winning the Bundesliga, the DFB-Pokal and the Champions League, defeating Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund in the final.

Back then, Klopp made a remark about how it would have stretched the boundaries of credibility for his Dortmund team’s “perfect” story to end with a perfect triumph over Bayern at Wembley. “Nobody would have liked to see that movie. It would have been unrealistic crap,” he told German reporter Christoph Biermann.

Klopp didn’t get his Hollywood ending at Dortmund, either. Having announced in April 2015 that he would leave at the end of that season — and having stayed on a year or two too long, he felt with hindsight — he led his team to the DFB-Pokal final only to lose 3-1 to Wolfsburg. Again there was the same theme from Klopp afterwards. “Winning today would have been too kitschy, too American,” he said, perhaps trying a little too hard to convince himself.

But whether it would be “unrealistic”, “kitschy” or “American” or not, Klopp will find himself longing for that Hollywood ending at Liverpool. Manchester City remain favourites for the Premier League title, but Klopp and his team will be desperate to beat them to it.

Then there are possibilities in the FA Cup, the Europa League and, most immediately, the Carabao Cup, where they face Chelsea in the final on February 25. One way or another, Klopp will want his time on Merseyside to end with a victory parade in May, touring the city in an open-top bus with a trophy or two on board.

Klopp on Liverpool’s victory parade of May 2022 (Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

It will be emotional, as it often is at Anfield.

You might have seen the video of Klopp’s farewell from Dortmund, dewy-eyed as he bows and takes the applause from the Yellow Wall and gives them one last flurry of fist-pumps. The speech he gave that day was pre-recorded because he didn’t want to repeat his mistake seven years earlier at Mainz, where he spoke from the heart and found himself “crying so much that my voice got stuck in my throat”.

Klopp says he felt blessed, after seven years at Mainz, to find the same love and appreciation in Dortmund. He had high hopes for his Liverpool experience, believing it to be a “special” club in need of reawakening, but even then he could not have imagined his time on Merseyside would prove to be so rewarding on so many levels.

As he said of his departure from Dortmund, “It’s not important what people think of you when you arrived — it’s important what they think of when you leave.”

The reputation Klopp built up at Mainz and Dortmund meant he was acclaimed as a saviour from the moment he arrived in Liverpool. Unlike so many of his predecessors, he wore that status lightly as he went about his mission to “turn doubters into believers”.

Whatever happens over the next few months, he has delivered spectacularly on that pledge. Those players and supporters believed in him instantly — and their faith has been rewarded many times over. It has been one hell of an act to follow for whoever comes next.

(Top photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

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