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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Klopp and Wenger: Two completely different managers who changed English football

Trying to assess Jurgen Klopp’s greatness right now is like standing at the foot of a mountain and attempting to gather a sense of how big it is — we are simply far too close to get a meaningful view. It will be years until we can look back with enough perspective to truly understand the scope of the departing Liverpool manager’s achievements.

But what else is there to do right now but to scramble for comparisons as Klopp embarks on his farewell tour of English football? And maybe we can find one as he prepares for what might well be his last trip to Emirates Stadium, this (Sunday) afternoon. Not with the current Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta, but with the man who made that club what it is.

Arsene Wenger and Klopp belonged to two different eras of English football (or perhaps, two different eras of English football belonged to them.) Yes, they overlapped in the Premier League by almost three years, but their winning peaks were almost 20 years apart.

While their legacies match up, their football is very different and so are their personal styles. And so are the Christian denominations they are steeped in.

You can draw lines between what Wenger brought to English football in 1996 and what Klopp did in 2015.

With Wenger came new methods, proven in Europe but never in England, in service of a new idea: playing a different type of football, faster and more coordinated. The fact that Wenger was so successful at this made every future foreign managerial appointment possible. When Klopp arrived, again promising a different type of football, he was joining a league Wenger had already shaped.

Wenger shortly after becoming Arsenal manager in 1996 (David Cheskin – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

At the end of this season, shortly before he turns 57, Klopp will leave Liverpool having built one of the great teams of the modern era. He has won the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup and Carabao Cup once each. He could even finish the season with another four trophies. But given how good Liverpool have been under Klopp, one league title and one major European trophy (so far) does feel like scant recognition of their excellence.

Clearly, Liverpool have come agonisingly close to winning far more. The two best runners-up seasons in Premier League history belong to them: 97 points in 2018-19 and 92 points in 2021-22. They also lost two Champions League finals to Real Madrid (in 2018 and 2022). It would not have taken much for things to look very different: Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan scuffing his finish against Aston Villa on the final day of the 2021-22 Premier League season or Real Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois bungling a save in Paris the following weekend, for example. The margins between mere success and historical dominance are paper thin.

But then, how much does this actually matter?

Look at Wenger. His Arsenal were brilliant for years, and won three Premier League titles. Many will argue they should have won more, having also got themselves into challenging positions in 1998-99, 2002-03 and 2007-08. And they never matched their domestic success with achievements in Europe. They reached one UEFA Cup final (2000) and one Champions League final (2006) and lost them both. Even in the 2003-04 Invincibles season, they were knocked out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals by a late goal from Chelsea’s Wayne Bridge.

Both Wenger and Klopp pushed their teams to the limits, and made them better than anyone could have expected. But both men found that this was not always enough. Just when Arsenal had reached the pinnacle in 2004, they were surpassed by Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea.

Wenger’s calls for spending controls were never heeded and Arsenal could never get back on top. Meanwhile, Klopp found himself competing with a Manchester City side who were unlike any other in English history, spending billions to become a high-spec machine at the service of counterpart Pep Guardiola and his ideas. There is only so much you can do when the financial landscape is against you.

So, for now at least, this era of English football belongs to Guardiola — who currently has five Premier League titles to Klopp’s one.

One of the most telling tributes to Klopp last week came from Guardiola himself, speaking after City’s FA Cup fourth-round win away to Tottenham. “I felt a part of Man City would be lost,” he said of Klopp’s imminent departure, announced earlier that day. “We cannot define our period here together without him and Liverpool, it is impossible.”

On this reading, Klopp raised the bar and forced City to become as good as they have been. His Liverpool have not ultimately been the hegemonic team of the era, just as Wenger’s Arsenal never were. Klopp to Guardiola is very similar to Wenger to Sir Alex Ferguson — the necessary adversary, the man who made the rivalry what it is. And as a result, neither Klopp nor Wenger became serial winners.

Wenger and Klopp will both be defined by far more than what they won in English football and leave a legacy richer than merely a full trophy cabinet. (Whether this is adequate consolation for the titles not won is a question for them.)

Klopp during his first game as Liverpool manager in October 2015 (Catherine Ivill – AMA/Getty Images)

They have both been indispensable voices, blessed with a facility with words even in a second language. (Wenger, who used to say things in press conferences like “We still have not found a machine which can measure the intensity of love” has the edge over Klopp, but only just.)

While both men are inseparable from the clubs they managed, both could claim to speak for something bigger than their partisan interests, for the good of the game itself; on scheduling, on spending, on technology, on politics, filling the empty public space with the arguments others were scared to touch.

Both men might even claim that it was their values — loyalty, integrity, honesty — that made people connect with them, both fans of their club and beyond. And that, at their best, the teams they sent out onto the pitch were an extension of those values.

Maybe this is the point where the two characters diverge. Because while the impression they left on English football is broadly similar, their styles are very different.

Nobody has put this better than Klopp himself, who famously distilled the difference between the Borussia Dortmund side he was then managing and Arsenal ahead of a Champions League game in 2013. “He likes having the ball, playing football, passes … it’s like an orchestra,” he said of Wenger. “But it’s a silent song. I like heavy metal.”

We could explore in great detail the footballing differences between the two men, between Wenger’s sides’ creativity and Klopp’s vigorous counter-pressing. But in both cases, the football is downstream from the difference in personal styles.

Just try to imagine, for one second, Wenger drinking and singing with colleagues at a party after losing a final, as Klopp did in Basel when Liverpool were beaten by Sevilla in the 2015-16 Europa League final. Similarly, Klopp is hugely intelligent and has a university degree, but no one would call him Der Professor.

But even these contrasting personal styles, between Klopp’s charisma and Wenger’s academic detachment, may themselves be a function of their different backgrounds.

Wenger and Klopp are not from too far apart: Wenger grew up in Duttlenheim, a village just outside Strasbourg, right on the border with Germany. Drive east from there for just over an hour, across the River Rhine and into the Black Forest, you will reach Glatten, Klopp’s hometown.

Both men speak warmly of the values their local communities instilled in them, although that is nothing noteworthy in itself. Both men speak — at times — of the importance of the Christian faith they were brought up with. (“I am forever grateful for the values my religion has given,” Wenger said in 2013.) While Wenger was brought up as a strict Catholic, Klopp is a Protestant.

So much that we know about the now 74-year-old Wenger makes sense through the lens of his Catholicism, attending mass every day as a boy, confession every week. He has explained it that way himself, saying on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs interview show that “the impact for me was that you are never completely happy, because you never do well enough.

“The religion makes you feel always a bit guilty because the Catholic religion is like that.”

A frustrated Wenger in 2016 (Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Nothing explains Wenger’s time at Arsenal better than the pursuit of beauty and the pursuit of perfection. (He remains the only manager who could ever have said, “I am a facilitator of beauty in man.”)

Everyone knows that Wenger attained a form of perfection in that 2003-04 season, Arsenal going all season without being beaten in the Premier League. But remember that he had been aiming to achieve this for years, talking in September 2002 about whether Arsenal might do it, only for an Everton youngster named Wayne Rooney to intervene a few weeks later.

In Wenger’s later years, as he packed Arsenal’s team with creative midfielders and refused to compromise on his beliefs, his project felt increasingly remote from the people who showed up to watch it every week. Wenger might have hoped that the pursuit of beauty and goodness offered the fans a glimpse of transcendence. Some of them would rather he focused on winning football matches. (Corley Miller memorably wrote of Wenger’s “belief that there’s a code of rightness other than success; his Catholic claim that virtue, magic, and beauty might be more important than the trophy case.”)

Wenger’s own personal style — ascetic, detached, intellectual — played into this. He often talked about the self-denial of being a football manager, cut off from family, cut off from normal life, as if the suffering had a sacral element itself.

At a press conference in March 2017, that was meant to preview a trip to face Klopp’s Liverpool at Anfield, Wenger discussed how much the job meant to him. “It’s a sacrifice of your life,” he said. “You have nothing else happening in your life. It’s like (being) a priest. You’re a football priest.”

But for Wenger this sacrifice, this self-denial, was necessary to his self-realisation. He accepted that this made him a “specialist in masochism”, but it was his path to being the person he wanted to be. “It allowed me to get to the next level as a human being,” he said of his work, “to develop my strengths in what make a human being great as well.” Perhaps this is partly why Wenger clung on for so long, staying in the job for 22 years, rather than leaving at the top as Klopp will do.

The issue was that Arsenal Football Club does not exist for the benefit of the manager but rather for the fans. And while the Frenchman called himself a “football priest”, it was impossible to shake the image at the end of Cardinal Wenger, Pope Arsene, removed from the weekly interests in his flock, reading them the Latin Mass and hoping that they understand. (“The overall problem in Europe is that the respect for basic things has been lost, or is less strong than it was 20 years ago,” Wenger said at another pre-match press conference in December 2017. “In every single job, people are questioned more.”)

Klopp is different. His background is in Baden-Wurttemberg Lutheranism.

“Being a Christian gives me a few rules,” he told the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper in 2018. “Being a Protestant is nice, it leaves a few doors open. It’s obviously not that dogmatic.” There can be no doubting the sincerity of Klopp’s faith, however. In an interview for documentary Und Vorne Hilft Der Liebe Gott (‘The Good Lord Will Help Up Front’) he talks about how he sees Jesus’ coming as “the most decisive thing that ever happened” and “the greatest act that was ever accomplished”.

And what did the Protestant Klopp offer when he arrived at Liverpool eight and a half years ago other than salvation by faith alone? The most important thing he ever said at Liverpool was in his first press conference, when he promised to turn the fans from doubters into believers.

Everything Klopp has done has been on the basis of getting his people — the fans and the players — to believe in him and his methods. Remember another of his most famous moments, as his players prepared to face Barcelona in a Champions League semi-final decider at Anfield in May 2019, with a 3-0 first-leg deficit. “It’s impossible,” he said. “But because it’s you, we have a chance.” Liverpool won 4-0.

Watching Klopp’s Liverpool play, there was never any sense that this was an esoteric project chasing after an unattainable ideal. What stood out was not the beauty of the play but the work ethic of the players, just as had been the case in Klopp’s previous teams elsewhere.

Klopp and Wenger at Liverpool training in August 2021 (Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Put these elements together, the faith of the fans, the commitment of the players, and Klopp’s Liverpool has become a communal participatory experience.

Few managers in the modern era have understood the dynamics of the crowd better. He communes with them every week, encouraging them to come together, find their voice, and take agency for themselves. As if the authority stems from the pews rather than the pulpit. The point is to create a shared experience, a shared memory, rather than one created by him.

At times, there is almost something of the evangelical preacher to Klopp, the showman working the throng, as he does his fist-pumping routine at the end of every win. It takes a deep understanding of these dynamics to sense that it is right to corral his players into celebrating in front of the fans after a 2-2 home draw with West Bromwich Albion, but that is exactly what Klopp has.

Could you see Wenger, with his asceticism, his aestheticism, working the crowd like that? (By contrast, you probably could picture him, for example, abstaining from meat during Lent, or fasting on Good Friday. Klopp maybe less so.)

But while the differences between these two men and their styles have deep roots, their legacies in English football will leave similar shapes. And when Klopp said last week that he does not want “to wait until I am too old to have a normal life”, you could hear an echo of Wenger himself, an acknowledgement of the costs of being a football priest.

(Top photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

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