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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Without Jurgen Klopp, European football would have looked very different – and boring

At various points during his spells in charge of Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp has dipped his toe into political debates. In specific terms, he has been aghast at the election successes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, he thinks Brexit “makes no sense” and he was highly critical of those who refused to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

In wider terms, Klopp is “on the left, of course”, as detailed in a biography written by Raphael Honigstein. “More left than middle,” Klopp said. “I believe in the welfare state. I’m not privately insured. I would never vote for a party because they promised to lower the top tax rate… if I am doing well, I want others to do well, too.”

Such debates about inequality and the dominance of the one per cent are easily applicable to football. Over the past 15 years, the gap between the ‘superclubs’ and the rest has increased dramatically. The financial disparity translates directly into dominance on the pitch and in terms of the league table. We live in an era where Bayern Munich have won the past 11 Bundesliga titles — the previous record for consecutive successes was three. Similar levels of dominance have been achieved by Juventus in Italy and Paris Saint-Germain in France.

It is now impossible to imagine anyone outside La Liga’s big three triumphing, while in England, Manchester City might become the first side to win four league titles in a row. The debate about football’s governance is essentially equivalent to the debate about government: to what extent should revenues at the top be redistributed? Do we accept current levels of inequality, or do we believe in mobility and meritocracy?

In terms of providing balance in league tables and keeping the dominant club honest, Klopp has done more than any other manager in modern football. In fact, given that the dominance of leagues by one individual club on this scale is a modern phenomenon, Klopp has probably done more than any manager in history.

Dortmund have always been a major club, but it’s worth remembering their financial problems and how average they had been in the years before Klopp took charge in 2008. They had just finished 13th, three places and nine points above the relegation zone. After three years of Klopp, they were champions.

Without Dortmund’s dramatic overachievement, Bayern’s run of 11 Bundesliga titles in a row would have been 12, as they were runners-up to Dortmund in 2011-12, and arguably 13 (they finished third behind Leverkusen in 2011-12, although take away both sides’ results against Klopp’s Dortmund and they would have finished ahead of them).

Klopp can also take some credit for Dortmund’s sporadic challenges after his departure — he turned them into one of Europe’s giants at that crucial time when the elite clubs were really taking off, a status they have maintained, even if they have not won the Bundesliga or gone further than the quarter-finals in European competition since Klopp’s departure.

Take Dortmund out of the equation and look at the gap between Bayern’s points tally and the best non-Dortmund points tally. RB Leipzig, sometimes considered a challenger to Dortmund, have not matched the 67-point tally they recorded in their first season in the Bundesliga, 2016-17. Dortmund have generally been the only side capable of challenging Bayern.

Something similar happened at Liverpool. Although they had come close to winning the title under Brendan Rodgers two years before Klopp’s appointment, that was something of a one-off. Their other recent league finishes had been seventh, sixth, eighth, seventh and sixth. At the end of Klopp’s first part-season in charge, they finished eighth again. The task of challenging City was a long-term project, not an overnight job.

Whereas Klopp won two Bundesliga titles, he has won only one Premier League title — but he has, crucially, also run City very close on two occasions, finishing second in the 2018-19 and 2021-22 seasons. Frequently coming runners-up, in the unforgiving world of football, is often considered a sign of ‘bottling it’, an accusation Klopp has often faced after finals. But in the first of those near-miss seasons, Klopp’s side won their final nine matches. In the second, they won 50 points from the final 54 on offer.

Those seasons are the two highest points finishes for non-champions in the 31 seasons of the Premier League (and the fourth- and eighth-best points tallies recorded, including champions). Granted, that’s partly because of the inequality we’re saying Klopp has effectively been fighting against — Liverpool are a big fish themselves — but other runners-up in recent years have not got close to that mark.

Again, take Liverpool away from the below graph, assess the gap between Manchester City and the next-best (non-Liverpool) side in the league, and you realise how much Klopp has contributed to the competitiveness at the top of the Premier League. City would essentially have gone without a serious challenge in the five seasons between Antonio Conte’s Chelsea winning the league in 2016-17 and Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal putting up a decent fight in 2022-23. Even when City dropped off dramatically in 2019-20, as Klopp’s Liverpool cantered to the title, they were still 15 points ahead of the third-best side in the league (Manchester United).

Part of the fun has been the way Liverpool have been completely unpredictable.

Here, using the pre-season points ‘predictions’ of spread betting website SportingIndex as a decent guide to the consensus about a side’s expected performance, Manchester City’s points return over the past five seasons has been roughly what we expected. The biggest gap between expectation and performance was that 2019-20 season, when City recorded 12 points fewer than predicted.

Liverpool are the complete opposite.

Using the same metric, not once in the past five seasons have Liverpool been within 12 points of pre-season expectations. Sometimes they have been much better than we expected, sometimes much worse. But Liverpool always keep us guessing. Whether that is down to injuries and a lack of squad depth or the less robotic, more emotional style of Klopp compared to Guardiola remains up for debate.

There will be fonder, warmer, more personal tributes to Klopp’s legacy than this one, which is based largely on points totals plotted on graphs.

Still, for those of us who are neutrals and follow the top flight because we want drama, excitement and an unpredictable title race, Klopp has been an absolute godsend. It remains to be seen whether Klopp will achieve another title victory before his departure, but simply playing his part in a competitive title race is, in itself, a fitting way to bow out.


Warmer, more personal tributes to Klopp’s legacy…

(Top photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)



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