Klopp left his managerial post in Mainz after seven years. Halfway through Klopp’s seventh season at Borussia Dortmund his side was bottom of the Bundesliga and it was the end of the cycle for a title-winning side. No sooner had Klopp decided he would be leaving the following summer, the team rallied to finish seventh and reached the German Cup final, beating Bayern Munich en route.
Reflecting on that period, Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke made a candid admission which will resonate at Anfield this week.
“It would have been better if we had exchanged the entire team – not the coach,” he said.
“I knew that we would never get back such a coach. When I said goodbye, real tears came.”
I thought of Watzke’s comments when hearing the ridiculous question put to Klopp about his future after the 4-1 defeat in Naples. How quickly some people forget it is only eight games since he was chasing the quadruple.
Klopp is approaching the seventh anniversary of his appointment as manager so there is an easy comparison with the final months at Dortmund. There is also a critical difference.
While in Germany there was mutual sense it was time for a new adventure, there is no such feeling in Liverpool. Klopp will be Liverpool’s manager for the next four years. That is why he signed his new deal last season.
For all his success, there is no elite manager who has been so accomplished at picking himself off the floor after the lowest moments and there is no coach more qualified to reverse Liverpool’s poor form.
A rebuild may be upon Klopp sooner than anticipated. Nothing in his demeanour suggests he lacks the appetite for the challenge.
While Klopp is in charge Liverpool will never be like Chelsea, or other clubs who see no prospect of a coach reversing a slide.
Liverpool’s owners oversaw an unsuccessful period before Klopp. There are still some Liverpool players who joined the club before Klopp. They too owe their success to him.
The same applies to all the players he has brought to Anfield. Thiago Alcantara aside, none of those considered club legends today – Virgil van Dijk, Mohamed Salah and Alisson Becker – had won anything before Klopp signed them. The club’s restoration to being one of Europe’s elite is down to him.
After the defeat in Napoli, Klopp spoke about a Liverpool ‘reinvention’. To me, it begins with a Liverpool rewind.
Seven years ago this October Klopp took over during the first international break of the Premier League season. In his first game, away at Tottenham Hotspur, an imbalanced team with many players who would not survive the rebuilding process, outran a superior opponent and secured a goalless draw.
This was an immediate hint of what was to come. The Liverpool that would later win the Champions League and Premier League – dominant in possession as well as the best in the world at retrieving it – was still a few years away. But the basic principles were there from match one, Klopp turning to those players who offered energy, physicality and tactical discipline. Everything began with his re-organisation in those first few training sessions, Liverpool sprinting back into position to become a horrible team to play against.
That energy has been sorely missing as Liverpool have become easy to play this season. Every Liverpool opponent has outrun them in their seven games so far. That is more worrying than the results.
When Klopp and his think tank convene at training, the injection of energy must be top of the agenda. That will prompt difficult decisions, analysing the performances of players who have given Klopp sterling service but are no longer capable of consistently executing his vision.
Failing to reinforce midfield during the summer is the root of the problem. The club felt Aurelien Tchouameni (who opted for Real Madrid) and Jude Bellingham fit the bill. Most supporters – myself included – feel Liverpool’s track record with recruitment means they deserve trust, so if they have to wait for Bellingham – as they did with Van Dijk in 2017 – so be it. Unfortunately, it looks like a mistake because of the number of midfield injuries.
When I see James Milner and Roberto Firmino starting big games for Liverpool in the Premier League or Europe, it is symptomatic of the problem.
Milner has been strongly criticised for his performance in Naples, which is unfair. He is 36 years old and one of the finest modern professionals Liverpool – or indeed any Premier League club – has had. It is not his fault he is starting these games, circumstances are limiting Klopp’s options. He has been offered regular contract extensions for what he brings as a character at the training ground and in the dressing room and was supposed to be an able understudy this season.
Likewise, Firmino is in the last year of his deal for a reason. He has been an amazing player for Liverpool, sure to be remembered as one of the main reasons for Liverpool’s success under Klopp. But has been in decline for two years, his role gradually evolving to the point where last year he was back-up to Diogo Jota and Sadio Mane. Now he seems to be first pick as the false nine again. That cannot be right, even if he has performed well in some of the games so far.
Firmino’s inclusion in Naples is a reflection of Jota’s injury issues and Darwin Nunez’s difficult start. Nunez is raw, but can cause havoc with pace and power.
Liverpool’s squad includes enough players who can provide the dynamism off the ball that typified the first incarnation of Klopp’s side; Nunez, Jota, Luis Diaz, Mohamed Salah, Fabio Carvalho and Harvey Elliott are attacking upgrades on what Klopp inherited in October 2015.
The obvious problem is they all prefer to operate in the final third and there are inevitable dangers to the team’s balance if too many are included in the same starting XI.
However, for Klopp’s high pressing system to work, it needs their energy. That is the most obvious way to go, short-term at least, to make his ideas work again.
That will help the defenders, too. For the last five years, Van Dijk and Alexander-Arnold have looked like a Rolls-Royce in a high-class team. They need to adopt the mentality of Land Rovers now. I will not get on board with the idea that they are not trying hard enough. They have a style which looks effortless at their best, but like they are not breaking sweat when off form.
These players, like Salah, are too good not to get back to where they were. Class is permanent. The same is true of the manager. Some say Liverpool are paying the price for the last five years. If so, it is a price every fan would willingly pay again.
Should the next Anfield rebuild take as long as the first, Klopp will get all the support and time he needs. If this is the beginning of the end of an era at Liverpool, everything changes except the manager.
Liverpool v Ajax, Live, RTÉ 2/BT Sport 2, 8.0