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Ken Early: The shadow of Jürgen Klopp will loom over Liverpool for years

The German has managerial superpower of extracting consistently brilliant performances from almost every player

Recently I talked to someone who works in German football and the conversation inevitably turned to Jürgen Klopp. My friend remarked on Klopp’s ubiquity on German TV, where he always seems to be appearing in some ad for one of his massive portfolio of commercial sponsors. Then he said: “He’s ruined it for all the other German coaches, you know.”

His point was that over the years Klopp has established an almost impossible ideal of what a football manager should be. He has been so good at the job at such a high level for so long that the others seem inadequate by comparison.

Klopp is, first and foremost, a brilliant football mind who has been at the forefront of one of the great tactical developments in the game over the last 20 years. He didn’t invent counterpressing, but he was the one who made it famous, and the first to win big titles with a team so-branded.

He combines that unusually penetrating insight into the game with the emotional intelligence to understand the people who play it. Whether the situation calls for fire, filibustering or fan service, Klopp usually says the right words in the right way.


In his voice the corniest lines can sound inspirational rather than ridiculous. When Philippe Coutinho left Liverpool for Barcelona at the end of 2017 there was weeping and gnashing of teeth – another Liverpool star following the money to a bigger club, like Luis Suarez, Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso and many more. Klopp: “The club always goes on. You cannot transfer the heart and soul of Liverpool Football Club, although I am sure there are many clubs who would like to buy it.” It’s not as easy to pull this stuff off as Klopp made it look.

He shares with Alex Ferguson the managerial superpower of being able to extract consistently brilliant performances from nearly every player who played for him. It’s hard to think of players at his Dortmund and Liverpool teams who did not mostly show the best version of themselves. There is a longer list of players who excelled in Klopp teams and went on to fail elsewhere: Nuri Sahin, Shinji Kagawa, Mario Götze, Coutinho, Sadio Mané.

We watched him deploy a formidable repertoire of interpersonal styles to do this: cajoling, praising, inspiring, demanding, barking, snarling, bullying. But the consistency of performance that has been the hallmark of his teams is also telling a story about the clarity and the brilliant simplicity of their design.

Carlo Ancelotti said after the 2022 Champions League final that it was easy to figure out a plan for how to play against Liverpool because they played the same way in every game. Yet what Ancelotti identified as a weakness has also been one of Klopp’s biggest strengths. His players always knew exactly what they were supposed to do and how they were supposed to relate to each other. He understood how to create the stable structures, the context they needed to perform.

Perhaps the most galling thing for the up-and-coming coaches in Germany is that he does all this while being a man of the people fans think they would love to have a beer with. Some managers are football geniuses, others are great at talking to players, some of them can spectacularly rant and rave on the sideline, others understand how to organise a club and a staff, some managers perform well for the media, still others are great at buttering up the fans. Only Klopp could do it all.

Think of poor Thomas Tuchel, who understands the game better than all but a tiny handful of people on the planet, yet gets bullied by pundits like Didi Hamann and Lothar Matthäus to whom he is fundamentally not a real football man. Or Julian Nagelsmann, whose fondness for expensive-looking jackets and suits once led him to the point where he irritably snapped at journalists: “Don’t talk so much about my clothes – I’m a football coach, not a model.”

Hard to imagine this happening to Klopp. It’s not that he’s not vain – the redevelopment of Anfield is matched only by the redevelopment of his teeth, now incomparably larger and whiter than when he arrived in 2015. Rather his lightness of touch allows him to glide through situations that would ensnare others. When he got a hair transplant – a move which at the time (2012) was still considered a little bit out there – he pre-emptively disarmed the sneers – “looks pretty cool, no?” Nobody said any more about it.

On Friday he revealed that he had informed Liverpool’s owners of his decision as long ago as November. “I don’t think anybody realised any difference in the last few months,” he said.

Actually there had been a palpable difference: he’d looked much happier, as though he was really enjoying himself again after a terrible 22/23 season. Only now do we understand that this was only partly because Liverpool were playing better. It was also because the finishing line was in sight.

The news was shocking because what Klopp has done is so rare. Who does this? Who walks away from a job that gives them success, influence, global attention, a sense of purpose they can believe is shared with millions of people around the world – not to mention the money – when they seem to be at the very top of their game?

Look at the ancient politicians currently duelling for the US presidency: these people can’t imagine walking away. Managers often speak about the job in terms of addiction, yet Klopp, just as Liverpool 2.0 takes flight, chooses abdication.

It’s natural to ask: what really happened? There must be something more to this. Was there a falling-out with the ownership? (He says no). Did he have a health scare? (He says no). Has he been guilt-tripped into abandoning his LFC family by his in-real-life family?

It was notable that in the 25-minute video interview Liverpool released to accompany the announcement there was a question about how his wife, Ulla, had reacted to the news. It felt as though this was included to allow Klopp to state his ownership of the decision, the subtext seeming to be, “in case any of you out there feel like blaming my wife for this”.

Conspiracy theories will proliferate over the coming months. But is it really too far-fetched to believe that the stated reason – burnout – might also be the actual reason?

Klopp’s work has brought him glory, fame, fulfilment, money, but it has also demanded a lot. Nobody in world football has complained more consistently about the increasing demands of an ever-more-packed football calendar. We assumed he was speaking on behalf of his players but it now seems clear he was also speaking for himself. The endless hours of repetitive grind. The travel. The meetings. The press conferences. The constant, all-consuming nonsense of football.

There’s also the personal cost of that level of professional commitment, and the guilt of knowing that part of the price is being paid by those closest to you. When Alex Ferguson retired it became almost uncomfortable to hear people enthusing about how he had been a “father figure” to so many of the great footballers who had passed through Old Trafford over the years. You wondered how such talk sounded to his three actual sons, who perhaps had seen less of him growing up than his players did.

A reporter asked Klopp about Ferguson’s famous U-turn of 2001-02, when he announced his intention to retire, then changed his mind halfway through the season and stayed in the job for another 11 seasons. It turned out Klopp had never heard of this. What those who were following the story at the time remember is that Manchester United’s form went off a cliff in the months when they thought Ferguson was about to retire, only to recover when he announced he was staying on.

That’s the risk people will associate with this mid-season announcement – the prospect of a lame-duck Klopp leading the last months of this season. Yet Liverpool didn’t really have a choice. Klopp’s senior coaching staff are leaving with him, as is the football director Jorg Schmadtke. On an organisational level Liverpool Football Club is currently not much more than a few flustered Americans in suits. The task of replacing their entire senior football staff is not a small one. A lot of calls will have to be made, feelers will have to go out, and no sooner are the feelers out than the news would be out. It was impossible to keep it a secret.

As for the task of replacing him, well, all the best with that. Any potential successor knows that he will have to work in the shadow of Klopp, which will loom over the club for years. Sometimes your manager is just too good.