Ken Early: Liverpool come to the final armed with self-belief
Real Madrid may be the best team in the world, but Jürgen Klopp is the best manager
Mohamed Salah, Dejan Lovren, Virgil van Dijk and Emre Can of Liverpool during a training session ahead of the Uefa Champions League final against Real Madrid at NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Kiev. Photograph: Michael Regan/Getty Images
It was an awkward question for Jordan Henderson: please rate your boss, who is sitting in the chair next to you, and while you’re about it please compare him to the boss of the other team, who was one of the greatest players in history and could tomorrow win his third Champions League title in a row.
While Jürgen Klopp smirked, Henderson was dutiful and diplomatic. “I can’t really compare because I don’t know what Zidane’s like, but for our manager, as I’ve said in previous press conferences, we feel very privileged he’s our manager, we learn a lot from him, and we’re glad to have him as our manager.”
Here’s an answer to the same question from somebody who does not work for Jürgen Klopp and whose opinion on Zinedine Zidane is not about to be pinned up on any dressing-room wall to fire up the galácticos.
Zidane might well be the ideal manager for Real Madrid: a legend of the game whose presence on the sideline adds to the prestige and glory of this institution, and whose understated coaching style is perfectly suited for a club that has always been more about the stars on the field rather than the man in the dugout.
But Jürgen Klopp is the best manager in the world.
Klopp’s achievement in steering this Liverpool squad to the final, scoring a record number of goals along the way and delivering a string of spectacular matches that will be remembered for years, is a virtuoso display of coaching and management such as has seldom been seen before.
Many managers would have looked at Liverpool’s squad and concluded that there was not enough football heritage to achieve anything – and remember that this squad lost its most talented player to Barcelona halfway through the season. The only player in Liverpool’s likely XI who was wanted by other big teams is Virgil van Dijk.
Yet here they are, preparing to take on the best team in the world for the biggest prize in club football, and somehow sincerely believing that they are going to win.
What is left to say about Real Madrid? Tonight they can become the first team since the 1970s to win three European Cups in a row. It would be their fourth in five years, making them the most dominant European team since the five-in-a-row Madrid of Puskas and di Stefano.
Somehow Klopp has convinced these Liverpool players that together they will add up to more than Real Madrid
Ronaldo can win his fifth European Cup, a unique achievement in the Champions League era; in all of football history only Paco Gento would have more European titles. He’s moving beyond the galáctico stage towards Eighth Wonder of the World status. Sergio Ramos has done more than establish himself as the most-admired and most-decorated defender in the world – he has established the 21st-century template for the Spanish alpha male. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are to today’s football what Xavi and Iniesta were to the football of six or seven years ago. Man for man, the teams look hopelessly mismatched.
But the game isn’t man for man, it’s eleven against eleven, and somehow Klopp has convinced these Liverpool players that together they will add up to more than Real Madrid.
There are those – including one or two of his managerial peers – who have dismissed Klopp as a cheerleader. There are people who say the same about Zidane, and Klopp was asked his opinion about that in the press conference.
“A lot of people think Zinedine Zidane has not a lot of knowledge in tactical things. A lot of people think the same about me. That would be really funny – two coaches in the final who have no clue about tactics. What would that say about the game?”
Klopp has created a virtuous circle at Liverpool – the players believe in him because he believes in them. He has earned their loyalty because he has shown that he is willing to support them through failure.
The performance that Dejan Lovren delivered in the 4-1 defeat at Spurs in October – subbed off on 20 minutes after giving away two goals – would have finished him in the eyes of many managers. Klopp told him he was world class and picked him again in the very next game. “I think that’s the moment he got it,” he told Robbie Fowler in an interview this week. He was risking ridicule if Lovren had suffered another meltdown, but he put him back in anyway. That’s the real meaning of faith.
Klopp’s willingness to be optimistic about his players’ potential is also why we’re hearing a lot less about Liverpool’s transfer committee than we were in 2015, in the twilight of the Brendan Rodgers regime. The word then was that the clueless American owners had hired a team of freaks and geeks who had abandoned time-honoured football wisdom in favour of statistical hocus-pocus and ended up signing a jumble of crap. No manager could be expected to achieve anything in such a dysfunctional set-up.
On the wing
Look at what happened with Roberto Firmino. He cost £30 million from Hoffenheim, yet Rodgers never seemed quite sure what to do with him. He played him behind a striker, or on the wing, and Firmino achieved very little. After just a few weeks many were already concluding that Firmino was a dud.
The reality was that Rodgers just hadn’t figured out what sort of player he was. Klopp understood him, and this is what puts him into the very top class of managers. It’s not just about his ability to motivate the players and make them feel good. It’s that he can see how to put their strengths to work for the team, how they can best combine with their team-mates. He imagined a deep-lying centre-forward role for Firmino – a role for which there were not many previous examples in English football – and the one-time dud is the engine of Liverpool’s high-energy attacking game.
So it turns out that even a transfer committee need not be such a terrible idea, provided the coach has the courage to work with his players instead of blaming them when things don’t work.
Real Madrid have better players and vastly more experience than Liverpool. They should win tonight, and many in Madrid feel they should win easily. But listening to Klopp, you found yourself sure that Madrid will have to suffer if they are to get their three-in-a-row.
“Experience is very important, and I’m pretty sure that in the second before the game, Real Madrid will be more confident than we are,” Klopp said. “But that’s not important, because the game doesn’t end in that second.
“It only starts.”