EMOTION isn’t much of a buzzword in modern football, writes LIAM BLAKE. It can’t be quantified or measured. You won’t find an entry for it in Opta stats, and football hipsters don’t turn to Squawka for a breakdown.
But that’s not to say we don’t enjoy displays of emotion. It’s part of the spectacle, reassuring for the supporter. It’s harder to care if they don’t care. We demand a reaction from our players, we need to know the manager feels it.
Some fans took reassurance from Rafael Benitez’ notebook approach to touchline demeanour. A wave to the end from where his name was being chanted, without allowing his concentration to drift from the action. A note hastily scribbled as a crucial goal was scored, all around him mayhem and ecstasy as he cautioned his players to regroup and focus.
We knew he cared, however undemonstrative he may have appeared. His passion was wrapped up in his dedication.
Other fans need to see the gaffer suffer and celebrate, not just to “kick every ball” but to act as a kind of lightning rod for the chaos swirling around a stadium on a match day, conducting whatever the release of a goal might bring with it, joy or relief, vindication or vengeance.
But emotion in football is generally a by-product of the game, for fans to feast on and for the protagonists to enjoy when appropriate. It’s refreshing then to hear it elevated and placed at the very heart of Jurgen Klopp’s football philosophy. It’s a relief to hear someone state with child-like candour that the whole purpose of the game is, in their eyes, to entertain, and that the spectacle should be powered by the emotions of those watching, playing and coaching.
Emotion makes stakeholders of us all. Which is why, in the results-driven industrial complex of modern football, Klopp has been a blast of fresh air in a short space of time.
After the initial shock of Brendan Rodgers’ dismissal had faded and the probability of Klopp’s arrival grew, it dawned that I’d lost touch with some feeling for Liverpool — namely excitement, and a sense of being connected to the club I’d supported for my entire life.
Feelings I think that may have begun to evaporate one warm summer evening after Crystal Palace had staged an unlikely — or likely, depending on your point of view — comeback and buried a dream. Feelings that have flickered to life only very briefly since.
And those feelings didn’t hang on results. Those feelings depended on knowing where we were and who we were — on a sense of identity that was fading away in the silence at Anfield.
My attention was wandering. My son was born in 2012 so it was inevitable my focus would be drawn elsewhere, I told myself. And a certain amount of disillusionment with the game as a whole had been creeping in. I was becoming curious about non-league football.
I never thought that would happen. City of Liverpool FC were forging new links within the community on Merseyside, and on occasional trips to Dulwich Hamlet FC in South London — where I could get in for a tenner and watch with a locally-brewed craft beer in hand — I was discovering that the fun in football wasn’t perhaps where I’d thought it was.
But it’s only this last week, in the light of what many believe to be a messianic arrival, that I’ve seen just how unhappy and out of touch with itself the club has been of late. Brendan Rodgers has been a divisive figure these last three and a bit seasons — more a confusing character than a controversial one.
He bewildered and bemused us, leaving us to wonder just what he was all about in the end. There simply wasn’t a relationship. Even on the rollercoaster ride of 2013-14 — of which Rodgers can forevermore be rightly proud — it was Luis Suarez and his cohorts who were the emotional focal point. It was Steven Gerrard in the huddle after Manchester City who stoked us up, thanks to Sky’s well-placed mics. I’m not sure it was Brendan we wanted to hug.
Now we’ve simply fallen in love with someone else. It happens. Klopp was Europe’s most eligible bachelor, after all.
That’s just one area where the heart comes into play. There needs to be a relationship with the man in charge. With that can come unity. This has always been a club where the bond between supporter and manager is not unlike that between the priest and his flock.
The hopes and dreams of the devoted can be a burden but for Klopp, likened by one journalist during his time in Dortmund as the leader of a sect, you sense they will be settling on the right set of shoulders.
There are a host of other more practical reasons why the deal seems to have been brokered in the heavens. When the great and the good of German football — even der Kaiser himself um Gottes Willen! — are pointing out that the most sought-after coach in world football is fully compatible with a club that’s still wrestling with itself post-Premier League, then you know there may never be a greater opportunity than this.
To some we’re a poisoned chalice on a par only with England, to Klopp we’re a challenge.
He’s proven himself at Dortmund to be a coach able to achieve with occasionally limited resources, and maximise the potential of each and every player. He was forced to sell top scorers Mladen Petric and Alexander Frei within his first two years, but benefited from one of the bargains of the 21st century with the £3.3million arrival from Lech Poznan of Robert Lewandowksi, while Shinji Kagawa joined for a snip and Mario Gotze was nurtured from within.
By 2010 Borussia were competing against Bayern with a side averaging only 22 years of age. He may forge the tight collective it seems we could do with in the new, post-icon place we’re in.
Defensive discipline was drilled into Klopp in the school of relegation. Even though Dortmund escaped the drop, his previous club Mainz did not. But he at least learned the lessons, his over-achievement there attracting Bayern, who decided in the end not to gamble on a young coach.
If there was one bullet Rodgers could never dodge, it was that one — the defence. In three-and-a-bit seasons he didn’t solve it, and the fact that he equalled and broke Shankly’s record for clean sheets kept away from home now seems little more than an irony. The goals against column toppled over on top of him.
Klopp was a defender himself, and describes his teams in terms of fighting, repelling the invader, even going so far as to call his football English — sleeves rolled up and faces caked in mud. Nathaniel Clyne, Joe Gomez and Mamadou Sakho, soldiers all, should flourish.
It also helps that the German is eminently quotable. You don’t have to be quotable to work here, but it helps. We know who filled books, and his successor Bob Paisley coined enough crackers for a few slim volumes of his own. Later still, Gerard Houllier distinguished himself in at least this one facet of the job before paranoia seized him in the bunker. Rodgers’ main contribution to the canon was management speak. Like the document he presented at his interview, too many words.
Now it’s the world according to Klopp, and it’s a big one. Expect the press to be on our side again, for the time being at least.
Love can make fools of us all, of course. There’s reason for caution, though admittedly not much. Some may point to Nuri Sahin, a Dortmund product who burned brightly enough at the Westfalenstadion to attract Real but who fizzed and faded on the periphery of our first team. But he was a Dortmund boy, wedded to the place and maybe destined to return to the town his Turkish parents had settled in.
Better to judge Klopp on his handling of locals over here — let’s see how Jordan Rossiter fares. Local talent was a crucial and consistent thread throughout his reign at BVB, a thread that bound the Ultras tight to the team. Kevin Grosskreutz was playing in front of his mates when he broke into the first team, still the owner of a season ticket for the South Stand.
Mario Gotze was eight when he began his journey at Dortmund, leaving only when Bayern triggered a release clause that set up the Bundesliga’s record transfer. And don’t expect to see Reus anytime soon. It may happen, but when he finally signed a contract extension that binds him to Dortmund until 2019 there was no get-out clause. And not only that, the contract remains binding in the event of their relegation. He got an ovation in the dressing room for that.
It will be intriguing to see how durable Klopp’s high octane Gegenpress will prove in a league that insists on more football throughout the dead of winter. Rodgers’ own brand of turbocharged tiki-taka insisted on a pressing game, too, and never survived beyond 2013-14 when the advantage of a week between games was exploited to the full.
That’s when he delivered on his promise to give opponents “the longest 90 minutes of their lives”, but by the end of the last derby it was the Liverpool support who were left wondering how long it could possibly go on for. From pressing to depressing in a season and a half.
Klopp, meanwhile, promises football that’s “intense to the last minute, highly emotional. Football you will remember”. We’ll see.
There’s a danger Klopp may be lost in translation, if only for now. It’s a thought a few of his fellow countrymen have voiced. He speaks excellent English, of course, but it’s the character of the man, his idiom, that may need time to root itself in the more cynical culture of the Premier League.
Then there’s Dortmund’s dramatic demise. From a Champions League Final to relegation fodder — it can’t be ignored. Klopp seemed to be fighting fate itself, luck had all but deserted him. Dortmund’s first goal was conceded eight seconds into the season, a Bundesliga record. Let’s remind ourselves again that Mainz were in fact relegated, and Klopp returned, recharged and better educated for the experience.
It may be the case that he simply needed a new chapter. He’s child-like in some regards, entirely uninhibited and candid. There appears to be no shade. His appetite and energy seem boundless, and he’s been something of an explosion at both the clubs he’s managed.
Perhaps that explosive energy can only carry him so far. Maybe it dissipates over the course of a journey that has to end at some point when a new horizon beckons.
As much as Dortmund was a home, he’s a voyager I suspect. In an era when stays of longer than three years at the very top clubs will now be exceptions rather than the norm, that’s not to be feared. Let’s just hug a hoodie for now.
Practical considerations and negatives aside, the positives that spring from Klopp’s emotional attachment to the game and his players leans heavily in our favour. And don’t for a moment conflate emotion with passion, a favoured buzzword of Rodgers — something he referred to readily but failed to invoke and rarely showed.
How else will emotion work for Klopp? He’s a talker — not a waffler; direct as a centre-half’s tackle. He’s a guy who establishes relationships with his players, who’ll be on their side and take the flak. He’ll give it, too, if needs be. He’s a goal celebrator who’ll dominate highlight reels, the charismatic front man of his own self-styled heavy metal act. He’s a supreme motivator who, in this regard, may prove peerless in this league.
And if he can connect with the Kop in the way that he did with Dortmund’s Gelbe Wand — and it feels almost impossible to imagine that he won’t — then things should get turned up to 11.
Finally, Klopp’s emotional drive ensures a quality that can’t be guaranteed at the highest level — a deep capacity to empathise with a club’s community and the wider region, and to value the part that football plays in its life.
A few years back, in an interview with the German writer Uli Hesse, Klopp said: “I came to Dortmund because football is of central importance here. I’m not stupid, I know there are things that are more important than football. But it’s what I do and what I love, so I found it very attractive that football takes centre stage here and that people live the game so intensely.”
The parallel here is obvious. Delete the name of one town, copy and paste another. Klopp knows what it is to manage a hothouse club in a city with a febrile football atmosphere.
It’s a quote that reveals a refreshing perspective too; a Kloppism that echoes Bill Shankly’s most repeated and dissected words. If football isn’t a matter of life or death for Klopp, he does at least understand that it’s entirely meaningless unless those playing the game and those in charge invest their all for the benefit of those who pin their hopes on it. For 90 minutes there can be nothing else. His obvious credentials aside, few coaches in modern football appear to “get it” with Liverpool.
Liverpool Football Club in the Premier League era has at times resembled one of the patients described by Oliver Sacks in his book Awakenings — paralysed by a confounding sleeping sickness in an institution strange and new to them.
If Klopp can’t revive the patient and reconnect them with who they are, if he can’t succeed in turning Liverpool back into Liverpool, then it’s difficult to see who can.
At the very least, it’s going to be emotional.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda-Photo.Com & PA Images