“QUALIFYING for the Champions League would be a big success, 100 per cent. Qualifying for the Europa League, I’m not sure that I could sell it as success. But it would be okay. It would be a step in the right direction.”
Jürgen Klopp’s right, of course. Finishing in the top four for only the second time in eight years would be an achievement given the context of recent times. But while it should be applauded, it’s debatable whether it will be celebrated. At some football clubs, qualifying for the Champions League is seen as passing the finish line. Not this one. While a top four finish for Liverpool would be a jump in the right direction, it’s more in line with climbing back onto Hillary’s Step than reaching Everest’s summit. Football supporters have a habit of not abiding by rationale, and that especially applies to followers of a club that’s won five European Cups. They always want more. They’ll always want the league title. When Klopp arrived in L4, he would have been made aware of the expectations of supporters. If he wasn’t, then the past two months of supporter angst would have done the trick. But Klopp’s no fool. He knew what he was getting himself into by taking on the Liverpool job. And he didn’t come to England just to finish fourth. The German came to the league to earn a reputation, not to lose one.
But make no mistake, the former Dortmund boss is risking it all. The Liverpool job has become arguably the most difficult one in world football. There’s several reasons why the term “impossible job” now applies to Klopp’s dayjob. One is supporter expectation. Since the days of Bill Shankly, the expectations at Anfield starts and ends with the league title, Liverpool’s bread and butter no less, despite how unlikely a desire that might be sometimes. Look at the strain that expectation placed on Klopp’s predecessors in the modern era. Gérard Houllier almost lost his life while Liverpool manager. The Rafael Benítez that left the club looked almost unrecognizable than the fresh-faced Spaniard that arrived. Brendan Rodgers lost a lot of the initial charm and confidence once he found himself sitting on the volcano. Every success outside of winning the league title or Champions League is seen as a measured success at Liverpool. It’s forgotten about as soon as the next season begins. Ultimately, expectations are always going to look towards conquering the rest of the division when you’ve experienced the success Liverpool has had in the past.
There’s a reason why grown men are prepared to go on Arsenal Fan TV after a game and vent their frustrations with a club that’s delivered them Champions League football for the past 19 consecutive seasons. It’s because supporters, while notoriously fickle to a degree, want to see year-on-year progress. They want to feel as though there is another destination to which their club is heading towards. It’s not enough to keep pulling into the same station every time. Eventually an increasing number will tire of familiarity and prefer to wait on the platform for another route to come along. It’s why even if Klopp manages to finish in the top four this season, minds will immediately start looking towards a push for the league title next year. That’s the only place to go next, but it’s the most difficult one to reach, by some distance — especially when you’re managing this football club.
Klopp’s unfortunate to have arrived at a time when the general match-going crowd at Anfield are ageing. Some estimate the average age to be in the early to mid-40s, at least among the season ticket holders. Those 40-somethings are old enough to remember Liverpool’s title-winning sides of the ‘80s. Liverpool used to win it a lot. Those same supporters would also have lived through the current 27-year void more keenly than most. They’ve now seen it all from the Anfield dugout; from the last of the Boot Room boys to a Spaniard with a penchant for talking about tables and lampshades. Combine that with trophy hungry supporters, not unreasonably, and you will get to the stage where patience wears thin. Houllier pitched up in 1999 talking about a five-year plan to bring the title home and, by and large, most accepted that as a reasonable ask. Patience was indeed a virtue given it was only nine years since number 18. But can you imagine the reaction such a public statement from Liverpool’s manager might bring 18 years later? The longer the wait goes on, the tougher the job gets. Patience from the supporters has already stretched 27 years and includes countless failed projects and letdowns. There’s a lot of scars on The Kop from the near misses of recent times.
But spare a thought for the task facing Klopp. He’s expected to deliver the title amid an uneven playing field. The fifth wealthiest team in the country always has a chance of outmaneuvering the richer four, but it’s slim odds. After the failed Rodgers project, Fenway Sports Group turned towards a man who won league titles in Germany as the underdog. Klopp has form for defying the odds at Dortmund, but in the Bundesliga he faced only one heavyweight and, as we know, every heavyweight can be beaten. But overhauling four other European heavyweights (and Tottenham now another member of this elite group) at once is a daunting task. Despite their successes, Klopp once remarked of the challenge his Dortmund side faced in competing with the sole Bundesliga heavyweight: “we have a bow and arrow and if we aim well, we can hit the target. The problem is that Bayern has a bazooka.” As Liverpool manager, he’s facing rather more than a bazooka; he’s facing European football’s heavy artillery.
He needs support from those within the club. Liverpool’s recruitment team have to box clever, they have to unearth those hidden gems that can take them to the next level but, as we’ve seen countless times, they also have to hope that the boys with deeper pockets don’t appear and whisk away their golden tickets before they’ve even stripped back the paper. There’s no secrets in football scouting any longer, every top club in the world knows of every talent on every continent. The ones sitting in the first class carriage can take the fewest risks and cream off established talent; the Paul Pogbas, the Kevin De Bruynes, the Eden Hazards. When you’re travelling with a second-class ticket, as Liverpool find themselves, you’re resigned to having to take more risks. Usually this involves recruiting players that the clubs in first class aren’t sold on but, occasionally, you can strike gold. Sadio Mané is a good example of that. Mané was one that all the elite clubs looked at, particularly Manchester United, but they saw something that held them back from usurping Liverpool’s offer. Liverpool can be relieved that this particular one chose Anfield, but they need lightning to strike twice and be squared if possible.
Outside of supporter expectation and recruitment, there is a third factor in play that makes Klopp’s objectives more difficult; the ownership model. In all fairness, Klopp is a willing participant in FSG’s strategy to win the Premier League. He’s bought into their project. FSG are an ownership group that divides opinion, particularly given the lack of trophies won on the pitch during their tenure. I’m not Fenway’s biggest fan, but I do believe that they have more than a passing interest in winning the league title. I believe that it bothers them when the club falls short. The sackings of Kenny Dalglish and Rodgers, and the hiring of Klopp, tells me that they’re here to win no matter what you feel the likely success of their approach will be. But they want to do things differently from their competitors. They’re looking for a cheat that may or may not exist. There are three super-heavyweights in the Premier League in Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs, and they have owners who are prepared to throw serious money around when their clubs need an adrenalin shot. Klopp’s employers wouldn’t behave like that. They prefer to take the longer-term view of matters by building up strong foundations and hope that success on the pitch follows. It’s why the club recently rebuilt the Main Stand. It’s why the club is preparing to relocate their training ground to Kirkby and bring the academy together with the first team, but it’s also why Klopp’s instructed to find the next best thing, rather than the very best thing.
After one trophy in 11 years, it’s somewhat galling to recognize another trophyless season as a big success, but Klopp’s right; finishing in the top four would be a real achievement considering the Reds’ league placings since 2009. Aside from a blink-and-you-missed-it unremarkable six games back in the autumn of 2014, Liverpool have been on the outside looking in, and usually over the top of other clubs shoulders, when it comes to Europe’s elite competition. It’s more important than ever for Liverpool to re-establish themselves among Europe’s elite. Champions League football, or solid evidence of future participation within, is essential to Europe’s top players. Liverpool’s absence from a competition they’ve barely graced this decade doesn’t go unnoticed, particularly when the time comes for a potential signing to consider signing on the dotted line. But qualifying for the competition is more arduous than ever when you consider there are five other clubs in England with equally legitimates claims. Six into four simply doesn’t go, and too often in recent years, Liverpool have been the ones relegated to the undercard competition.
It’s through no fault of Klopp’s own that the club has failed to deliver a league title since 1990, but he’s tasked with dealing with the legacy of it. He’s managing the club through challenging times. Doubters are requiring more evidence to turn into true believers. Every move the club makes has become analysed to a forensic degree, every defeat becomes a crisis, every missed target becomes an even bigger stick in which to beat the club’s ownership with. It’s easier than ever for supporters to become disconnected from reality. Factor in that there’s arguably never been a more difficult time in which to win the league title and you can see why some believe the Liverpool job should come with a health warning.
And amid all of it stands one man expected to deliver the holy grail. One of football’s most reasonable men has accepted one of football’s most unreasonable of assignments. And that’s why Klopp finds himself in the impossible job.