JÜRGEN Klopp can tuck into some cake, drink some real ale or do whatever else takes his fancy to celebrate his 50th birthday today, safe in the knowledge that he retains the backing of all concerned to make Liverpool succeed.
Just under a year ago, Klopp penned a six-year contract extension at Anfield that, while attracting criticism from some quarters – doesn’t everything? – told you everything you need to know about how he has conducted himself behind the scenes.
“When you have an individual of Jürgen’s quality in the building it makes perfect sense to secure that person for the long term,” said John Henry last summer. “To not do so would be irresponsible.”
Away from the club’s decision-makers, many thought similar when Liverpool sacked Brendan Rodgers in 2015 with The Reds sitting in 10th place in the Premier League.
Klopp was on most supporters’ wish-list having been linked with a string of top jobs across Europe. Most thought he was the best man for the job. That remains the case now.
One year, eight months and eight days into his reign at Anfield, there are very few dissenting voices about his management, with his vision to “turn doubters into believers” well on its way to be realised.
He will be ultimately judged on trophies, and whether he can make Liverpool successful. For now, though, it’s easy to see the progression under his leadership.
Most significantly, Liverpool is a team you can back to give any side a contest. We know that nine times out of 10 a Klopp side will fight and graft. Allied to quality, the Reds are often a force to be reckoned with.
Other managers don’t want to face Liverpool at their best; the relentless workrate, the much-referenced pressing, the quick transitions, and the goal threat from a string of players makes a Klopp Liverpool that is fit and firing difficult to stop in its tracks.
We’ve witnessed this over and over, not least when exasperated manager after exasperated manager expressed dismay at dealing with a Liverpool side that simply wouldn’t stop running.
The biggest transformation witnessed at Liverpool since the big, beaming German strode into his opening press conference at Anfield is belief and confidence, it’s something he has worked hard on to improve – with his players, and with the fans.
At the tail end of 2015, we saw a side easily beaten, a crowd that quickly turned and supporters that routinely streamed for exits early.
The supporters’ behaviour angered Klopp and he made that clear and set about changing it. You can bet anything that happens behind the walls at Melwood is treated with a similar approach.
Like any manager, you can point to mistakes, to moments when he should have done this or that. But Klopp’s leadership, his personality, his ability to embrace the Liverpool job – which isn’t easy – isn’t in doubt.
Right now, questions are being asked about Liverpool’s competence at getting deals done. Given a lengthening list of worrying transfers that never were, the criticism can’t really be labelled unfair. But none of that criticism is landing at the manager’s door. In fact, if anyone emerges from the Virgil van Dijk situation with credit, it’s Klopp. He did his job in persuading the player to come. The rest was up to somebody else.
Klopp can continue to be an asset in this respect. Liverpool is a sell in its own right, but Klopp is too. Everyone loves the tales of Kenny Dalglish rocking up in Toxteth in a white sports car to help persuade Robbie Fowler that Liverpool was the club for him. Similarly, Klopp has charisma and charm that could tempt players to Anfield. Van Dijk suggested a ‘big and bold’ approach. Hopefully that will continue to be the case.
Anyone joining Liverpool right now will be made to feel like they are part of something. Klopp and co will search for players who will react to that kind of approach; the personal touch, the arm around, the almost-your-mate-until-you-step-out-of-line man.
Klopp said last month: “At the highest level, you have no chance without tactics but the common desire, the togetherness, makes a difference. I’m really strict in the things I have to be. It’s about making the best of the skills you have.”
So far, it’s been close but not quite for Klopp at Liverpool. Two defeats in cup finals. Fourth place when more looked possible until a nightmare month of results.
What’s clear, though, is that Klopp is learning. He knows now about the hectic schedule in England. He knows how tough every game in the league is and how the challenge – and the tactics – vary depending on what club’s aims are. Last season, Liverpool learned to win in different ways – from spectacular to scrappy, fantastic to fighting.
A new season promises much. The first tilt at Champions League football since 2014. A bolstered squad (because we will make signings). And a manager – the right manager – with more information stored upstairs when he goes into battle.
“We have to be better next year and we will be,” Klopp said last month. “For this we need to bring in quality players. Believe me, it is not easy to find players who make us better. We are already good. We will find them because I love the combination of Liverpool: the name, the size of the club, the support, the power, the money we can pay, stadium we have, the atmosphere we can create. I love it. It’s the biggest ever.”
Amen to that. And happy birthday, Jürgen. Stick that birthday real ale in a big shiny silver cup next year, yeah?