In a fortnight during which rumblings of dressing room and fan unrest have appeared in the media, it could seem that Klopp-mania has well and truly come to an end at Liverpool. While there might be a grain of truth to the stories supposedly coming out of the dressing room, and I believe that to be a good thing (more on that later), the latest story about fan unrest concocted on the basis of some graffiti sprayed on a couple of walls typifies the absurd that the media seem to pick up on nowadays.
In my last piece, I analyzed the title winning seasons of managers in the top 5 leagues in Europe over the past decade. Two thirds of all title winning teams had a manager in his first season at the club. Every other manager won it by their second, except for four men who needed three years.
Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund was one of those 4 managers, winning the title in his third and fourth seasons at the club. He also had the longest tenure of any of the 33 managers who had won the title since 2006-07, save Alex Ferguson, spending seven years at the club. He also spent 7 years at his previous club, Mainz 05. Maybe Liverpool’s owners were onto something when they extended his contract at Anfield till 2022. He would have spent 7 years at the club if he were to leave that year.
There’s a reason why most title winning managers take only a year or two to deliver success. Most of these teams have had the best players, an inherent winning mentality and the most money. A sprinkling of stardust onto a successful formula usually ensures more titles. There has been the odd Leicester City, Lyon and Schalke, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule.
When Jurgen Klopp took the Dortmund job, the club had just endured a poor season finishing 13th in the league. Three managers had left the club in the previous 18 months. Bert van Marwijk felt that his side was stagnating and agreed with the club that he would leave earlier than planned. His successor, Jurgen Rober felt that he wasn’t able to ‘reach the team’ and resigned. Thomas Doll was always going to be the wrong man for the job. An easy going, Buddhist philosophy espousing manager wasn’t exactly what the doctor ordered for a team whose competitive attitude was being questioned.
For all their years of underachievement, Borussia Dortmund was one of the most successful clubs in German football history. They had their glory years in the 1990s and the turn of the millennium, winning the Bundesliga in 1995, 1996 and 2002. They also won the Champions League in 1997. Poor financial management then almost drove the club into bankruptcy in 2005, and it had gone downhill since then and Dortmund settled into a period of unsettling mediocrity.
Into this mess walked Klopp.
In the summer leading up to his first season, he identified the players he could mould into the style of play and character he felt was needed. Seventeen players were shown the exit door. Only 7 of the regular first team squad from the previous season started 10 or more matches in his first season. Fringe players, Alexander Frei and Mats Hummels, on loan from Bayern Munich, were given more playing time.
In his first transfer window, Klopp mostly decided to work with who he had in midfield and in the forward positions. The deal for Tamas Hajnal, an attacking midfielder was already done before he arrived and he bought Mohamed Zidan as a secondary striker. But his main signings were a teenage Neven Subotic, a centre-back who followed him from Mainz, another centre-back in Felipe Santana, and a couple of full-backs, Patrick Owomoyela and Young-Pyo Lee. Marcel Schmelzer, another full-back, was promoted from Dortmund II and Nuri Sahin was brought back from loan.
He led this team to a 6th place finish, with the goals spread around, with 8 players scoring 4 or more during the season. They won 44% of their matches and lost fewer matches than any other team in the league, but 14 draws scuppered their chances of a higher finish. Only bottom placed Arminia Bielefeld drew more games than Dortmund that year.
Reads a lot like his first season with Liverpool. He won 43% of his matches, 7 players scored 4 goals or more, and the team drew a lot of games they should really have won. The big difference was at the back, where Dortmund only conceded 37 goals all season, the second meanest defense in the league. The key here were the centre-backs, and Dortmund had three very good ones, which was important since Hummels missed most of the season with injury.
His work in the next summer transfer window was minimal, with top scorer from the previous season, Frei being sold along with other fringe players. In came only three additions, but they were quality. Lucas Barrios, Kevin Großkreutz and Sven Bender would turn out to be huge contributors to the title successes in 2011 and 2012, and they slotted right into the first team. A youth product, Mario Gotze, was added to the squad but he would only get 41 minutes of action that season. Dortmund improved to 5th in the table in that second season.
By the time the 2010-11 season started, and with the summer additions of Lukasz Piszczek, Shinji Kagawa and Robert Lewandowski, the transition into Klopp’s team was complete. Only goalkeeper, Roman Weidenfeller remained as a regular starter from the squad he inherited. He had the player best suited to his gegenpressing style in every position and this showed with the results. They won the title comfortably, with the second highest number of goals scored and comfortably the best defensive record in the league. They conceded only 22, the next lowest was 39. They repeated their title win the next season, breaking the then Bundesliga record for the most goals scored, and with the third best defensive record. The Jurgen Klopp era was immortalized at Westfalenstadion.
What can Liverpool supporters take from this?
Klopp has followed a similar template to recruitment from his Dortmund years, but he has only had one summer window to date. He does not like to buy players in the winter window, mostly dealing with exits and players on loan during this period. A lot of this can be attributed to the amount of importance he gives pre-season. The summer is where most of his work happens, and he likes new recruits to be a part of that. The inflated cost of players during the winter is another factor.
During the summer, just like in his first window at Dortmund, he purged the Liverpool squad of 14 players and another five were sent on loan. Only 8 players from the previous regime have started 10 or more games this season. He does not have anything resembling a squad in his mould yet. On performances, I only envisage Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino being part of a future title winning team from the current crop of players.
At Dortmund, it did look like he realized he needed his centre back partnerships to bed in before he worked his way up to central midfield and a striker. While he did address this area during the summer, Joel Matip, Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan have not looked the part yet. Klopp’s centre backs at Dortmund would contribute goals regularly as well, which again, has not happened.
Mamadou Sakho was possibly a player who could have made a difference, but he fell out with the manager, and here I refer back to the stories of dressing room unrest. There is no mistaking it with Klopp. It has always been his way or the highway. He has always been ruthless in getting rid of players who he feels do not fit into the mould he wants. There have been a lot of stories in the German media about players who did not fit into his scheme of things complaining about how they were treated, usually after they left the club. If there are a few unsettled players at Liverpool, that is a good thing. I believe Klopp lets every player know exactly where they stand, and what is expected of them.
For example, I think that Jordan Henderson is in a similar situation to Sebastian Kehl when Klopp first arrived at Dortmund. While Kehl was made captain, and brought a lot of qualities that Jordan brings to Liverpool, he was eventually transitioned into backup with Sven Bender brought in to take his place. No one is safe, not even the captain. Ask Alexander Frei, the top scorer from Klopp’s first season at Dortmund, who was promptly sold.
I believe that Klopp will focus on the CB pairing this summer, and if he is satisfied with what is available, including Joe Gomez, who was given a new contract in January, he will then move to address the centre of midfield. Again, maybe Marko Grujic, who we’ve seen little of, is the answer. And maybe get a striker. A goalkeeper and a couple of fullbacks are also needed to compete consistently with the big hitters. It took Klopp three summer windows to get the squad he wanted at Dortmund. He will need the same at Liverpool.
It is unlikely that Liverpool will win the title the next season. Or the season after. Dortmund imploded in 2014-15 after a World Cup. A limited pre-season and tired players contributed majorly to the disastrous first half of that season. Chances are that it could happen again at Liverpool during the 2018-19 season.
Will Liverpool be patient with Klopp if that were to happen? He has reiterated time and again that this is a developmental project and that he needs time. The owners seem to agree and have backed him. However we feel about the club, there is no denying that Liverpool do not attract the best players anymore and there aren’t players who’ve won major titles in the squad except for James Milner and Daniel Sturridge. Liverpool are in a similar boat to Dortmund when Klopp first arrived there, a sleeping giant who have slipped into mediocrity. This project will take time. A stroke of luck might win us the title earlier than expected, and it is plausible, but we shouldn’t demand it.
Whenever Klopp leaves Liverpool, he will leave it in a better shape than what he inherited. Borussia Dortmund is still bearing fruit for the work that he did there. As a fan, I wouldn’t mind waiting till 2020 to win the title, provided the jigsaw pieces were falling into place, a la Borussia Dortmund. I cannot speak for other fans though. Either way, it is going to make fascinating viewing.