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How Jurgen Klopp has carved out a niche for himself in club management

Jurgen Klopp
Jurgen Klopp
Raj Das
ANALYST
Modified 27 Sep 2020, 18:51 IST
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In the history of football management, few managers inspire and delight players and fans alike as Jurgen Klopp does at Liverpool. The German had also been quintessential to the success of Borussia Dortmund during his tenure there from 2008 to 2015. Much of Dortmund’s success, and how the club are remembered today is down to the stint that Klopp enjoyed there.

Jurgen Klopp: The early days

Jurgen Klopp
Jurgen Klopp

The secret to Jurgen Klopp’s success lies in his consistency and early foray into management. In fact, Klopp is probably one of the few people to have begun football management simultaneously as he played club football as a professional.

When he was 21 years old and still a university student, Jurgen Klopp joined as the manager of Frankfurt D-Juniors in 1988. A year before, he had joined the reserve team of Eintracht Frankfurt as a player.

As we can see, the German not only had a penchant for managing football clubs but had a busy life schedule as well. He managed to play football while managing a football club and also kept abreast with his education as he was pursuing a Masters in Science degree.

Jurgen Klopp (left)
Jurgen Klopp (left)'s early years

This was the beginning of Jurgen Klopp’s love affair with managing football teams. He could never really carve out an important place as a player, confessing that:

“I had fourth-division feet and a first-division head.”

That explains why Jurgen Klopp's early beginning in football management helped him become the manager he is today.

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The rise of Jurgen Klopp: Borussia Dortmund (2008-2015)

Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund.
Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund.

Although Jurgen Klopp’s stint in top-flight football management began with his tenure at Maniz 05 from 2001 to 2008, it was only after his arrival at Borussia Dortmund that the rest of the world began to sit up and take notice.

One of Klopp’s great innovations ,and indeed his most important contribution to football, is Gegenpressing.

Gegenpressing is a unique system of press-based football where winning the ball further up the pitch is prioritised over more conservative and traditional defensive approaches. A team that employs the Gegenpressing system has to maintain the highest levels of fitness and physical stamina.

This was Klopp’s unique style; a style that made his teams dynamic and entertaining to watch. At a time when Pep Guardiola was perfecting the art of possession-based tiki-taka football at the Nou Camp, Jurgen Klopp was doing the exact opposite at the Ruhr district. The German was teaching his teams to stop possession-based teams from building up their rhythm.

How Jurgen Klopp selected his players at Dortmund

Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund
Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund

When Jurgen Klopp arrived at Dortmund in the summer of 2008, he inherited a side that had both talent and experience.

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He had players such as defenders Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic and left-back Marcel Schmelzer. In goal, Jurgen Klopp inherited Roman Weidenfeller who would carve himself a niche in Borussia Dortmund folklore.

In midfield, the services of right-winger Jakub Błaszczykowski was available to him; as was the sturdy central defensive midfielder Sebastian Kehl. These players would go on to become the core members of Jurgen Klopp’s successful teams in subsequent seasons.

Dortmund would finish sixth in Jurgen Klopp’s first season in charge in 2008-09. A lot of work needed to be done, but at least they finished two places above their bitter Ruhr rivals FC Schalke 04.

In the 2009-10 season, the team finished in fifth, which was a marginal improvement. But it was not so much the league table finish that told the whole story but what was going on off the pitch.

That year saw the arrival of two players in Jurgen Klopp’s team who would become the remaining key pieces in the final jigsaw puzzle. They were Mario Götze, a young 17-year-old creative midfielder, and Kevin Grosskreutz, a left-winger.

Mario Götze: Jurgen Klopp
Mario Götze: Jurgen Klopp's chief attacking midfielder at Borussia Dortmund.

By the end of his second season, Jurgen Klopp was already developing the core of his future success. When the 2010-11 season came along, Borussia Dortmund were a changed and resurgent outfit.

In goal they had Roman Weidenfeller while ahead of him Neven Subotic and Mats Hummels would go on to make central defence their own. Marcel Schmelzer was the first-choice left back and the right-back spot was occupied by a little-known Polish player Lukasz Piszczek who arrived from Hertha Berlin.

Klopp preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation at Borussia Dortmund, which meant that two defensive midfielders, Sebastian Kehl and another new arrival Sven Bender, assumed the role of the destroyers of opponents' attacks.

In attacking midfield, the young Mario Götze was played while Nuri Sahin proved to be an able replacement. The right-midfield spot was Jakub Błaszczykowski’s, while Kevin Grosskreutz took the left-midfield spot.

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Although Jurgen Klopp always had a plethora of options in other positions, it was the lack of a lethal centre-forward that had stunted his team’s success in the last few campaigns.

In 2010-11, a forward by the name Robert Lewandowski arrived at Dortmund. He was a player who had found much success at Lech Poznan, scoring 32 times in 58 appearances for the Polish club. 

Robert Lewandowski began to shine as a striker under Jurgen Klopp
Robert Lewandowski began to shine as a striker under Jurgen Klopp's tutelage.

It was Lewandowski, therefore, who was destined to become Jurgen Klopp’s final piece of the jigsaw. Although he scored eight goals and provided three assists in his first 32 appearances in the Bundesliga, the Polish striker would go on to become a very key player for Dortmund in the coming seasons.

Jurgen Klopp won the Bundesliga with Dortmund that season, finishing 10 points ahead of third placed Bayern Munich and seven points above Bayer Leverkusen.

The German manager helped the Signal Iduna Park outfit retain their Bundesliga title the next season. It was only the third time in the club’s history that they had managed to successfully defend their league title, having previously done so in 1957 and 1996.

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The 2011-12 season also saw Jurgen Klopp win the DFB Pokal with Borussia Dortmund. However, he missed out on the Champions League next season when his side were beaten 2-1 by Bayern Munich at Wembley. But by then, Klopp’ had ensured his immortality in the annals of Borussia Dortmund folklore.

The Champions League final defeat to Bayern Munich in 2013 did not taint Jurgen Klopp
The Champions League final defeat to Bayern Munich in 2013 did not taint Jurgen Klopp's Borussia Dortmund legacy.

During his stay at Dortmund from 2008 to 2015, Jurgen Klopp won a total of five trophies, two of them being Bundesliga crowns, one of them was the DFB Pokal and two DFL Supercup triumphs (in 2013 and 2014).

How has Jurgen Klopp fared at Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp has been a sensation at Liverpool.
Jurgen Klopp has been a sensation at Liverpool.

By the time Jurgen Klopp was appointed the manager of Liverpool in 2015, he was already a proven winner. More importantly, Jurgen Klopp had shown the tactical nous and managerial acumen to raise seemingly dead clubs from the ashes.

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It would be a massive understatement to say that Liverpool needed Jurgen Klopp’s magic touch.

The legendary club of English football were languishing below their usually high standards. The then five-time European Cup winners were playing Europa League football. Managers such as Kenny Dalglish and Brendan Rodgers came and went, but the Merseyside club saw no resurgence in their fortunes.

Jurgen Klopp has delivered Liverpool their first top flight title in three decades.
Jurgen Klopp has delivered Liverpool their first top flight title in three decades.

Jurgen Klopp, therefore, was brought in to change Liverpool’s fortunes although he did not accomplish the same immediately.

Klopp came without any ultimatum hanging menacingly over his head. He was not needed to win the Premier League in his first season. Rather, he was asked to build a football team capable of successfully challenging for the top prizes in the sport for years to come.

In true Kloppean fashion, the German went about building his side carefully and meticulously. And results came in due course. He took three years to reach the Champions League final; four years to win the competition and a complete five years before he could deliver Liverpool their first English top-flight title, and first in the Premier League era, in three decades.

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How Jurgen Klopp transformed Liverpool

Jurgen Klop
Jurgen Klop

In the space of five years, everything changed for the better at Liverpool. Because Jurgen Klopp had the added experience of building a winning squad at Dortmund, his job at Liverpool became easier.

Klopp transformed players such as Jordan Henderson and Divock Origi into world beaters, humbling and humiliating Lionel Messi’s Barcelona in the 2018-19 Champions League semifinal. But this was just one instance in a memorable and remarkable half a decade of management at Anfield.

The team Jurgen Klopp inherited in the 2015-16 season looked very different from the team that won the Premier League title five years later. Except for Jordan Henderson, Roberto Firmino, Dejan Lovren, Joe Gomez and Divock Origi, everybody else was either sold or loaned out.

Jurgen Klopp sold a plethora of players. He got rid of the personnel who he knew were inadequate for his requirements. In came players such as Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson, Virgil van Dijk, Alisson Becker, Gini Wijnaldum and Fabinho.

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The departure of Philippe Coutinho proved to be a blessing in disguise for Jurgen Klopp.
The departure of Philippe Coutinho proved to be a blessing in disguise for Jurgen Klopp.

Others such as Philippe Coutinho, who had the qualities to shine in his team, were also got rid of once the Brazilian made it clear that he had his mind set on Barcelona. The funds from his transfer went into the acquisition of Virgil van Dijk, Alisson Becker and Fabinho.

These players improved the team greatly, especially the goalkeeper, since it was Loris Karius whose two costly error doused Liverpool's hopes in the 2017-18 Champions League final.

Jurgen Klopp's achievements at Liverpool and Dortmund: A comparison

Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool (left) and Borussia Dortmund (right)
Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool (left) and Borussia Dortmund (right)

Jurgen Klopp’s achievements with Liverpool were far different from that in Dortmund.

At Dortmund, Klopp had to make the Ruhr club stand head to head with Bayern Munich who are the undisputed kings of the Bundesliga. Klopp's achievement at Dortmund, therefore, came without the pressure of too much expectations.

With all due respect to Borussia Dortmund, the German team has never dominated German football as Liverpool have done in English football. At Merseyside therefore, Klopp had the added pressure of rising to the Kop’s expectations.

Liverpool being a blue-riband side in English football, Jurgen Klopp’s primary task was to restore a sense of pride and prestige back at Anfield.

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It can be said that in his five years at the Liverpool helm, Jurgen Klopp has delivered the Premier League, the UEFA Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup to the Reds.

Glory in Kiev: Jurgen Klopp ends his European Cup curse.
Glory in Kiev: Jurgen Klopp ends his European Cup curse.

What makes Jurgen Klopp’s tenure even more interesting are his tactical duels with Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola. The former Barcelona manager was poised to lead the Citizens to uninterrupted glory, but his bandwagon has been momentarily halted by the 53-year-old German.

Pep Guardiola (right) has arguably made Jurgen Klopp a better manager.
Pep Guardiola (right) has arguably made Jurgen Klopp a better manager.

The matches between Liverpool and Manchester City have been very hotly contested in the last half a decade. That is because the two managers are polar opposites when it comes to their tactical choices. While Guardiola prefers a possession-oriented approach, Jurgen Klopp likes a more hands-on experience. They nullify each other like fire and ice, a constant shift between rhythm and chaos.

Jurgen Klopp’s Premier League victory in last season also has other historical ramifications. The Reds’ great arch-rivals Manchester United had gone ahead in domestic titles won, even if the Merseyside club hold a comfortable three-title lead in the European Cup.

During the tenure of Sir Alex Ferguson, the Scotsman knocked Liverpool ‘off their perch’ by overtaking their tally of 18 English top-flight titles.

Jurgen Klopp celebrating the Premier League sans the fans.
Jurgen Klopp celebrating the Premier League sans the fans.

Jurgen Klopp has now taken Liverpool’s tally of domestic league titles to 19, and with Sir Alex Ferguson no longer at the helm at Old Trafford, it is surely only a matter of time before Liverpool regain their ascendency over Manchester United, , who currently have 20 league titles to their name, once again.

Jurgen Klopp's prefered formations and style at Dortmund

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Jurgen Klopp preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation at Borussia Dortmund, which meant that two defensive midfielders, Sebastian Kehl and another new arrival Sven Bender, assumed the role of destroyers.

Jurgen Klopp
Jurgen Klopp's first-choice XI in Dortmund

In attacking midfield, Mario Götze and Nuri Sahin were deployed. The right-midfield spot was Jakub Błaszczykowski’s while Kevin Grosskreutz took the left-midfield spot. The arrival of Robert Lewandowski played a key role in in consolidating the team’s attacking potential. The Pole became the fulcrum around whom all attacking play revolved.

When Lewandowski received the ball up front, he tried to hold on to the ball while the rest of the cavalry supported him. This tactic meant that the centre-forward had to be strong on the ball, warding off opposition defenders before new passing options opened up.

A 4-2-3-1 formation is primarily a system where there is a possibility that the lone striker will get isolated and may even spend large swathes of the game without much service. Jurgen Klopp understood this, and therefore his midfielders, especially on the flanks, were proactive players with an attacking mentality.

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Jurgen Klopp's formation and style at Liverpool

Unlike at Borussia Dortmund, Jurgen Klopp employed a 4-3-3 formation at Liverpool. The 4-3-3 is a much more radical formation in the sense that unlike a midfield-heavy approach, the 4-3-3 makes a team’s attacking intentions clear.

Jurgen Klopp
Jurgen Klopp's first-choice XI at Liverpool

In Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, Jurgen Klopp had a duo of full-backs who create a plethora of scoring opportunities for the forward trident of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah.

In fact, the full-backs have also helped each other in goal-scoring and providing assists to one another. In Jurgen Klopp’s 4-3-3 system at Liverpool, the full-backs actually play a pivotal role in attacking play. They are the team’s most important supply routes.

The 4-3-3 means that Jurgen Klopp can be much more expansive with his football at Anfield. There is no pressure on the forward or lone striker to hold on to the ball. Instead, because the team employs Gegenpressing, Liverpool are a solid collective unit that sets defensive traps to win the ball back from opponents at various stages of games.

That makes Liverpool’s approach much more dynamic, and the system is an overall improvement upon his footballing model at Dortmund.

Jurgen Klopp's legacy at Dortmund

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What makes Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund spell a huge success is not the number of silverware he won there. Rather, Klopp made the Dortmund faithful dream once again. He made the fans believe that it was possible to achieve good things, even great things. His team became renowned throughout the world for their brand of stylish, entertaining football.

Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund
Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund

It was also the time when Gegenpressing began to be taken seriously, and Jurgen Klopp’s style was widely praised. It took Klopp just two years after his arrival to win the Bundesliga as Dortmund’s nine-year wait for the league title came to an end.

In a league dominated by Bayern Munich, Klopp threatened to dislodge that monopoly by taking Borussia Dortmund to the very top of German football, at least for a few years. Perhaps no other manager personifies Dortmund’s motto Echte Liebe or “True Love” as completely as Jurgen Klopp does.

Jurgen Klopp's legacy at Liverpool

In contrast to his Dortmund exploits, Jurgen Klopp’s Premier League victory with Liverpool last season has other historical ramifications as the Anfield moved to within one title of their arch-rivals Manchester United's tally of 20.

Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool
Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool
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Jurgen Klopp’s transformation of Liverpool is more significant because successive managers before him tried but failed to achieve what he did. Even a club legend like Kenny Dalglish, who had a spectacular spell previously from 1985 to 1991, failed to live up to the billing.

An afterthought

Jurgen Klopp’s work at both Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool are praiseworthy. But his success with Liverpool is far more significant than it was with Dortmund.

Klopp’s achievement at Dortmund was significant, but it is his stint at Liverpool that is poised to make him a true managerial great. It is not easy to come to a club like Liverpool and provide a new lease of life to their demanding, expectant fanbase.

Jurgen Klopp is a true football managerial great. His legacy at both Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool will remain untainted. Perhaps, the German’s biggest quality is that he builds teams from inside-out rather than focusing on quick, superficial success.

He ensures that his teams have the ammunition to challenge for the top honours in the game. Building a strong side takes time, and Jurgen Klopp has been fortunate to work with owners who were prepared to give him that time.

The ever-smiling, ever-cheerful German will surely go down in history as one of the greatest football managers of all time. The once 21-year-old boy who began managing an amateur football club in Frankfurt has today become the vanguard of tactical inventiveness.  

Published 27 Sep 2020, 18:51 IST
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