Is Jurgen Klopp redefining the Liverpool way?

Words By Richard Jolly
October 19, 2017

It was a jibe delivered with more incision than anything that preceded it on the pitch. Only David de Gea’s save from Joel Matip was remotely as memorable. Some 90 minutes later, Jurgen Klopp took aim at Jose Mourinho and said: “For sure you could not play this way at Liverpool but it’s OK for Manchester United.”

For once, Mourinho did not conjure the snappiest soundbite. The aftermath of the Anfield stalemate was dominated by talk of the Portuguese’s defensive gameplan. As local rivals tend to claim moral as well as footballing superiority, it gave Liverpool a chance to clamber on to the higher ground.

And yet, as others steeped in the club’s traditions accepted, it was not strictly true. Jamie Carragher spent 12 years playing for Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez, cautious, counter-attacking strategists whose blueprints often had more in common with Mourinho’s masterplans that Klopp’s frenetically entertaining exercises in chaos. He conceded that, at times, it was Liverpool’s approach.

If Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan’s all-conquering sides took the sting out of difficult away games with the ball, their successors did it without. The first decade of this century featured away wins at Real Madrid, Barcelona and Inter Milan. They also featured 0-0 draws in European ties at Juventus, Roma, Chelsea and the Nou Camp.

Houllier’s masterclass in tedium in Catalonia in 2001 facilitated an eventual Uefa Cup win, aided by Gary McAllister’s decider in the return leg on Merseyside. The Spanish press accused the Frenchman of betraying football. “They kept the ball but we kept the result,” he responded philosophically. “Going gung-ho against Barcelona would have been suicide,” said Steven Gerrard in his first autobiography. Instead, it is a moot point if an isolated Michael Owen had more touches that night than a similarly stranded Romelu Lukaku did on Saturday.

Gerrard accepted that being branded boring sat badly with some at Anfield, but not him. Gerrard also has a mutual admiration society with Mourinho: an explosively entertaining footballer was a pragmatist at heart.

While Liverpool have won too few trophies since the flurry under Houllier and Benitez, Klopp is entitled to argue his methods ally greater excitement with similar effectiveness in the potentially season-defining big away games. He has a solitary defeat to Liverpool’s six immediate peers, the 5-0 thrashing of 10 men by Manchester City. Some of the other scorelines – 4-3, 4-1, 3-1 – were not the sort Houllier tended to oversee on his travels. Klopp prefers to storm citadels, not park his bus at the gates. He has a 7-0 away win to his name this week.

Yet perhaps the most interesting aspect is whether he reflects a new attitude at Anfield. Managers often speak for the club, even when they are only actually voicing their own opinion. Klopp would not play that defensively, but does that mean Liverpool wouldn’t? Has their identity undergone such a swift, stark change?

If so, it would render Klopp one of the genuinely transformative managers. Few shape a club’s identity so radically that they influence the style of play and persona long after their departure. Mourinho can claim to have done so, turning Chelsea into ruthless winners. Arsene Wenger has done: Arsenal’s next manager will surely not play George Graham’s brand of football.

Klopp’s past suggests Liverpool’s next manager will be Thomas Tuchel, his successor at Mainz and Borussia Dortmund. Certainly, the longer he stays, the more Klopp-esque the squad becomes and the less disruption a like-minded successor would bring.

The chances of Fenway Sports Group appointing another pressing enthusiast may depend upon how Klopp’s reign goes and ends. The American owners have shown, with both Brendan Rodgers and Klopp, a willingness to choose men with a progressive blueprint. Yet they also want managers who prioritise their recruitment model of signing younger players with value and who will work within a budget. The Liverpool support, starved of trophies in the last decade, probably just want a winner; Gerrard and Carragher, unapologetic about the methods that worked in the Nou Camp, seem among them; the ends can justify the means. It is a question whose philosophy prevails and if Klopp’s way redefines the Liverpool Way.

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