The tenure of Jurgen Klopp in the managerial hotseat at Anfield reached three years last week. When he sat in front of the English press for the first time back in October 2015 he declared that “if I sit here in four years, I am pretty confident I will have one title.”
With Liverpool having enjoyed a club record-breaking start to the season, and with the Reds contesting the leadership after an unbeaten eight-match run, he remains on course to keep his brave promise. However, since the German succeeded Brendan Rodgers the Premier League bar has been raised significantly and the challenge of ending what will be a 29 year wait by next May is still one which would faze all but the most genial of leaders.
What Klopp wouldn’t give for a league as wide open as the contest he was parachuted into during his debut season in 2015-2016. Leicester City’s triumph. A feat which seems all the more miraculous with each passing year, was achieved with a return of a mere 81 points while the German was still wading through the flotsam of Rodgers’ failure to arrest rapid decline; following the heartbreak of his own title near-miss, the departure of Luis Suarez and the dying of the light of Steven Gerrard.
In subsequent seasons, Chelsea’s 93-point haul and Manchester City’s breaching of the 100-point barrier for the first time in history has made Jurgen’s task to deliver on his pledge an enormous one. In the eyes of most Liverpool fans, Klopp can do no wrong but even with such an assured beginning to this campaign, there’s an acceptance that to win the title not a single foot can afford to be placed out of step. In a similar vein Rafa Benitez, faced with a budget and squad inferior to his own rivals, bemoaned that his Liverpool had to be “almost perfect”. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
However, Klopp – unlike Benitez – still enjoys the unconditional support of the fan-base. Liverpool fans are happy to wait for this love affair to be consummated. This is where his charisma, his overtly passionate persona, his touchline demeanour and a heart clearly worn on the sleeve continues to buys him time and good will.
In a recent interview, he confirmed as much by saying “I have put everything I have – my knowledge, passion, heart, experience – into Liverpool.” Not a single supporter would deny him that.
With Liverpool languishing in tenth place when he took over in 2015, successive fourth-placed finishes since, a return to regular Champions League football and a sprint from the blocks this time around is a measure of the huge strides the team has made under his tutelage.
Reaching a European Cup Final (below) was a feather in his cap, as was the swashbuckling manner of the passage to Kiev, but Loris Karius’s double aberration meant no coronation. Sadly for Klopp, the inertia on the Anfield goalkeeper front over an extended period and misplaced faith in his compatriot is a mistake he probably lays at his own door.
When Klopp talks of experience, some of his education has been gleaned on site – at Anfield. While he remains true to his word on the fitness levels required of Liverpool players to operate with the intensity he demands, his stance on recruitment has seen some shifting sands. First he spoke mostly of development and coaching but a gradual dawning on the standard of opposition in the upper echelons of the league has seen the alchemist meet realist. In spending record fees on Alisson Becker and Virgil Van Dijk, Klopp has shown a novel willingness to wave the cheque book when required and, unsurprisingly, the acquisition of true quality has revolutionised his team’s defensive capabilities.
While supporters wait with baited breath for a first trophy, they are soothed and encouraged by the belligerence of Klopp’s football.
His construction of a strike-force that is now the envy of Europe is testament to his flexibility, philosophy and vision.
Prior to Klopp’s arrival, Roberto Firmino – a player he admired at Hoffenheim – was failing to justify the hype surrounding his signing by Rodgers; the ability to forage relentlessly, snap at heels and be the fulcrum of attack as yet unseen. Sadio Mane, although an exciting speedster at Southampton, was hardly viewed as a consistent performer and Mohammed Salah, despite an encouraging spell at Roma, had been something of an unfulfilled punt at Chelsea. Individually, they were disparate unproven prospects until moulded together into a pulverising unit.
Last season – Klopp’s third in charge – the trio, married together for the first time, bagged 91 goals between them. So far this time around they haven’t quite hit those heights and yet – with the Reds’ found solidity – Liverpool still sit near the top of the pile. Crucially though, Klopp’s front three remain key to the manager’s quest; a mission to be nigh-on faultless in the league, to break new barriers; to make history in keeping with the adulation afforded to him.
But, in his own words, and regardless of the stiffest of tasks, supporters don’t want to look back and say “so we had the best time without winning anything when Klopp was here.”