Jürgen Klopp

Jürgen Klopp: The Liverpool manager lives for winning

Illustration: Mink Couteaux
Photography: Getty Images

This 48-year-old German lives for winning: Jürgen Klopp is the best one in turning players into winners. We show you his 10 personal rules for success: Part 2
Raphael Honigstein
Raphael Honigstein

Born in Munich in 1973. Moved to London in 1993 and began a career as a writer and sports journalist. Writes about the Bundesliga for The Guardian and about the English league for German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Also a football commentator on TV and radio. Who better to write a regular football column for our website? Check it out: redbulletin.com

6 Treat every individual as an individual 

Even if, as Jürgen Klopp freely admits, his early months at Liverpool weren’t “all sunshine”, it is now strikingly obvious just how completely he has won over the team. To get to this stage, there have been long conversations where he has tried to find out everything there is to know about his players, their hopes and their fears.

Armed with this knowledge, he’s able to successfully press all the buttons as the dressing-room psychologist, tailoring his approach on an individual basis. He might give one player a hug while ignoring another altogether. 

After an outstanding game, one of the younger players, such as Jordon Ibe, might receive a friendly slap to keep his feet on the ground. If anyone says anything negative about the team in interviews, he will be called upon to repeat the criticism in front of the whole team, at which point it usually stops.

In Dortmund, Klopp once went to a car dealership himself to cancel an expensive order placed by one of his young players on receipt of his first pay packet, and which he simply couldn’t afford.

Klopp would literally hold up a mirror in the faces of players with outrageous haircuts and ask them, with a knowing smile, if it might not be better to be noticed for their performance on the pitch instead.

7 Always lead your team by example

Jürgen Klopp’s ‘heavy metal’ football at Dortmund was a game-changer throughout Europe. Pressing – applying constant pressure on opposing players to win back the ball when not in possession – was the name of the game, but almost no other team did it to the extent that BVB did.

During his early years at the club in particular, with the team still young and unpolished, the players scampered all over the pitch like hares, pressing with six, seven or eight men at a time.

Klopp’s system of pressing became part of their DNA. It was something to behold, and only possible because his players had developed a genuine desire to play that kind of football.

It goes without saying that this highly complex, incredibly exhausting, playing system took great commitment, but then Klopp’s credo was to get every last drop of effort out of his players.

He might wear himself out on the sidelines, and he expects nothing less from his team, as a matter of principle, regardless of how the match is going. When Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, on trial in his first month with BVB, sprinted back more than 60 metres to defend, tackling the ball away at his own corner flag, Klopp almost went berserk – in a good way.

To get to this stage, there have been long conversations where Jürgen Klopp has tried to find out everything there is to know about his players, their hopes and their fears

8 Set yourself realistic goals

When Klopp started out at BVB, the club was at rock bottom. No one was thinking about winning the title. Klopp picked up on the atmosphere and, at the beginning, set only modest goals.

BVB should play fun football again – “I like it when it’s hard and fast, when it’s a battle, when there are chances, when it gets people up out of their seats” – and appeal to the hard-working spirit of the people of the Ruhr. 

The famous full-throttle style of play was born. Thinking ahead to the next game is also typical Klopp. “A skier,” he says, “doesn’t raise his hands in the air in celebration after the first gate and turn off.”

Klopp is always focused on what comes next: the next goal, the next burst of energy, the next move, the next match. In his early years, the team stuck to this principle, and suddenly they were champions, had won the double, and made it to the final of the Champions League.

“There are people who say that if you don’t clearly set yourself big goals, then you’re not really ambitious,” he explains. “Those people have no idea how to attain goals.”

9 Encourage criticism of strengths, not weakness

Klopp will only criticise weaknesses when a journalist asks him a question he doesn’t like. “What section do you work in, then? Animal films?” he once barked at a reporter from German TV channel WDR. But he never has a bad word to say about his players in public.

Even within the team, analysing mistakes plays a relatively minor role. Instead, he prefers to teach the players how to make the most of their potential and go beyond their limitations.

“It’s not a case of finding the best 11 players, but rather the 11 that are most likely to win”
Jürgen Klopp, 48, Liverpool manager
Jürgen Klopp

Born in Stuttgart in 1967. Became manager of Mainz 05 in 2001 at the end of his playing career. Moved to Borussia Dortmund in 2008 and led the team to two Bundesliga titles, one DFB Cup win and the 2013 Champions League final (they lost 2:1 to Bayern Munich). Has been Liverpool boss since October 2015. Worked as a TV pundit for German TV channel ZDF during the 2006 World Cup and the 2008 European Championships.

Klopp’s credo is that you can’t go on at players about all the things they can’t do. Instead, you have to think they’re capable of improving and developing. “That way, he’ll have faith – first in me and then in himself.”

Klopp isn’t above going over the basics of football, such as the correct way to take the ball, hundreds of times with seasoned professionals. Training is all about repetition, he explains; a drummer, for example, might practise a sequence 1,600 times until he has it down pat. It’s the same with football: repeat, repeat, repeat…

Klopp says that when he’s putting together a team, it isn’t necessarily a case of finding the best 11 players, “but rather the 11 that are most likely to win”. He learnt when playing with Mainz in the German second division that the right tactics can help you emphasise your strengths and hide your weaknesses. 

Strategies such as a back four and zonal marking – brought in by his then manager and mentor Wolfgang Frank, and still novelties in German football in the late ’90s – helped Mainz, for example, to succeed “quite independently of our ability or inability, to a certain extent,” he recalls.

“Until that point, we had thought that as we were a team with worse individual players than most of our opponents, we’d have to lose lots of matches.”

Always stay calm in a crisis: Rule no. 10

Klopp once recounted a conversation he had with a bobsleigher. The guy had told him that you mustn’t oversteer as you try to find the perfect line on the track. Don’t always get actively involved. Sometimes, when the time is right, let things take their own course.

When, one New Year’s Eve, Klopp caught one of his players with a large bottle of vodka on the table, he merely smiled at him, told him to have a good evening, and carried on as if he had seen nothing. This way, he creates a bond between himself and his players and strengthens their sense of loyalty.

Most managers take radical action if the results keep failing to come. Klopp does the exact opposite. Halfway through the 2014/2015 season, BVB were in their worst position since his arrival as manager; a team that should have been potential league winners were threatened with relegation.

Most managers take radical action if the results keep failing to come. Jürgen Klopp does the exact opposite

Yet anyone who went off to the winter training camp in Spain expecting to see a beleaguered squad and a nervous manager would have been disappointed. Klopp was calm, relaxed and in good spirits.

This composure and confidence rubbed off on the team. By the end of the season, they had made it into the Europa League – an achievement almost no one had thought possible – and reached the final of the DFB Cup, and the seven-year Klopp era at BVB drew to a relatively peaceable close.

“Crises are part of football. It’s then that you learn to value success,” says Klopp knowingly. “You can lose. You can lose again. And again. But you can always win the game after that. And that’s what’s so great about it.”

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05 2016 The Red Bulletin

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