Anfield vastly different under Jurgen Klopp
German has given Liverpool impetus that would not have been there without him, now he must match high hopes
Whenever a new manager arrives at a club, there is a tendency to confuse the word ‘better’ with ‘different’.
The freshness and vibrancy of the arrival always seems a welcome antidote to the lethargy and repetition that brought the previous incumbent to his knees. Everything the predecessor did is reassessed disapprovingly, while the recent appointment only has to stiffen his back to be lauded for his confident posture.
It’s not entirely fair, but is the natural consequence of ending a stale relationship and starting again with someone who seems infinitely more attractive. Or in the case of Liverpool supporters, dumping the partner whose habits they found increasingly annoying for someone they’d fancied for years who - at the moment at least - they still can’t believe they’re going to bed with every night.
In the case of Jurgen Klopp taking over from Brendan Rodgers, the buoyancy that greeted the German’s appointment a month ago has, if anything, intensified as a result of his first few games.
Amid his interviews, Klopp has been expressing the kind of sentiments you’d expect from any new manager with his appeals for patience and time, while studiously avoiding saying anything that could be construed as critical of what had gone before.
The trouble for the manager in trying to downplay expectations is he and his side keep on doing stuff that will only elevate them. Within the space of five games he’s given Liverpool an impetus that self-evidently would not be there without him.
His victory over Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge last Saturday, for example, was Liverpool’s first win in the stadium since Kenny Dalglish’s reign. Rodgers could never get the better of his mentor. Klopp humiliated Jose at his first attempt.
Klopp has also reintroduced the radical concept of putting square pegs in square holes with his team selections. Alberto Moreno has rediscovered he’s a left back; Mamadou Sakho has found a manager who thinks he’s quite good; Emre Can has been assured he is a midfielder rather than defender; and Lucas Leiva is now not only the most experienced Liverpool player at Melwood, he is being treated as the most experienced Liverpool player at Melwood.
There are other notable achievements. Klopp's arrival has convinced the Anfield hierarchy the notion of a ‘transfer committee’ was a media construction as opposed to a phrase Liverpool enthusiastically coined and embraced themselves in 2012. We await further guidance as to whether hypnotherapy was involved in this rewriting of recent history, but the ultimate outcome of the burial of an ambiguous description of transfer policy – entirely of the club’s making – is what’s most important.
In a most reassuring break with tradition, Klopp is also viewing Europa League games as a chance to win football matches and create the platform to lift a trophy rather than an unwanted distraction disrupting the pursuit of a fourth Champions League spot in the Premier League.
On Thursday night against Rubin Kazan he will play a strong side rather than fret about what Crystal Palace hold in store this Sunday. From those who could never forgive Rodgers for deferentially surrendering to Real Madrid in the Champions League a year ago, you could hear the cry of ‘Hallelujah’ when Klopp’s squad list was confirmed.
The underlying triumph is the manner in which Klopp has shifted perceptions of the Liverpool squad, to the point where the side that beat Chelsea is considered to be so strong. There is a certain irony that at least six of those now considered integral to Klopp’s ‘first choice’ (Mignolet, Moreno, Martin Skrtel, Lucas, Adam Lallana, Can) started that ill-fated Bernabeu game 12 months ago. What’s changed thus far is not only the belief Klopp is injecting into those players, but the faith of those watching in their qualities.
“They are not as bad as people were saying,” was how Klopp put it in the Kazan Stadium on Wednesday night.
The lingering question is whether Klopp’s enthusiasm for those he inherited is astute man-management ahead of a gradual personnel transformation or genuine confidence he has a squad in need of minor tweaking to achieve his long-term ambitions.
Our most convenient point of reference is Dortmund in 2008. It took Klopp two seasons to reshape his starting line-up there. Of the side that began his first game in charge only three – goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller, Mats Hummels and one of Klopp’s first signings, defender Neven Subotic (who moved with Klopp from Mainz), started the triumphant 2010-11 campaign in his team.
For all the ego polishing of the current Liverpool squad, is this the truest insight of what is to come at Anfield?
“No. Of course not. For sure, no. It is a completely different level,” said Klopp when asked on Wednesday.
“It is a completely different situation. We had good players at Dortmund also but I am not judging if they are good enough or not good enough now. They are Liverpool players. It is not a coincidence they are here. When I saw the squad – when on holiday – I thought ‘good job, I can work with this’.”
Matthias Dersch, sports reporter for the Dortmund-based newspaper Ruhr Nachrichten, agrees that Klopp has less team restructuring to do at Anfield.
“It is different at Liverpool because he has so many young players he can work with,” explained Dersch.
“When he arrived Dortmund had a lot of old players. The problems he had in his first two years were because of that and the big change he made was to bring in the younger players who could fit the way he wanted to play.
“There were some like (Alexander) Frei who did not want to go that way. They were established players and they did not look at Klopp the way he is looked at now. It took him a year but he was able to replace those players and then by his third season he had the team he wanted.
“It evolved gradually. I’m sure it was not the same for some of those older players who left Dortmund, but the younger ones and those who had success with Klopp all love him.
"You never hear a bad word about Klopp from his players. He is not like a manager, he seems more like a team mate and the loyalty goes both ways. I’ve never heard him speak badly in public about any player he has managed. He promises them 100 per cent and gets it back.”
Amid all the attention on Mourinho’s woes, Liverpool’s win at Chelsea was broadly underestimated. It was a victory few thought this group of players capable of before Klopp arrived. It was also a dangerous win in that it had the capacity to make supporters and pundits believe he can achieve in his first season what, realistically, might take two years.
Dersch can recall the fixture that most symbolised Dortmund’s transformation and how long the journey took to get there.
“If there is one game you could say was very important it was the derby against Schalke. That was in September 2010, Dortmund won 3-1 and Shinji Kagawa scored two goals,” he said.
“Kagawa had just joined the club. It was getting better already before that point, but that was a significant game. The first priority when Klopp joined was to make watching Dortmund fun again. For the few years before Klopp it was horrible to watch them play.
"This was the biggest change at first – and you knew every week the players would be giving 100 per cent. Then the quality came over time. Then we saw full speed football.
“Klopp never used this phrase ‘turning doubter to believers’ in Dortmund but it was a similar message. The Schalke game showed people Dortmund could win the league and they did it.”
Liverpool are still some way off their ‘Schalke moment’ under Klopp, but last weekend at Stamford Bridge was a strong early contender to top the ‘significant wins’ lists should retrospective analysis of a successful era ever be required.
Life at Anfield is already vastly different under Klopp. A sixth game unbeaten in Russia tonight would add further credence to the idea it will continue to get much better.