Tuesday 16 January 2018

Exceptional in a normal sort of way

That Was The Week cartoon
That Was The Week cartoon

Dion Fanning

On Friday, there was a sense of peace in the culture war that had enveloped Liverpool since Brendan Rodgers was dismissed.

The world is full of people who see themselves as 'wacky' or repeat endlessly, 'I'm mad, me.'

Jurgen Klopp is one of those unusual men who is content to describe himself as normal, even if he might wonder what normal is if you pressed him.

He is one of those who sees the world differently but thinks he sees it in the most straightforward way possible.

The day before Borussia Dortmund played Bayern Munich in the Champions League final at Wembley in 2013, Klopp ended the training session by addressing his players on the pitch. His talk finished with his team and Klopp collapsing in laughter.

There will be a lot of undeserved laughter in the press conferences of Jurgen Klopp and if Liverpool wanted a song and dance man, there were plenty of those available within football. That moment at Wembley was more significant because it took place on the eve of the European Cup final and, for the journalists who watched it from 80 yards away, there was something mesmerising about the power he held over these players. There was an uncommon bond between the coach and those who played for him, even if the coach views the creation of that bond as the most normal thing in the world.

Perhaps it is all as simple as Klopp made out, or maybe he will be undone by the mediocrity he encounters at Anfield. He could even be another overwhelmed by the need at Liverpool to create managers to worship.

They have already produced the merchandise before he has played a game but there are many good reasons for Liverpool supporters to be excited.

Like many exceptional people, Klopp believes his talent is simply for making good decisions as if there was nothing unusual about making more good decisions than bad ones.

Liverpool, he said, was not a normal club but he had a prosaic reason for their historic greatness. It was not because of some self-conscious and self-reverential presence of genius or some unseen hand watching over them but because of "many, many good decisions in the past".

Klopp simultaneously told Liverpool a story they wanted to hear about themselves while making it seem like the simplest thing in the world that the story turned out the way it did.

He spoke about emotional football while sounding detached from the emotion that surrounds him.

Some said that many of the things he said could have been uttered by Brendan Rodgers but, even if there hadn't been subtle distinctions, there was always a difference in tone which is the distinguishing mark of the authentic voice, like listening to Shane MacGowan sing Fairytale of New York after hearing Ronan Keating's version.

Klopp's achievements with Dortmund might be the thing which gives him authority and there are no certainties in football, certainly not at a club like Liverpool with its recent commitment to uncertainty.

The build-up to Klopp's appointment had been dominated by two stories which in one way were unconnected. One was the giddy bewilderment among Liverpool supporters at the imminent arrival, the explosion of joy that they had, for the first time in more than ten years, appointed a manager who was arriving with a substantial and contemporary body of work.

Predictably, many felt it necessary to warn that historically no good comes from this manic expectation, that, essentially, we are all going to die one day so, really, what was the point of wild, ungovernable excitement?

Others pointed out, with some justification, that Klopp doesn't have the players, which was a reasonable statement, but Liverpool have a manager who can make players better which is preferable to the alternative.

The other story was the culture war, the clash between the old and the new which had taken up space while the negotiations for Klopp continued.

Liverpool are not in this position because they placed too much emphasis on analytics and Liverpool are not in this position because they listened intently to the horse-whispering of gnarled old football men. They are in this position because the analytics failed and the football men failed, because they spent £40m on Joe Allen and Adam Lallana, and because they spent £30m on Lazar Markovic and Iago Aspas. Liverpool were the camel, the horse designed by committee.

Klopp says he will have the first and last word but he wants others to help him make those decisions. "I'm not a genius, I don't know more than the rest of the world," he said, before he made everyone aware of his demands. They may not be reasonable which is not to say they don't make sense.

More important than having the last word may be that Klopp works with people he respects and who use the information available to find players better than Oussama Assaidi and Fabio Borini.

Sturgeon's Law states that 90 per cent of everything is total crap and it is a figure picked out of thin air which seems to have a central truth. Klopp tied the two stories together on Friday. He wanted emotional football but he would achieve it in the most practical way.

He told a story about himself and what he wanted while making it clear that the way the story would unfold involved utilising every piece of information available to him.

He provided the soundbite for the weekend with his "normal one" comment but is that true of any man?

James Baldwin wrote that the world is divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Liverpool has always found ways of driving men mad, of making them remember while they wanted to forget. Maybe, that's why it's a club which requires a kind of craziness if anything is to be achieved.

Heroes are rare, Baldwin said, and Klopp seems to understand this too. Like many touched by inspirational madness, he calls himself normal. And on Friday he reminded us that he possesses another rare thing: the confidence to pretend there is nothing exceptional about him at all.

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