Sunday, 11 October 2015

The Normal One

“I’m just a normal guy, I’m nothing special”, said a Liverpool manager.

If you’d heard those words from any Liverpool manager  during the 1960’s, 70’s or 80’s you wouldn’t have been surprised.  One of the enduring qualities of Shankly, Paisley, Fagan and Dalglish was their ability to garner support bordering on hero-worship and then to reveal themselves to be caked in humility, garnished with respect and covered by a sauce known as ‘down-to-earth’.  They never lost sight of that, almost to the point of struggling to understand their own hype.

Now no one is comparing Jurgen Klopp to these iconic figures and no one should.  He has much to live up to and much to prove, but the opening lines of this particular hit song stand-out enough to demand you lift your head up from twitter and turn ‘shuffle’ off.

This week Jurgen Klopp was unveiled as the new manager at Liverpool.  The club had wasted little time in appointing a replacement for Brendan Rodgers, who was sacked last Sunday.

After the dreary 1-1 draw in the Merseyside derby, Rodgers was relieved of his duties at Anfield and the board set about looking for a replacement.  My own belief in Rodgers finally dissipated after the Manchester United defeat, and the noises around the club, social media etc began to reach the illegal level after the tepid home draw with Norwich.  Rodgers kept his job through the Sturridge-inspired Villa win onto the Merseyside derby.  It’s perfectly possible the owners had already decided to part company with their manager during this period but sensibly waited until the international break to allow time to find a replacement.

Klopp has long been a target as far as the fans are concerned, after the excellent job he did at Borussia Dortmund.  When they arrived for a pre-season friendly, Klopp was keen to show how much he admired Liverpool, its history and its fan base.  Klopp left Dortmund at the end of last season after managing them for seven years.  During that time he won two Bundesliga titles, the German cup and of course steered his team to the Champions League Final.

There has been much anticipation throughout the week on social media amongst reds fans and many of us have been more excited than we can remember about the appointment of a new manager.  When Kenny came back the second time we had little time to prepare for it and there was a certain relief after the circus act of Hicks and Gillett and Roy Hodgson.  When Benitez was appointed, we were excited at the prospect, but there was still a certain amount of reticence.  Personally, I still harboured after an English manager or perhaps an ex-player as foreign managers were still fairly rare in this country and Houllier was the only one we’d had. 

Benitez was a great prospect having won two La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup.  Klopp is equally qualified but there is just something even more exciting about his appointment.  Maybe it is because we know so much more about him than we did Benitez, we’ve seen what he’s done at Dortmund and he is a well-liked and admired individual.  But there is something else which gives many of us a feeling of great enthusiasm for the immediate future.  He is such a charismatic person who promises to offer one helluva ride.  He promises to be a complete joy at press conferences, a ‘must-see’ at post-match interviews and a complete magnet for the media.

He possesses an infectious smile and an ability to deflect pressure away from his players.  He appears to love the game for the game’s sake and one can only imagine how exciting it must be to be a player in one of his teams.  The prospects look bright for players like Sturridge, Coutinho, Ibe and Clyne.  But there are two players I’m particularly looking forward to seeing how they develop under Klopp’s tutelage.  Club captain, Jordan Henderson, has the ability to forge a crucial partnership with the new boss and would seem to be an ideal player for the German.  At his press conference today, Klopp promised to instil a philosophy of ‘full throttle football that is emotional, fast, strong and with a big heart’.  A player like Henderson would appear the perfect pupil and advocate of such an approach.

The one player I am really looking forward to seeing work with Klopp is Emre Can.  The versatile German has been used in midfield and defence during his career and I certainly expect Klopp to continue using his numerous talents, but Can has the ability to become the engine behind the Liverpool machine in a role similar to that of Souness and Molby from days gone by.

Klopp made a huge impression on the watching media during his appearance before them today.  In fact it was probably the single-most impressionable performance in English football since Mourinho’s opening bow in 2004.  Talking of Mourinho, one hack couldn’t resist trying to get a soundbite from Jurgen regarding Mourinho’s famous “I am the Special One” comment but got more than he bargained for.

Klopp simply replied “I’m a normal guy, was born in the Black Forest, wasn’t much of a player. If you want, you can consider me the normal one”.  It’s highly likely “The Normal One” strapline will stick so watch out for a flags, hashtags and banners with that one.  Not special, not chosen, just normal.

Klopp has more charisma than nearly all the managers in the Premier League put together.  When he smiles you can’t help but smile with him, and you can just imagine how ideal a tactic this will be to deflect attention away from his players.  He explained his love for the club made it the only job he wanted in England, which would seem to back up the rumours he’d previously turned down an offer from Tottenham, who ironically will provide the first opponents for Klopp’s Liverpool.  He went onto explain “this is the most interesting job in world football”.  He also said this was “one of the best moments of my life” as he went onto give some clues to how he was going to approach his early days at Anfield.

“You have to change from doubter to believer.  We have to change our performance because nobody is satisfied at the moment.”  He attempted to play down the furore surrounding his appointment by explaining “it’s not so important what people think when you come in….it’s much more important what they think when you leave”.

What has also been evident over the past few days before and since Klopp’s appointment is how supporters of other clubs are in agreement we have struck gold and appointed a good man.  Who knows whether he will turn out to be a great manager, capable of bringing many trophies back to Anfield, but what seems clear is he is not going to be boring.  I cannot wait for the press conferences and to see how he deals with people like Geoff Shreeves.  He’s just going to run rings round these people.

Klopp is a maverick, a non-conformist, unorthodox.  He is comfortable in jeans, boots and a jacket.  He smiles and laughs, endearing himself to his audience when all the time behind those sparkling eyes is a steely determination and ruthless mind which is already a move or two ahead of those around him.  Benitez was a fan of chess, finding the mental and tactical side of the game absorbing.  Klopp strikes you as more of a poker player, but still with that penchant for the psychological side of things.  He is likely to use players in different positions almost as a way of stretching their talents for the good of the team.  He is likely to try different tactics to get the better of his opponents.  These are methods Rodgers used but without the aura Klopp undoubtedly carries.

Two things struck me during that press conference.  Firstly, at this time I’m not really thinking about what we might win over the next few years as all I’m thinking is that this is likely to be a fantastic ride and I can sense the whole club and supporters being lifted immediately.  The colour and energy he could bring to the English game gives one a great sense of anticipation, the like of which we haven’t seen for many a year.  The second thing which struck me was I wondered if Raheem Sterling watched it.  He claimed the club lacked ambition and he was presumably unmotivated by Brendan Rodgers so he switched to Manchester City.  Klopp appears the kind of manager who would really improve Sterling’s game and yet he chose the rather more steady, under-stated approach of Pellegrini.  Personally I hope he sees what he could’ve had at Liverpool and wishes he’d stayed so his game could develop.  It was obvious Sterling was carried along with the excitement and wave of popularity during the 2013-14 season and it would appear when things dipped he had a hankering for their return.  Manchester City are to visit Anfield on 1st March 2016 and by then the club, the ground and the team should be fully indoctrinated in the ways of Klopp.

And what of Rodgers?  Personally, I wish him well and hope he finds another job in football very quickly.  He set about a project at Liverpool and we are a much changed team and club since he walked through the door in the summer of 2012.  He had his doubters, some from the very first match, and he had his critics who accused him of arrogance, laughed at his cosmetic changes and media approach.  But what you cannot doubt is his belief he could take Liverpool to a new level.  He bought into the whole ‘Liverpool Football Club’ ethos and as supporters we demand that at the very least.  He gave everything he had to the team, the club and the supporters and I would imagine he still believes he had much to offer.  He may need a rest as this club can take so much from a man’s soul, as the aforementioned Shankly, Paisley, Fagan and Dalglish all eventually found out.  Personally, I liked the arrogance as I saw it as self-confidence.  Yeah he may have made mistakes, but who doesn’t?  He made mistakes in the transfer market but every other Liverpool manager before him has done.  I want my leaders to have undying belief in their own ability, as self-doubt, negativity and uncertainty is for us amateurs and mere mortals who have the voices of failure roaming around our heads, hence the position on the side-lines we are destined to occupy.

His legacy will always remain he came closest to returning the League title to Anfield than any other manager in the past twenty-five years, and who knows if he’d had the services of Sturridge for twice as many games as he had things might have been different.  If Suarez had stayed for just one more season who knows what might have been.  But none of that happened and in the cruel, ruthless world of top level sport, he had to pay with his job.

For Klopp a new chapter has opened and for the first three months of this season he must play with the same hand Rodgers left him.  In January it will be difficult to see how the owners cannot give him the tools to shuffle his pack, having chased him so vigorously just three months before.  He is likely to attract top talent from around the world in a similar way Benitez attracted the likes of Xabi Alonso, Pepe Reina, Luis Garcia and Fernando Torres.  I wouldn’t mind betting he will have a different view on the Europa League than many of us have, particularly as success in that competition is a route into the Champions League and if Liverpool cannot compete financially with the top four of English football at the moment, and if he isn’t able to have the team he wants at his disposal this season then that could represent a fantastic opportunity to fast-track the club into a spotlight from which he has just exited.

Whatever happens during the ‘Klopp years’ I have no doubt we are never going to forget it.

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