Jurgen Klopp interview

‘Millimetres decided things’: Jurgen Klopp relives his dramatic Liverpool ride before final farewell

The departing Liverpool manager talks to Richard Jolly about the highs and lows of his time at Anfield, his connection to the city and whether he can be considered a managerial great

Friday 17 May 2024 10:44 BST
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Jurgen Klopp bids farewell to Liverpool this weekend after nine years
Jurgen Klopp bids farewell to Liverpool this weekend after nine years (Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

For the second time in nine years, Jurgen Klopp is embarking on a voyage into the unknown. A man who came to define Liverpool perhaps more than any individual since Bill Shankly had an uncertain grasp of his new club in 2015. “Because in the beginning, what did we really know?” Klopp asked. “It is not that we can lie. Some may have watched more Liverpool games than I did. In the 15 years before I arrived here I watched loads of football, but did I watch a lot of Liverpool? No. The Liverpool I knew was when I was rather younger and you did not have a lot of footage. There was a show called Euro Goals – maybe you didn’t have it here – on a Monday night. They would show all the goals from Europe – England, France – but it was just goals. You couldn’t get anything else.”

Now it is time for something else new. For Klopp, anyway. At his unveiling, the German pronounced himself “the normal one”. On the day he announced his departure, he admitted he does not know what normal is any more. Now he is staring at a different life, to see what it means. “I need to have a look on the other side,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to it. No real plans. At the Euros we will watch games and have tickets for a few games. Being in Germany for a long time, meeting friends, nothing spectacular. That’s exactly what I wanted to do, being flexible. Be spontaneous, that will be a challenge.”

He will be at the Paralympics, too, though the first date in his diary is near. “I have got an invitation now for the Champions League final,” said a man who has managed in four of them in the last dozen years. He has a stake in this, too, as perhaps Borussia Dortmund’s most iconic manager. “They said, ‘I don’t think he will come’ but of course I will come: it’s the Champions League final and I have nothing to do really. But then I need more tickets. It’s the first time in my life I’m asking for tickets – normally it’s me who is always being asked. It’s a really strange feeling.”

If it raises the spectre of a huge figure going berserk at a fourth official somewhere in the plush seats, Klopp has a hinterland he wants to explore. He loves reading but has taken to listening to audiobooks because, with the headphones on, it is one of the few times when no one disturbs him. Everyone except his wife talks to him about football. And yet, he said, “I didn’t miss anything in the short break I had after Dortmund, I had to sometimes realise on Saturday that there is the Bundesliga. But it’s my life so I might miss it.”

The temptation is to think he will: the comebacks and the late goals, the fist pumps in front of an adoring Kop, the adrenaline of victories, the epic duels with Pep Guardiola, the bond with his players, the pleasure he takes in their success, the almost paternal pride in their development, the seasons fuelled by momentum when he is fighting on all fronts.

“I need to find out if I will miss it and if I miss it, I could change that,” he said. “Or I will realise, it is still so good, all the rest, that I miss it and try to get it from somewhere else. I turn 57 in a month. I will not stop working, but must it be exactly that? I don’t think so in the moment but we will see later. I just want to have a proper break and figure out what that does for me.”

Jurgen Klopp cited running out of energy as a key reason behind his Liverpool departure
Jurgen Klopp cited running out of energy as a key reason behind his Liverpool departure (Getty Images)

He has shouldered a huge burden. At each of Mainz, Dortmund and Liverpool, the concept of building extended beyond a team: to training grounds or stadia or both. “It’s probably one of my strongest characteristics to feel responsible for an incredible amount of things,” Klopp said. He has been motivator and mentor, on-pitch tactician and off-field planner, coach and comedian, personality and persona. Perhaps he needs a break from being the public version of Jurgen Klopp, the biggest character in the Premier League.

He could have come earlier: to England, to Liverpool. “Three years before I think [former chief executive] Ian Ayre called me up when I was at Dortmund and asked if I was interested,” Klopp recalled. “In that moment I thought, ‘Eh?’ Dortmund were flying, maybe champions again and Liverpool? I thought, ‘Nah, no chance’. I didn’t want to leave at all, so I was like ‘Why do you call?’. Liverpool was not in a great place, it was not a place you go and say, ‘Yeah, Liverpool is calling, come on, let’s go’. That changed three years later. For me, it was the No 1 choice, for whatever reason, it’s not really explainable. I just thought that is the one I want to have.”

From the start, Klopp and Liverpool felt a wonderful, natural fit. He arrived promising to turn doubters into believers – an early example of his ability to capture emotions and conjure memorable expressions in his second language – and saying if he didn’t win a title in four years, he would have to go and manage in Switzerland. “That went down really well in Switzerland,” Klopp grinned. “My skiing holiday will not be in Switzerland.” He has not had to seek employment there. His first silverware, the 2019 Champions League, came in his fourth season. The doubters believed long before then. “My best skill in English was to take three words and make a phrase out of it,” Klopp said. “That changed. Now if there is a chance to misunderstand, I do it.”

Klopp delivered Champions League glory to Liverpool
Klopp delivered Champions League glory to Liverpool (Getty Images)

But Klopp had the perceptiveness and the emotional intelligence to understand his inheritance. He had the vision, the charisma, the coaching ability to implement a brighter future, the force of personality and strength of footballing gameplan to transform Liverpool. “When I arrived here, people would probably describe it as darker times. It was 10 years since they won the Champions League,” he said. “I realised everyone was doubting what Liverpool does and no one liked the team. Even the team didn’t like the team. That was really the case. You could see it. The players were not comfortable in their skin.”

Klopp gave them confidence, the players a philosophy based around his beloved gegenpressing, the supporters a dream and a sense of fun. “A football club like Liverpool FC, people want to buy into a project and a journey,” he rationalised. And if it was always partly about the journey, the drama along the way, the way Klopp made Liverpool captivating and compelling, he forged two teams, one on the field, one off it.

The German, who was awarded the freedom of the city, saw the potential in his players, the psyche of a fanbase and an area, taking an underdog mentality to make Liverpool top dogs. “In this industry, it is so rare that you can create this kind of relationship to a club and to a city,” he said. “What we did, together with the people, we restored the belief and the togetherness. People enjoy winning of course but fighting for it especially. It is part of our history here that we really get hit hard, punched hard and get up again. People probably enjoy that a little bit as well, it’s just different.

“The general view on life in Liverpool is very similar to mine. I’m ready to fight for the right things. Do I think I deserve everything? No, it’s fine for others to have as well. I’m not a socialist but I come from there and I understand life like that. I fitted so well. I didn’t have to change a bit, that was the biggest blessing. Just be myself and go from there.”

Klopp developed an incredible connection with Liverpool fans
Klopp developed an incredible connection with Liverpool fans (The FA via Getty Images)

Being Jurgen Klopp was an innate advantage but also an experience. And if Shankly was definitely a socialist, Klopp’s views are more those of a social democrat – but he was still a natural successor to the Scot: the people’s champion, allying wisdom with wit. “Because of the political way the people are coming from, you need someone that understands it is the power of unity, the power of togetherness, we give our all, we see what we get for it, we overcome obstacles and difficulties, and Bill was obviously the right man to do that,” Klopp said.

“It’s part of folklore that Bill Shankly didn’t do it alone. The people, the city, you couldn’t do what Bill did in each city in the world. You cannot do it in London where there are 25 clubs. If you went to this street you might support Crystal Palace or Fulham, that street you’re a bit closer to Chelsea or whatever.”

Not in Liverpool. “Obviously it was very easy for me to fall in love with the club and the people. It is a super-special story. Could it have been more successful? Yes.” That was delivered with the laugh that has punctuated much of Klopp’s time but he added: “With me? I don’t know. We did absolutely everything. I am very self-critical but I do not reflect on this in a critical way. I do not see where we could have done this, or that, and then this or that would not have happened. We had really good times with super football moments, real development, tough moments, overcoming all of them. I am super-happy with my time here.”

He has an enviable medal collection, yet he came agonisingly close to more; he could be tied with Bob Paisley as a triple European Cup winner. He could have cemented a status as one of the greatest managers in footballing history. As he admitted, his place in the pantheon is up for debate.

“We were unlucky or maybe in moments not good enough to win three Premier Leagues and three Champions Leagues,” he said. “We all know with a little bit better decisions here or there we were that close. Minutes, millimetres, inches decided things for us. So for me looking back, that makes no difference but I know for people it makes a massive difference if I won more. If I win three, I am definitely a successful manager but if I win one in nine years people can argue it.”

The 2024 Carabao Cup was the final trophy of a silverware-laden spell at Anfield for Klopp
The 2024 Carabao Cup was the final trophy of a silverware-laden spell at Anfield for Klopp (PA Wire)

Klopp is not bitter but he remembers the moments. “There were 364 really enjoyable days in these seasons when we had 90-odd points and were nearly there. Then in the one moment, it is awful, horrible. So many little things where you thought, ‘Oh my God’.” He recalls Rodri’s handball at Everton in the 2022 Premier League title race. Or Sadio Mane hitting the post in the 2022 Champions League final and Liverpool doing everything but score. “We play that game and we shoot every three minutes on their goal but their keeper has 12 hands; the other guys were in the wrong position 23 times and we didn’t punish it. That was that f****r [Thibaut] Courtois,” he said. He recalls Sergio Ramos injuring Mohamed Salah in the 2018 final and wonders if it should have been a red card. He knows Adam Lallana and Emre Can were not fully fit that night.

He is given regular reminders of Vincent Kompany’s goal of a lifetime against Leicester in Manchester City’s penultimate match in 2019. “From time to time I see Vinny’s screamer and think: ‘Are you kidding me?’ That ball goes 999 of 1,000 everywhere in the stadium and for that night it looks like for them it is meant to be.” He wishes his predecessor at Anfield, Brendan Rodgers, had acted sooner and substituted James Maddison, who gave Kompany too much room to shoot. “Seconds before that goal I was thinking: ‘Come on Brendan, take Maddison off, he’s tired’. He was five yards away and just had to move to block the shot. I was lying on my sofa with my hands in my pockets and a second later I felt like I’d had a stroke. What can you do when that happens?”

And yet that disappointment was the prelude to delight. The following day came Klopp’s favourite game: 3-0 down from the first leg, Liverpool beat Barcelona 4-0 in the Champions League semi-final. “If my career didn’t teach me how to deal with setbacks, then there is no career for that,” he said. “We didn’t win the Champions League in 2018 and the way we lost that game? Winning it the next year, going again; don’t win the league by a point but win it the year after. So this period is a complete comeback. A comeback over 70-something games, which is absolutely insane.”

Liverpool’s 4-0 comeback win over Barcelona likely ranks as Klopp’s greatest single moment as Reds boss
Liverpool’s 4-0 comeback win over Barcelona likely ranks as Klopp’s greatest single moment as Reds boss (PA Archive)

There is another way in which Klopp might have won more: by spending more, or by others spending less. He felt it was always important to present a united front at Liverpool and never agitated in public to buy more players. His reign came in the context of Manchester City’s dominance, while they still face 115 charges from the Premier League. Barcelona are paying a price for their overspending. Manchester United and Chelsea have paid out far more and achieved far less. Everton and Nottingham Forest have breached Financial Fair Play and suffered points penalties. Klopp took Liverpool to stratospheric heights while balancing the books.

“I really thought for us that I understood that it was our way, the Liverpool way,” he said. “We do things properly, the right way. We don’t do a lot of things that others do. Other clubs have massive money and try really hard. We need to do it this way because that is what the people really believe. That is proven historically. Lefties, rather, educated by Bill [Shankly].

“That gives me the best feeling. That is what I am most proud of: in crazy times, we never overdid. We never tried too hard and then you don’t get the guarantee to reach it and then you get punished years later, these points deductions and stuff like that, it’s horrible. I am not sure they cheated on purpose but somehow they knew it’s probably not 100 per cent right but maybe we can get through that and obviously they couldn’t.”

Instead, he is confident he leaves Liverpool in a fine state. “It is not an emergency case and you hear that beep, beep, beep and it is close to [at this stage Klopp mimics a life support machine with one long] beeeeeep. It is really healthy, a very vital club with a wonderful training ground, sensational stadium, financially not bad. On roses? We never were but solid, on a high level. Let’s go from there.”

Klopp may well end up with a staute at Anfield, just like one of his predecessors Bill Shankly
Klopp may well end up with a staute at Anfield, just like one of his predecessors Bill Shankly (Getty Images)

And if that felt like one last motivational team talk, there is the question of what comes next for Klopp.

His towering influence and lasting legacy mean that he feels destined to be immortalised with Shankly, given his own statue at Anfield. “Of course I don’t need it,” Klopp countered, recalling when he was given the freedom of Liverpool. “Do I need a key to the city? I am German, we don’t do that. When I was sitting there, I had no clue what to expect and people come in with the fancy hats and the chains and it was one of the best experiences I ever had in my life and I didn’t expect that.”

But Shankly’s statue was erected after his death. “Well, then they have another 40 years to think about that,” smiled Klopp. And he has a Champions League final as a fan, some books to read and time to work out what he wants to do next and when. But whether or not he misses football, Liverpool will miss him.

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