The year is 2016, the date April 14th. Liverpool welcomed hordes of Dortmund fans as they flooded the city. The Germans had finally landed on English soil. It is the second leg of the Europa League Quarter-final, with Liverpool managing the all-important away goal in a 1-1 draw at the Westfalenstadion the week previous.
The fans greeted the team bus with vigour and joy not seen since the 13/14 season when the league seemed within our grasp. The Liverpool fans are excited, loud, rambunctious and then silenced within 5 minutes after kick-off as former-target Mkhitaryan hammered home a spilt save from Mignolet. Aubameyang poured further salt into the wound by scoring four minutes later, putting Dortmund 2-0 up in ten minutes. Dortmund look very much the team who dominated Germany for several years under former manager, and now the man in the opposite dugout, Jurgen Klopp. Half-time came and went. Not long enough for Liverpool fans, too long for those from Dortmund waiting impatiently to witness more blood and gore. Some fan’s excited, others despondent. As always in football, fine margins, ecstasy or misery, dependent on the colour of your shirt. Origi scores in the 48th minute. 2-1, or 3-2 on aggregate, suddenly the tie is alive again. We are back in this. Only for the stellar – and another long-term target – Marco Reus, to run onto a beautifully weighted pass and slot the ball into the far corner in the 57th minute. The travelling Dortmund fans are jubilant, cheering, screaming, dancing. 3-1. The away team came, saw and conquered. Klopp’s legacy was defeating the foundations of his new dynasty.
Or so they thought. This is Liverpool after all.
Coutinho scored what soon became a trademark finish during his time at Liverpool, cutting in from the left and bending it into the far corner on the 66th minute. 3-2. Only ten minutes later, Sakho – the divisive centre-back who split opinion like Moses and the Red Sea – headed home a bouncing set-piece to the delight of the home crowd, levelling the scores at 3-3. The stadium is rocking, except this time it’s the home fans roaring, willing the team forward, baying for blood. The surge of Redmen suddenly never ending like the tide now. Finally, Sturridge re-enacts something from Swan Lake and dances around the edge of the box, splits the Dortmund defenders with a pass and Milner loops the ball into the box, only for Lovren, the only player more maligned than Sakho, to leap, hang in the air for an eternity, touching the clouds of the night sky, and smash the ball home in stoppage time, winning the game 4-3.
It was the moment Klopp’s revolution began. If the previous Manchester United fifth-round tie was good for confidence, this victory was the catalyst for momentum. From that moment fans started to believe in the manager. We knew Klopp’s reputation, we knew his past successes, but now we could see the results. Overturning the 0-1 deficit away against Villarreal to win the tie 3-1 on aggregate the aftermath of a relationship now borne from a baptism of fire. Klopp is one of us. Klopp is a red.
Jurgen Klopp arrived amidst a media storm. He is arguably one of the world’s most sought-after managers, with a huge renowned and he was here, in Liverpool, grinning from ear-to-ear holding aloft a red shirt.
Klopp joined five days after Brendan Rodgers’ dismissal, cutting short his much talked about sabbatical from the sport. Recently (January 2018) he explained why, stating, “I’m a football romantic. A lot of clubs called and I said ‘No, no chance, I need a break now.’ Until the noise of another call broke his well-earned peace and tranquillity, changing the fate of the club. “Even my wife knew, if Liverpool is calling, I go.” The draw of the club, its fans, the history and the prospect of waking a sleeping giant was too much to turn down. Klopp wanted Liverpool when we were down and out, potentially a dangerous career move, potentially a disastrous one. Klopp wanted it. He chose it. Despite this Klopp remained a realist and when asked by a journalist if Liverpool were now favourites for the league title because of his arrival he laughed and replied, ‘Oh please, are you crazy? I’ve been here three weeks!’
It’s an important statement. He wanted to curb fans excitement, to play down expectations. This is a long-term project. There is too much to do here. Too much needs changing. The aura surrounding the club, the fans attitude but most importantly the player’s mindset.
Despite Liverpool’s fantastic run in the Europa League in 2016 a disappointing second-half collapse in the final ultimately left them wondering what went wrong. The team’s continual woes ever present in the 2015/16 league as Liverpool sloped to yet another disappointing finish of eighth. Fragile, cowardly, shit-houses, these words often came to mind when thinking about Liverpool at that stage. Klopp was right; there was much work needed. Both on the training pitch and in the transfer department. It was as Klopp implied, time, he needed lots of it to fix the now ingrained issues of a brittle mentality.
The 2016/17 season is an interesting one upon reflection. Ultimately a poor January and a mixed February cost the team massively, as a paper thin squad became thinner and any chance of silverware was snatched away in a matter of weeks as the team crashed out of the domestic cup competitions and the short-lived title challenge before Christmas faded away. Klopp’s fault. He would likely hold his hands up and say so himself. There was not enough rotation, and not enough players brought in to cope with the heavy workload.
However, something important took place in the final two months of that season. Something to provide an essential platform for our current campaign.
During April and May we played nine games and managed six wins: Everton 3-1, Stoke 2-1, West Brom 1-0, Watford 1-0, West Ham 4-0 and Middlesborough 3-0; two draws Bournemouth 2-2, Southampton 0-0 and one loss to Crystal Palace 1-2. It is a list of teams sitting in the bottom half of the table. In recent times we’ve learned to fear those games, finding the defensive low-block tactic challenging to overcome, as they frustrate the guile of our attack and laugh in our flushed red-faces come full-time. During that period, we slowly but surely navigated the potential minefield and did something very unlike Liverpool in modern times; we ground out results.
There’s something to be said about the positive effect this period has contributed to this season. For years we’ve seen Liverpool sucker-punched by lesser teams and seen our players sink into an abyss and capitulate at the smallest of obstacles. During January and February we were no longer considered weak-minded, cowardly shit-houses it was instead naïve, fragile and frustrating. Growth of a sort. However since then Klopp has taught the team something invaluable, not every game has to be swashbuckling, not every goal has to win goal of the month, sometimes you need to dig deep and grind your teeth and win unglamorously.
Both the team and Klopp learned numerous things from those games, both tactically and mentally. This was present during the final game of the season as we lined up to face Middlesborough with our Champions League place on the line and Arsenal lingering in the background waiting eagerly to leapfrog us into 4th. It could be argued the situation is comparable to playing in the final of a cup competition. We played under immense pressure, doubly so when Arsenal took the lead early in their own game. Unlike in the Europa League Final, Liverpool prevailed. Had they learned from the previous season’s finale mistakes? Did the team learn to overcome mental deficiencies?
Much was made of our inability to break down defensive units in Klopp’s first two years in charge. From Christmas, as the team slowly cranked up the levels of performance and goes beyond all level of expectation in the Champions League, those critiques have disappeared. Maybe it wasn’t the players, the system, the opposition. Maybe it was ourselves. Learning to manage the game better, understanding if an opposition scores it doesn’t mean you’ve lost so down tools. Since October 2015, Klopp has tweaked his tactics, tweaked the players in his squad but the biggest and more important change he has made? He’s firmly overhauled the team’s mindset – he’s given us a winners mentality again. It was first planted during our charge in the Europa League in his first season, improved when navigating a top-four finish last season. All of this is a positive experience and can be learned from and instilled in the players. Winning is a habit. Now we’re seeing the benefits and experience gained in those periods during Klopp’s third season as his team grows accustomed to winning regardless of the quality of performance.
Fast forward to the 10th of April 2018. Liverpool lines up in the Etihad against the acclaimed giants of Manchester City. The eleven red players looked microscopic amongst a rush of blue and white plastic flags attempting to re-enact the heroics of Liverpool fans, yet failing, as a small section of red shirts bounced and sang over the white noise of rustling of plastic. The eyes of the world lay upon Liverpool having already comprehensively defeated the Champions Elect of England and winning the first tie of this Champions League Quarter-Final 3-0. If ever a 3-0 deficit was as unsafe it was now, against City. Or so we were told. The game kicks off, and Van Dijk is sent crashing to the floor by Sterling who whips a ball into the box and Gabriel Jesus slots it home. It’s the second minute of the match. See, I told you so, we all knew they would crumble. How many times have we seen this side do this in recent times? The narrative written, printed and sold.
Except we didn’t. One goal doesn’t mean you’ve lost the game. Klopp’s taught us that.
City threw everything at us, including the kitchen sink and yet they were continually sent back, frustrated like fly’s bouncing off a stone wall. Liverpool, it seems, wouldn’t crumble. In fact, in the second half, Liverpool excelled under pressure. A Salah goal on the 56th minute hit City like a body blow, knocking the wind out of their sails. Firmino’s 77th goal was the uppercut which sent City sprawling onto the canvas, with the ref waving the fight off. City down and out, Liverpool victorious. Liverpool imperious in fact. It is almost as if every up and down of the past two years has built to this moment.
This is Klopp and the team’s evolution.
This is Klopp’s revolution.
I don’t know what will happen against Roma in the Champions League Semi-Final. Nor in our chase for a second consecutive top-four finish, but if Klopp has taught us anything, no matter what happens this season, we will benefit from it in the future and be a better team next season.