Some people claim to thrive under pressure while others shy away from it. Jürgen Klopp, however, is in his element when the odds are stacked against him and he feels as though there’s a point to prove.
You can claim it’s arrogance or quite simply supreme confidence. Whichever way you you look at it, it’s hard paint is as a negative. And he has every reason to be the way he is after the success he’s had throughout his career.
But Liverpool head into the second half of the season heavily reliant on Klopp and, though he’s been up against it in the past, this is unchartered territory for the 50-year-old manager. The next four months are the biggest of his managerial career and what happens between now and May could be how he’s remembered by the Anfield faithful.
He’s worked miracles before. A Borussia Dortmund team, filled with nothing more than untapped potential, matured into one of the best sides in Europe under his guidance. They took on a juggernaut in Bayern Munich and won.
They then went all the way to the Champions League final but lost to their Bavarian counterparts. The journey leading to the game at Wembley Stadium was a memorable one. They topped a group containing Manchester City, Ajax and Real Madrid. They overcame Shakhtar Donetsk in the round of 32 before a last gasp winner against Malaga saw them through to the semi-final.
José Mourinho’s Real Madrid side were the final obstacle between Dortmund and their first Champions League final appearance since 1997. Robert Lewandowski was the man of the match in the first-leg, netting a stunning four goals.
While his team fell short in the final, losing to a last minute Arjen Robben goal. Klopp had done more than enough to prove his point.
He replaced Brendan Rodgers in the October of 2015 as Liverpool manager. The Reds were in a rut but Klopp, with limited time on the training pitch, found a system, that suited the players at his disposal.
The charismatic manager took them, a side he hadn’t put together and underperforming before his arrival, all the way to two cup finals. Both ended in defeat but the German demonstrated he had the ability to improve players.
He followed that up by guiding the Reds to a fourth place finish and bringing Champions League football back to Anfield.
A position of power
This time around, however, it’s different; Liverpool aren’t the underdog. They appeared to be strong, both on the pitch as well as off of it.
It must have been an unfamiliar feeling for the manager. Klopp’s teams have never been the favourites. Bayern Munich were tipped for Bundesliga success. Dortmund weren’t supposed to get past Real Madrid in the semi-final.
And while Liverpool fans are always confident in finals, but up against Manchester City and Sevilla, seasoned veterans in European competition, not many neutrals would’ve backed them to win.
Likewise in the league, there are six teams battling it out for a top four finish. Fans hope for a place in the Champions League but they know competition is fierce.
Cast your minds back to last year. The Reds opted not to sign a player to fill the void left by Sadio Mané‘s departure to the AFCON in January 2017. It was a calculated risk. Liverpool, without European football, already out of the domestic cups and without weakening their squad, banked on having enough to see them over the line.
It worked, with Klopp’s men pipping Arsenal by a single point to fourth, but they needed a run of one defeat in 12 to achieve it.
Liverpool went into January this year with the news they’d signed Virgil van Dijk. It was a statement of intent. They were in the midst of an unbeaten run and second position was there for the taking.
The winter window closed with the Reds sat in third position and just three points behind Manchester United in second. However, just two points separates them from fifth placed Tottenham.
It’s not a bad place to be in heading into the business end of the season.
Liverpool had momentum on their side and £106million in the bank from the sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona. They could have consolidated their place in the top four – a second consecutive season in the Champions League helps the brand – but instead took a risk.
The Merseyside club didn’t want to overpay and that’s admirable on the whole but sometimes situations need to be looked at in isolation. They walked away from deals for Naby Keïta and Thomas Lemar despite having the money to show strength. Reports have since emerged claiming Klopp and the recruitment team are prepared to show patience and feel there will be more value for money in the summer.
Under usual circumstances this is probably true. But it’s a World Cup summer meaning the window to negotiate is smaller and every selling club know Liverpool have cash to burn after the sale of Coutinho. It’s going to be hard to find a player who ticks all of the boxes without breaking the bank.
You also have to consider the fact Liverpool might not have Champions League football to offer these potential targets next season. There’s an argument to be made that signing in January doesn’t guarantee success but even if you miss out on a top four finish, you still have a quality player and they’ve still had six months to adapt to the way you play.
Shaping the future
Liverpool may finish in the top four this season and they may go on to win the Champions League. But Klopp and the recruitment team made both of these scenarios a lot more difficult by failing to make the most of being in a position of power.
Where does it leave Liverpool moving forward? Is it now open season on Merseyside?
Fast forward 12 months and imagine Real Madrid make an offer for Mané in the January window. The Reds don’t want to sell but given they allowed Coutinho to move the Senegalese speedster pushes and pushes, eventually forcing the Reds into it. Clubs would once again be demanding silly money for players and Liverpool, sticking to their ethos, would wait until the summer.
The players trust him for now but the stars of the show all want to be playing Champions League football. If Liverpool finish fifth having deemed it not important to their project to immediately replace Coutinho a few might be on the phone to their agents.
You see, not only is the decision not to strengthen last month a short-term gamble, it’s also a long-term one as well. One that will no doubt the future of the club.
Could the confidence that Klopp built his career on now be his downfall?
The Liverpool manager has heaped more pressure onto his shoulders than he’s ever experienced before.
If he’s able to guide the Reds to a top four finish then it strengthens his image as a manager who can get the best out of players and those at his disposal will want to stay longer while potential targets will push for moves to join his revolution at Anfield. But it’s a big if.