Only those close to the epicentre felt the tremors of the earthquake about to hit German football. To outsiders Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund side seemed too inconsistent, too wild, to develop beyond the sixth and fifth-placed finishes of their last two Bundesliga campaigns, but inside the club everyone felt something big was coming. Klopp’s passion and intensity was infectious; his training sessions a frenzy of activity, creating a strong bond between players and a dedication to the cause. They believed – they knew – something incredible was about to happen.
“We had this confidence, we felt that we would play everybody off the park,” Neven Subtopic told Raphael Honigstein in his recent book Klopp: Bring the Noise. “When we didn’t, we simply said, ‘Okay, lesson learned, we’ll smash them next time.’ The first two years were like that. And in the third year, we did smash everybody.”
The English media is particularly susceptible to tunnel vision, unwittingly embracing the instant gratification culture that has developed in boardrooms as the financial imperatives of success rapidly increase. And yet our collective narrow-mindedness is inherently pessimistic: each micro-slump is a crisis but a burst of good results is its own kind of blip – a temporary deviation from the norm. The concept of progress and self-improvement seem difficult to swallow in England.
Like every manager in this country Klopp hasn’t been able to shake off the label earned after his first season in charge. Klopp’s Liverpool are too chaotic to be consistent, too aggressive to be defensively resolute, and too fatally flawed to ever challenge for the title. They can’t break down deep-lying teams and they can’t win the big matches. Their left-back isn’t good enough and defending set-pieces will always let them down. These are the key narrative points and they aren’t changing, not even after Liverpool have scored 15 goals in their last three games, have won seven of their lasts nine matches, and have conceded more than one goal in a game on just four occasions in the league this season.
Liverpool’s flurry of goals should not be wafted aside as an outlier, but seen as part of a gradual – but potentially devastating – shift in the club’s psychological and tactical strength this season. What Klopp built in Dortmund was a level of passion and dedication that created a furious, irrepressible sense of self belief. As with the current Liverpool squad, the players did not arrive as superstars, but under Klopp’s tutelage they became world-beaters. “In the first year, it was rather normal football, with a pinch of Klopp tactics,” says Subotic, mimicking Liverpool’s achievements in 2016/17, Klopp’s first full season in charge at Anfield. “In the second year, it got spicier. In the third year: boom!”
Liverpool’s front four of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, and Mohamed Salah is arguably the best in the world right now. The reputation of all four footballers has risen since they began working under Klopp, and yet the media continue to insist Liverpool are close to their ceiling – despite all evidence to the contrary. Their set-piece defending remains insolvable at the time of writing, but in every other department improvement has been steady.
They are better defensively than ever before, while certain individuals – most notably Emre Can and Joe Gomez – are developing into potentially world-class players. Liverpool won 16 more points in 2016/17 than the year before, and in 2017/18 have two more points from the corresponding fixtures in the previous campaign. Given that 87 points is the average total of the champions over the last decade, they really aren’t falling short by much. This season, both Manchester clubs are simply too strong to be challenged at the top, but a sixth Champions League win isn’t implausible (Liverpool are better when teams push high, affording more space to their front four on the counter-counter, while the slower pace of European football suits Klopp’s frantic gegenpress).
Regardless of their achievements this campaign, 2018/19 could be Liverpool’s “boom!” moment. Naby Keita is an exceptional footballer capable of weaving through the first line of midfield and adding serious clout in defence, making him the perfect addition to a midfield in need of authority. Signing Virgil van Dijk, or an equivalent, and a new goalkeeper is all that’s left for Klopp to do before the club are ready to take the next step.
There is a buzz of excitement at Melwood. The sense of purpose, of a shared vision and a united squad, crackles in the air just as it did at Dortmund. The progress is real, and Liverpool are on the precipice of something unexpected; both Klopp and the club can sense it. Jurgen spent seven years at Mainz and seven years at Dortmund, and so as Liverpool continue to take strides, it’s worth remembering: Klopp’s just getting started.