There’s no club quite like Liverpool for banners. The life of a Merseyside bedsheet, assuming bedsheets dream of a quiet life upon a bed, must be brief and fraught, the danger always present that you’ll be painted or have letters stitched upon you, stretched between two poles and brandished on the Kop or a surrogate at an away ground.
After all the excitement that surrounded Jurgen Klopp’s arrival at Anfield, it was predictable that there’d be a flurry of arts and crafts before Saturday’s game at Tottenham Hotspur, but what was perhaps a little troubling was the tone.
Google Translate had clearly been put to work. “Jurgen—wir glauben” (“We believe,” although glauben can’t be used intransitively like that)—read one. “Jurgen: mein held, mein kumpel,”—“my hero, my mate,” read another. “Jurgen uber alles,” another.
This felt like more than simply welcoming a new manager; it was hailing a messiah. This was palm fronds and hosannas at the gates of Jerusalem.
This, perhaps, is the downside of the legacy of Bill Shankly, not just for Liverpool but for British football as a whole. He revelled in the messianic role—succeeded in it, even—lifting Liverpool the club on the city’s great tide of cultural pre-eminence in the 1960s.
Shankly had the personality and the charisma to inspire players and fans alike. He encouraged the cult of personality around him because it helped build the sense of momentum and perhaps took pressure off his players.
It also rather deflected from the fact that Liverpool’s football was often quite functional (see The Anatomy of Liverpool for more details). It’s startling now, in fact, to read contemporary newspaper reports of, say, the 1965 FA Cup final in which Liverpool beat Leeds and see how scathing a number of journalists were of the spectacle.
“I am told,” Peter Wilson wrote in the Mirror, “that if we are to survive the rigours of the World Cup [the following year], we must forget individualism, the brilliant flashes of inspiration which transform a treadmill into a flying machine, the genius which transmutes a muddied oaf into a booted genius.”
The truth that’s often forgotten is it took even Shankly three-and-a-half years to win promotion. As the David Peace novel Red or Dead makes clear, his success was born of endless repetitions, a methodical style of play based on incremental improvement. It was a further two years before they won the league.
Football changes, of course. The internal barriers move. Shankly, Don Revie and Brian Clough all took over second-flight teams and transformed them into league champions. A Brendan Rodgers or a Jurgen Klopp starts at a far-higher base, and yet the distance to the top is, arguably, even greater than it was for those geniuses of the past.
The danger for Klopp is that his past record and charisma generates the expectation of instant results.
It may be that his personality is sufficient to lift Liverpool in the short term, but there are two elements to his success. On the one hand, he clearly is a great motivator, somebody capable of inspiring others and, vitally, of persuading players to buy into his tactical ideas, even though they require extremely hard work.
Klopp himself has spent the past few years cheerily noting that his teams run further than their rivals; sure enough on Saturday, Liverpool became the first side to outrun Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs.
That felt hugely significant because Pochettino is noted for having the fittest side in the league.
Last season, Brad Friedel, at the time 41 and so hugely experienced, said he’d never worked with a manager who spent as much time on conditioning work as Pochettino, the result of which is Tottenham’s ability to keep going, manifested in a string of goals late in games last season.
The question for Liverpool, though, is whether they can maintain that level of intensity without having gone through a pre-season with Klopp in which the focus would be on fitness.
Even on Saturday, it was notable how their level dropped after 25 minutes or so: Manic intensity, followed by a fatigued period in which Tottenham had two fine chances, then a more measured second half in which Liverpool looked fairly comfortable and marginally the more threatening.
The second element of Klopp’s success is his tactical work. Gegenpressing was the bedrock of what he did both at Mainz and at Dortmund, and it will presumably be the basis of how he plays at Liverpool.
But gegenpressing isn’t just based on energy; it also requires players to understand structures of play.
It wasn’t until his third season at Dortmund that they won the league; they finished sixth in his first season and fifth in his second. No less than Louis van Gaal’s style at Manchester United, it will take time for those patterns to be assimilated.
Pochettino, whose side also press hard, was asked after the game how long it takes for a style of play to be understood by a group of players. His answer was non-committal—basically it depends. At Southampton, he said, he’d been surprised by how quickly they adapted to his way of doing things, but it had taken longer at Spurs.
Much depends on how similar the conceptual system Rodgers left at Anfield is to Klopp’s.
Given the obvious uplift in intensity in the early part of Klopp’s game—and the way he stood on the edge of his technical area demanding more and more from his players; they weren’t, in other words, running wild but were following his instructions—the suspicion is that Klopp’s ideas and those of Rodgers are quite different when it comes to the best way of regaining possession. But even if that impression is misleading, it will take time for him to instil his ideas.
The most encouraging aspect of Saturday’s performance for Liverpool was that Klopp clearly has buy-in; the effort players were making suggested a determination to impress. How long they can keep doing that having not had a Klopp pre-season is another issue.
But the worry is that Klopp-mania means there is an expectation of results yesterday, that there is a belief the magic of his presence can somehow take the team with the fifth-highest wage bill in the division and make them challenge for the title.
Klopp seems to be aware of the danger of that already: His comment that he is “the normal one” was not just a smart line, but an effort to play down the messianic aura and was part of a series of deflationary lines.
Time is the luxury modern managers are never afforded and particularly not those set up to be messiahs. The problem for messiahs is they so often end up crucified.
*All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated