On the dais in the media room at Notre Dame Stadium, a place where tenure for even the most successful coaches is measured in the smallest possible segments, Jurgen Klopp sat down with a smile and made it apparent he was ready to field questions from the assembled reporters. That was not the same, though, as saying he was prepared for what he would encounter.
On that hot August afternoon in 2019, Klopp’s contract with Liverpool Football Club still had three years to run. So when he immediately was asked how long he planned to stay in his position as manager, Klopp’s initial response was a bemused, “Wow!”
He might have expected something lighter to open one of his first few press conferences of the preseason, but the reporter who addressed that subject obviously understood how important Klopp was to Liverpool’s burgeoning success.
The folks at Fenway Sports Group do, as well. Four months after this public discussion, the group that owns LFC — along with the Boston Red Sox, Roush Fenway Racing and, now, the Pittsburgh Penguins — extended Klopp’s contract two years, to 2024.
The extension was not a move that demanded any degree of genius. In six full seasons under Klopp, LFC came in fourth or better in the Premier League each time, finished runner-up twice, and won the league in 2020, for the first time in more than three decades. The Reds have reached the UEFA Champions League final three times with Klopp in charge, including this year; Saturday, in Paris against Real Madrid, they will try to add a second title in four seasons in the world’s most important club competition.
Keeping Klopp around did, however, require an acceptance of the probability he’s the reason Fenway’s operation of the club has become such a smashing success. And that’s not always a given in other sporting organizations.
FSG deserves much credit for wise and grandiose investment into the team, construction of a new training complex and expansion of its near-sacred home stadium, Anfield. That includes the creation of a data analysis group led by Ph.D (and lifelong Liverpool fan) Ian Graham, and the installation of the executive team led by FSG president Mike Gordon, whose primary responsibility is operation of Liverpool FC.
However, what FSG got most right that fellow Americans did not at both Arsenal and Manchester United was locating the ideal person to lead the team through the end of the previous decade and into this one.
When Kroenke Sports & Entertainment began its takeover of Arsenal in 2007, the club was only three years removed from its “Invincibles” championship season and would qualify for the Champions League in each of the next 10 years. Arsenal hasn’t made it back to Europe’s top club competition since Arsene Wenger left coaching following the 2017-18 season and has finished, on average, in seventh place. At Manchester United, which the Glazer family purchased in 2005, the greatness continued during the eight years Sir Alex Ferguson remained in charge. Its average finish since he retired has been fifth.
“They got the key appointment of the entire time right: Jurgen Klopp,” Neil Atkinson, host of Liverpool podcast The Anfield Wrap, told The Sporting News. “They’ve understood that Klopp can make the weather for the entire team and the business, both on and off the pitch. They’ve sort of embraced a lot of what Klopp’s about.”
Liverpool installed Klopp as manager in October 2015, when he decided a planned sabbatical following his successful stay at Borussia Dortmund had gone on long enough. Liverpool’s average finish in five seasons under FSG had been sixth, with only a near-miss title run in 2014 to brighten that period. When that season was over, LFC sold its best player, Luis Suarez, to Barcelona and failed to replace him. Ultimately, it would be Klopp producing the goals that had been subtracted, albeit not with his own feet.
“Klopp was ready to get back into coaching, and there was a real kinship in identity of the club that was a good fit for what he is all about,” Grant Wahl of GrantWahl.com, America’s leading soccer journalist, told TSN. “There are some real similarities between Dortmund and Liverpool in what they represent in their identities, what they represent in their communities and the fact they’ve had a lot of success even though Dortmund isn’t Bayern Munich and Liverpool isn’t Manchester United, which are seen as the true establishment in those countries. Klopp turned down Man United, when they had interest in him, but he felt much closer to what Liverpool was about.”
It would be unfair to the many effective club employees at LFC to attribute all of the success to Klopp’s presence, but it is reasonable to say, given what we’ve seen at wealthy, powerful clubs all across Europe, that none of it would work quite the same without him.
When Fenway purchased LFC for $476 million in 2010 from the failed American ownership group of Tom Hicks and George Gillett, there was an obvious intent early to use an analytics approach to building the team. Left-footed Charlie Adam was identified as being a prolific goal creator for Blackpool because of his ability to take free kicks. Midfielder Stewart Downing was purchased from Aston Villa for similar reasons. Liverpool finished eighth that year.
“There was a lot of expectation/insinuation they were going to be the smartest guys in the room,” Atkinson said. “I think they realized there’s ways to do that in European soccer, but everyone’s trying to be the smartest guys in the room, as well. And some of them have just got more money. So you’ve got to find your way a little bit.”
A team couldn’t simply be built using numbers. It had to be the proper numbers processed by the ideal people, which is where Graham, Gordon and sporting director Michael Edwards — who is leaving the club at the end of the season despite LFC’s wishes he remain — became so important.
According to LFCHistory.net, through January 2022 the club had bought 32 players for a total of $758 million since Klopp arrived and sold 60 players for $567 million. The net spend since the summer of 2017 is less than half of what has been transacted by Premier League rival Manchester City, which has won three of the past four league titles but accumulated only one more total point in those races than LFC.
Liverpool attracted such stars as Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Fabinho, and barely spent more than $50 million for any of them. In January 2018, the club sold gifted midfielder Philippe Coutinho to FC Barcelona at his request for nearly $180 million, then basically used that money to spend a record figure on a defender, Virgil van Dijk, and another record for a goalkeeper, Alisson Becker. Those two have been essential in helping to attain the Champions League victory in 2019, the Premier League in 2020 and such trophies as the 2020 FIFA Club World Cup, the 2022 FA Cup and the 2022 Carabao Cup.
“What I’m told is that Liverpool’s data analysis is off-the-charts good, and how they identify recruitment targets and then execute to get them and don’t overspend,” Wahl told TSN. “Their success rate is just much higher than other teams. Now, the downside of not having the amount of money that Manchester City does — Liverpool doesn’t buy that many guys, in comparison.
“Klopp has established this reputation as someone — he and his staff — who makes current players better. I think that’s such an underrated skill. But the downside of the strategy is, if one of your pillars gets injured, like Van Dijk did last season, it can screw things up pretty big. You need your main guys to stay healthy.”
Fenway has not been flawless. This is sports. And it is business. Mistakes are inevitable in either. It took longer than hoped for the ownership to move Liverpool forward. Whereas the consortium led by financier John Henry brought the Red Sox a World Series title just three years after purchasing the team in 2001, Liverpool’s first major title took nine years to secure.
And away from the field, there was the disaster of the planned European Super League, which ownership had planned to join along with several other top English clubs and the elite of France, Spain and Italy. Fan revolt across the continent led to that plan being scrapped inside three days, and Henry to issue a public apology through social media.
In 2016, a club plan to increase ticket prices at Anfield led 10,000 fans to walk out in the 77th minute of a game against Sunderland — the timing chosen to represent the 77-pound price of the new ticket, a 30 percent increase. The plan was withdrawn, and prices have held steady since.
“One of the things that’s happened is the UK arm, when it was headed up by Peter Moore and now Billy Hogan, I think has taken the opportunity that Klopp gives because of his personality and put trust and faith in the supporters to let them lead on a lot of the cultural or brand-based positions that the company takes,” Atkinson told TSN. “So, for instance, there’ll be a massive parade, and that’ll be about the supporters coming up the streets. There’ll be a fan park in Paris, and that’ll be about the idea that 70,000 Liverpool supporters will attend. And it’s being arranged by predominantly a combination of relationship between the club and Liverpool supporters. There’s a huge amount of trust there.
“I’ll go up at the fan park and no one will tell me what I can’t say. No one will even think about doing that. At every event I’ve done with Liverpool Football Club, no one has ever said: Don’t say this, don’t say this, don’t say this. Up to and including swearing. And that, from a huge corporate entity like Liverpool, is a remarkable amount of trust. And people live up to that.
“So there’s been expectations set in all directions, and the trust is mutual. No one feels undermined … That, to me, is what underpins this. I don’t think any of that happens without Jurgen Klopp. But I think other organizations would be much more conservative around the trust element, even with Jurgen Klopp. So I think this is hugely to Liverpool’s credit, and to the people who run Liverpool’s credit.”
Atkinson said Klopp did not enter a “superclub” when he arrived nearly seven years ago, but his work and that of the executive team provided by FSG has transformed it into one. “It’s almost a different job now,” Atkinson said.
It would be a damned thing if Fenway Sports Group were to allow Klopp’s surpassing influence to wane. Which is why a month ago, they added two more years to his contract, and if he completes that term, he’ll have become the first Liverpool manager to reach a 10th season since the great Bill Shankly won three league titles between 1959 and 1974.
Klopp is not just popular with the team’s worldwide fan base, which, according to the London School of Marketing, is the second-largest on the planet at 580 million, behind only Manchester United. He is appreciated by the most important people who wear the Liverpool crest: the players who’ll face Real Madrid for the European Cup.
“He’s a special person, a special manager — off the pitch and on the pitch,” LFC captain Jordan Henderson told TSN at Notre Dame. “He’s so good with the lads off the pitch. He’s got a perfect balance of being close to the players but also having that — he’s still got to be ruthless and he’s still our manager at the end of the day. He has got a really good balance with that.
“Obviously, the knowledge of the game, what he does in training, how we learn from him, that speaks for itself, as you can see how we’ve performed … So we’ve just got to continue to do that, keep learning from him, and the staff, as well. I’m sure if we do that and we keep following him, there’ll be more success stories to tell in the future, for sure.”