On Tuesday, Liverpool fashioned Anfield’s greatest night in European football by coming back from a 3-0 first-leg deficit at Camp Nou to send Lionel Messi and Barcelona crashing out of the Champions League semi-finals 4-3 on aggregate.
But this was not a night of a superstar player turning the game on its head, it was down to the tactical nous of the man in the Liverpool dug-out — manager Jurgen Klopp.
Shorn of his leading attacking duo Mohammad Salah and Roberto Firmino, the German coach illustrated why he is one of the best heads in the game by utilising his fringe players to maximum effect and stunning a Barcelona side who had no answer to his men’s belief, tenacity and sheer will to win.
Going into the second leg needing to score at least three goals to even stand a chance against arguably the greatest team in Europe right now — containing arguably the greatest player of all time in Messi — was the tallest of orders. But somehow, Klopp convinced his men to stand even taller. Ahead of kick-off, Klopp admitted his chances were slim, prompting a quote that only this affable German could deliver.
He didn’t give the Churchillian rallying cry we often hear at prematch press conferences. Nor did he admit defeat and lavish praise on a better opponent, nor complain about injuries or over-demanding playing schedules. Instead, Klopp did things the Klopp way.
“We want to celebrate the Champions League campaign, either with a proper finish or another goal,” Klopp told the Guardian on Monday.
Fast forward to full-time on Tuesday, and it was clear to see how Klopp’s players have truly committed to their manager’s cause. As Liverpool’s players and coach locked arm in arm to celebrate in front of Anfield’s famous Kop stand, there were tears, smiles and the odd shake of the head, both on the field, as the club’s famous anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone rang out from all corners of the ground. Each player took it in turn to embrace their coach like a son hugs his long-lost father. This is not just a team, Klopp has created a family.
No one illustrated the beliefs instilled by Klopp more than the crocked Salah, who sported a shirt that read “Never Give Up” as he partied with his teammates.
‘Never Give Up’ is a philosophy Klopp has adhered to throughout his career as a player and manager — always with the underdog but also managing to punch above his weight both on the field and in the dug-out.
It took Klopp a few years to make his name. The towering Stuttgart native, who began as a striker, had to look on from the sidelines while others around him broke into their respective first-team squads aged 18 and 19. After a few years on the squad fringes at lower-league teams in Germany, Klopp found his playing niche with Frankfurt side Mainz 05 in the second division when he signed for them as a 23-year-old in 1990.
It was here he made the switch to defence, where his height and physical presence saw him clock up 325 appearances and 56 goals during 15 years. During his latter years as a player, Klopp began to show his footballing brain. He obtained a diploma in sports science and obtained his Football Coaching Licence, clearly preparing for what lay ahead.
When he retired from playing in 2001, Klopp took his first step into management, taking over as coach at Mainz, it became clear he had a special gift for getting the best out of his players as he turned the perennial lower-league journeymen into a mid-table Bundesliga side in just three years.
In his next job, he claimed his first major honour as he guided Borussia Dortmund to the Bundesliga title in 2010-11 and followed it up by securing the domestic double the next season. His ‘gegenpressing’ style — to harass and harry the opposition whenever you did not have possession — took Dortmund to the Champions League final in 2013, where they lost 2—1 to great rivals Bayern Munich.
Soon Liverpool were calling for his services in 2015, and he guided them up the league table over the course of the next three campaigns — eighth, fourth, fourth — and they sit just one point behind leaders Manchester City this term going into Sunday’s final day of the Premer League season.
He also guided them to a League Cup and Europa League final before falling agonisingly short in last year’s Champions League final, where they lost 3—1 to Real Madrid.
It only seems fair that, if Liverpool do fall short in the Premier League race — they need a big favour from Brighton against City on Sunday, while they need to overcome Wolves — they have a great opportunity to deliver Klopp his first silverware as Anfield boss. The biggest prize in Europe against Tottenham in Madrid on June 1.
Even Klopp’s long-time Premier League adversary, former Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho — not one to give too many compliments — recognised what Klopp had done to turn this team into a unit who can take on and defeat the best in the world.
Following the remarkable win over Barca on Wednesday, Klopp delivered one of his many quotes that will live long in the memory. The German beamed his gleaming smile and said: “It’s the best face of football, eh?”