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Three years of Klopp: Liverpool’s systematic shift has left them with only one option

Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola

“I was like a blank piece of paper; I had no real expectations of different players. That’s how it is as a new manager – you come in and in the best way you give everybody a new chance.”

So explained Jurgen Klopp last week as he reflected on three years in charge at Liverpool. October 8 marks the anniversary of Klopp’s appointment as manager of Liverpool – incredibly, making him the fifth-longest-serving manager in the Premier League behind Chris Hughton, Mauricio Pochettino, Sean Dyche and Eddie Howe.

Only he and Pochettino have spent the entirety of their tenures in the top flight, with Hughton, Dyche and Howe having each steered Brighton, Burnley and Bournemouth to promotion – and, crucially, kept them there.

Klopp and Pochettino, now standing alone following the departure of Arsene Wenger, always felt like strong long-term appointees who would stand a chance of beating football’s trigger-happy culture. Time is such a precious commodity in their field, few get it, but both have used theirs to align themselves with the values of their respective clubs and, to varying degrees, have overseen on-pitch success.

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Out with the old

From Klopp’s perspective, it has been three years of steady progress that began with a clean slate for the squad he inherited from Brendan Rodgers. Now, however, Liverpool are following a much steeper trajectory that should see him deliver on a mission statement made in the first days of his reign back in 2015.

When Klopp arrived on Merseyside, he took over a team that had won just four of its first 11 games of the season – against Stoke, Bournemouth, Carlisle (on penalties) and Aston Villa – and played out two toothless losses plus five listless draws, the last of which came at Everton.

The Reds were a shadow of the side that blew sides away in their title challenge under Rodgers in 2013/14; only once had they scored more than one goal in a game, with Danny Ings their top goalscorer (three), and Philippe Coutinho/James Milner their lead assist-makers (two each).

But while it was a squad that boasted the likes of Coutinho, Jordan Henderson and Roberto Firmino, it also featured Jordon Ibe, Joe Allen and Christian Benteke. Looking back now, it’s clear that Liverpool have made major strides under Klopp. Excluding the short-term, stopgap loan signing of Steven Caulker, only 18 of the 41 players named in a 2015/16 matchday squad are still at Liverpool; of those, just 12 are in the squad this season, and four – Henderson, Milner, Firmino and Joe Gomez – command a regular starting role.

Divock Origi, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Alberto Moreno, Nathaniel Clyne and Simon Mignolet, who all made 20 or more appearances that season, are now considered backup players. Of the remaining two, Pedro Chirivella is firmly on the fringes, while Daniel Sturridge is an intriguing case study; an anomaly in Klopp’s transformative reign as a survivor who has gone from staple to outcast and back again.

A clean slate initially meant players like Ibe, Allen, Benteke, Mamadou Sakho, Kevin Stewart, Brad Smith, Jon Flanagan, Cameron Brannagan, Connor Randall and Joao Carlos Teixeira were given opportunities, but upon leaving, only three have settled at a club in Europe’s top five leagues. Others who departed, such as Kolo Toure, Martin Skrtel and Lucas Leiva, did so as a natural progression at the tail end of their careers: Toure left for Celtic, Skrtel to Fenerbahce and Lucas to Lazio. 

The joy of six

Klopp, then, has shown a ruthless edge that belied his sensitive stance upon arriving. Though his hand has been forced on occasions too, as with Coutinho and Emre Can leaving against his will, the shaping of Liverpool’s squad has largely come on their manager’s terms.

Exactly the same could be said of the Reds’ signings since the charismatic German took his place in the dugout. Again, excluding Caulker, 15 players have been acquired for the first team, and bar veteran duo Alex Manninger and Ragnar Klavan, they all remain on the books at Anfield. Loris Karius is the only player not in the squad for Klopp’s third full season, as he spends 2018/19 on loan at Besiktas ahead of a permanent move. Tellingly, six of the 51-year-old’s signings – Georginio Wijnaldum, Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah, Andy Robertson, Virgil van Dijk and Alisson – can already be considered key players.

That sextet serve as a fitting portrayal of Liverpool’s business since Klopp joined: bargain, rough diamonds such as Robertson; well-measured mid-range acquisitions like Wijnaldum; and genuinely competitive, top-level buys in Mané, Salah, Alisson and Van Dijk.

The latter duo, both world-record signings at the time, highlight a shift in stance from both the club and its manager – prompted, as with every other side, by PSG’s earth-shattering £200 million deal to sign Neymar in 2017.

“I couldn't imagine the world would change like that two-and-a-half years ago,” Klopp reflected a year later. “£100 million was a crazy number. Since then the world has changed completely. My responsibility is for this club to be as successful as possible. It is not for me to push through my thoughts and say we don't want to buy players or pay big money and in the end Liverpool is not successful. That doesn't work.

“We have a really good squad. To improve it is expensive. Better players than we already have are not waiting around the corner.” 

Gear shift

It has been a welcome change in stance for Liverpool supporters who had long waited for world-class upgrades in goal and at centre-back.

The signings of Fabinho and Naby Keita also fit into this category, and while they’re yet to take up key roles as Klopp adopts a patient approach to their adjustment, they are certain to do so in the near future. Meanwhile, the £13.75 million paid to sign Xherdan Shaqiri from Stoke proves that Liverpool are still open to trawling for cut-price deals, but that the Swiss is now an outlier underlines how Klopp’s thought process has developed.

Now, in cahoots with the club’s owners, their figurehead Mike Gordon and, importantly, sporting director Michael Edwards, Klopp is presiding over a squad with clear ambitions of silverware in both the Premier League and Champions League.

In his first press conference as Liverpool manager three years ago, Klopp proffered that, “If I sit here in four years, I am pretty confident we will have one title.”

Interpreting this as a lost-in-translation allusion to silverware, rather than the Premier League title per se, the Reds have already come close: Klopp has led them to finals in the Champions League, Europa League and League Cup, but so far been unable to take them over the finish line.

Now, though, the German oversees a squad that includes a record-breaking goalscorer in Salah; the perfect attacking support in Mané and Firmino; a dynamic and fluid midfield that includes Keita, Fabinho, Wijnaldum, Henderson and Milner; genuine defensive steel in Van Dijk, Gomez and Alisson; a flourishing, youthful blend of full-backs in Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold; and real strength in depth with the likes of Shaqiri and Sturridge.

With that, silverware is the only appropriate ambition as Klopp aims to meet his own expectations in the four-year plan. Anything else will be considered failure. 

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