With his toothy grin, bellowing guffaw and celebratory bear hugs, Jurgen Klopp is a larger than life character in the Premier League. Genuine expressions of delight, such as the sprint onto the pitch to celebrate a 96th-minute Merseyside derby winner, will see the German remembered fondly when he eventually leaves Anfield. But that’s not what Klopp wants to be remembered for.
“Nobody wants to look back in 10 or 20 years and say ‘So the best time we had without winning anything was when Klopp was here. It was so funny and all that stuff,’” he insisted. “That’s not really something you want to achieve.”
Now three years into his tenure at Liverpool, the 51-year-old’s heavy metal football has produced boundless entertainment but no trophies to show for it, coming closest in their recent Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid.
This year they look a different beast, and may have to find an extra shelf or two in the trophy cabinet. A third of the way into the campaign they made their best start to a League season, staying unbeaten in their first 13 games and collecting a record 33 points.
For the first time in a while, the Reds are in position to mount a legitimate title challenge. Despite boasting 18 domestic League titles in their history, the Reds have never won the Premier League in the competition’s 26-year history and fans are more than a little desperate for it. There are even websites dedicated solely to mocking the Merseyside club by counting time down to the second since they were the best team in England.
Not that they haven’t tried. Runners-up in 2002, it was really a battle for second with Manchester United, as Arsenal won the title by seven points. A thorn in their 2008-09 title bid was the emergence of 17-year-old Italian forward Federico Macheda for Manchester United, who, on his debut, scored a superb 93rd minute winner against Aston Villa. He did the same a week later, scoring in a 2-1 win over Sunderland. Those extra four points were crucial as it proved the margin of victory Manchester United boasted over the Reds.
Liverpool’s most recent title tilt was an incredible watch for neutrals but may also be responsible for one or two heart problems fans endured. Leading the League with three games to go, captain Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip handed Demba Ba a goal, Chelsea a win, and Manchester City the title. Crazy wins such 4-3 against Swansea, 5-3 against Stoke City and 6-3 at Cardiff City showed Liverpool, backed by the mercurial Luis Suarez, could score for fun, but conceded goals almost as easily.
The latest failure served as a great admonishment. Defence wins titles, and callous regard for it does not. On the evidence of Klopp’s first two seasons, he did not heed that warning and was mercilessly criticised by fans and pundits alike for his refusal to bolster his backline. In his first two years he only spent £12m on defenders, before splashing out £75m on Vigil Van Dijk. It may yet prove a bargain, as he looks to be the player who turned Liverpool into legitimate contenders.
The Dutchman looks so perfect a centre-back one would think he had been created in a video game. A giant at 6ft 4in with a leap that makes him dominant in the air, yet still rapid enough to chase down most centre-forwards, Van Dijk is the real deal. But perhaps his greatest assets are mental. He reads the game well, tackles strongly and is a great organiser, talking non-stop to his teammate. The former Southampton man is the kind of character they have lacked at the back since Jamie Carragher retired in 2013.
Netherlands teammate Davy Klassen hailed Van Dijk as one of the best defenders in the world, while Watford striker Troy Deeney admits he hates going up against him. “He’s too big,” Deeney complained. “He’s too strong, too quick, too good on the ball, loves fighting, [has] a good head of hair…”
Perfect in the vein eyes of Deeney, Van Dijk is an even greater force together with young defender Joe Gomez, with the two Klopp’s preferred pair at the back. Former Arsenal defender Martin Keown believes they could go down as ‘one of the best centre-back partnerships the Premier League has ever seen.’ On the evidence of this season, his assertions do not seem far-fetched. Liverpool had only conceded five goals after 14 games, compared to 15 goals by the same time last season.
Van Dijk isn’t the only recent arrival making an impact either. Some of this season’s acquisitions, such as Xherdan Shaqiri and Alisson Becker, have made an impact at their respective ends of the pitch, with Naby Keita and Fabinho still settling into the side.
But while Liverpool have certainly bolstered, the strength of their opposition can’t be ignored. Chelsea look revolutionised under Maurizio Sarri and Arsenal are a solid side managed by Unai Emery, but right now Manchester City are the team to beat. Under the stewardship of celebrated and decorated manager Pep Guardiola, the Citizens cantered to the title last season with a record 100 points.
Klopp has made no secret of his admiration for both their Coach and the style of football he holds so dear, with the two having already locked horns in Germany when he managed Borussia Dortmund and Pep Bayern. “Watching them is really good,” he acknowledged. “My respect for Pep Guardiola couldn’t be bigger, he is the world’s best manager and that makes it so difficult, but so exciting to play his teams.”
Klopp was one of the few managers to consistently get the better of Pep Guardiola last year, winning 4-3 in the League and knocking City out of the Champions League, but over the course of last season Manchester City finished 25 points ahead of Liverpool in the table. Guardiola’s side have only strengthened since by adding former PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez, and still look indomitable this year.
In terms of pure entertainment, to some Klopp’s football surpassed Guardiola’s. But while Manchester City’s symphony under Pep hits the third movement strongly, Liverpool’s attack, featuring the feared threesome of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, have hit a few bum notes this year.
Those three will still get goals, but Liverpool also have to rely on their rivals stumbling to open things up. Manchester City being only good, rather than impossibly great, is the best thing they can hope for, praying they overburden themselves.
Last year, Liverpool didn’t win any of their three matches played around the time of their Champions League tie against Roma and named a weak side for a Merseyside derby sandwiched between European games against City. With the Champions League such a credible competition, even the League can become a distraction.
Klopp pinned all hopes on European success and it came back to bite him. The 3-1 loss to Real Madrid was his sixth cup final defeat in a row, and he is now trophyless in as many years. A mantelpiece of loser medals must surely irk a winner like Klopp, as well as fans who are growing increasingly expectant. Klopp has spent over £380m on players in his time at Liverpool, of which £160m was splashed this summer alone.
While some of that money has gone into replacing high-profile departures such as Phillipe Coutinho, who joined Barcelona for £142m, it raises expectations as to what this Liverpool side should achieve.
‘This is our year’ is a phrase often used to taunt Liverpool fans for what supporters of other clubs feel is their unrealistic optimism after a few decent results. But this year the Liverpool faithful have every right to be a little bullish. Outpacing Manchester City to claim first place in the Premier League will be a Herculean task, but Klopp may finally have the team to do it. If anyone is going to stop City, it’s Liverpool.