Jürgen Klopp, never one to hide a smile, is smiling more than ever these days. After a dismal season last year with his club of seven years, Borussia Dortmund, Mr. Klopp is winning again, in his new job with FC Liverpool in the English Premier League.
Liverpool recently defeated title favorite Manchester City and the star-studded lineup at FC Chelsea. And even though his team underperformed at last week’s away match in Newcastle, Mr. Klopp’s personality is winning him plenty of new fans every day on the island.
He has stabilized the team, moving it from the tenth position in the standing to the eighth. Of the seven games played so far this season in the Premier League, Liverpool won three, tied two and lost two.
The 48-year-old coach has learned to prevail in the rough-and-tough world of soccer. His 18 years with FSV Mainz 05 – as both a player and a coach – shaped him more than any other experience. He shot 52 goals as a striker for Mainz in the second division, and a courageous decision by FSV manager Christian Heidel later turned the injured player into one of Germany’s most popular coaches.
As one of the youngest coaches in the Bundesliga, Mr. Klopp managed to keep his team in the second division in 2001, before leading FSV Mainz into the first division in 2004.
Mr. Klopp is a troubleshooter. He is accessible to the club’s employees and players, and his people skills are a key component of his success. He talks to his players and interacts with them as individuals. He reacts irritably and impulsively when players behave disparagingly. He expects them to approach fans, even when they lose.
Mr. Klopp is a troubleshooter. He is accessible to the club's employees and players, and his people skills are the key to his success.
A new era began for Mr. Klopp at Borussia Dortmund in 2008. Courageous and determined, he took a risk with a group of young, talented players. Working closely together with club’s youth division, Mr. Klopp developed players like Mats Hummels, Nuri Sahin, Kevin Grosskreutz and Mario Götze. After years of crisis, euphoria and confidence returned to the Westfalen Stadium.
The German soccer coach surprised his players with new concepts, like counter-pressing directly after losing the ball and possession through vertical play after gaining control of it. It was a refreshing approach to soccer with a high degree of running.
In 2011, after only 32 matchdays, it was clear that Dortumund would be the Bundesliga champion that year.
Mr. Klopp and his team garnered 75 points while conceding only 22 goals. And then he upped the ante. As he continued to develop his approach to the game, Mr. Klopp celebrated four titles in a row: the German championship, the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Supercup – twice.
Mr. Klopp likes to maintain a close emotional connection to his clubs. But after a bad year in 2014 in Dortmund, clueless with a lack of ideas, he announced his departure from Borussia in April 2015, saying he was “no longer the perfect coach” for the club.
Ever since the 2013 Champions League final in London, when the German clubs Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich clashed in London, and since the German national team’s World Cup title last year, German coaches have been in great demand.
But Mr. Klopp is only the second German coach after Felix Magath to try his luck in the Premier League. And unlike Mr. Magath, who left behind athletic and economic chaos at FC Fulham after only a few months on the job, things are looking good for Mr. Klopp.
The decision to coach Liverpool was carefully thought out. Rugged northwestern England suits him just fine as a down-to-earth, hard-working coach.
Fans have high expectations, many of them viewing FC Liverpool as an “English football institution,” with its 18 championship titles. But the last national championship was in 1990. The club is hungry for another.
Mr. Klopp’s job is to manage the tough balancing act between tradition and commerce. His philosophy in Liverpool, as it was in Dortmund, is that his team can defeat any other as long as the players work together.
He has also mastered the game of words. He knows what people from the port city are looking for, and how he can reach them. Communication is probably his greatest strength. He has the ability to inspire and captivate people, and make them laugh, and yet he also manages to be treated as an authority figure and a person commanding respect.
Mr. Klopp has also begun to voice some criticism. Within weeks of arriving in Liverpool, he chastised the English Football Association for the way it treats young players, who play three games in five days. He said young players need time to develop. “If we handle them like horses, then we get horses,” he said.
After his first press conference, in which Mr. Klopp introduced himself as “the normal one” – in a nod to his extravagant Chelsea counterpart José Mourinho, who had previously portrayed himself as “the special one,” he had the tabloid papers eating out of his hand. He gives reporters more than they are accustomed to receiving from the incommunicative Premier League coaches. He is already seen as a darling of the media industry.
The advertising industry likes him, too, with the beard, the glasses, the sparkling white teeth and the huge smile – and above all the determination to win. According to a study by Berlin consulting firm Celebrity Performance, Mr. Klopp is Germany’s second-most-popular face in advertising, which puts him ahead of race-car driver Sebastian Vettel, entertainer Thomas Gottschalk and basketball star Dirk Nowitski. Only one celebrity’s face is more likely to appear in ads, that of former soccer star Michael Ballack, who is still feeding on his former fame.
But Mr. Klopp’s smile isn’t his only asset in winning people over. He also impresses fans with his expertise on the sidelines. He first appeared on Germany’s ZDF television network as the “National Coach on TV.” Later, together with Johannes B. Kerner and Urs Meier, he analyzed and provided commentary on the 2006 World Cup, securing his position nationwide as a media expert on tactics. He was presented with the German Television Award for his amusing, optimistic, sometimes self-deprecating and always professionally competent appearance on ZDF. Few others are as effective at conveying the emotions of soccer with the liveliness, humor, facial expressions and gestures of Mr. Klopp. He is a born entertainer.
But the truth lies on the pitch, an old football adage that also applies to Mr. Klopp. It’s where his players are devoted to him. Defense player Dejan Lovren told the Guardina newspaper that Mr. Klopp makes everyone feel he believes in him, and in doing so manages to boost everyone’s self-confidence.
Hardly anyone doubts that the German soccer coach will be successful in England. About 200,000 viewers in Germany watched Mr. Klopp’s debut as Liverpool’s coach on “Sky Deutschland,” the highest German viewership ever attained for a Premier League match. Experts are already saying that he could mark the beginning of a new era in Liverpool.
If he manages to establish and sustain his love of fast soccer and quick transitions between defense and offense at FC Liverpool, he will be a resounding success. The switch of the year could be the beginning of an English soccer fairy tale.
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