From the August 14 edition of the Thuringian Zeitung in 1991 is a painful image of three players colliding, two of them with their eyes closed and the other not looking where the ball is. Underneath the chaotic scene is a headline which translates roughly as, ‘There is Klopp.’
Liverpool’s manager had scored four goals the day before during Mainz’s 5-0 victory at Rot-Weiss Erfurt and so, created the sort of positive focus that would not be repeated too many times during a playing career which he admits due to some limitations progressed steadily but never as spectacularly as this.
Klopp was nearly finished with his media responsibilities on Saturday night deep inside Anfield’s main stand when he was asked whether it was really true – what he recalls from that game in the German second division, whether the officials allowed him to keep the match ball? “No, they had only one ball,” he laughed. “If I took the ball then they would be looking for one.”
The memories returned, including a touch of regret leaving behind a sense that he wishes he’d have done better. It’s the ones that get away you remember the most. “There were a few nice goals, one very easy and there was one off the crossbar. So, it would have been five…” he pondered.
Klopp had spent the majority of the previous nine minutes being asked about Mohamed Salah. Salah had scored four times against Watford, of course, and his achievements this season means he is on course to achieving legendary status. Klopp had earlier admitted that Salah is “on his way” to earning those Lionel Messi comparisons as well but then wanted to remind there is still distance to cover. Klopp’s expectations sometimes sound Benítezian. Setting challenges at the right times and firing motivation is what the best managers get right.
“We will not treat him like, ‘You don’t have to train, Mo – just come on Saturday for the game and we’ll see you there at Anfield or whatever.’ He doesn’t want that. He’s exactly in the moment of his career but he knows there is a lot for him to come.”
Klopp was not pointing out shortcomings, but rather reminding that there is always room for improvement. Klopp believes Roberto Firmino’s work-rate means Salah doesn’t have to cover as much ground defensively. It explains why Firmino was substituted before Salah even though the match was already won and Salah already had a hat-trick by then.
Salah hits FOUR as Liverpool put abject Watford to the sword
“Roberto loves running in that (forward) direction, and chasing the players. If I said to him, ‘Stop it’. He couldn’t. That’s why I took him off because he will never rest. He runs all the time but then Mo didn’t stop as well tonight in the other direction. He took each sprint like the 100 metre final in the Olympic Games. That’s what I mean, the team adapts to the strengths. Nobody is talking and saying, ‘Mo but you have to…’”
Klopp’s judgements are always based on the balance of the team rather than the needs or achievements of the individual, though that is not to say in isolation Salah’s output is not recognised. His aim is to make sure players know what to do automatically.
“You need to learn as a team, ‘Where is he?’ because there isn’t always time for searching. I don’t know exactly how many goals he [Salah] has scored but obviously a few, so it’s normal that you talk about that. He’s not only a striker, and whatever only a striker is; only a finisher. It’s not like he is not involved in anything else. He’s a very interesting package.”
As Klopp’s own playing career moved along in years, he moved further back the pitch. There would be no more days like that one in Erfurt. A centre forward at the start, he became a midfielder and then a centre half and sometimes, a right back. It is probably underestimated how important this experience is and how much it helps him see what others might not as a manager. He understands positions and appreciates that players can adapt to new ones if the right decisions are made for them.
Salah arrived at Liverpool as a winger last summer. It is difficult to describe his position now because Liverpool’s system is unique in the Premier League. Maybe it’s easiest to leave it as an old-fashioned inside-forward. Klopp is modest enough to admit that the idea to re-frame Salah only came after he signed. It was not originally part of his long-term vision.
“He [Salah] played more on the wing in Rome for example where he had a very dominant striker in [Edin] Dzeko. Nobody could know [that he could play as a striker]. We learnt it step by step. Without consistency, we couldn’t know for certain but in the pre-season, we knew.”
As the snow ceded and temperatures plummeted, Liverpool’s players walked off the pitch to be greeted by Troy Deeney at the tunnel entrance. Not so long ago, Deeney was able to detail how this was a Liverpool team you could bully. Virgil van Dijk’s arrival has changed perceptions because of his height, his power, his grace and his calm. On this occasion, Deeney wanted to shake the hands of those responsible for overpowering Watford so convincingly. Liverpool’s defence did not give him a sniff. For Klopp and for Liverpool, indeed, this surely represents progress.