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Jurgen Klopp & The Tale of Two World Cups

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The German manager had his best, and worst, seasons following World Cups. What can we learn from these seasons?

Borussia Dortmund Training Session & Press Conference Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images

Liverpool, like all major teams, are having to work around the constraints imposed by the 2018 World Cup. The month-long tournament kept many of the best players in the world away from their clubs, and Liverpool are no exception. Four Liverpool players, including three presumptive starters—Jordan Henderson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Dejan Lovren—were with their national teams for the entire length of the tournament. Additionally, training will be limited for the Brazilian continent at the front and back of the formation, Roberto Firmino and Alisson, respectively.

The good news is this is not Kloppo’s first rodeo. The bad news is Klopp’s record coming out of World Cups seems to be the case of feast or famine.

Let’s start with his days at Mainz, which for the purposes of this discussion will be the least consequential. In the 2002/03 season, Mainz had zero players participating in the World Cup, and followed up their season of missing out on promotion by 1 point, by missing out on promotion by 1 goal (scored in the 93rd minute of the last match, no less). Four years later in 2006, only one Mainz player, Ghanian forward Otto Addo, was called up for the World Cup. Having guided Mainz to their first ever appearance in the Bundesliga in 2003/04, and keeping the Carnival Club up for a couple of seasons, Klopp suffered his one and only relegation as a manager in 2006/07. There were structural issues with the club that were far more pressing than the World Cup, but I thought I would briefly mention these seasons to cover my bases.

In 2010, Klopp, now with Borussia Dortmund, once again only had to part with a limited number of players, sending Serbian defender Neven Subotić, and Paraguayan striker Lucas Barrios. Between them, they played a total of nearly 400 minutes. Dortmund started the season on a low note, a 2-0 loss to Bayer Leverkusen. And then they won 14 of the next 15 matches—14 wins and a draw. Despite slowing down in the second half of the season, no other team would really come close to challenging them. Leverkusen finished 7 points behind in second, and Bayern finished third, 10 points off the pace.

However, Klopp’s success in the league came at a cost. Dortmund were bounced in the second round of the DFB-Pokal by Kickers Offenbach, and failed to advance out of the Europa League group stage, finishing third behind Paris Saint-Germain and Sevilla (fair enough, I suppose).

Four years later, having guided Dortmund to two league titles and a Champions League final, Klopp’s players were suddenly hot commodities the world over. This time Klopp sent 9 players out to play with their national teams in Brazil (including three incoming transfers), racking up a total of 1330 minutes between them. However, this is not the whole story, as this excerpt from Raphael Honigstein’s excellent book Bring the Noise explains:

Psychologically, Dortmund’s [German] national team contingent seemed exhausted. ‘Hummels aside, the other four hadn’t played in Brazil but they were right in the middle of this huge hype,’ Krawietz remembers. Watzke: ‘To put it mildly, the World Cup didn’t play a productive role. Our players had hardly featured in Brazil, but they all felt like world champions.’ Hummels’ plight was more mundane, he says. ‘I came back injured and never really recovered my form that season. As captain, my job was to lead by example but I was too busy trying to get to grips with my own problems. I couldn’t be a leader and talk to others from a position of strength because I was playing crap football myself.’

Dortmund’s start to the 2014/15 campaign was memorably dire. They lost seven of their opening 10 matches, with only two wins and a draw in the other three. They were stuck in the relegation zone for over half the season, even if a late-season recovery allowed them to finish 7th and regain a modicum of respect. They did better in the cup competitions, although still ultimately came up short. Dortmund pipped Arsenal on goal differential for top spot in their Champions League group, but lost in the Round of 16, 5-1 on aggregate to Juventus. Klopp guided his beleaguered side to a DFB-Pokal final, but fell short, losing 3-1 to Wolfsburg in his last game as manager for the side.

So how does this all relate to this year’s Liverpool squad? Unfortunately, as far as player involvement and training goes, it’s not great news. For starters, in both 2010 and 2014, the Bundesliga season started about a week later than this year’s Premier League. Additionally, the Bundesliga has a midseason break, which helped Klopp right the ship after the terrible start in 2014. Although the transfer window is still open, a minimum of 8 Liverpool players (Salah, Mane, Firmino, Shaqiri, Henderson, Alexander-Arnold, Lovren, and Alisson) participated in the World Cup. Two more, Mignolet and Grujic, were in the squad, but are likely to be shipped out before the transfer window closes. Between them, they racked nearly twice as much playing time as Klopp’s 2014 Dortmund contingent, 2544 minutes.

The good news, insofar as there is any, is that other Premier League squads, particularly Manchesters United and City, and Tottenham, were hit even harder than Liverpool’s.

Regardless, without digging deeper into the statistics, common sense would dictate that less training time is a big disadvantage, especially for Klopp’s sides. Luckily, our two big midfield signings of Naby Keita and Fabinho did not have international commitments to worry about, and could train the entire summer under Kloppo. Shaqiri and Alisson will certainly need a bit of bedding in, and as we saw from the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain last year, that can be a slower than desirable process. You’re probably not going to score a bicycle kick every week, after all.

Hopefully the 2014 Dortmund side was the outlier. As the quote above indicates, there was a lot going on with that squad between Hummels’ injury and poor form, and players feeling like world champions, despite doing nothing to earn that title. Knee concerns aside, this might also be a small part of the reason why Klopp was not overly enthusiastic about dipping back in the Nabil Fekir well (a player who played an insignificant role in France’s World Cup triumph this year).

In 2010, Klopp’s side got out to a fast start (well, after the first match), and never looked back. They took advantage of other sides who were dealing with their own World Cup hangovers, and by the time they caught up in the second half of the season, it was too late. Fowler willing, this season will look a lot more like 2010 than 2014.