Before we talk about Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, I want to take us back in time to May of 2013.
I was fortunate enough to live in Munich from 2013-2015. I watched the city erupt after winning the Champions League in the first—and so far only—all-German final, and again the following summer when the German men’s national team lifted the World Cup. Although I’m neither a Bayern fan, nor a German national team fan, I am a football fan, and it was an exciting time and place to observe some of the best football we’ve seen in recent memory.
After Kloppo had led Dortmund to consecutive titles, including the double in 2011-12, Bayern Munich were back with a vengeance. They beat Klopp’s Dortmund side to the league title by 25 points. They beat Juventus in the Champions League quarterfinal 4-0 on aggregate, and then trounced Barcelona in the semifinal 7-0 on aggregate.
As the Bayern-Dortmund final approached, I had a conversation with a friend and lifelong Bayern fan about the upcoming clash. He said something that stuck with me all these years.
“Dortmund play beautifully, but Bayern, they play perfectly.”
Football does not naturally lend itself to perfection. No match could be said to be “perfect,” let alone an entire season. But that 2012-13 Bayern side was just about as close to perfect as this imperfect sport allows. In the league they played 34, won 29, drew 4, lost 1. They would have earned roughly 101-2 points over a 38 game season. They beat Dortmund 2-1 in the Champions League final, and Stuttgart 3-2 in the DFB-Pokal final to wrap up the treble.
Klopp’s Dortmund sides, by comparison, were beautiful. They reflected Klopp’s passion and intensity in the way they pressed and scored goals. They won a lot of matches, but were also capable of throwing a game or two into the bin. In Klopp’s first title campaign with Dortmund, 2010-11, they won 23, lost 5 and drew 6. The year after? They won 25, lost 3 while also drawing 6. Despite leading the Bundesliga in goal differential both seasons, and setting a points record in the second, no one would have accused them of being the all-conquering force of the Bayern teams that would follow (especially that 2012-13 treble winning side). That Bayern team, incidentally, broke Dortmund’s freshly minted points record—by 10 clear points.
His early Liverpool sides continued this tradition of playing beautifully. Or, more accurately in the case of 2017-18, of beautiful failure. Liverpool could be absolutely breathtaking at times en route to their first Champions League final in 11 years. That squad produced some of the best attacking football we have ever seen at Anfield, hitting opponents for 4’s, 5’s, 6’s, and 7’s multiple times.
We were beautiful. But we weren’t perfect. Even with the addition of Virgil van Dijk, we still had trouble shutting up shop. That Liverpool side thought they could take the game away from any team, and for the most part they were right.
And if Mohamed Salah had not been injured in the final, perhaps they would have taken the match away from Real Madrid as well. But Salah was injured. As was Loris Karius. Sergio Ramos single handedly (and/or elbowedly) taught the Reds a lesson in the Dark Arts. It was a lesson in identifying a problem, boxing it off, and finding a way to complete the task at hand—whether it’s the metaphorical rainy weeknight in Stoke, or the literal Champions League final. Reasonable people can disagree with the ethics of it (I personally find intentionally injuring opponents abhorrent), but no one can disagree with the effectiveness. And once Ramos did what he did, the rest of the experienced Galácticos saw the game out as necessary.
It was a harsh lesson, on the biggest of stages, but Klopp and his players learned that lesson well.
Now, Liverpool are still not a team that attempts to injure its opponents. Apart from bits of Scottish “winding up” snide, no one would reasonably accuse this team of being dirty. However, this squad, from that loss in the Champions League final on, have become much better at seeing games out, and doing what must be done to complete the task at hand. They still press, but just as importantly, they know when not to. They’ve learned when to take the air out of a match, to control matters in and out of possession, all while their opponents cut a frustrated pose.
They even dabble in a bit of the Dark Arts, something that was not associated with the “beautiful” Klopp teams of the past. These Reds win free kicks when under pressure, take a few extra seconds on throw-ins and goal kicks, ask the ref for clarification when none is needed, place the ball outside the corner quadrant on corner kicks, and then quibble with the ref about it while the seconds drain away.
Last season Klopp’s Liverpool flew as close to perfection as anyone could reasonably ask for. Even the best sides ever are allowed to lose a (singular!) football match. Of course it wasn’t enough, at least not domestically. A season that could have—should have—been a historic league and Champions League double, was denied by a mere 11 millimeters. Instead, arguably the best Liverpool side ever had to “settle” for the biggest trophy in club football.
That Champions League final, just one year on from their biggest disappointment, showed just how much they had matured. Once they got an advantage in the final from an early Salah spot kick, they weren’t letting Spurs have a sniff. They had one hand on the trophy that had eluded them the year before, and they were prepared to make it the longest, most frustrating 90 minutes of football most of us had ever seen. But they were not there to entertain with beautiful football. They were there to win the Champions League.
Of course, Klopp’s learning curve began well before Ramos’s MMA-style defending. He watched Bayern dust themselves off after a couple of down years and come roaring back to life. In the process of dethroning the champs, Klopp had awakened a big, red, sleeping giant. He watched on helplessly, as his Dortmund side were picked apart by Bayern and suitors beyond, unable to keep his core group of players together.
He needed a bigger boat. He needed his own big, red, sleeping giant. He needed a club where he could at least stand a reasonable chance of holding on to his biggest players, or at the very least not lose them to his biggest domestic rivals. Moreover, to be the best, he needed a club where he could recruit not just future stars, but current ones. Sometimes to have the best team, it is just as simple as signing the best players. Virgil van Dijk? Alisson Becker? He wouldn’t have had the same ability to sign, let alone keep, such big stars of the game before Liverpool.
He saw that potential at Liverpool, and the team—from top to bottom—is almost unrecognizable from when he took over. Jordan Henderson and the liver bird are just about the only two things that remain.
And there was another lesson he took from his past and current rival, Pep Guardiola. He watched as Pep’s teams steamrolled the opposition, both within games, and over the course of a season. In the Bundesliga as in the Premier League, Pep won at a pace that no one could live with.
Pep’s teams were also energetic and intense, but in a more controlled manner. Whereas Klopp’s sides had thrived in chaos, Pep’s demanded ultimate control. And his sides were relentless, especially at the start of the seasons. The league titles won by Pep at Bayern and City felt inevitable.
We’re not even half way through the campaign, but this side is already eclipsing the nearly-perfect standard set last year. There’s a long way to go, but this side is looking a lot more like Klopp’s former rivals, than Klopp’s former title-winning sides. They’re looking, in a word, perfect.