When Jurgen Klopp arrived at Anfield on this day in 2015, his first significant act as Liverpool manager was to downplay expectations. While Jose Mourinho had once famously titled himself ‘the Special One’ before leading Chelsea to consecutive Premier League titles, Klopp satirically declared he was ‘the Normal One’ – a ‘normal guy… from the Black Forest’. The implication was for Liverpool fans not to expect too much too soon from a manager whose dynamic persona and success in the Bundesliga preceded him.
And yet, two years down the line, we find ourselves asking whether the Reds have progressed to the extent many assumed when the German was appointed at the expense of Brendan Rodgers, a manager who left Merseyside with a better win-rate and a superior average of points per game than his successor, while leading Liverpool to a higher final standing in the Premier League table – second-place during the much-fabled 2013/14 season.
“I don’t want to describe myself. Does anyone in this room think I can do wonders? No. I am a normal guy. I come from the Black Forest. My mother is probably sat at home now watching this, not able to understand a word of what I am saying but very proud.”
Indeed, the statistics paint an image of stagnation rather than growth or regression, something backed up by a start to the season that has already shown us the best and the worst of Klopp’s Liverpool.
The best came in the form of a 4-0 destruction of Arsenal at Anfield during which the relentless pace and potency of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane on the break sent shockwaves around the Premier League. The worst, on the other hand, has been evident during a run of just one win in their last seven, a penchant for conceding soft goals through sloppy defending repeatedly costing the Merseysiders.
That was an intrinsic weakness under Rodgers too, arguably justifying the claim Klopp hasn’t taken the team significantly forward during the last 24 months. In fact, many of the problems from Rodgers’ final full season still largely remain; most notably a disorganised defence underwhelming in individual quality and a recurring theme of poor results against the Premier League’s most modest opposition. That’s despite £158million being spent on eight signings and over 100 games already to iron out the grooves.
That being said, the real question shouldn’t be whether Klopp has outperformed Rodgers or vice versa; it should be what we could Klopp realistically achieve in the space of two years and has he managed to do so.
There are some Liverpool fans who believe the club should be competing for the Premier League title every season, but the reality is starkly different. Liverpool have been a key component of the title race on just two occasions over the last decade when they twice finished as runners-up, and have qualified for the Champions League just three times while missing out on a spot in the top six four times.
Although Klopp oversaw Liverpool’s joint-lowest league finish of that period, eighth during his first season, he also oversaw their third-highest finish last term, ensuring involvement in Europe’s top competition and improving on the Reds’ average final standing of fifth from the last decade.
Regardless of Liverpool’s illustrious history, 2016/17 was a good season in the context of the last ten years – even if it did initially promise so much more as they entered New Year’s Day in second place. Likewise, the campaign previous, when Klopp’s side could only manage eighth, saw Liverpool reach two cup finals – the first time they’d done so since 2011/12 and only the second time since 2005.
Yet, there are still many who argue Liverpool were better off under Rodgers, and that the revolution Klopp was expected to inspire at Anfield should be much further down the line than it currently is. Perhaps the ultimate source of frustration is that Liverpool don’t appear to have progressed considerably from last season, when limited squad depth and naivety at the back saw a title bid evaporate between January and February.
But that’s as much a consequence of activity during the summer, most particularly the failure to bring in another option at centre-half, as it is Klopp’s direction of the first-team. After winning two of their first three but just one of their next four in the Premier League, the early signs suggest another top four finish is the best Liverpool fans can hope for this season, something that still isn’t certain considering the vast competition for places in the Champions League slots and something that won’t sit well with everybody on Merseyside.
Once again though, do Liverpool really have a right to expect more? They haven’t actually qualified for back-to-back Champions Leagues since 2009, while it took three years for Klopp to win his first title with Dortmund – in a league that consistently produces top-quality young players without the humongous price-tags and sees much greater mobility throughout the division. Although Bayern Munich remain the monopolisers of the German top flight, it’s much easier to make yourself the second-biggest force in the Bundesliga than in the Premier League. From there, you have at least half a chance of winning the title.
If Klopp’s philosophy took three years to produce silverware in Germany where he wasn’t faced with the unprecedented wealth of Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea – not to mention the most competitive period of the Premier League era – it’s going to take a lot longer at Liverpool. The Reds are competing with five rivals all capable of winning the title during any given season, not only for points but also for transfer targets, sponsorship deals and practically every aspect of the modern game. And at this moment in time, unfortunately, Liverpool aren’t at the top of the pecking order.
“This is a very difficult league, opponents maybe bigger but in a special Liverpool way we can be successful. I don’t want to say we can wait 20 years. If we sit here in four years, I think we win one title.”
Indeed, the expectations of some Liverpool fans seem out of touch with the situation on the ground. But the reality on Merseyside remains a painfully simple if somewhat demanding one; Liverpool are a club that craves silverware. Until Klopp adds some to Anfield’s trophy cabinet, there will always be comparisons with Rodgers, questions over how far he’s actually taken the club and accusations that an alternative (although Liverpool struggle to find a more proven or promising one) could be doing better. When Klopp arrived in 2015, he targeted a trophy within four years; the closer that deadline looms, the more the pressure to do so will build.