Jurgen Klopp is a charming man, but charming men aren’t always what they seem. Amid a Premier League era in which heavyweight managers have become the indisputable stars of the show, his booming personality rings the loudest.
He’s seduced Liverpool fans and Premier League neutrals alike with explosive touchline antics, caricatured facial expressions and humorously honest press conferences, whilst his fashion sense, natural wit and interests outside of football have created a cult following in their own right.
But is Klopp all he’s cracked up to be, or has his alluring character covered up for managerial shortcomings? At the age of 50, celebrating his half-century today, it’s time to consider whether the German gaffer compensates for limited substance with irresistible style.
Of course, ‘peak years’ don’t apply to managers in the same way as players. By 30, we generally have an accurate understanding of how talented a player is, how they’ll be remembered once they retire and how much silverware they’ll win. It’s unusual for a player to reach the top level of the game for the first time after surpassing their 30th birthday, albeit not completely unheard of.
Managers, on the other hand, can suffer their rises and falls at varying ages. Jose Mourinho won his first Champions League title when he was 41; Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t lift the same honour until he was 59. Arsene Wenger won three league titles between the ages of 46 and 53, but hasn’t claimed another since. Zinedine Zidane, at the age of 44, has become the first ever manager to win consecutive Champions League titles. He surely can’t keep that up for the rest of his managerial career.
Nonetheless, the 50 milestone feels like a relatively solid barometer to judge ability and achievements. At this point, most will have spent at least a decade in management, experienced their fair share of highs and lows and given us a fairly strong insight into the level of football the majority of their career will be spent at. And perhaps unsurprisingly for a character as interesting as Klopp, his progress in the beautiful game at 50 compared to his Premier League rivals makes very interesting reading.
In terms of trophies, only one top-six manager has claimed less than Klopp prior to their 50th birthday – Mauricio Pochettino, who actually has plenty of time to arrest that with five years to go until he reaches the big 5-0. Likewise, Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte, aged 46 and 47 respectively, could still add to their current hauls, further overshadowing the Anfield gaffer’s. Furthermore Klopp ranks second-lowest in terms of points per game and third-lowest in terms of win-rate, suggesting the Liverpool boss perhaps isn’t the top-class manager he’s often billed as.
Yet, there is no question Klopp’s achieved his success the most efficiently. Whilst Wenger’s pre-50 transfer spend belonged to a different time (fees from his Monaco, Nancy and Nagoya Grampus spells were also unavailable), Klopp’s spent just £241million en route to three major honours. That works out at just over £80million per trophy, and just over £40million per cup final. In the current climate, a Premier League chairman would bite your hand off for that kind of return.
Of course, Klopp’s career has taken a very different path to many of his contemporaries. Guardiola and Jose Mourinho were practically born into big-club management and alongside Mauricio Pochettino, he’s just two of six who haven’t been employed by one of Europe’s post-millennium footballing giants – the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United.
Rather, Klopp worked his way up from being an unspectacular player with Mainz, to being a promising manager with Mainz to getting his big break with Borussia Dortmund in 2008. Already aged 41 at that point, he’s made exceptional progress in the last nine years, not least including two European finals – a feat only trumped before 50 by Mourinho.
Regardless of circumstance, Klopp has spent just £241million to get himself somewhere near the very top of the beautiful game – in fact, arguably its peak in the form of a Champions League final – after starting somewhere in the middle. In that sense, Mourinho, Guardiola and Conte can’t hold a candle to him.
Yet, there is a counterargument that, after getting relegated with Mainz and failing to win promotion back to the Bundesliga, Klopp’s personality was as responsible as results for earning him the Dortmund job. At that time, the Black-Yellows had slumped to a disappointing 13th and whilst Klopp was proving a talented manager in his own right, he was also a significant presence in analysing the German national team. That provided the platform for his charming character to shine and made him a popular figure amongst the Bundesliga audience. It created an aura around him that is still prevalent today.
Whether that aura is justified or not remains open to debate. Whilst nobody can dispute the near- miracles he achieved at Dortmund, turning around a club sinking into the abyss to win back-to-back Bundesliga titles and even more unexpectedly reach a Champions League final, there have been few signs of him managing similar feats at Liverpool.
In fact, Klopp’s record thus far is arguably inferior to that of his much-maligned predecessor Brendan Rodgers, who always lacked that warming personality and ability to win fans and journalists over. The now-Celtic boss averaged more points per game than Klopp, recorded just 0.5% less victories, gave more chances to young players and recorded a higher final standing in the Premier League – when his scintillating 2013/14 side came within a hare’s width of the title. Some would argue that team actually played better football than anything Klopp’s produced at Anfield thus far.
Perhaps suggesting Klopp’s performance in the Liverpool dugout has been disappointing would be a few steps too far. After all, coming in after the summer transfer window essentially wrote off his first season on Merseyside, whereas the second ended with a place in the top four despite the incredible competitiveness in the Premier League summit’s mini-league. Although Rodgers inherited a much bigger mess than Klopp did from the Irishman, that’s still progress for the Reds
But Klopp’s charming personality has, at the very least, spared him from the same kind of criticism his predecessor relentlessly suffered and has seemingly put him into a bracket of trophy winner that he doesn’t necessarily deserve to be in.
At the same time, however, it’s hard to discredit Klopp for that. As much as one might argue his outgoing charm has glossed over a slightly underwhelming two years at Liverpool, the way Klopp’s used his personality has been exceptional. If it creates a feel-good factor around the club in spite of occasionally unconvincing results and buys him more time in an increasingly sensationalist and short-termist Premier League, who can rightly complain?