Why Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp Appointment Draws Parallels With When Rafael Benitez Arrived


We’ll try and keep the mentions of Jurgen Klopp to a minimum here. He’s been everywhere this week, after all.

That picture where he’s shouting at the ref in a funny way. That tweet with the stein full of the finest German lager north of the Rhine. That gif of him jumping off a swing, slam dunking a basketball, doing a handstand, then doing a John Cleese-esque silly walk. Except that might not be him. It doesn’t really matter.

In addition, the world is apparently full of Klopp experts, all of whom have been queuing up to tell us just what he’ll bring to the Liverpool job when the white smoke emerges at Melwood and the appointment is finally announced. This isn’t about that either, and mercifully it’s not about that bloody transfer committee.

No, it’s really all about Liverpool, and about honing a style of football.

Liverpool v Charlton Athletic : News Photo

Back in 2004, when it was becoming horribly apparent that Gerard Houllier had stayed on at Anfield a season too long, a good man – a man who had very nearly given his life for the club on that scary afternoon against Leeds United when he suffered major heart trauma – was being subjected to seeing messages calling for him to be sacked daubed on the wall of the training ground.

Eleven years on, Brendan Rodgers found out that the walls are now Facebook walls and Twitter accounts – sometimes, shamefully, ones targeting his daughter – but the messages were much the same.

Both Houllier and Rodgers were good Liverpool managers, the Frenchman getting the Reds back on the map with a first European trophy in 17 years and domestic cup success, and Rodgers taking them as close to the Premier League title as they’ve been for a quarter of a century.

Liverpool FC v FC Sion - UEFA Europa League : News Photo

Both men had distinctive styles of play, too, with Houllier’s teams specialising in solidity and counter-attacking with the pace and power of Michael Owen and Emile Heskey, and Rodgers almost learning on the job as he evolved from a manager who wanted his teams to monopolise possession, to one who instructed them to create attacking havoc, to one who just wanted them to play in as many formations as possible over 90 minutes.

Ultimately, though, both fell short and looked a spent force by the end. Houllier’s 2003/04 was as poor as Rodgers’ 2014/15, and the same fate (eventually) befell them.

What Liverpool were quite clever to do, though, was replace Houllier with a man who supporters were familiar with, who they’d seen the work of first-hand, and who wouldn’t need a rapid overhaul of the playing squad in order to implement his methods.

Rafael Benitez – a two-time La Liga winner with Valencia – had guided his side to a 2002 win at Anfield which was a lot more convincing than the 1-0 scoreline suggests, and a month earlier had overseen a 2-0 win over Liverpool at the Mestalla which featured a team goal of staggering beauty finished off by Pablo Aimar.

A coach who knew that success started with solidity, Benitez was aware that he didn’t have to rip up Houllier’s team and start again. At the end of his first season, 11 of the 14 players he was using in the Champions League final had featured under the previous manager and another, Djibril Cisse, was effectively signed by him.

It was evolution, not revolution, then, but crucially it was also a vast improvement. Is the same going to be true for Klopp?

The only first-hand glimpse Reds fans have had of him so far was at a pre-season friendly last summer, when Liverpool’s superior fitness won the day as they triumphed 4-0 over Borussia Dortmund, but unlike when Benitez appeared on the scene in 2004 you don’t need to have borne witness to a football manager’s work to get excited about it these days.

The army of overnight German football experts on the internet this week proves that, and just as Benitez was able to improve on Houllier’s work at Anfield, everything appears to be in place for Klopp – a two-time Bundesliga winner – to pick up on the good parts of the Rodgers reign and run with them.

He won’t have the Champions League with which to garnish his maiden season in England, but if he's in it next season then it’ll be another example of clever succession planning.

And at a moment when Liverpool need it more than ever.

 

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