If recent history has taught us anything then woe betide the man who steps into the gaping chasm at the heart of Anfield when Jurgen Klopp makes his exit. The triumph of recruitment, tactics, conditioning and sheer charisma that has led Liverpool through such a glorious eight years is not Klopp’s alone but it is impossible to envisage it without this most charismatic, effervescent leader.
As Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger did before him, Klopp has grasped ahold of one of England’s great footballing institutions and bent it into his image. The aggression undercut with a stroke of impudence with which Liverpool take their opposition to the cleaners, that is their manager writ large. Off the pitch, Liverpool have continually strived to develop facilities worthy of hosting champions of Europe and England, the heart does not rule the head in their management of playing staff, but there is always room for a scintilla of emotion.
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Klopp may be walking away as he finds himself “running out of energy,” but it is hard to believe that today’s announcement won’t light a fire under both him and his players. One of Klopp’s many triumphs across his tenure has to been to imbue Liverpool’s exploits with a mythic quality even as they are happening, forging a narrative around the random events that take place on a football pitch. He probably is not doing so consciously, but who is to say that the arc of devastation and transformation that has been Liverpool over the last season and a half is not a club bending itself into the hero’s journey. Five months from now, why shouldn’t the Liverpool squad be looking down from the summit of the Premier League, convinced that today was the moment when they knew they were going to do it for their boss?
It would be an ending as elegantly manufactured as Ferguson’s. He might have left it until the title was long since won before announcing he was going, but signing the ageing but still deadly Robin van Persie that summer was the sort of indulgence of a man who had earned the right to secure one more title, whatever the long term implications. Wenger never got that exit. Had he not so remorselessly believed in his ability to get back to the top again, he might have seen the 2017 FA Cup Final as a chance to bow out in style rather than subject himself to another year of rancor and recriminations.
Both of these totemic figures of the Premier League left their clubs with smouldering ruins of squads developed for their purpose. Ferguson had got the veteran band together for one last job with relatively few talented youngsters waiting in the wings, Wenger and Arsenal’s contractual mismanagement had forged a hodgepodge attack and a defense riddled with injuries.
The Liverpool boss has consciously differed from the other great men of the Premier League era. In overhauling his midfield last summer, the forward line in the years beforehand, he has done much of the rebuild for whoever comes next. The next man up has the prime years of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Dominik Szoboszlai and Darwin Nunez ahead of him. He should be fine. That is just what Klopp wants.
“For me it was super, super, super-important that I can help to bring this team back onto the rails,” he said. “It was all I was thinking about. When I realised pretty early that happened, it’s a really good team with massive potential and a super age group, super characters and all that, then I could start thinking about myself again and that was the outcome. It is not what I want to [do], it is just what I think is 100 per cent right.”
There are, of course, no guarantees for Klopp’s successor, nor indeed for the fourth sporting director in two and a half years, Liverpool having announced shortly after their manager’s exit that Jorg Schmadtke would be calling it a day on his brief stint in the role. All the turbulence in the recruit department has brought a few altogether more questionable forward recruits than the days when Michael Edwards was unearthing Salah and Sadio Mane.
Then there are the contractual situations to address. Salah will be out of contract in 18 months, and today’s decision will have strengthened the Public Investment Fund’s belief that the Egyptian can be drawn to the Saudi Pro League. At some stage he and Virgil van Dijk, also on terms that expire in 2024, will need to be replaced. The apocalyptic scenario is that Klopp’s departure might make Trent Alexander-Arnold, another whose contract is soon up, wonder if he should head for pastures new.
Most of all there is the great challenge of actually finding the right man. For all that Wenger and Ferguson left difficult situations in their wake, they were succeeded by men who were not really cut out for the gig. Xabi Alonso is immediately being spoken of as the early favorite even if his more methodical approach to possession at Bayer Leverkusen is no natural fit for Kloppian Liverpool. Aside from the Bundesliga table topper and perhaps Julian Nagelsmann there are few if any coaches on the market with the sort of CV that Klopp brought to Liverpool.
Back in 2015 the Anfield power brokers entranced a man who was, frankly, above their stations, a club who had largely been scrapping for Champions League qualification bringing in a man who had already proven himself capable of breaking dynasties, even when the deck is stacked against him. He did that to Bayern Munich, he has done and might do it again to Manchester City. Klopp has raised Liverpool’s ceiling so high that there are a vanishingly small number of candidates on their level.
Even those with the requisite CV will not be able to construct a tale as enchanting to supporters and players. Perhaps, however, they do not need to. Who is to say that the next man up won’t sweep the board in Europe and England with the young, versatile and fearless squad he has been bequeathed? That would be as fitting a story to end the Klopp era as anything that happens in the next five months.