Last week, football (or soccer) fans were treated to two of the most exciting Champions League matches of all time. In both, the team who lost the first leg won the second and the round (in the knockout phase of the Champions League, each round is contested in a home-and-away, two-match split, so each team gets the pride and $$$ of hosting a match at its stadium.
While one of them – Tottenham Hotspur (England) versus Ajax (Netherlands) – was surprising because Tottenham quickly let in two goals and then had to score three of its own in 45 minutes at Ajax’s stadium, the other match involving Barcelona and Liverpool maybe one of the most shocking results in recent memory.
Barcelona won the first leg 3-0 at its own stadium, which meant Liverpool had to duplicate that effort in order to force extra time (and potentially penalty kicks). In addition, the first tiebreaker – if the margin of victory is the same – is away goals, so if Barcelona managed to score one, then Liverpool would need to score five goals in order progress to the final. Before this second leg, Liverpool’s probability to progress to the final was 6%. Really, Liverpool’s only likely path to victory was a 4-0 score.
While the 14 players (11 starters, three subs) deserve a lion’s share of the credit, I think this result is borderline impossible under another manager. Jurgen Klopp deserves as much credit for this victory as any manager could, and it’s specifically because of the following
1) His passion for the game and squad shine through. While Liverpool had recently fallen into a stretch of mediocre soccer (it has not won the English league in almost thirty years; before that time, it was almost an automatic champion in the 80s and 90s), its fans are legendary and its stadium atmosphere is unrivaled. Klopp has bought into the history and culture, and has taken pains to elevated it a level beyond. Even when Liverpool was mediocre for its standards, fans believed success was around the corner and the stadium was still packed and loud. He’s taken that fan dedication and constructed a team that lives up to the fan’s perceptions.
2) His style of football inspires everyone. There are two major ways to win football matches (though each one has thousands of slight alterations). You either take the ball to the team you are playing and press offensively. Or you let them press you and stay disciplined in defense. When a team attacks, they can leave themselves exposed. In the latter scenario, you absorb the attacks and then seek to exploit the forward movement by counterattacking the holes left by the offensive-minded team. Some teams play defensive-minded football because they don’t have the skilled offensive players and others have a reputation for playing this defense first or counter-attacking football (Atletico Madrid and, at times, Juventus and Chelsea). Liverpool has always prized attacking football, which at times left its very fragile defense exposed.
3) Value talent. Liverpool’s defensive woes have disappeared almost overnight for one crucial reason. Virgil Van Dijk. Here are the goals allowed over the past five seasons.
48, 50, 42, 38, 22.
Meanwhile, its goals scored during this time has increased. Liverpool has rarely had trouble scoring over its history, but it took the transfer of Van Dijk to radically transform Liverpool’s defense. In order to get Van Dijk, they needed to spend more money on a defender than any other team in history. Klopp and the Liverpool management knew talent when they saw it and spend the requisite money to get the missing piece to a successful team. Klopp also realized that Van Dijk might have self-doubt that he was the most valuable defender in the world, so he told him a very simple thing: listen, all good things cost a lot of money
4) Here’s what Jurgen Klopp said before the second leg, where Liverpool had that 6% chance.
We want to celebrate the Champions League campaign, either with a proper finish or another goal. That is the plan: just try. If we can do it, wonderful. If not, then fail in the most beautiful way. I had these games quite a few times. In my experience, it’s not that before the game you think: ‘Yes, I believe we will do it.’ But I’m completely fine with the chance. Less than them, but we have at least a chance.
He acknowledged the task ahead of them and said, all we can do is try and play the best football we can. While you may think a coach should speak with more misguided confidence, Klopp always says the truth (or his truth) and his players respect him for that.
5) Preparation. All of the above got Liverpool to the place mentally and physically it needed to be to have a chance. And through sheer swashbuckling attacking, it scored three goals to tie everything up. But the fourth goal is a story Klopp and his team will tell for decades, which also may be the final reasoning for firing Barcelona’s manager Ernesto Valverde.
It was not enough to just notice this Barcelona tic, but to scheme against it, alert the players and, most importantly, in this case, including the ball boys and girls, who could make sure the players could restart quicker.
Klopp’s style, dedication, and passion makes him an electrifying manager to watch to emulate, no matter what job you may have.