In 2012, Jürgen Klopp got a hair transplant. This is far from unusual in the world of European men’s soccer; Inter Milan manager Antonio Conte’s resodded noggin has long been an object of fascination, and Wayne Rooney’s hairline has waxed and waned over the years with the phases of the moon. It’s something you can talk about, but not something you talk about, because while society mocks famous men who fail to conform to certain standards of physical appearance, it further mocks famous men who come off as vain or fussy. Thus, the discourse around Klopp’s hair transplant was relegated to the world of innuendo.
Until, shortly after the procedure, a reporter flat-out asked the then–Borussia Dortmund manager about his new coiffure. Klopp responded not with a deflection or self-deprecating answer, but with earnest enthusiasm.
“Yes, I underwent a hair transplant,” he said. “I think the results are pretty cool. Don’t you?”
Mario Götze, who was Klopp’s star playmaker at Dortmund and eventually went on to score the winning goal in the 2014 World Cup final, recently wrote an article in The Players’ Tribune that mentioned an interaction he’d had with Klopp around that time. Götze had bumped into Klopp while the manager was on his way to get the transplant. Klopp told Götze how excited he was to have a full head of hair again, then offered, with a wink, to save the doctor’s phone number in case Götze himself went bald someday.
“Most people would be embarrassed or not say anything, but he didn’t care at all,” Gotze wrote. “He was such a funny and positive influence on everyone around him.”
That attitude has followed Klopp from his playing days at Mainz, through the eight seasons he spent as the manager of the German club, and now, more than a decade later, to Liverpool. If fostering goodwill and keeping Mainz, a yo-yo club, in the Bundesliga for a few seasons was all he’d achieved in his career, he would still be a beloved figure in the soccer world. Instead, in four years at Liverpool, he’s built the Merseyside club into not only the best team in the world, but a team as easy to like as its manager.
While Klopp is as astute and detail-oriented as any top-end manager, his public image is based less on his tactics than his personality—though one clearly influences the other. At 6-foot-4, the broad-shouldered and bearded Klopp would cut an imposing physical figure, if not for his omnipresent grin and predilection for hugging. Klopp also loves to celebrate wins—or even just goals—with an array of leaps, skips, and fist pumps.
I imagine playing for Klopp is like playing for a bear that loves you. And playing against a Klopp-coached side must be like playing against, well, a team full of bears.
Klopp first achieved international renown at Borussia Dortmund, where, in his seven-year tenure, he took a club that was recovering from near-bankruptcy to two league titles and the 2013 Champions League final. Over that time he built Dortmund into a genuine European giant by either signing or developing a mind-boggling list of stars: Götze, Mats Hummels, Robert Lewandowski, Marco Reus, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Ilkay Gündogan, to name a few. In the final months of Klopp’s tenure at the Westfalenstadion, Dortmund also inked U.S. teenager Christian Pulisic.
In 2015, Klopp moved on to another rebuilding project: Liverpool, which is paradoxically one of Europe’s richest and most decorated clubs, but is also saddled with a domestic title drought that stretches all the way back to 1990, before the Premier League was even established. The club had found some success in cup competitions in the early 21st century, including a legendary come-from-behind victory in the 2005 Champions League Final and then a return to the final two years later. But by the time Klopp took over in 2015, Liverpool had won just one title—the 2012 League Cup—since 2006 and hadn’t reached the knockout stages of the Champions League since 2009. Talismanic captain Steven Gerrard had just moved on, as had top goalscorer Luis Suárez. By way of replacement, Liverpool signed forward Roberto Firmino from Hoffenheim in the summer of 2015, installing the first prong of what would develop into a world-class attacking trio. Senegalese forward Sadio Mané came aboard in 2016, and a year later Egyptian winger Mohamed Salah joined the club.
Klopp teaches a distinctive style of play, in which a relentless and ferocious defensive press—a “gegenpress,” as it’s come to be known—feeds a fast-paced counterattack. Like the manager who instituted it, this system is hyperkinetic: The coordinated, ceaseless defensive pressure either bottles up the opposition or leads to turnovers and transition opportunities. Rather than patiently building up pressure like Pep Guardiola or methodically negating opponents’ strengths like José Mourinho, the gegenpress is proactive, with and without the ball. It’s 40 Minutes of Hell, but for 90 minutes, plus stoppage time.
Gegenpressing rewards forwards who combine pace, intelligence, and stamina. Such players are required to harass defenders consistently, ideally generating turnovers that provide space to pass and/or get a free run on goal. Firmino, Mané, and Salah all blossomed under Klopp. Firmino sprung his wingers with combination passes and through balls for an astonishing goalscoring output, starting in 2017-18. And Salah especially benefited; after spending his early 20s as a solid, but by no means outstanding, forward, he scored 44 total goals in his first season at Anfield, including 32 in the Premier League—a record for a 38-game season.
Defensive issues plagued Klopp’s early tenure in England, culminating in mortifying mistakes by goalkeeper Loris Karius in the 2018 Champions League Final, which ended in a 3-1 loss to Real Madrid. But Klopp’s bosses—the Fenway Sports Group that also owns the Boston Red Sox and half of the Roush Fenway NASCAR team—brought in reinforcements. In 2018, the club set new transfer fee records for a defender and goalkeeper by shelling out roughly £140 million for Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson Becker. Those additions shored up Liverpool’s backline in a matter of months.
The resulting squad could still drop four or five goals in a game, but their habit of giving three or four back through sloppiness or overcommitment was gone. And they beat wholesale ass as a result. In the 2018-19 Premier League season, Liverpool lost just once (a 2-1 defeat to Manchester City on January 3), outscored its opponents by 67 goals, and finished with 97 points, the third-highest total in Premier League history. Had City not finished with 98 points, the second-highest total ever, the Reds would have won that elusive first Premier League title.
Liverpool and Manchester City were so far in front of the competition—the gap from Liverpool to third-place Chelsea was greater than the gap from Chelsea to 12th-place Crystal Palace—that they appeared to be in a league of their own. And as a result, the dynamic between Klopp and Manchester City boss Guardiola, rivals since their days in Germany, became one of the most interesting story lines of the season.
The physical contrast between the two is striking enough; Klopp is a gigantic German who prowls the touchline in glasses, a baseball cap, and sweats. Guardiola is a slightly built Spaniard who’s fond of designer sweaters. Klopp was a second-division defender in his playing career, while Guardiola was a world-class midfielder. Both are intelligent, funny, and charming in their own way. But while Klopp’s public persona is marked by emotion and the occasional bit of self-deprecation, Guardiola frames himself as the consummate soccer intellectual, a tactician nonpareil, whose style of football is not only better in terms of winning titles (in 10 full seasons as a manager, he’s won eight league titles in three different countries), but aesthetically superior as well.
The two began their rivalry when Klopp was at Dortmund and Guardiola at Bayern Munich, the richest and most successful club in the Bundesliga; in fact, Klopp’s back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012 marked the last time anyone other than Bayern finished atop Germany’s first division. And while both Klopp and Guardiola coach an aggressive, positionally fluid, high-scoring brand of soccer, the differences between the two make them ideal adversaries.
Guardiola is far, far more interested in possession than his German counterpart. He’s known as the exemplar of tiki-taka, the possession-based style of attack that formed the basis of his success at Barcelona, as well as the Spanish national team’s from 2008 to 2012. The team that has the ball dictates play, and sufficiently adept and well-drilled players can unlock even the most organized defenses with a series of short passes. Moreover, defending against such a style is tiring, which allows Guardiola’s sides to wear out their opponents.
Regardless of their actual motivations, great tactical innovators usually seem to be operating in response to the dominant style of play at the time. Guardiola’s progressive, attacking soccer took the torch from the implacable defenses of Mourinho, who like Klopp, was Guardiola’s nemesis in two countries. Before that, Mourinho had toppled the free-flowing, expressive offensive play of Arsène Wenger, who developed his tactics in response to the long ball game that once dominated English soccer, and so on back through history.
Klopp’s gegenpress is uniquely suited to frustrate tiki-taka for two reasons. First, Guardiola views all 11 players as integral parts of the offensive setup, which occasionally leaves his defenses open to counterattack. That gives an advantage to Liverpool’s pacey forward line and players who are comfortable in transition.
Second, Klopp’s teams are mostly content to operate without the ball. The major flaw in tiki-taka is that it can sometimes lead teams to become complacent, even aimless, in possession. When playing Liverpool, though, who has the ball is less important than where the ball is, and where the players are. For example: Liverpool can still be dangerous without the ball if their press is able to bottle up the opponent in their own end. Even if the ball does make its way into the Liverpool half, an opponent who plays a high defensive line or overcommits players to the attack leaves wide spaces for Salah and Mané to run into after a turnover. Under those circumstances, any interception could become a pick-six.
This approach requires teamwork and effort, which are hallmarks of reductive sports discourse in the wrong hands, but Klopp manages to inspire the commitment and attention to detail necessary for such an approach. Whether this was intentional or a happy accident, Klopp’s views on leadership are in line with the ideology of mutual benefit through collective action that defined Liverpool’s most successful managers, dating back to Bill Shankly.
Klopp’s side couldn’t knock Guardiola’s from the top of last year’s Premier League table, but European competition was another story. The road was not easy, as Liverpool dropped three of six Champions League group stage games and needed to go to the seventh tiebreaker (goals scored) to edge out Napoli and qualify for the knockout round. And in the first leg of the semifinal, Klopp’s club found itself on the wrong end of a 3-0 defeat away to Barcelona. Before the second leg of the fixture, Klopp was under no illusions about the enormous task his team faced.
“I think it’s impossible,” he told his team before the match. “But because it’s you, we have a chance.”
It’s the kind of rhetoric that makes you want to run through a brick wall, and that’s what Liverpool did, completing a comeback that’s rivaled in club history only by the 2005 Champions League final. Even with Salah and Firmino absent due to injury, Liverpool won 4-0, with the final goal coming on a trick play in the 79th minute.
Klopp had lost his first three major cup finals with Liverpool, plus the 2013 Champions League final while in charge of Dortmund, but in 2019 he got over the hump with a tidy 2-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur that Liverpool led almost whistle to whistle.
Once the English domestic season started back up again in August, Liverpool took another leap forward. The longer Klopp’s men play together, the better they perform. That January 3 loss to City remains Liverpool’s most recent league defeat; as of December 13, they’ve gone 33 games unbeaten, more than halfway to the English league record of 49, set by Wenger’s Arsenal side in 2003-04. But even that team drew 12 games out of 38 in its full unbeaten season. Since the start of the 2019-20 season, Liverpool has played 16, won 15, and drawn one. In the past nine months, Klopp’s side has won 24 of 25 league games.
Meanwhile, Guardiola’s City side has—ironically enough—become extremely vulnerable defensively after injuries and puzzling transfer policies have decimated its depth. As the season nears the halfway point, City finds itself a distant third in the table, 14 points behind Liverpool.
This leaves Klopp and Liverpool, the reigning European champions, alone atop the richest and most competitive soccer league in the world. Returning Liverpool to the top of English soccer after 30 years seemed like an impossible task. But with Klopp, they have a chance.