Jurgen Klopp cemented his position as the best manager on the planet last night in Madrid.
As he was serenaded during his post-match interviews by chorus after chorus of classic Liverpool hymns, it became very clear that the club who have more identity than most needed someone who would embrace that to finally propel them to the summit.
You can achieve with Liverpool, there’s no question about that. Benitez did it to a large degree. But to actually meet the criteria etched not in ink but in history, you have to be more than just the coach of a football club.
Due to Liverpool’s league title drought, which admittedly has yet to end, and the tragedies that have stung yet bonded so many fans of the football club over the last 35 years, your success on the field will be applauded, but your legacy as a leader and as a club legend can only be obtained if you fully embrace what it means to be Liverpool.
Every unconventional interview Klopp has, where the emphasis isn’t solely on football, he discusses the history of the club he’s managing. He talks about the honour he feels and the tradition that they demand to be respected.
When you look at models like Chelsea, it’s easy to see why success is the focal point – because the tradition there has been halted and replaced by oligarch merit charts. Soon, they’ll be demanding a course like that of Klopp’s for their new arrivals, and that’s simply impossible.
Klopp didn’t walk into a shell that he could mould to his liking.
Guardiola was afforded that luxury and while nobody is contesting that Liverpool do spend money, they rarely waste a penny, while Pep can cut ties in an instant and forgets about the financial implications.
The only reason Guardiola’s football is considered better than Klopp’s is because the greatest footballing side in any of our memories were managed by him and thus we consider it the gold standard.
Truly, there isn’t a whole lot between them, and Liverpool move the ball that bit faster with a lesser squad.
Last night and over the course of the campaign, Liverpool have beaten the biggest names in football with an academy graduate at right full; an £8 million signing from Hull City on the opposite flank; a 33-year-old evergreen out-of-position-but-never-really-out-of-position James Milner; a very average Premier League midfielder in Jordan Henderson and Divock Origi, who, until last month, likely wouldn’t have started for anyone in the top half of the Premier League.
Klopp didn’t just carry an identity to Anfield – he adjusted it to the players he had. He then brought in players to complement it, unlike Guardiola who had an idea, spent a billion quid, and saw it roll as it did in Spain and Germany.
He has actually improved players beyond all recognition. Yes, Guardiola has done with Raheem Sterling and co, but within the means of his own system. You can make a real case that Sterling is a cog in a very specific wheel, while the likes of Andy Robertson could do what they do in every team in the world.
But back to Klopp now. Not only did he have to shake off the emotional baggage of a football club who have doubted themselves for three decades, he had to do all this while dealing with his own shortcomings.
The majority of the coverage leading up to this game was how Liverpool were better, but Klopp’s record in finals would impede them. In fact, if Liverpool themselves lost that final, it would be four lost European finals in a row. That then becomes a double-edged burden.
But he took all of this on, managed to contend with crippling self-doubt that surfaces more in football than in any other industry, and he blew it out of the water.
Liverpool weren’t best-served due to the three-week separation from the Premier League season, but it mattered not.
On top of all this pressure and football to be worried about, over the last few weeks, Klopp has shown how brilliant a human being he is – bringing the closed-book-nature of football management to the general public.
He spoke on UK politics when nobody else dares to; he was in tears thanking his family at full-time, outlining their stress during his career; he admitted he’s normally on the beer at this point in a celebration without a second thought of being politically correct; he organised a squad message to a terminally-ill fan before they left for Madrid; he dealt with the Sean Cox tragedy with complete class and he treats supporters and media with the respect they deserve, even when it’s difficult to do so.
For these reasons, he is peerless. His achievements will start to flow now, such is the consistency with which he lands them in positions to do so. Such is the belief the players have him and such is the connection they feel to Liverpool Football Club because of him.
Comparisons for him are fruitless, but we’ll close with a couple.
Klopp is Shankly. Klopp is Paisley. But most impressively, Klopp is Klopp – the best football manager in the world.