The Unlikely Italian Education of Jurgen Klopp: An Alternative Match Report

While incompetent refereeing ruined Liverpool v Tottenham, it has revealed the Italian education of Jurgen Klopp.
While incompetent refereeing ruined Liverpool v Tottenham, it has revealed the lessons Jurgen Klopp learned from Arrigo Sacchi and Wolfgang Frank.

Let me just start off by saying that all the 3-3 draws and 3-4 losses are just Liverpool having to pay their dues to the universe for their 3-3 comeback win vs AC Milan in 2005.  

Now, there will be articles out today on Liverpool’s 2-2 Tottenham; column inches which, if piled one on top of another, would elevate you to the state of moksha. A bazillion or so words amounting to the sentiment of “we waz robbed”.

But this being an Alternative Match Report ™ (all rights reserved), we had to keep an eye out for the not-so-blatantly-obvious. Saying stuff like, “Mo Salah was good again” or the “refsakoont” makes this an exercise in social media regurgitation. And would raise existential questions in the mind of the writer writing this piece, and insult the intelligence of the reader reading it.  So, let us tell you something that you saw but probably didn’t notice.

The Italian Education of Jurgen Klopp

Press pause. Rewind. Whirrrrrrr. Stop. Further back. Whirrr. Stop. Yes, here. Play.

Not so long ago in a place called Mainz in Germany, there was a maverick manager named Wolfgang Frank. He was watching a tape recording on loop in his office, for the 27th time, from 5 different camera angles, with the curtains pulled down and a cigarette butt smoking itself away in a coffee mug. With him were his Mainz players. But only Klopp took notes. Jurgen Klopp, the player, was yet to become the manager of Mainz after Wolfgang’s second departure – yet to become the miracle worker of Dortmund, and Shankly’s second coming at Liverpool.

Wolfgang was dissecting the individual movements of Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan. While the world fawned over AC Milan’s beauty and Gianni Brera wrote match reports that sounded like odes in sweet Italian, the German was teaching players to look at the cloak and not the dagger.

Sacchi said simply to the Gazetta, “ I don’t think formations matter.” To Sacchi, Wolfgang, and Klopp, the utilities of set formations in the modern game would be akin to the functionality of playing music on a vintage gramophone. Looks pretty in principle, but is ultimately analog.

Sacchi explained: “What is important is the interpretation of formation. I’ll give you an example: when I was with Milan, we were attacking with at least five players. At least five! Those players were carefully manoeuvering rather than going through the motions.” This increased the rate of one vs one situation in the opponent box.

Numerical superiority was the keyword. Milan’s off-the-ball movement when defending without the ball had all the grace of a well-executed wrestling headlock. Sacchi’s nose frowned, in the same way Juergen Klopp’s did at his first appearance on Monday Night Football,  when any pundit would raise the stink of preferred formation.

This methodology required a unique respect, not for the number but the space in between the numbers and a hellhound determination to win the ball.

“It can’t be defined by numbers. Our formation was a movement,” declared Sacchi in one interview watched by Wolfgang Frank. Soon enough, Sacchi would see himself tailed from the sidelines by an over attentive, introverted, note-taking German.

Formations for Sacchi were a simplified exercise in the rules of relativity: a collective choreography in reference to the position of the ball and opponents on the pitch. In other words, line-work, or a game of overly elaborate Pong.

The writer has a particular fondness for Sacchi’s intellectual stalker, Wolfgang Frank, for he lived as one of the few people who have no inkling of their own genius, and died on September 19th, 2013, fostering lifelong doubts about his legacy.

Another man who had affection for Wolfgang was Juergen Klopp, his tearful protege, who delivered a eulogy at his funeral through pauses of him clearing his throat, eyes red with a sense of great loss and a silent determination.

I’ve told more than a thousand players that Wolfgang influenced a whole generation of footballers and still continues to do so. He was the coach who has influenced me most. He was an extraordinary human being.’  – Jurgen Klopp speaking to Raphael Honigstein

While Mo Salah’s swish-swish-swish ski-slalom-goal last night will take due credit, and the result will dampen its brilliance, the shape and movement of Liverpool’s line work vs Tottenham last night has revealed a different aspect of Jurgen Klopp. It has shown him as a realist who is prepared to play ugly football and concede 70% possession at home against a team that specialises in carving teams open.

Liverpool vs Tottenham was half an Italian Job by Klopp and half a daylight robbery by the ref. But if you were to have the patience to sit through a rewatch, you’ll note how he’s growing into a manager who finally seems to have a Plan B when Plan A isn’t working.

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Srijandeep Das

Managing Editor, journalist, writer.