Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp on his targets for next season and his frustrations with modern football
Reds are in Hong Kong to feature at the Premier League Asia Trophy alongside Crystal Palace, Leicester City and West Bromwich Albion
If Jurgen Klopp seems a little testy, it’s understandable – he landed with his Liverpool squad in Hong Kong just hours ago and has been on the media and promotional treadmill pretty much since stepping off the plane.
The German would much rather be back at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground drilling his players for a fresh tilt at the English Premier League title, but in the modern football world, “fan engagement” and “brand activation” on the other side of the globe takes precedence.
Other aspects of modern football culture, especially in England – the manic-depressive swing between euphoria and crisis, the insane transfer market, the absence of any patience – also clearly grate, though Klopp admits he wouldn’t want the salary on offer 20 years ago when things were more relaxed.
Liverpool were hugely impressive in spells last season, but couldn’t quite sustain a consistent title challenge. This season Klopp will have the added challenge of competing in the Champions League too.
Fans are already grumbling before the season even starts, with only two players, Mohamed Salah and Dominic Solanke, added to the squad so far. Both failed to make the grade at Chelsea, though the Egyptian has since starred in Italy and teenager Solanke is regarded as an England international in the making.
Klopp insists his team will be better this season, whether they add any more signings or not – though he admits he’d be crazy to try to “sell that” idea.
“How development always works you use the new experience and you use the things you did, things you learned and that’s what we actually try to do,” says the 50-year-old in an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post to promote New Balance’s sponsorship of the team.
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“We are not only positive, but we are probably a lot more positive than people who judge us because we really know where we’re coming from.
“I don’t mean where we’re coming from 125 years ago – I mean from when I came to Liverpool [with the club in 10th place in October 2015]. It was not the best moment, it was not the best mood, it was not the best atmosphere, it was not the best feeling in and around …
“We got to two finals [Europa League and League Cup] – it was good; we didn’t win them – it was bad. Now we are fourth in the Premier League – that’s really difficult to do.
“Yes like human beings, maybe English supporters or Liverpool supporters are [saying], ‘But we could have been ...’
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“If we were not as we were in January and February, we could have been different, that’s true.
“We didn’t say the season was perfect, what we say is that we really did a lot of games really, really well and I enjoyed our football a lot of times ... it surprised me actually how often we played outstanding football.
“That’s another part of the deal, you have to perform you have to show why you wear the shirt and I really believe in things like this.
“That’s why I said to use things that we’ve learned, that’s the next step to make to see some development and now we are pretty close to next season and we’ll try it again.”
Liverpool haven’t won the title since 1990, when a 23-year-old Klopp was turning out for Rot-Weiss Frankfurt in the German third division. He himself has not won a major trophy since 2012, the second of two back-to-back Bundesliga titles with Borussia Dortmund.
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So if he and the players need to use what they’ve learned, what are the lessons he takes into his third season at Anfield? Normally his words come in a torrent, but he trips a little over his answer before reflecting on the hype and crazy expectation levels in England.
“It’s difficult to say ... not only last season but since I came ... it’s about how we … it’s the mood is a little bit like this – everything is good until it’s really bad. ‘It slips again through our fingers, blah blah blah,’ – this kind of thing …,” said Klopp.
“I don’t meet a lot of people out there, but already I’ve told the journalists, you look at their faces, it’s done. You draw, or lost a game at Sunderland or whatever, and it’s like, ‘My God how could that happen!’ Because it’s football!
“That’s one thing maybe specific … yes a lot of other things.
“The most ... being kind of patient even with the squad is pretty unlikely in modern football.
“To say, ‘Come on, yes we didn’t win the league last year, but let’s stay together, don’t sell anybody, only just try to improve, if we cannot buy anybody then we stay together like this and we will be better than last year because we’ve learned.’
“But do you really think you could sell this in public and say, ‘Meh, we are happy with what we have …’
“But football is more or less changed like this ... we all have to work with it.”
Another area in which the sport grows ever more ridiculous is the transfer market. Klopp was speaking at the Ritz-Carlton on the 118th floor of Hong Kong’s International Commerce Centre, one of the tallest buildings in the world, but it’s dwarfed by the stratospheric prices players are going for.
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Liverpool are being frustrated in their pursuit of two promising players from middling teams, Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk and RB Leipzig’s Naby Keita, with £150 million (HK$1.5 billion) seemingly the bare minimum it will take to land both.
“The prices are like this,” shrugs Klopp, “you cannot make the cheap or the hidden transfers, ‘I got him for nothing but he’s world class,’ that doesn’t happen any more. Especially in the Premier League because the TV money goes from one club to the other club and that’s how it is.
“For some people it’s more exciting than the season, the highlight is the two transfer windows – but for me the highlights are the bits in between.”
Klopp is renowned as a “tracksuit manager” who loves improving and developing players, so I wonder if the likes of Salah and Solanke, less heralded players perhaps with a point to prove in the Premier League, are the types he prefers working with than major superstars?
“I have no problem to sign Messi, no problem to sign Ronaldo, no problem to sign Bale whoever, absolutely no problem – it just never happened,” he laughs.
“I like football players in general especially football players who want to improve and develop. On the level I work I have only fantastic football players around me, there’s no one where it’s, ‘What are you doing here?’
“I can do both, I had to do always this kind of business because the clubs I work for were like this. “But signing Mo Salah for the money [£35 million], that’s not cheap and he’s not a player who has anything to prove.
“He was very young when he was at Chelsea, he’s only 25 now – people say he struggled at Chelsea, Kevin de Bruyne struggled at Chelsea and not only him, it’s not the easiest place for young players.
“So he struggled there, maybe but then he proved a lot and so we didn’t take him because he struggled at Chelsea – we took him because he’s developed really well in the last few years.”