The history of football is often told as one of the great sides emerging before slipping away and passing that mantle to others. Despite that, there had been something crushingly perfect about Manchester City’s dominance of the Premier League in recent seasons: 100 points and 100 goals in 2017/18 and becoming the first club to retain the title in a decade in 2018/19 was one thing. Another thing was the sense that English football’s late embrace of tactical progress was a process that was now complete. The best mind in the world was blowing away the competition with football of a level we had never seen before. Tactically, Pep Guardiola’s City seemed unstoppable.
Liverpool’s slow but near-certain march to the title this season ruins that narrative. Jürgen Klopp’s side are clearly lacking nothing at all in terms of tactical sharpness, with the attention this season rightly being on the staggering benefits he has gained from his full-backs. The German deserves plenty of credit for adapting his heavy metal football of old and adding a touch of symphony.
Just as important, though, in the imperious, unrelenting way in which Liverpool have shrugged off challenge after challenge to their credentials this season is the benefit of Klopp’s psychological prowess.
Nobody would dispute the importance of psychology in football, but it is an element that is rarely analysed in great detail. We are all familiar with the winning mentality that gets champions over the line, the poisonous vacuum that opens up in clubs when a manager ‘loses the dressing room’ and the phenomenon of the new manager bounce. You can’t put a number on a good mentality, though, and it’s difficult to see the exact contribution it makes, compared to a tactical switch or substitution, for instance.
All too often, discussion of mentality gets lost in false narratives about defeated teams completely lacking it and winning teams having it in droves. Just think how many times a game has been analysed on Match of the Day with clips of a losing team failing to close down their opponents, with Alan Shearer repeating a mantra along the lines of “Lazy. Gutless. Lethargic.” Fans often accuse a team in poor form of lacking passion or interest creates rancour. The reality is far more complex. I recall Kevin Kilbane saying on the radio that when his sides were in poor form, he often had a sense the players were trying too hard.
Few lazy people beat off the millions of competitors to become professional footballers, after all. If you’ve played regular football of any kind, it’s unlikely you’ve ever gone into a match planning to take it easy at all; even if you don’t care too much for your teammates, there is such a risk of personal shame. Sometimes everything will just seem to click together and other times everything will fall apart disastrously.
Having the motivation to get to a loose ball a fraction of a second ahead of your opponent, to do enough to shrug off a defender or block a shot is incredibly important, perhaps even more so in an age when the tactical approaches of leading teams have largely coalesced into a similar style of possession-based attacks combined with pressing and quick breaks. Chris Wilder recognised Liverpool’s excellent drive when saying, after his Sheffield United lost 2-0 to the Reds, that they “won every first ball, every second ball, dropped on every second ball, ran forward and ran back and they did that miles better than us”.
Any good manager should be able to make his players want to run through walls, as the cliché goes, but Klopp appears to be able to make his players run through them faster than anyone else. Gaining a psychological edge is, of course, far from a new concept – Sir Alex Ferguson mastered it through his hairdryer treatments while a young José Mourinho built a siege mentality to make Chelsea and later Inter dominant forces. It’s worth considering in a little detail how Klopp has pulled it off – and it appears to go much deeper than just his jovial favourite-uncle-you’ve-never-had persona.
Klopp’s comments last November after Liverpool hired a dedicated sports psychologist, Lee Richardson – some time after the club began using a throw-in coach – were not exactly specific: “It’s not that we test him. It’s not like this, it is not let’s have a look if the boys behave better.” Klopp said psychology is “a job to do, but I cannot really speak [about it] because I am not involved.”
Some of the details that have emerged from the Liverpool dressing room suggest psychology is an area the German does put detailed thought into, though. Georginio Wijnaldum recently told The Athletic that the manager did his pre-match team talk at the 2018 Champions League final in Kyiv with a shirt tucked into a pair of Cristiano Ronaldo-branded boxer shorts. It was a strategy to lower tension with a twist on the classic ‘picture them in their underwear’ advice given to job interviewees or those doing presentations. It’s not known where Klopp bought the pants, but you can bet he didn’t happen upon the idea while browsing a Ukrainian menswear shop in the afternoon before the match.
It was planned well in advance, and it is the kind of trick he has deployed before. Raphael Honigstein’s biography of Klopp details how, in May 2004, he was trying to get Mainz promoted to the Bundesliga after two near misses in the previous two years. Ahead of their decisive end-of-season home match with Eintracht Trier, Klopp hung a banner in the dressing room saying, simply: “Jaaaaaaaaa!” It was an effort to go against the German tendency to approach critical situations with utmost seriousness by lightening the mood instead – and it worked.
Relieving pressure has been a vital consideration this season as Liverpool carry the weight of expectation of a first title in 30 years. Klopp’s words in press conferences on coping with pressure have often come back to the same message: his team should enjoy being in a high-pressure situation.
In December 2018, he promised his team would “enjoy the ride” of the 2018/19 title race. In February 2019, having dropped points to Leicester and West Ham, Klopp denied feeling any pressure, saying “let’s fasten the seatbelts and let go”. When Liverpool’s formidable fixture list in December 2019 was raised, including Champions League, Club World Cup and League Cup ties, the German said his players would try to enjoy the most intense period of their lives.
While many see this as Klopp trying to get his players to buy into his relaxed approach, it could also be built on a clear psychological strategy. His message fits with the popular growth mindset trait in psychology; a way of thinking that focuses on effort above results (which should come automatically with the right effort) and highlights the importance of embracing challenges. One of its pioneers, Carol Dweck, said: “If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.”
Effort is what Klopp sees as having defined his playing career in the absence of huge talent, and it seems like he identifies with players of a similar character. As a delighted coach celebrating guiding Mainz to promotion to the Bundesliga, he shouted into a camera his pride at making Marco Rose, a seriously hardworking but technically limited defender (and the current Borussia Mönchengladbach manager), a Bundesliga player.
Klopp hasn’t reinvented the wheel with any of this, but he has seemingly applied a coherent, clear and highly motivational psychology with great effectiveness, which goes a long way to providing exceptional leadership. Just like in telling a joke, the secret to good psychological guidance lies in the delivery.
While his predecessor in the Anfield hot seat, Brendan Rodgers, clearly put a lot of effort into finding a winning psychology, his efforts got ridiculed for having a hint of David Brent about them. That may be unfair given his record in management, but it reflects the clear fact that Rodgers, like pretty much any other manager in the game, is not blessed with the sheer charisma of Klopp, which is, of course, a huge help in getting a group of younger players with varied backgrounds and characters to subscribe to his way of thinking.
While it is tempting to imagine Klopp was born with a huge grin on his face and proceeded to bear hug the midwife, his charisma and psychological strength was most likely built bit by bit. His background and career seems to have provided all the pillars he has needed.
Perhaps it has something to do with being born in Swabia, the region stereotyped as the hardest-working in Germany. That his father was a travelling salesman, a job requiring a fair amount of social and psychological wit, may have played a part. Klopp has joked that he was the only one to fail a gymnastics test during his studies of sports science in Frankfurt, which took him up to master’s level, but I suspect he was a more attentive student than he lets on.
What is for sure is that in his playing days, Klopp experienced the transformative power of a system designed to channel sheer grit and effort as Wolfgang Frank revived a struggling Mainz side by introducing a revolutionary new pressing system. Shrugging off two near misses to get Mainz promoted and then defying the odds to take Borussia Dortmund to back-to-back Bundesliga titles must have given Klopp all the self-belief he needs to carry out his approach. Klopp has now coined the term “mentality monsters” in both the German and English languages.
Pep Guardiola was using a similar idea to Klopp’s embrace of effort over results when he said in November: “It’s not a good message for society, for our kids, for our teenagers, to show them that only the winner is perfect. What is important is the effort, the commitment, the situation.” The tone and the context were vitally different, though.
With a gap opening in the title race, the message surely wasn’t designed to help his players revel in the pressure; rather it was a plea for outsiders to take the pressure off by not making too much of Manchester City’s disappointing results. It sounded like a man who knew the tactical advantage he had enjoyed in the past had been cancelled out, and a man who realised his title race opponents had a decisive psychological edge.
By Dan Billingham @D_Billingham