The Hindu “hugging saint,” Amma, is purported to have bestowed her karmic embrace on some 33 million people since she turned 14. Jurgen Klopp has a ways to go before equaling that number, but, if Friday was any indication, he might catch her by the end of the season.
One by one, Klopp hugged his Liverpool players after they had squeezed the life out of Chelsea, winning 2-1 at Stamford Bridge. The manly clinches might have varied in duration and ferocity — Adam Lallana, for instance, was fortunate not to suffer two broken ribs after Klopp bear-hugged him so fiercely he lifted him clear off the ground — but they all sent the same message of love, togetherness and gegenpress.
After this latest road warrior display, Liverpool’s spiritual guru knows two important things about his players:
1. They have completely bought into his “run until you drop and then run some more” philosophy.
2. None of them is a germaphobe.
Klopp, of course, has always acted like an enthusiastic golden retriever greeting the family. Has there ever been a manager so nakedly encouraging of his players? Could you imagine Jose Mourinho ever being that affectionate or even happy? It’s so much less exhausting to simply assign blame to your players, the referee and Lady Luck, all of which the Manchester United manager did after losing for the third time in nine days. Hug it out, Jose; hug it out.
Unlike Mourinho, the effervescent German believes in the power of collective football rather than relying on the individual brilliance of $150 million French game-changers. His great Dortmund sides produced such stars as Robert Lewandowski, Mario Gotze and Marco Reus, but it was the furious intensity and high tempo of the team’s overall pressing and interplay that made them so dangerous and so exhilarating.
Now the same can be said for his Liverpool side; while they are a long way from evoking comparisons with Jurgen’s Bundesliga champions in 2010-11 and 2011-12, the Reds are increasingly fluent in KloppBall. What makes their early-season rise all the more impressive is that Liverpool has now taken seven away points from Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham as well as dismantling defending champions Leicester 4-1 at home.
Liverpool fans finally have permission to both dream and gloat. How long before they start invoking their tiresome litany of past achievements: the five European Cups, the Miracle of Istanbul, Bill Shankly’s genius, Kevin Keegan’s wizardry, Kenny Dalglish’s dynamism, Steven Gerrard’s “we go again” leadership or even the “Spice Boys” and their matching cream Armani suits?
Of course, the problem with having such a glorious history is that it can weigh on you like an anvil, especially when the Reds haven’t won the league for 26 years. It’s an admittedly epic drought that the always classy Chelsea supporters were quick to point out on Friday night, continually chanting about Gerrard “slipping on his arse” against the Blues at Anfield two seasons ago in a game that, for all intents and purposes, cost Liverpool the championship.
The thundering disappointment of that collapse has preyed on the minds of the Kop faithful for two years, tempering any premature displays of euphoria that might have gripped less traumatized supporters and Klopp, for one, will brook no talk of title hopes and Champions League berths. “We have to work, not dream,” has been his mantra since the beginning of his Anfield tenure last fall, and Liverpool’s promising start to the season hasn’t altered that ethos.
Klopp asks a lot of his players — triple sessions during preseason and covering half the circumference of the earth during games — but when was the last time you heard one of his players complain about his taxing regimen? They’re either having too much fun playing for him or starting for Nice.
And make no mistake, a year into his reign at Anfield, Klopp has made the team his own. The detritus left over from the Brendan Rodgers era — Christian Benteke, Joe Allen, Jordan Ibe, Martin Skrtel and Mario Balotelli — has been swept away. In their stead are the attacking midfielders Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum, whose speed and technical gifts are allied with the combative mindset Klopp demands from each of his players. Also, the comedy stylings of Martin Skrtel in the heart of the Liverpool defense have been replaced by the aggressive and assured play of Cameroon international Joel Matip.
Klopp’s true genius, however, is to get the best out of underperforming players, and during Rodgers’ regime Liverpool had a lot of them, most notably Lallana and Jordan Henderson. A holding midfielder whose job is to shield Liverpool’s back four and help ignite the attack from deep, Henderson will never be confused with Sergio Busquets. He has neither the pace nor the incisive passing talent of the Barcelona dynamo. The problem lies with the inevitable comparison to another midfielder, one whose long shadow still covers the Anfield greensward.
Hendo inherited the captain’s armband from the sainted Gerrard but none of the reverence that goes along with it. In the past two years, he became a convenient media scapegoat for anything that went wrong with Liverpool, but Klopp’s faith in him never wavered.
The manager recognizes Henderson’s natural leadership qualities, his ability to fight and cover and harry for his teammates, as well as his spatial awareness to play the simple ball that makes it easier for players around him. Still, surely not even Klopp expected to see that Gerrard-worthy 30-yard thunderbolt from Henderson on Friday night that had all the power and precision of Stevie G’s last-gasp equalizer against West Ham in the 2006 FA Cup final.
And yet you could argue that Lallana, not Henderson, was Liverpool’s most pivotal player at Stamford Bridge. Much has been made about the galvanizing effect Pep Guardiola has had on ex-Liverpool prodigy Raheem Sterling, but Klopp’s influence on Lallana has been no less dramatic.
Klopp knows only one way of playing: hard running, quick thinking, relentless energy. No one personifies those qualities more than Lallana. To say he runs himself into the ground every match is to understate his effort. “B.K.” (Before Klopp), the former Southampton winger was known as someone who could torch the flanks before looking spent after 60 minutes. But for the second game in a row (he was equally irrepressible in the thumping of Leicester), Lallana was an all-action figure on the pitch, his buzzing presence even too much for Chelsea’s indefatigable N’Golo Kante to handle.
Klopp’s teams expend enormous amounts of energy during games because the manager encourages all his field players to push forward knowing they can quickly recover if caught up field, which is why we were treated to the awe-inspiring sight of James Milner, Liverpool’s nominal left-back, racing 75 yards to make a vital tackle on Diego Costa in the 69th minute when Chelsea were going full-tilt for an equalizer. It was the kind of lung-busting effort that visibly excites Klopp, and you could see him on the touchline pumping his fists and flexing his triceps as if warming up for the postgame hug-a-thon.
Liverpool’s preternatural stamina is not simply the result of Klopp’s positive vibes. Much of the credit goes to highly regarded fitness coach Andreas Kornmayer, whom Klopp hijacked during the summer from Bayern Munich. But even if Kornmayer has figured out some ingenious system to pump oxygen into the player’s lungs from the sideline, it is folly to think they can sustain that searing tempo for 90 minutes. And so it was hardly surprising that their energy began to flag in the second half, allowing Chelsea a glimpse of the game. The difference now is that the visitors’ previously brittle defense has developed a stout resilience, thanks to both the blossoming Matip-Dejan Lovren partnership and Simon Mignolet’s surprisingly capable goalkeeping.
This is not to suggest that Liverpool are no longer vulnerable. Four of their five opponents so far have been the kind of Prem alpha dogs who are confident enough in their own firepower to engage in a relatively open game. Only Burnley refused to go toe-to-toe with the Reds, putting 10 men behind the ball and forcing Liverpool to abandon their pell-mell approach and plot a route through their massed defense. Klopp had no answers, and, despite enjoying a staggering 80 percent possession, Liverpool lost 2-0 with Burnley scoring from their only two shots on goal.
It is not difficult to imagine that the West Broms and Sunderlands will adapt similarly smothering tactics. Klopp will have to figure out a way to navigate these tricky fixtures if he’s going to deliver on the vow he made when he first arrived at Anfield. He told the Liverpool fans he’d win “a title in the next four years”. He didn’t need to add that, if such a blessed event were to happen, he’d hug every last one of them.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.