On Thursday 25th June 2020 Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool became Premier League champions for the first time in their history.
That might just seem like just another season, but to any Liverpool fan who’d waited 30 years with disappointment after disappointment it was huge. This report explains what changed to make that happen. And how any team leader can use the exact same steps to get their team to perform to the level of champions.
Liverpool Fc were a struggling second division team before Bill Shankly gave them an identity and built the foundations for the dominant footballing dynasty of the 70’s and 80’s.
After three decades of continued success they lost their way. Since 1990 season after season had been disappointment after disappointment. There had been some trophies won, but they only led to frustration that winning had failed to be routine and the club was in the shade of their great rival Manchester United.
United, the other great footballing team risen to ascendency with the reign of Sir Alex Ferguson and his goal of ‘knocking Liverpool off their perch”.
Since 1990 Liverpool had tried nine managers, many of them good managers such as Rafael Benitez who’d broken the Real Madrid and Barcelona stranglehold on La Liga and led Liverpool to their fifth Champions League title. Gerard Houllier who won a treble of trophies and even a return of the legendary Kenny Dalgliesh, winning manager of the last three league titles for Liverpool.
However, any team can win the odd trophy, only great teams can create a foundation that leads to sustained success and trophies.
So we will look at what was different about Klopp and how he came to break the 30 year drought that no-one else could. The lessons on Klopp are most interesting because they are universal and apply for all teams. At the end I’ll show how we can apply these lessons to any team.
30 Years Of Hurt
Gerard Houllier was the first manager since Kenny Dalglish to lead them to compete for the title and finish in second place. Benitez again took them close, as did Brenden Rodgers. However, each time they went close, the failure set them back finishing fifth, seventh and sixth in the next season, until Klopp took them to second.
There was a lack of belief in the players that they could live up to the expectations of the fans.
There was always a sense of luck in winning. Even in their greatest win, the 2005 Champions League title was titled the Miracle of Instanbul. Like their 2006 FA cup win, victory came from penalties after superhuman feats from Steven Gerald.
Liverpool’s success during these times often relied on Steven Gerald both from his performances and from rallying his teammates.
While that led to successes, it was never enough to win the league. Ironically the closest they came was when a cruel slip by Gerald led to Chelsea scoring and getting the edge in the title race. In 2015 Gerald retired just before Klopp became manager.
Having lost Luis Suarez and with Gerald and another star Raheem Sterling now leaving, things were looking bleak for Liverpool.
The Water Into Wine Strategy
Liverpool were by now the poor relation of the major clubs and many wondered how Liverpool could catch up on their rivals and compete without buying big stars?
In a league where success seemed to come to the big spenders like Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea, Liverpool were eighth in the premiership on net transfer spend over the last decade. Their owners Fenway Sports Group’s wealth was dwarfed by many other owners. A total net worth of £2.7 billion compared to the £20 billion of great rivals Manchester City’s owner.
Yet Liverpool’s owners,the Fenway Sports Group had a strategy.
Klopp was the perfect manager and Liverpool the right club for him. FSG work on the ‘Moneyball’ strategy. That is to identify underperforming players to buy relatively cheap and harvest their full value by what they add to a team.
Liverpool never compete in buying Ronaldo, Messi and so on.
They buy players for what they can become rather than what they have done. This avoids the costly mistakes of wasting tens or even hundreds of millions on players as Barcelona and Manchester United have done in recent years. As a result they have bought unproven players like Mo Salah, Fabinho, Andrew Robertson and Roberto Famino who have gone on to shine.
But for this to work they have to have a manager who is able to build belief and give a playing style that allows a player to flourish.
This is how they have been able to build a foundation for success while spending a fraction of the net transfer spend of their rivals.
Turn Doubters Into Believers
Both Benitez and Rodgers had built strong teams, but neither had the same certainty and sense of destiny that Klopp gave.
In his first speech Klopp laid out that everyone from players to backroom staff to fans had to begin to believe. He gave them a timescale, a plan and a vision for what was coming. He used setbacks to strengthen belief where before a setback led to a loss of faith.
The key for Klopp was less about results and more about following the plan and process.
When Phillipe Coutinho, Liverpool’s then star player, left Klopp said, it’s ok. He’s a great player, but only one. The money raised built the core of the team that propelled them to greater success.
In December 2015, Liverpool drew with West Brom and Klopp was derided for taking the team to celebrate a draw with a lesser team. His detractors thought he was celebrating mediocrity. Klopp was building the bond between players and fans.
In a previous match, Liverpool lost to a late goal and Klopp had told the fans off for leaving and said they had to stay and fight to the end. Klopp was getting players to thank the fans for staying to the end.
He later explained, "I wanted to show that we really are one unit. That means I know I am responsible for the performance, but the people are responsible for the atmosphere."
When Klopp took over, he had identified the key problem being a lack of belief. Players didn’t believe they were good enough and were afraid of being ‘found out’. Fans didn’t believe they would win and thought they needed a Manchester City style owner to buy stars and save them.
Players were inhibited in their play because frustrated fans would turn on them if they failed to perform.
Footballers as in all fields have good days and bad days. The key to those who thrive is their mental strength. While Klopp built more fortitude into the team, he also knew he needed the fans to give the players belief.
Liverpool’s history of success had been built by Bill Shankly who had built it on the belief that Liverpool were something different… even before there was any evidence to base it on.
The iconic, This is Anfield sign was put there by Shankly to instill pride in his players and fear in others. In every interview, Shankly left quotes like ‘There’s two great sides in Liverpool, Liverpool and Liverpool reserves. He would tell players he’d seen the opposition looking scared or unwell to build up his players belief.
Football has moved on, but Klopp gave lots of focus and attention to build up his players.
His first job was to reassure players he wanted to work with them rather than sell them to buy others. When the press were negative about the group of players he inherited he said…
‘I’m here because I believe in the potential of the team. I’m not a dream man, I don’t want to have Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi and all these players in one team. I want this squad, it was a decision for these guys. Now we start working.’
Adam Lallana explained the impact he had on the players…
“The gaffer could just see that pressure on everyone’s shoulders and that’s probably what shocked him the most when he first met everyone at the club, especially the players.
What was great and helped lift it is that he wasn’t just talking to us about that. He spoke to the media about that from day one. There would be games that I’d see him turn around in the dugout, screaming at fans saying,
“Why the hell are you having a go? What are you complaining for?” He’d be correcting the behaviour of fans to be more supportive while the game was going on and — just wow!”
“When you agree on a common idea and work towards it together, you can create something very special. We are at a club that helps us now. That wasn’t always the case. When I came here, the size of the club was a burden. Now it’s our safety net, it’s our trampoline, it’s our home, it’s our basis, it’s everything to us. Now we are Liverpool, before the club was Liverpool and we were just the guys who were trying to be good enough.”
“The players were obviously listening to all the voices saying they are not good enough for the club or that I can’t wait to get rid of them.
There were a lot of insecure players. I think, especially in England, everybody is used to the first thing a manager does to save his own life is to sack whoever he can. And by the way, I learned that not only the players think like this, it was in all departments.
When I walked through the offices, I thought, “Okay, they don’t believe that I’m actually here to work together with them and not try to find out who I was going to sack so that we can become be successful.”
Create A Shared Identity - We Are Liverpool
Liverpool, at least to supporters, has always had a sense of being special since the days of Bill Shankly. It has a shared culture with deep roots in the community that are bonded through success and trauma over the years. Liverpool are expected to not just win, but to win with style.
Yet, it has felt detached from that identity from it's glory days.
While Benitez understood the fans and bonded with them, he lost many players notably Xabi Alonso because of his detached personality and exacting style. There had also been a disatrous ownership battle that had torn apart the club. Kenny Dalgish was brought in to restore unity and the glory days, but fell short.
It is ironic that Brendan Rodgers got the job with a presentation, titled One Club, One Vision in his interview.
Unfortunately that one vision, like Benitez was Rodger's. He wanted everyone else to fall into his plan. That plan involved those players, backroom staff and analysts that he valued being used and the rest being excluded until they left.
The result was constant fighting over transfers, players being unused because he hadn't chosen them and backroom staff left feeling unappreciated.
The key difference with Klopp is that he came with a strong sense of who he was and this insulated him from feeling the need to prove himself. He wants everyone to feel valued and have a chance to contribute. He deeply understands that he is at the apex, but he can only stand tall while others support him.
So while Liverpool had some success in the transfer market, results were more patchy because there was compromise in strategy.
FSG had a crack analysis team specialising in transfers, but Rodgers insisted on having the final choice. In one window he arranged a deal for Clint Dempsey while the transfer committee had lined up Daniel Sturridge. It meant Rodgers ended up with players he didn't want like Mario Balotelli and complaining of others let go like Andy Carroll.
The result was a transfer strategy that didn't work.
One of the key aspects of Klopp's success has been clever work in the transfer market. This was because Klopp never wanted control, he wanted people who had skills he didn't have to identify and flag players he wouldn't have spotted himself. Like Sir Alex Ferguson, he has embraced and surrounded himself with people with different skills and allowed them to thrive.
The result is buying players that people ridiculed like Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Andy Robertson who now would get into any team in the world.
One of the myths of our culture is the idea of the genius. It leads people like Donald Trump, George Bush Jr to claim to be self made when clearly they have been given a step up. Forbes magazine claimed Kylie Jenner was the youngest self-made billionaire, yet the wealth she has clearly came from the path her family had carved long ago.
Legend tells us of heroes such as Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and so on.
Yet the only reason Thomas Edison had so many patents was because like star chefs have kitchens full of chefs experimenting recipes, he had hundreds of scientists inventing. Albert Einstein may have had the imagination to think of light travelling, yet it was built on the conversations he had with other physicists. Success is not just raw talent, it needs to have the environment to bring opportunity.