In the second leg of Liverpool’s Europa League quarter-final game against Borussia Dortmund on 14 April 2016, Liverpool conceded two goals in the first ten minutes and were 3-1 down in the tie overall. Half-time arrived, Klopp disappeared quickly into the dressing room. He seemed very calm, very relaxed, because the performance of the team, in his view, was good and Liverpool indeed created a lot of chances.
The key to understanding Klopp’s approach to football is not to focus on goals conceded or defeats. Every team will be beaten. What he always focuses on – resolutely, soberly – is the performance, because that is the key to the development of the team. It is the performance that has to be understood and celebrated, not goal-scoring.
When Klopp is analysing games with his core coaching staff – ‘the brain’, assistant coach Zeljko Buvac, and his video-analyst, ‘the eyes’, Peter Krawietz – he apparently never watches the goals. They are edited out. So, although Liverpool were 3-1 down on aggregate at half-time, Klopp was happy with the performance. He said to the team that they now had the chance to ‘create a moment to tell our grandchildren about’; namely, the creation of a history, of what philosopher Martin Heidegger would call a heritage whose essence consists in repetition or reproduction.
The key thing for Jurgen Klopp is belief. As he says, ‘If someone wants to help, you have to change from a doubter to a believer. It’s a very important thing.’
Of course, Jürgen Klopp is a Christian who has not sought to hide his belief in God. When Klopp was asked by my pal Roger Bennett how he deals with the cynicism of the football world with a seemingly fathomless optimism and joy, he replied without hesitation, “I believe in God and my only job is to do the best in life ... My only pressure is to be a good human being.’
It is a wonderfully sincere and disarming sentiment, which I have no reason to doubt. The really interesting and perhaps slightly absurd question is the relation between belief in God and belief in a football team.
There are arguably many reasons to believe, just as there are many reasons to disbelieve, but the leap of faith is an inherently irrational act, the madness of a decision to see the Situation for what it is, with a sober ecstasy, a resolute rapture. This is what it means to be a fan. As I am not a Christian like Klopp, Liverpool Football Club is the closest I can get to religious experience.
Let’s go back to what happened in the second half against Dortmund on 14 April 2016. It was indeed a moment. After Divock Origi scored for Liverpool to make it 2-1, Marco Reus of Dortmund scored a sublime goal to make it 3-1, creating space on the left side of the pitch before deliciously curling the ball past the keeper with his right foot. I texted ‘game over’ to my son and slouched back into the couch.
But then, nine minutes later, ‘the little master’, Philippe Coutinho, scored for Liverpool and the mood in the stadium suddenly seemed to change. Everyone could feel it. Forceful belief spread through the fans and the team. The interchange between team and fans grew second by second into a strange, wild but focused intensity.
The really odd thing is that the winning goal didn’t feel surprising. It felt as if it was destined to happen
Dortmund could feel it too. Their hitherto dominant midfield began to contract and shrink, their frighteningly fast, counter-attacking movement ceased and Dortmund dropped deeper and deeper into defence. This was possibly going to be one of the great Anfield European nights.
Mamadou Sakho scored from a scrappy header on 77 minutes to level the game, but Liverpool still needed an extra goal because of the number of Dortmund’s away goals. Then, in the 91st minute, Daniel Sturridge received the ball and moved into space, passed to James Milner, who accelerated towards the goal line, crossed the ball expertly to the back post and Dejan Lovren headed the winner.
Anfield erupted. For a couple of seconds, before he seemed to comprehend what had happened, Klopp was strangely still. It was a moment. He didn’t gurn (a gesture which I hate) or do a fist-clenched air punch (an adolescent move which I question, although I do it when watching games alone and it feels so good).
The really odd thing is that the winning goal didn’t feel surprising. It felt as if it was destined to happen. It felt like fate or the moment of some deus ex machina. Thomas Tuchel, Klopp’s former assistant and successful successor as manager at Dortmund, described the result as ‘illogical’. He was right. Football sometimes defies logic and these are the moments that we live for.
Klopp’s post-match press conference was interesting, and it encapsulates much that I have tried to say about the moment, about performance and about emotion, mood and basic attunement.
Klopp mentioned that during his half-time talk, he recalled the memory of the moment in 2005 in the Champions League final in Istanbul when Liverpool came from 3-0 behind to beat AC Milan on penalties after extra-time. An obvious reference, perhaps, but effective nonetheless.
The point is that the awareness of the history of that moment allows for a repetition or fetching back, what Heidegger would call a Wiederholung, in a new historical moment, which itself provides the potential for the creation of future moments, a new heritage.
It simply doesn’t matter that none of the current Liverpool players were present in 2005, nor that Klopp himself wasn’t there. It is as if the memory of the fans forms a living archive of meaning, a vast historical reservoir that can be drawn from and imbibed.
Liverpool’s eventual defeat against Sevilla in the Europa League final in Basel is not a refutation of such moments. There will always be defeats. It is the nature of the game. The question is how a team seizes hold of its history as a way of accepting defeat and trying again, going again, carrying on, together and stronger.
What We Think About When We Think About Football can be pre-ordered from Profile Books