I tend to compare football to real life quite often. Probably because I’m a bit obsessed with football and football tactics. But probably also because football, like life, requires an overcoming of something in order to be successful. With football it’s another team, and a coach has a host of options available to him on how to set a team up tactically to beat the opposition. Life is similar. Job interviews, fitness goals, career aspirations, presentations or marriage success. These are things to overcome, and like football, these things can be approached through various different approaches. Indeed, business strategy and football strategy have a number of similarities.
In 2015 Jurgen Klopp joined Liverpool Football Club. This was met with an immense sense of excitement for Liverpool supporters, myself in particular. I’d followed his rise in Germany, and for lack of a better phrase, I guess I just liked his style. I liked the way he did things, his big personality, and that amazing charm. Football loving readers of this will know that he has certainly delivered on his promise. As I write this at the end of 2019 he is, of course, still the Liverpool manager, and the club finds itself eight points clear at the top of the English Premier League. Needless to say, I’m eternally grateful for him. But I realised the other day that the gratitude isn’t merely due to him propelling the club to the top, winning the European Champions League in the process. There are a couple of valuable life lessons Klopp has taught me along the way. These lessons could be applied to businesses and their strategies as well as being inspiring to individuals. Perhaps I could elaborate on two of these.
Play the long game
Klopp is highly popular with Liverpool supporters, as well as neutrals and probably even supporters of other sides. Such is his nature. But even Klopp has frustrated supporters at times in how he’s approached certain squad and tactical decisions. Like life, football has become infected with an increasing amount of short-termism. Fans demand improvement and success in a short space of time. Club owners and boards seem to be increasingly emphasising short term success over long term strategy. Manchester United between 2014 and 2019 are a prime example of this.
Klopp refused play by this code, and at times it has confused us supporters. In his first main transfer window he declined to sign a left back, much to the astonishment of fans. What was he thinking? It was an area of the squad that desperately needed reinforcement. He stuck midfielder James Milner in the left back position. It was only a year later that he signed Andy Robertson for left back, who has turned into a fine player. The decision to wait has been justified.
The best example of this was Virgil Van Dijk. When transfer negotiations with Van Dijk’s club Southampton went sour in August 2017, fans urged Klopp to sign another centre back. Surely there had to be a centre back out there that we could get? We did, after all, have a major gap to fill in a crucial position. Klopp was having none of it. We never signed anyone. Klopp wanted Van Dijk, nobody else. Klopp must have known something behind the scenes or in his heart, because halfway through the season in the following transfer window in January, Van Dijk, the masterful Dutch centre back, finally made the move to Liverpool. Klopp got his man. Not some lesser alternative. The rest, as they say, is history. Van Dijk is now widely regarded as the best centre back in the world. Once again, of course the wait for him was justified. Any other manager (literally any other manager) would have panic-bought an inferior player less suited to the team’s needs. Klopp played the long game and it paid off.
Believe in yourself, and the process
It was the end of May 2018. We’d somehow made it to the Champions League final. The biggest game in football. This was the end of Klopp’s second full season at the club. For a side still developing, this was a phenomenal achievement in itself. Our opponents were Real Madrid, who had won the previous two Champions League titles in 2016 and 2017. It was Liverpool’s biggest game in years, and of course we were all overcome with excitement at the possibility of success in the competition for the first time in thirteen years.
We lost 3-1. Two errors by Liverpool’s goalkeeper gifted Real Madrid a rather soft win. Football aside, this was a particularly difficult time in my life. The loss just seemed to compound it. Suddenly May 2018 seemed like one of the worst months in my life. If not the worst.
I woke up the next morning with no intention of seeing or reading anything about the previous night’s game. I’d had enough of the disappointment. Another final loss and me slightly hungover and melancholic. I just wanted to move on and get on with life, and preferably end the nightmare month.
But then a video emerged that morning. It showed Klopp dancing with his arms around some supporters at 6am the morning after the game. There he was, looking sweaty and alive, with his cap turned around backwards. He was upbeat, jovial and defiant. At one point in the video he said something to the effect of “We’ll be back”. I often think of that day and seeing that video, and how it showed me the best way to approach any disappointment in life. Pick yourself up, believe in the long term process and keep going. You just keep going. Of course, a year later Liverpool were back, playing in the final again, this time against Tottenham Hotspur. Liverpool won 2-0 and lifted the trophy. Klopp was right on that morning at 6am while dancing.
Another example of Klopp trusting the process and the system is the player Gini Wijnaldum. A player clearly signed to play on one of the outside central midfield positions in Klopp’s 4-3-3 system. He’s a player that many, myself included, have criticised continually. At times he seems to offer little going forward, and often seems to drift out of the limelight of games for long periods. Yet Klopp kept playing him.
Over time I realised that Klopp’s 4-3-3 system was designed to allow the front 3 players to remain as far forward on the pitch as possible. It didn’t disintegrate to a 4-5-1 without the ball, like so many other teams. In order to pull Klopp’s 4-3-3 off, the two wide central midfielders, of which Wijnaldum was one, needed to be workhorses. They needed to be grafting players with an exceptional positional sense who worked up and down the pitch for 90 minutes. They needed to be the unsung heroes of the side. This was more important than creative flair. Klopp kept playing Wijnaldum, and still does, because that’s what the system requires, and Klopp stuck by the system and his principles.
Playing the long game and trusting the process. I sometimes wish I’d done more of this in my life. It took Klopp’s Liverpool to show me what these concepts really mean, and how difficult they are.
Sometimes football is the greatest teacher. Or perhaps that’s just Jurgen Klopp.