Klopp quitting at the top is a lesson for business leaders

Liverpool FC manager thinks constantly about the assets at his disposal, what makes them tick and how to get the best out of them

Conor Bradley, Jurgen Klopp's latest protege, earned the player of the match against Norwich City on Sunday. The Liverpool boss has no fears in fielding the youngster. Reuters
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Look around the crowd at a football game. They’re predominantly male, a mixed bunch, drawn from a variety of ages and backgrounds.

A large proportion hail from the world of commerce, from business. Some, from the top. It’s evident in their patter, in their dress. In London, a substantial amount will work in the City.

While they follow the ebb and flow of the game, and applaud and rage, they don’t stop to think how what they’re witnessing could be applied to their day jobs. They should. In front of their eyes, at every match, is being played out a managerial drama that would grace the smartest c-suite and tax the cleverest management consultants.

Watching the players, not for their footballing skills but for their mental attributes, and how the manager interacts with them, would teach lessons in leadership, fortitude and resilience. A few years ago, I went to a ‘Q&A evening’ with a Premier League manager. His team were doing OK, they were winning most of the time. But every now and then they would suffer a surprising defeat. A side they would be expected to beat would come from nowhere and apply a thumping.

It was holding them back, putting them mid-table when they ought to have been higher. Asked what was wrong, the boss didn’t hesitate. “Easy, we lack a leader on the pitch. We’ve a good squad, good players, but right now, not one of them is a leader. We need a leader.”

That person, he said, would not be the most skilful or the sharpest goalscorer or the most stubborn defender – although they could be any of those and more. No, they had to display inner steel, they needed to show resolve, discipline and determination when it mattered – and crucially those qualities had to rub off on others.

When those lesser teams went in front, he said, you saw heads drop, players would argue among themselves, structure would crumble, one or two of them would behave impetuously, and as for the carefully thought through game plan designed to exploit the opposition's weaknesses, that would be forgotten. A loss would ensue, and with it, an inquest, at which all those points would be raised and agreed.

But the next match, the same would occur. They did not possess a strong enough character who could hold it together, who would drive and galvanise. That required a special individual and having tried and failed with the existing players, they were going out into the market to find one.

It’s what defines the great managers. Much has been written about Jurgen Klopp these past few days, since his shock announcement that he would be quitting Liverpool at the end of this season.

Plenty has focused on his natural ebullience, his warmth and good humour, his obvious passion – for Liverpool, the club and the city – and his ability to get on with the highest and lowliest of folk. There’s one video clip of Klopp that never fails to inspire and raise a smile – it’s of him dancing on tables in a bar with supporters after a victory, hugging and jigging, and belting out Liverpool anthems.

You could be forgiven for supposing that is Klopp, that‘s all there is, the fist-pumping and running along the touchline. In truth, he is happiest in the peace and quiet, away from the hurly-burly. “My car knows only one way – home to here, here to home.”

And he is thinking constantly, about the assets at his disposal and what makes them tick and how to get the best out of them, not for now, but ahead. Not for nothing did he refer to his Champions League-winning team and the first Liverpool side in an era to triumph in the most prestigious tournament after so many victories before, as “mentality monsters”.

It was Klopp who coached the lesser known Andrew Robertson to dominate the great Lionel Messi, the night Liverpool came back from a 3-0 first-leg defeat to humble the mighty Barcelona 4-3 in the Champions League semi-final.

At Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson was the same. The doughty Glaswegian extracted stellar performances galore from who, within football, was labelled as the "difficult-to-manage" Eric Cantona. The Frenchman scored 71 goals in 177 appearances, winning four Premier League titles and two FA Cups, and earning the nickname from the United fans of "King Eric".

Ferguson’s tactic was not to try to restrict him as others had done, but to show faith in him, to trust and believe in him. Cantona was allowed free rein, to roam around the pitch, to strut, always with his collar up, to intervene when it suited him, to do his own thing.

He was short-tempered, but Ferguson made no attempt to curb that, believing the emotion made him the player he was. So when Cantona launched a kung fu kick against an opposition supporter, and the football establishment erupted, Ferguson stood by his player.

When Cantona retired, like Klopp also right at the top, Ferguson wrote him a letter. It’s an extraordinary document, long and full of love, one friend to another. Along with thoughts about how he planned to try to replace Cantona, he shares the constraints of what he had to work with. It’s open, warm and intimate.

“As I close this letter, I would like to hope that we will have a chat, a drink, or a meal together soon. I know the club has written to you about the forthcoming dinner and I hope you will manage it, but that is not the most important thing, for me it is to remind you how good a player you were for Manchester United and how grateful I am for the service you gave me. I will never forget that and I hope you won’t either.”

Ferguson continues: “You are always welcome here and if you just pop in unexpectedly for a cup of tea, no fanfare, just for a chat as friends, that would mean more to me than anything. Eric, you know where I am if you need me and now that you are no longer one of my players, I hope that you know you have a friend. Good luck and God bless. Yours sincerely, Alex Ferguson.”

Jurgen Klopp announces he will leave Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp announces he will leave Liverpool

Klopp knew how to bring on youth. “I am not saying I am the best manager in the world, but I’m quite good and I am one of those really interested in structure. We are not marionettes, we cannot be thrown away each day. If you do not change the people, without solving the problems, then the next person will have the same problems. Work on solutions, work on the future. That’s what we do.”

It was at those meetings, to discuss the future, that Klopp realised he wasn’t leading them, that he was asking himself what the future lay for him and where he would be. That was when he knew it was time to go.

It’s the hardest decision of all, stepping down while at the top. But in many ways it’s the shrewdest. History is littered with those who didn’t, who stayed on too long. Those running businesses, take note.

Chris Blackhurst is author of ‘The World’s Biggest Cash Machine – Manchester United, the Glazers and the battle for football’s soul’ published by Macmillan.

Published: January 31, 2024, 7:00 AM
Updated: March 06, 2024, 12:10 PM