‘Why they are giants’: Psychological stepping stones and the morphing of Klopp’s mentality monsters

From Southampton to Salzburg — via Barcelona — there are verbal gems and key moments aplenty behind the Reds’ ever-improving mentality under the German.

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It feels like the perfect time to write this. We have arrived at the fourth anniversary of Jürgen Klopp’s appointment as Liverpool manager on October 8, 2015.

His predecessor, Brendan Rodgers, returned to Anfield in a managerial guise for the first time since, as he brought his eye-catching Leicester City side to Merseyside a mere day beyond the anniversary of his own departure. Perfect.

That was until approximately 21:16BST last Wednesday evening when Erling Braut Håland tucked the ball home to complete the Reds’ surrender of a 3-0 lead. This wasn’t vintage “mentality giants” material.

But then, it was okay. It became clear that this had the potential to be exactly that. Because “Liverpool, Liverpool,” began echoing around the ground, just as it did when it went to 3-2 four minutes previously. Just as it did when Jetro Willems hammered Newcastle in-front early three weeks ago, in what may once have been a sleepy lunchtime kick-off.

Such a proactive response of positivity doesn’t happen by accident. But it now feels like ritual when the chips are down in L4.

Were said situations ideal? No — I’m pretty sure my own blood pressure at the time may have told me as much. But was it the end of the world? No. Was it a hurdle — a challenge — that could be attacked head-on and overcome. Absolutely.

Of course, when the team in this predicament is one who have done what this Liverpool side have in recent years and months, and one that has scored goals of the quality that oozed through Sadio Mané and Andy Robertson’s first-half strikes, it is admittedly a little easier to reply to adversity in such a way.

But this mindset hasn’t half been grafted for. The thing is, the first-time Mané scored at that end — when he bundled in an 86th minute equaliser for Ronald Koeman’s Southampton to secure a 1-1 draw in October 2015 — “It felt like the end of the world.”

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Those were Klopp’s words. Words of observation when facing the media after what was only his third game — his second at home — in charge. He had already stated that, upon conceding: “We didn’t believe anymore that we can turn this game, switch this game, change this game, whatever the result.

“Receive one goal and it felt like the end of the world and it’s not the end of the world. No, it’s only a goal. And you can come back always and that’s what we have to understand. That’s what I saw tonight.”

The striking thing is, what he felt at the time seemed true. There did seem to be a sense of hopelessness whenever such a setback arrived — both on the pitch and in the stands. Despite the fact that football virtually guarantees them every now and then.

Wind forward a fortnight and after the 2-1 home defeat to Crystal Palace came another observation. This time, it was explicitly towards the Anfield faithful. “I felt really alone in this moment,” stated the German in response to seeing supporters streaming down the steps after Scott Dann’s late winner.

Alienation is, of course, always a risk when referencing supporters in such a way. But not when the purpose — and potential benefits — are abundantly clear.

They were certainly abundantly clear when, in mid-December, a crowd that stuck with the team witnessed Divock Origi’s stoppage-time goal earn a 2-2 draw with West Brom.

The post-match celebration that Klopp led in-front of the Kop may have been maligned by some at the time, but it is the all the clearer now — if it wasn’t then — that this wasn’t the milking of a 2-2 draw with the Baggies. Rather, it was a, “thank you for listening. And for helping. Look at what you can do!”

Without that moment, it’s difficult to envisage the rest of that season producing some of the key moments it did.

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Adam Lallana somehow finding the time to win the Reds the points in the crazy 5-4 at Norwich in January. Roberto Firmino and Christian Benteke contributing to an unlikely comeback win away against Palace in March. Dejan Lovren planting a header into the top corner at the Kop End to complete that stunning Dortmund revival.

This Liverpool side was still brittle in moments. The second-half of the Europa League Final is perhaps the most obvious example, but its skin was getting thicker, its chin was getting stronger — willing and able taking more blows.

‘Erratic’ remained a justifiable description of Klopp’s men until the latter part of 2017/18, when Virgil van Dijk’s arrival added additional stability. Alisson Becker’s signing six-months later took it up another notch and ensured game management was now a trait rather than a target.

Alisson Becker’s arrival had a substantial impact on Liverpool. Image © The Kopite

Noting the substantial impact of the UEFA Player and Goalkeeper of the Year is admittedly hardly a groundbreaking observation. But it does display how the psychological evolution of the Anfield club has been forged through a nicely balanced blend of experiences, introspection and self-assured fresh-faces.

This was why, come early May 2019, Klopp was able to say: “Because it’s you, we have a chance,” to his players ahead of the Champions League semi-final second-leg with Barcelona. Why, in his pre-match programme notes, he could write, “they have their own solutions,” and, “this is why they are giants.”

This was a man secure in the knowledge that his team knew what they were facing wasn’t the end of the world. Ultimately it felt like one of the big reasons why the players and supporters did what they did that night, and later in Madrid.

Without Klopp’s early observations and actions, it’s difficult to imagine West Brom going as it did.

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Without West Brom, it’s difficult to imagine Dortmund. Without Dortmund it’s difficult to imagine City, Roma or even Barcelona.

Because of such highs that double-up as psychological stepping stones, Håland’s equaliser and Salzburg’s justifiable jubilation felt nothing like the end of the world.

The crowd took up the challenge, then the players and then — with a couple of cool-headed substitutions and a change of shape — the manager. We didn’t panic, we settled. And Salah was able to use such steady foundations — almost four years in the making — to score.

It was the same when Leicester visited Anfield at the weekend. Not so long ago, James Maddison’s 80th-minute equaliser would have sunk the Reds. Instead, they kept plugging away and got the winner from the penalty spot in injury — the three points a tangible result of the mentality switch.

“A lesson”, was one description offered by Klopp. He has led this club some distance on this particular front, but after the joyful craziness of the last two matches he knows it can still go substantially further.

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