“Your football has to be mirrored by your soul,” Jürgen Klopp says as he explains why his appearance on the touchline has no effect on his team’s performance. Liverpool’s manager is midway through a fascinating answer about his dress code and has an important message for the aspiring coaches listening to him on Zoom. “You have to bring your own character in.”
This is an unusual setting for Klopp. It is Liverpool’s first day back in phase one training but the manager of the Premier League’s dominant force has given up part of his afternoon to take part in a mentoring session for Kick It Out, football’s anti-discrimination charity. Troy Townsend, Kick It Out’s head of development, has got top coaches involved in the organisation’s Raise Your Game programme – England’s Gareth Southgate is another star attraction – and has landed Klopp.
Gerald Lami, who works at Juventus’s academy in Oman, and Taff Rahman, a Football Association coach educator, are the pair lucky enough to be picking Klopp’s brain, and the Guardian has been invited to sit in on the call. Lami, buzzing as he holds up a copy of Klopp’s autobiography, takes a risk with a question about the German’s fashion sense. “Coming as a refugee to England, appearance is something I’ve always been kind of cautious about,” the 29-year-old says. “I’ve been critical of myself and made sure I’m well dressed. But when I look at you, I don’t see a traditional coach in terms of a suit. How did you go against that traditional look?”
The manager of the European champions listens intently before letting out a booming laugh. “Interesting,” Klopp says. “What I can read between the lines is that I look like a tramp on the sidelines?”
Klopp has taken a shine to Lami, who tells the former Borussia Dortmund manager about moving to England from Albania when he was a boy, his challenging upbringing in east London and falling into a downward spiral after struggling to make it as a footballer. Lami fell in with the wrong crowd and it was only after he was stabbed that he went down a path that has led to coaching in the Middle East. Klopp is impressed and he does not mind being asked about his lack of sartorial elegance.
“I was a player and the next day I was the manager,” Klopp says, remembering how he got his break at Mainz at the age of 35. “In my locker room was the tracksuit of the guy who had the job two days before. It didn’t even fit me. I was just focused on the game. I never thought about how I look. I know it’s not too cool because we are working in public but then when I came to Borussia Dortmund I thought: ‘Maybe I have to change.’ I went for a while wearing jeans and a shirt. But I just didn’t feel comfortable.
“But that doesn’t mean it’s bad for you. I think the best-dressed manager is Pep Guardiola. Everything he wears looks exactly right for him. He doesn’t wear a suit, just casual stuff. It’s interesting what you told me about being a kid who came to England as a refugee. Maybe what is deep in yourself is a little bit of lack of confidence. You think you have to convince people with the way you look.”
As Klopp enters full motivational mode it becomes obvious to see how he connects with his players. He wants Lami to trust himself but also points out the ultimate test will be how his team look on the pitch.
“Be yourself as a coach,” Klopp says. “If you want to look great, then wonderful. I’m just not made for this. It’s important you do what is right for you because whatever role model you have, you can never do the same things. I like when you see the soul or character of the coach in the team. Guardiola again: you see a team and think: ‘Wow, that’s either Guardiola or somebody who worked with him.’ But you can never be exactly the same. Dressing is one part of our character. Wear what you want, but don’t make it the most important thing. In the end the game is what counts. But don’t worry: you can be world champion in a suit or a tracksuit. You just have to be comfortable.”
Lami wants to know the secret of Klopp’s self-belief. “I was full of confidence as a kid,” he says. “Whatever I did my mother said: ‘Brilliant.’ My father said: ‘Sensational.’ I got filled with love. I don’t doubt people. I am completely open. I have nothing to hide. I give everything but I don’t expect I get something for it.”
Klopp’s acceptance that defeat is part of life has been a key part of his success at Liverpool, who are within touching distance of winning their first title in 30 years. “I give everything. I expect my players to give everything. Then we see what we get. That creates the mentality of the team.”
Rahman, part of the former Birmingham and Derby defender Michael Johnson’s staff when Guyana reached the Gold Cup for the first time last year, asks about communication. For Klopp, the key is thinking about the message. “I know myself well,” he says. “I trust myself to say the right thing in the right moment.”
The mind goes back to Liverpool’s finest escape acts under Klopp: the Europa League quarter-final win over Dortmund and fighting back from a 3-0 defeat in the first leg to reach the Champions League final at Barcelona’s expense last season. “Against Dortmund we were 3-1 down at half-time. Before the game you have no idea what you will say at half-time. I said: ‘Boys, this is the day we create a story we can tell our grandchildren.’
“Before Barcelona, it was not planned. I said: ‘It is really unlikely you go through, but because it’s you we have a chance.’ It’s 100% what I thought. You cannot create a proper message by searching for it. It has to come naturally. But the strongest message is one that fits the situation. That means it’s prepared a few days before the game.”
Preparation helped Liverpool go on their 44-game unbeaten run in the league. “How do we get to 10 games in a row?” Klopp says. “It’s exactly the same as 40 games in a row. You should think more positively about yourself. It’s not difficult to keep yourself in line. We win a game, I’m happy. The next day, I don’t think about that game.
“I lost six finals in a row. That doesn’t mean I will not try again. We did that 44 times. But we did the same before the Watford game, which we lost. We are human beings. None of us are perfect. I get up in the morning and have a smile on my face. Can the boys disappoint me? Not really. If something doesn’t work out, I think my message wasn’t clear enough, not that they are too dumb to get what I told them. But why should I be unhappy with myself? I just have to improve my message.”
With the clock ticking Klopp is asked for two more tips. “If you are really ambitious you have to understand the game,” he says. “The interesting fact with football is pretty much everybody thinks he is an expert. It’s a nice game, a simple game. But it’s not easy. That’s why so many people think they understand it but stop so early. There are lot of things to learn. A lot of things to watch. You have to learn constantly.
“The moment you stop learning, the game develops. I started 20 years ago. Is it the same game? No. It’s so much more physical, so much quicker. The other thing is be yourself. You have no other chance. The moment you try to act like somebody else, you constantly think: ‘What would he do?’ Be yourself and learn more about the game. Then I would say there’s a big chance we play against each other. Why not?”
Klopp laughs again before saying goodbye. It is time to train.