Exclusive Interview with Jürgen Klopp

Ever since he won promotion with un-fancied Bundesliga 2 side 1.FSV Mainz 05 in his first job as manager, Jürgen Klopp has enjoyed winning against the odds. Thanks to our partnership with Liverpool FC, we had a chance to quiz the manager on his fictional childhood heroes as well as the real-life role models who have shaped his winning mentality and informed his unique management style.

On the fictional characters who have inspired him

[Raphael Honigstein] Jürgen, I would like to talk to you about outsiders, winning “against the odds” and surprise successes. Which fictitious stories about mavericks inspire you?

[Jürgen Klopp] 

Well, when you grow up in the Black Forest, you were either outside when the weather was good or inside when the weather was bad. So you had three TV programs at the time. The third program you could easily ignore. But I remember (German filmmaker) Sönke Wortmann saying he had the same first hero in his life: Pimkin. Pimkin was a young Swedish boy, a seven year-old who somehow made it into the Swedish national football team. I was about his age at that time. It was the team of 1974, with (Roland) Sandberg and all these boys at that time.

They actually made a movie out of it. I tried to find that movie again (years later) which was not that easy. But of course, as a child, this story lit up my dreams at that time. It took me some time to realise that this does not happen very often. This film left a lasting impression on me and I thought for a long time that it was possible (to become an international as a child.) He was unexpected success, because of his age.

Otherwise, there wasn‘t a lot to see on the TV. You had to get your head into books. I didn’t really read about outsiders but actual heroes who acted in a certain way that we would nowadays describe as “absolutely politically correct” but nevertheless had the upper hand in the end. (Fictional Apache chief) Winnetou, for example. English people don’t really know who he is but I have read all the books of (German Wild West author) Karl May and to that effect, it was a very important factor in my growing up.

[Raphael Honigstein] …And movies or stories about sports like “Manni der Libero” (Manni the Sweeper)?

[Jürgen Klopp] 

Of course! “Manni der Libero” we definitely watched. And there were the Christmas special series with Patrick Bach and Thommy Ohrner as Manni. He was same age as me, or maybe a little older, and he played for a (fictional) Berlin-based football club –  not Hertha. And when they were champions each of their players got a small motorcycle and I thought: “That would be really nice” But even Manni was not that kind of an outsider – actually it was just a great sports story. Later on, you had the movie “Major League”, a sports comedy with Charlie Sheen – exceptional.

Boris Becker won Wimbledon aged 17 in 1985. For me, that was THE biggest story in general. Something completely unthinkable in a mostly non-tennis nation at that time, producing the youngest Wimbledon winner of all time who, on top, was exactly as old as me … That was really inspiring, to be honest.

On his use of winning stories during his career

[Raphael Honigstein]…You did make use of (Becker’s) win your later career, didn’t you,  showing your teams a few video clips?

[Jürgen Klopp] 

Yes. We became champions with Dortmund as outsiders and as outsiders, we had the chance to win the double (Bundesliga and the DFB Pokal). I got someone to produce a video compilation of “the biggest achievements of humankind”, those that could be shown on film in any case. It started with the moon landing and Boris Becker was included. And because we were in Germany you could work a bit with things like Rosi Mittermaier (winning the Olympics) in Innsbruck in 1976, and Steffi Graf, of course, Michael Schumacher.

All big and famous moments and I said to the boys back then: “Our next big moment, the one that will be in next year’s compilation, is about to happen. It will happen tomorrow when we have the chance to win the double for the first time in the glorious history of Borussia Dortmund”. I did not want to make it too big but I wanted to show them the excitement of (creating) such a historic moment.

I also liked watching that movie myself. It was ten minutes, clip after clip, including John F Kennedy –  “I am a Berliner”  – and other political moments. We put Martin Luther King in it. Big moments in the history of mankind. The possibility of winning the “double” was a big moment in our lives.

On using similar methods at Liverpool FC

[Raphael Honigstein] Have you made use of any of these techniques as manager of Liverpool FC?

[Jürgen Klopp] 

Not really. It did play a small part in my half-time team talk – in the (Europa League) game against Borussia Dortmund. I was only disappointed about the result of the first half. We were 2-0 down at halftime. The shape that Dortmund were in made it look impossible for us to come back from that. But I am completely confident about the fact that life is an accumulation of stories that you want to tell to someone someday. And I said to the boys: “Today is one of those days. If we can turn this around in any way it will be a story that we can tell our grandchildren.” Probably it was not that easy for the boys to imagine because most of them don’t even have children at the moment, but they seem to have understood it well enough, in a calm atmosphere.

Miracles don’t happen so often, but they happen from time to time and you have to be ready and open for them to happen. When you exclude the possibility of it already, then you have no chance. And because of this I really like to work with these images and visualisations to think ahead and then to look back as well. I’ve done it many times myself.

When things are really bad because of something that’s happened I ask myself, honestly: “Will this be something that will concern me a year from now? And if not why do I think so much about it now?” We carry around so many thoughts and problems with us that are not really relevant. I know this is a really pragmatic approach but it works – well, at least for me! Through this, you can get back to normality really quickly and I think I learned this very early, perhaps not by having these experiences myself but through these stories and the experiences imagined by these authors. I could learn from them and I did, very early in my life.

On Special Agent Langelot and James Bond

[Raphael Honigstein] What kind of other heroes where there?

[Jürgen Klopp] 

“Geheimagent Lennet” (Special Agent Langelot) – I don’t think a lot of people know of him. The girls (in Germany) read “Hanni and Nanni,” and I loved the books and the series of “Lennet”. They were crime stories for adolescent children. Not too dark, not much blood. What boy did not want to be like James Bond?

I saw all the Bond films. Of course I did. Sean Connery, then Roger Moore and a few that weren’t that memorable, and then Pierce Brosnan. Bond is just one of those stories. What I like about them: they have an edge to them but Bond never loses his moral footing. I like to be successful and to win and I loved that (Bond) won in the end. Good wins out in the end, without lowering itself to the evil level of the opponent. That always impressed me.

About surprises and underdog stories outside of football 

[Raphael Honigstein] Which surprise winners aside from sports impressed you or inspired you when you were young?

[Jürgen Klopp]  

Nowadays you hear not nearly enough about many of those surprise winners. You have them more often in sports but they get labelled as “one hit wonders”. I just heard a ski jumper who died recently had won the “Four Hills tournament” four years ago. I had never heard of him before and felt: that’s not fair. Honestly. I like that sport. I always watched it when I had time for it, when we didn’t have a match.

Those stories happen everywhere, all the time. Unfortunately, life is such that something really great happens and then the next minute, you have maintain it. No one gives you really any time to embrace it, to enjoy it anymore. I think a very good example is Nico Rosberg. He absolutely deserved winning the Formula One championship. He retired and people said: “Yeah, good. I don’t think he would have won it again anyway.”

So yeah, where is the problem? I don’t get it. There are so many positive surprises on earth every day that mostly impact on the people they happen to. It’s enough that they know it.

I don’t need to know about every single surprise winner but it nevertheless makes me happy to hear about. I was also lucky to have been involved in these sporting surprises a few times my self. Developing a top team at Mainz over the years – that was a surprise that lasted for a long time. And we kept our place in the Bundesliga. Every morning when we woke up we felt like surprise winners. Being part of this kind of story feels very good and it was – for me – easier to go against the negative expectations and to come up against dismissive comments such as: “They can’t do it anyway. They might as well not bother.”

If, on the other hand, expectations are very big, overblown perhaps, you get the sense that you’re coming short every day. If someone expects to become league champions now, he’ll be somewhat disappointed. Because that’s not possible. But that is not to say it can’t happen, perhaps when it’s less expected.  That’s how you can surprise people.

But then, if you don’t repeat the surprise, your standing suffers and people turn away from you. But if you manage to hold on to that feeling of having achieved against the odds, it’s one of those wonderful stories you love telling when you look back upon your life one day.

On managing a historically big club like Liverpool FC

[Raphael Honigstein] With Mainz and Dortmund it was relatively obvious – on different levels, of course – where the journey would take and what constituted realistic achievements. Even at the most successful time at Dortmund, there was never a moment where people said: They have to win it all. There were always better teams, in Europe, but in the Bundesliga too. How does that compare to Liverpool? On the one hand, there is this strong brand, a huge name with a big history, and people expect that the team do all of that justice. And on the other hand –  I would say –  the reality is that you are not yet favourites to win any trophy. How do you reconcile that?

[Jürgen Klopp]  

You are right. I actually see it as comfortable situation. You have to separate these things, even if that seems to have become more difficult these days. Growing up, the most critical people were the ones writing letters to the newspapers.

You read it a few times and thought “Wow, what is he one about?” Today we have 80 million people who write stuff online before they’ve had a chance to think. You won’t be able to do right by all of them. But if someone takes care to express a well-informed concern to me then I am ready and open to talk about it. That‘s why the feeling and atmosphere inside the club is really, really great. Because we feel we are on the right track.

The only small problem is that there are actually a few other teams that are in the same situation and at a very high level. But we can not judge ourselves purely in relation to them. We can not win 5-1 at Brighton and immediately look at Manchester City and say “Yeah but City also won.” So what? We can not change that. I feel there are so many things in life that are more important – like staying healthy and happy.

And then you have to ask yourself how can we be happy? We can only be happy if we’re content about the way we’re dealing with the challenges that we face. They are tough enough. “Being content” is almost seen as something negative these days but I say…just relax. And enjoy it for a moment and say: “Great!”, irrespective of everything else around you. There’s a saying in the region I come from: “When everyone else has problems, ours can‘t be that bad.” I never understood why I should care about the problems of others. But that was the mentality. “You see, others have their problems, too.”

That’s the kind of thinking that’s taken too nowadays in the world. I think as long as we are able to concentrate wholly on ourselves, accept that we are in a tough competition and enjoy our own small achievements, then we might have some really big success one day. To do it the other way around is difficult. You can’t constantly compare yourself to the success of the past. Now we have the chance to shape the future. And to be honest, I feel very good to be a part of it.

On different kinds of winning mentality

[Raphael Honigstein] Is it a different type of winning mentality, working with a team that expects to win, that has to win, compared to coaching a side that considers itself lucky to win matches?

[Jürgen Klopp]  

Playing with Mainz in the Bundesliga, for example, you felt like a kid in the candy shop. The “taking part” wears off very quickly. You lose 4-2 to Stuttgart in your first game.  You scored your first two goals in the Bundesliga but you still lost, and don’t feel great. One week later we were 1-0 down against Hamburg but should have been 5-0 down because they were brilliant in that game but didn’t score as many as they should have.

You couldn’t turn around and just accept that you couldn’t compete. Our own expectations were to win games, too. The pressure wasn’t any smaller than those felt by the teams who were better than us. The only difference was: people did not say bad things to us, even though we lost. They did not say: “You are a bad team”. They said, “Well, you really wanted to win but you couldn’t.”

That’s also not a good feeling. The pressure is high in both situations. When you win one game, you want to win the next one and then if you lose again, you want to win the next one. The difference is not that big. I don’t believe that the fear of losing makes it easier for you to win than the joy of winning. Both can give you motivation, both make you push forward but I think the desire and will to win help you more and are more sustainable, as the other way automatically puts you in a bad mood, and you won’t be able to perform well that way.

About how his footballing philosophy has changed and has allowed his Liverpool FC team to play better football

[Raphael Honigstein] Would you agree with me that your style and quality of football has moved beyond being an underdog-type team, in recognition of the abilities of the team to play good football?

[Jürgen Klopp]  

Yes! But it was necessary. When we got here, in October 2015, we weren’t in such a comfortable situation in the table, and we didn’t really improve, points-wise. We had to deal with the situation but bring a bit more life into it, with a different organisation on the pitch.
There was no realistic chance of winning the title, as Leicester ran away with it, with only Tottenham keeping up with them, to an extent.

We had to improve a lot and that included working out how to play against teams who defended deep. Our main problem wasn’t playing against them – it was keeping our calm and staying sharp for the right moment. You saw that the body language suffered during the game. We had a plan. But when it doesn’t work as if by magic, you have to keep going. But we weren’t able to. If we did score early, however, we would score loads.

Against Hull last season, for example, or Watford, we lost our way a little bit. But if you waste chances, people get nervous. As a club, we still have to improve a fair amount in that respect, not to lose our calm that quickly. The team have come quite far already, maybe further than the crowd who only see us every other week while we talk about it every day. That’s a key factor.

We won 5-1 in Brighton, for example and for the first twenty-five minutes we did not have a shot on goal… but you have to accept it. It‘s not like they were my favourite twenty-five minutes of the game but they are also part of the game. To keep calm in these situations and to do the right thing in the right moment – that is progress, that is a sign of development. We definitely improved in that respect. And it was absolutely crucial that we did.

*Odds were correct at time of publishing the article

Raphael Honigstein

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Football Journalist

Writing and talking about football for Süddeutsche Zeitung, The Guardian, ESPNFC, BT Sport, Red Bulletin and others. Author of "Das Reboot"

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