It was the final exchange before training. A question from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Jurgen Klopp appeared happy, relaxed. He made a little joke about how well Eintracht Frankfurt had done, winning the Europa League.
Then the mood turned serious. The gentleman wanted to know about the Champions League final being in Paris, not St Petersburg as intended, about what this change meant and whether Klopp had given any thought to its significance. War, death, sanctions.
Momentarily, his face fell. He clearly had not. And as a decent man, he possibly felt a little guilty about that. He had come prepared for questions on Sadio Mane, and revenge on Real Madrid and football, football, football. But not this.
Jurgen Klopp dedicated the Champions League final to the people of Ukraine after he was asked about the show-piece event being held in Paris rather than St Petersburg
So he fell silent. And he sighed, audibly. ‘How to kill the mood,’ he quipped, weakly, but he knew that wasn’t appropriate either. So he was silent again, for what seemed like an age.
And then he said this: ‘The war is still going on and we have to think about that. The game still happens and the fact we are not in St Petersburg is exactly the right message that Russia should get. Life goes on, even when you try to destroy it. We play this final for all the people in Ukraine. I am sure some people in Ukraine can still watch it, and we do it for you, 100 per cent.’
And he rose and went training in the sunshine on the Stade de France turf and, right there, was the essence of Klopp, his intelligence, his management of men.
He once explained his religious doctrine: ‘When you leave a room, try to make sure that people don’t feel worse from the moment you came in.’
Saturday’s Champions League final was originally set to be played in Saint Petersburg
It will now take place at the Stade de France in Paris after UEFA decided to switch venues
Nobody in the room in Paris would say that. Klopp, his mind so obviously on the biggest game of Liverpool’s season, was tested but still found the right words, in the right moment. He didn’t let anyone down. His teams, too, rarely let anyone down.
They are forged in his image, from his principles, his intelligence. When asked to explain his playing career as a second tier footballer, Klopp admitted that he had the ability for tier five, but the mind for the Bundesliga.
‘I never succeeded in bringing to the field what was going on in my brain,’ he said. ‘The result? The second division.’ And that was frustrating for Klopp the player, as his disciplinary record suggests.
As a manager, though, problem solved. As a manager, it does not matter that he could not do what he now asks of his players. As a manager, Klopp’s elite thinking has come into its own. Right now, pound for pound, he is probably the best manager in the world.
There are better teams, no doubting that. Manchester City under Pep Guardiola have won the league four out of the last five seasons in England. Even accounting for the campaign in which Liverpool were crippled by injuries at the back, City have been the dominant force in English football for the last decade.
In Europe, Saturday’s opponents, Real Madrid, have won four of the last eight Champions League titles, with Zinedine Zidane masterminding three of them.
Yet these uneven battles only add to Klopp’s reputation. His detractors say his Liverpool should have won more, but is that true? If City are the best team in England, how many titles should Klopp have won? And how many Champions League trophies should a team win from 3-0 down against Barcelona?
Klopp speaks to his players at the Stade de France just less than 24 hours before the final
Klopp is also the only coach to deny Bayern Munich the title between 2010 and 2022. Munich have won the Bundesliga every year since he left Germany.
Klopp’s compatriot, Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel, put his tongue firmly in his cheek when he discussed him earlier this month. ‘He’s the master of being the underdog,’ Tuchel said. ‘He can talk you into thinking he’s the underdog even against Villarreal or Benfica.’
And sure, nobody would argue Liverpool did not get a little fortunate with their road to Paris. Quarter-finalists Benfica finished third, 11 points shy of second-placed Sporting Lisbon, in Portugal this season, while semi-finalists Villarreal are Spain’s entry in the UEFA Conference League next season.
Yet when Klopp is head to head with City, or contesting another Champions League final — Liverpool’s third in five years — he is often the underdog.
‘Pep Guardiola is the best coach in the world, no problem with that,’ he says. ‘But I always wanted to be the coach of the team who can beat the best in the world.’ And he has, so often, achieved that.
It suits the argument of Liverpool enthusiasts to promote the Champions League above the domestic title but, when judging the best team, 38 games rarely lie. Certainly, 190 do not and across five seasons City have been better.
Yet when Klopp sat down at the Stade de France yesterday it was with the assurance of a man who knew he had built a team that on its day could beat anybody. A final against Real Madrid did not faze him because, in reality, he has been playing finals all year. Not just in the FA Cup and Carabao Cup, but each week in the league when one slip, one defeat could have surrendered the prize.
The German has built a team in Liverpool that give any team a run for their money
‘Since January we have played only finals,’ said Klopp. ‘And this was fine. We never looked impressed by the situation, there was not a nervous start in these finals. The opposite in fact. We played our best first half against Manchester City ever in a semi-final, we played our best half an hour against Chelsea in a final.
Then last Sunday against Wolves we start with a goal where they hit us by surprise, a long ball, over the head, cross, in. And that’s good, because we turned it, we won the game, and this game against Madrid will not be perfect for either team also, definitely not. So we still have to be ourselves.’
The unity of the team is vital to Klopp’s Liverpool, and was from the start. During his first week in the job, an employee responsible for player liaison was contacted and told the manager required a list of the birthdays of all players’ wives, long-term partners and children. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Going around the training ground with a notepad asking details might appear intrusive. Some records may be on file, others not, and nobody can be missed out. It became an exhaustive process of contacting agents and representatives until a comprehensive list had been compiled.
Right now Klopp is probably the pound-for-pound best manager in world football
And, of course, it is not exceptional that a club acknowledges the birthdays of significant others with a card, or maybe flowers. Yet Klopp went a step further. He would turn up on the doorstep in person with a gift for the child whose birthday it was. Think of the size of a modern first-team squad. That’s a lot of birthdays. And that’s a Bundesliga brain at work there, too, in the field of man management.
Klopp is a modest man. But not foolishly so. He knows what he has achieved, what his players have achieved and when he spoke in Paris yesterday there was the sense he was even willing to shed some of the underdog guise. Asked who were favourites, he did not seize on the question as he previously might.
‘If you look at the history of Real Madrid, their experience, the way they have had comebacks, I’d say they were favourites,’ he began. ‘But us, being ourselves, if we are on top of our game we are really hard to play. We could write a book about how good this Real Madrid team are — but we are good as well. My boys have developed enormously.
‘We’ve played some really good stuff this season. We’re not here by surprise, or because we had a winning ticket, we deserved it. We are a really uncomfortable opponent.
‘The club is in a good place, everybody is connected and the players are exactly right for this club. Be us, on the highest level, and that will be cool. We are ready for this final.’
And that is Klopp. The man of the moment, the man for this stage. Leaving the room better than he found it. Pound for pound, right now, the best manager in the world.