Jurgen Klopp’s 7 Year Curse and how early is it to take it up for discussion, again?
European football has seen several massive rewiring of teams in the past couple of decades, but one name that has become quite famous in this line of work is Jurgen Norbert Klopp. The charismatic Liverpool gaffer has a rich history of turning tables in favour of teams that seemed to be in need of quite a bit more than just luck. The then recent histories of the teams he have managed so far share a common status of mediocrity and general cluelessness of how to get out of that position. Klopp successfully took all three teams he managed to levels they couldn’t have only dreamed of and at a pace no one anticipated. He took Mainz to the top tier of German football for the first time in history, Dortmund won back-to-back league titles and went till the final day of the most prestigious cup competition in Europe and Liverpool won their long-awaited Premier league title against all EPL odds which was accompanied by European glory.
This being said, the manager from Stuttgart also has a reputation for what some would term the “seven year curse”. Although no one doubts he left both Mainz and Dortmund as no short of a hero, his final years at these clubs were not the right ending anyone let alone Klopp himself would have wished for. Mainz got relegated in his second last season at the club and he left the next year keeping his word that he would resign if he couldn’t get the team back with the big boys. Borussia Dortmund saw themselves dip to the 18th position in the league facing relegation in 2014-15, just a few months after their miraculous champions league journey. Pundits, critics and fans all over the world have now begun to think if the Merseyside giant’s current streak of below-par performances is a sign of an imminent fate similar to that of Klopp’s previous clubs.
Klopp’s Teams & How Similar or Dissimilar they were?
The fact that Jurgen Klopp’s teams in the past have severely run short of 3 point games is crystal clear. But if there were shared reasons for these failures is something that will only be clear when looked at a lot more closely. Despite the teams he managed being at a disadvantage at the time when he arrived it is not wise to look at and analyze his ups and downs with those clubs in the same line, as all of them were different in terms of the quality and finances they had and also in terms of their goals.
To start with Mainz, when he was appointed gaffer towards the end of the 2000/01 season, they were at the brink of relegation, which they narrowly escaped by a point after Klopp’s arrival. For the past three years before his appointment, the closest they have come with the top of the table is 17 points away. Their goal stats were a whole different subject of concern. In Klopp’s first full season with the Zero-Fivers the team ended up scoring 66 goals which was a drastic improvement from the two previous seasons when the team ended up scoring only 37 and 41 respectively. The heavy metal football along with Klopp’s signature gegenpressing tactics had other teams with little breathing space on the ball.
His stats in the next few years did go down, but to what extent can it be compared to his downward trajectory at Dortmund and now a potential one at Liverpool, is not all black and white. For starters, Mainz was not a team privileged with historical success unlike Klopp’s following ventures in Europe. It never did get a taste of top-flight football pre-Klopp. And being a typical 2nd tier team who just got promoted into Bundesliga, their performance in the same can’t be analyzed relatively to Borussia Dortmund and the Reds who were mostly top-flight teams in their history.
Speaking of Dortmund, saying that they were not the best of teams when Klopp took over would be an understatement. They finished 13th in the league the previous year and never managed a better table position than 7th in the 3 years preceding his arrival. In his third year with the team, he won them the league which was followed by another title-winning campaign, which was accompanied by a thrashing of Bayern in the DFB Pokal final. The total points Klopp’s boys managed to sum up in those two years were 75 and 81 respectively, which was a massive improvement from 40 points which was secured by the team the year before Klopp took charge. They also ended up being the UCL runners up in the following year, missing out on the title to Bayern in the last minute of the game. Now this journey that Klopp had with Dortmund is in a more fair position to be studied with respect to the current status of the Reds.
After Brendan Rodger’s exit, Klopp rebuilt the entire team on high metal pressing football which saw them winning games against the big teams, although casually losing out on points with the bottom half. He solved the defensive problems through a modification of the pressing strategy and also by bringing in some big money signings like Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker. He missed out on the title by painfully narrow margins before winning it in the 2019/20 campaign thereby ending the Merseysideiders’ 30 year wait. Klopp also took them to three UCL finals winning the one against Tottenham in 2019.
Liverpool’s defensive problems began to show following their title-winning campaign where they also struggled to score against teams that sat back. Through the years we saw the attacking threat from the fullbacks, which was actually one of the major strongholds on which Klopp rebuilt the team, diminish visibly. With Sadio Mane’s exit and the new signings not being able to deliver quickly, the Reds and more importantly Klopp are under heavy scrutiny which has brought up the “7 years curse” conundrum again.
Dortmund vs Liverpool
Having seen that Klopp’s time at Dortmund and Liverpool have more things in common than his tenure at Mainz, an evaluation of his challenges with these teams will shed more light on any possible patterns that tend to overtime bring Jurgen’s teams down.
In terms of the situations, Klopp was tasked with addressing, both Liverpool and Dortmund were more than similar to each other. Borussia Dortmund was sitting 13th in the league and Liverpool 6th, terrible for their recent standards. The Black and Yellow army hadn’t seen a better table standing than 7th in the last three seasons prior to Klopp taking the office. Liverpool, on the other hand, were rattled with losing Suarez to Barcelona combined with the retirement of their long-serving legend Steven Gerrard. Klopp took over and not just revived these teams but also took them to peaks they haven’t seen in decades and did this in a relatively limited period of time.
Now it is imperative to look at where things started going South for Dortmund. But before doing that, a relook at the premises on which we are making the 7 year curse assumptions for Liverpool will be useful to envision the whole point of making this debate.
It would be somewhat naive not to agree that the whole conundrum surrounding Klopp’s teams’ typical periodical collapse taking its toll on the Reds, is based on the 8 games Liverpool has played so far this season. It is true that the defensive problems and lack of creativity in the midfield had been imminent for some time now, but labelling a season which saw two domestic trophies with a near title miss combined with a narrow loss in the UCL final as part of some regular 7 year downward trajectory is over stretching the analogy. If some patterns have to be found, the closest Klopp’s Liverpool has looked like 2014/15 Dortmund is when they had a 6 game losing run at Anfield in the second half of the 2020/21 season, which the team recovered from marvelously to find a spot in the top four. If this streak of bad form had extended to the next season, it could have been a better picture to try to fix the 7 year analogy in, but the EPL and UCL table of that season tells otherwise.
So, coming to the issue at hand, Liverpool is currently sitting at the 10th position in the table with a game to spare compared to the top three. Klopp’s boys managed to win just two games in the league, a 9-0 thrashing of Bournemouth and a late 2-1 drama against Newcastle. They drew four games including a goalless Merseyside Derby and lost one against rivals United. In Europe, they began with a humiliating performance against Napoli but then came back with back-to-back wins against Ajax and Rangers. Earlier this season the team also won the Community Shield against Manchester City in Superb fashion.
Judging from the results, it is obvious that it’s not the start the Kopites would have wanted, but is it time to make a statement about the club’s imminent downfall or going after Klopp’s neck? Sadio Mane leaving the club combined with the time that the new signings are taking to settle in are cause for concern. It would be very convenient right now to draw parallels between Dortmund’s 2014 signing Ciro Immobile (24 Apps and 3 goals) and Darwin Nunez, but it would be unjust to not give the youngster time to adapt to the league having missed games due to suspension.
Klopp in the past have dealt with stars leaving and have also had a few late bloomers who went on to be Kop favorites. So, the extent to which the current situation at Anfield can be compared with Borussia’s 2014/15 campaign, where the German side finished their campaign 35 points away from the top, will only be clear as the season churns out. As of now, this is yet another challenge for Klopp to deal with the Merseyside giants, whom he brought back to their perch.
The Problems at Kirkby
This is not to say that everything is all and sundry at Kirkby. There are problems that need to be addressed and fast, both in terms of individual player performances and Klopp’s in-game and out-game managerial decisions. For instance, one reason that the Reds are being put on edge by pundits and fans alike is their below par defensive performances in recent games. They concede first very often these days and the game feels like a drag to make a comeback from the very first minute. Let’s face it, the Liverpool defensive wall that conceded only 22 goals in the 2018/19 campaign is long gone.
Virgil van Djik is not the unsurpassable Dutch mountain he was at one point. The back four seems to have trouble tracking runs in between the lines and often get caught off guard due to their high line. Klopp has tried switching Robertson and bringing in Tsimikas but it hasn’t shown worthwhile results. On the right-hand side, the young scouser is taking all the heat from the media for his apparently terrible defensive skills which is overshadowing his attacking prowess at the moment. The signing that was supposed to solve this problem is turning out to be another Ben Davis situation.
The midfield on the other hand is ramped with injury problems. Naby Keita hasn’t featured in a single game this season and Thiago was out due to injury for a better part of the campaign this campaign. Fabinho, one of Klopp’s go to players in the midfield, seems to be tired out by playing full ninety minutes in almost all games in the past couple of seasons. We see his tracking back ability, fierceness in fifty-fifty balls and even passing accuracy seems to be diminishing slowly. Henderson is trying to be the motivational heart of the team, going hard in those high-field presses but he is no Kevin De Bruyne, and that goes for the entire Liverpool midfield. The center of the park for the Reds under Klopp has always been more about athleticism and mentality than technicality and vision. They have over the years acted as a powerhouse to disrupt the opponents’ flow of play and feed the ball into the pacy wingers, of which one is in Munich now.
The youngsters Harvey Elliot and Fabio Carvalho, are decent technically but do they yet have the athleticism and strength to go toe to toe against the league’s nasty backlines is a totally different question. Luis Diaz has been one promising player this season, who seems to drive the team through that left-wing but he fails to produce that final piece of magic and often falls short of support. Diogo Jota on the other hand has been suffering from injuries himself and seems to have lost his old venom after returning to the pitch. Nunez seems to be taking more time to adapt with all sorts of off-field issues like the language barrier that is making life difficult for him in Merseyside. Mohamed Salah, the best individual performer for the club since his arrival in 2017, hasn’t been able to match his form in the previous seasons. We no longer see that moment of brilliance from outside the box or him taking on multiple players with ease. He is becoming more and more easy to mark, as the Arsenal match has quite visibly portrayed.
There is no question that the Reds squad is one of the best in the league and also in the world, talent-wise. So can’t a tactical change help to reignite the team is a common question that would rise up in any discussion. As of now, the gaffer is failing to come up with ideas to solve the current problems which is resulting in his team dropping to the worst point tally at this time of the season in the past 10 years and that definitely says something. His substitution strategies in games are also being looked at cynically, for instance, him bringing in Milner when it was 2-2 against Brighton at home. It is evident that he was trying to add more stability by taking off Tsimikas, but despite the player Milner once was, he isn’t fast or sharp enough anymore and the visitors ended up scoring again at the death.
So although it is true that it is too soon to make any final calls regarding Klopp’s position at Liverpool or his “7 year curse” haunting him again, the team has definitely headed in a direction that suits these claims. It is just the question of how early or late it is for Liverpool to turn things around and for the critics to start heating up Klopp’s cushion at the Kirkby office.