Assistant Manager, Liverpool, 2018–
The first time I saw Jürgen Klopp again after leaving Liverpool at the end of December 2017 was at a rooftop bar in Kyiv. It was the night before the 2018 Champions League final.
I had spoken to him a month or two earlier, when I was head coach at NEC. He said he wanted me to go back to Liverpool as his number two.
At that time, living back in Holland, my wife was having a great time. Before that, we had been away for more than 10 years, without any family close. Her life was really nice, but when I came back from that phonecall she saw my face.
“It’s Jürgen, ah?”
“Yeah, it’s Jürgen.”
“Okay, what did he say?”
I told her. We were going back to Liverpool.
So the night before the Champions League final, against Real Madrid, the club flew Danielle and I to Kyiv. FSG president Mike Gordon knew, Jürgen knew, and I think maybe Michael Edwards, the sporting director, knew.
It was unreal to see the team again. I had worked with them, and been so close to them, for such a long time. I saw the journey they had been on to reach the final – against Porto, against Manchester City, against Roma. We spoke about what had happened in the half-year since I had left, and I just wished them luck.
Against Real Madrid, you have to be at the top of your game – especially in that moment, when they were a team in their prime. And with time, as the game went on, it felt like it slipped out of our hands. Everybody was just really disappointed with how it went, but sometimes these things happen for a reason. Sometimes you need to feel adversity, to gain the strength to reach something new.
"Jürgen has the capacity to change how you think in a few sentences"
I had a feeling I knew how it would be when I came back. I knew how Jürgen worked with the previous assistant manager, Zeljko Buvac, who had left the club. So I knew that I would be planning and designing sessions, putting my ideas into practice. And it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work so closely with Jürgen.
He has the capacity to change how you think in a few sentences; to go directly to your heart. And to be able to do that with players at the level we work with is really unbelievable. He did it with Bobby Firmino when he first arrived, he did it with Virgil van Dijk, and more recently with Thiago Alcântara. It is a really great characteristic.
That summer was not easy for any of us, but pre-season felt like a new start for everyone. And there were some huge games to come.
In our second Champions League group game in October, we played away at Napoli. We had a lot of problems defensively and lost 1-0 (above). When we flew back, Jürgen and I sat at the front of the plane, put the laptop on and watched the whole game back.
I still see us sitting there now. The game hadn’t gone in the direction we had wanted, of course, but we could see everything that was good and bad. We felt that, with a few changes, we could do better.
By the time we played them again in December, in the last game of the group stage, we needed the three points. And we got them, thanks to a massive game from Alisson. That late save, what a reflex. It was close, wasn’t it?
"i have never seen two teams, and two coaches, who have pushed each other to the limits like this"
In January, our first game of the new year, we went away to Manchester City in the Premier League.
That is what I remember of that game. Sadio Mané’s shot off the post, the ball almost crossing the line (below), then Leroy Sané’s shot going in off the inside of the post. In the end, these are the things that prove decisive. But I have never seen two teams, and two coaches, who have pushed each other to the limits like this in the Premier League. Two teams full of talent in a completely different way.
Is it possible to enjoy these games? No, you cannot! You try always to be one step in front, but that’s not always possible against a team like Manchester City. The sign of a good team is one that has two or three chances and boom! They score goals. We have that, but City have that as well. This is the sign of quality. This is what gets you to the top of the Premier League or Champions League.
Of course, you can lose at City – and in that moment of the season the feeling was not that the league had gone. In fact, over time I think we had made steps to improve the way we played against them, and become more difficult to play against.
The previous season, when I was not there, we played City in the Champions League – and the way the team had counter-attacked against them was just insane. But, with time, I felt we grew closer to competing with them in all levels of the game; of playing in their half, keeping them there and then having counter-press situations against them. We didn’t just rely on being compact and threatening on the counter-attack.
"i always say that if that game had lasted 120 minutes, we would have chased for 120 minutes"
Yes, we had lost this game. But this was the year when, in my opinion, we created much more and had many different weapons.
In the last 16 of the Champions League, we played Bayern Munich. They celebrated the 0-0 at our place, but there were three weeks between the two legs and I knew with time we would feel more comfortable with that result. That Bayern team was incredible, perhaps not in a great moment, but they are always contenders to win the Champions League. And, that season, we had not been on the level we can play at in away games – so to go there and do what we did was incredible.
I still see Sadio Mané moving in behind and Virgil hitting that pass, a little bit with the outside of his right foot. Only Sadio can take the ball out the air with his right foot like that, then make a turn to beat Manuel Neuer and score (below).
At half-time, 1-0 up, I was shouting at the team to keep the ball. Bayern were a counter-pressing team, and I remember telling the players to just keep it when they pressed. Keep the ball, keep the ball, keep the ball, and then attack! Four or five passes, and then go when the time is right. It was the first time where we really saw we could do this in a big game away from home.
Two days before the Champions League semi final second leg at home to Barcelona, Jürgen and I drove together to the training ground. We discussed a lot of things: being 3-0 behind from the first leg, missing Bobby Firmino, missing Mo Salah. We had to create belief, because if we didn’t believe then the team would never believe.
There was not a lot of time to prepare for the game, but the decision was that we would not change. We would go with our way, and we thought if we did a few things a little bit better then we could create real problems for them.
"if you want to explain to your kids your love for football, show them that game"
We chased with all we had. I always say if that game had lasted 120 minutes, we would have chased for 120 minutes. When we lost the ball, we worked to always win it back immediately.
We couldn’t give Sergio Busquets time to temporise and control the game, we didn’t allow Gerard Piqué or Marc-André ter Stegen time to pause the game. We had to be brave, knowing we needed to score. That showed in the type of goals we scored: from the counter-press; from winning the ball back high; from the corner.
That night, every player reached a new level. Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri (both below), coming into the team and doing what they did. Our core players doing what they did; the most energised midfield at that time, which it had to be if we wanted to be all over them.
And the stadium, the fans, the feeling, the noise. Just the most incredible night. A night that defines this team, and why we are where we are now.
I think if you want to explain to your kids your love for football, then you would show them that game. And if you want to show that you should never give up in life, show them that game.
That’s what I like about our team. We have so many players who didn’t have it easy to reach where they are – and I think that’s why our team has so many captains. Of course, some were massive talents who have just gone on and on, but they are so much more than just good players. They have character. It is only when the squad, the manager and the fans are connected as one that games like that can happen.
The problem, then, is that you realise you still have to play the final!
"people forget now that jürgen had lost six finals in a row – but he said after that this one felt different for him"
First of all, we gave the boys some time off after our last Premier League game. We told them to go away, be with their families and things like that – you don’t lose fitness in these days.
Then we had a training camp in Marbella (below), and we told them to bring their families. We wanted to make that time as natural as possible, to give the boys some distractions away from the game. It was definitely one of the better decisions we made, because we trained really, really well.
We were set to go three weeks without a game before the final, but as a team you need rhythm. We needed to find a game. I invited AZ Alkmaar, because I knew the coach really well and they played in a 4-2-3-1 shape, very similar to Tottenham. But they said no.
Then I spoke to Luis Castro, who had been the academy director when I was at Porto. He was now head coach of Vitória de Guimarães. They couldn’t come either; they had finished fifth in the Portuguese league and qualified for the Europa League playoffs later that summer, so they were already in their off-season.
I called Vitor Matos, who is now part of the coaching team here but was at Porto then.
“Tell me the best team that could play like Tottenham.”
He told me to ask Benfica B; they had a good team and they knew how to play.
"these things don't happen often in football. when it happens, you have to really cherish it"
From the first moment I called them, they were really receptive. We would organise everything, but we needed them to arrive two days before the game. They came to a meeting with me and our analyst, where we told them how we wanted them to play. They would then have two days to train and prepare themselves to be Tottenham.
We trained really well that week, and then we played the game. Benfica B played well, they were excellent, but I think we won 3-1 in the end. You can overthink a lot in football, but as coaches we like to prepare really well – and especially for an occasion like the Champions League final. I think it helped.
People forget now that Jürgen had lost six finals in a row before this one, but he said afterwards that this one felt different for him. I really felt like we had to do it, partly because of how the Premier League season had ended, but also because there is no bigger cup in the world. I really wanted us to win it for Jürgen, but also for the team and the fans. It was so important for the next season too, because then you get to play the Super Cup and the Club World Cup. Although of course, in the moment, you don’t really think about that.
A week before the final, Hendo, Milly and Virg got the team together, with no staff – they do this unbelievably well – and spoke about what they would do if certain things happened in the game. One of the things they talked about was what they would do if we went 1-0 up early on.
“We go for the 2-0,” they agreed. “We cannot stop – we should keep playing.”
So we got the penalty early, we went 1-0 up (above), and then we did exactly the opposite!
This was a final, and finals can be hard to explain, but to win that cup from the situation we had all come from in Kyiv one year earlier was just insane.
Not many teams win the Champions League, not many managers win it. These things don’t happen often in football, so when it happens you have to really cherish it.
And, having lost the Premier League the way we had that season, winning the Champions League gave us all a real trampoline for the season to come. It gives you a confidence, a maturity, a boost. Every player grows, every member of staff grows, and the whole team grows. For the club, it was massive.
One year later, Liverpool were league champions for the first time in 30 years.
And now, of course, we all really want to win it again.
Author: Tony Hodson