Jurgen Klopp’s ability to conjure the improbable lands Liverpool his ‘most special trophy’

Jurgen Klopp has won a Champions League, Liverpool’s first English league title for three decades and a couple of Bundesligas. The Carabao Cup may only prove the fourth most important piece of silverware he claims this season. And yet the circumstances will set it apart. “In my more than 20 years, it is easily the most special trophy I ever won,” he said. “Tonight is an overwhelming feeling: ‘Oh my god, what’s going on?’ What I see today is so exceptional, it might not happen again. Not because I am on the sidelines but because these things don’t happen in football.”

When the Carabao Cup final ended, Liverpool won in extra time against a Chelsea side who, for part of that period, fielded an 11 that cost £550m. Meanwhile, Klopp’s team contained a 21-year-old, a 20-year-old and three teenagers who, between them, have the grand total of two first-team starts in their career.

Jayden Danns was born after Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League win. He had never made a senior appearance before Wednesday. He spent part of Sunday leading the line at Wembley. “He could have scored two goals in the final,” said Klopp. “That is insane.”

Klopp had brought on James McConnell for a World Cup winner, Alexis Mac Allister, against a World Cup winner, Enzo Fernandez. “I got told there is a saying in English football, ‘you don’t win trophies in football with kids’,” said Klopp, belatedly informed of Alan Hansen’s famously incorrect statement in 1995. “I didn’t know that.” Sir Alex Ferguson proved Hansen wrong that season. Almost three decades later, so did Klopp.

“Can you create in football stories which definitely no one will ever forget?” he asked. He probably knows the answer, because he already has. But the sense is Klopp savours achievements in adversity more than any other kind.

It underpinned his greatest win, the 4-0 against Barcelona without the injured Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, but also what he feels is one of his greatest feats, steering Liverpool into the Champions League in 2021 when deprived of senior specialist centre-backs.

He did so with Nat Phillips, now on loan at Cardiff, and Rhys Williams, both borrowed and returned by Port Vale in January. There is scant other evidence either is particularly good, but each was crucial then. Perhaps, in the future, Danns and McConnell and Bobby Clark will disappear into obscurity. Yet if so, each can forever say he was crucial in helping Liverpool secure silverware.

Clark, a 19-year-old veteran of one start, illustrated the Klopp effect. “When he called my name and said I was going on it was an unbelievable feeling,” he said. “Klopp fills you with confidence, gives you freedom, really lets you do your thing.”

Bobby Clark at Wembley (Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
Bobby Clark at Wembley (Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
Bobby Clark (left), Ben Doak (injured, centre) and James McConnell (right) (Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
Bobby Clark (left), Ben Doak (injured, centre) and James McConnell (right) (Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Klopp demonstrated faith in Clark, like McConnell and Danns, in sending him on. That belief is a reason he is rewarded, a sense some exceed their logical limits for him. Time will tell if the latest trio are prodigies or simply enthusiastic young players who, furnished with Klopp’s confidence, look fearless. But had Liverpool subsided in injury time, it would have looked as if Klopp raised the white flag by bringing them on. Instead, they came on strong.

And he has a capacity to try and turn a disadvantage into an opportunity. Without 12 injured players, opportunity knocked for the unlikely lads. There are managers with a can’t-do mentality, forever looking for excuses. Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte can specialise in finding reasons why it isn’t their fault, in turn blaming others. Klopp lost a fifth midfielder, to join four injured forwards, his best right-back and goalkeeper on the sidelines.

But he can savour the stories of individuals, the more improbable the better.

His blueprint had to be ripped up as tactics became a secondary consideration but there was energy in abundance. “We couldn’t explain to the players what the plan was,” shrugged Klopp. “Kids come on.”

Klopp hugs two starting Academy graduates, Caoimhin Kelleher and Conor Bradley (Getty Images)
Klopp hugs two starting Academy graduates, Caoimhin Kelleher and Conor Bradley (Getty Images)

And kids flourished. It wasn’t gegenpressing but it was a fundamental part of his philosophy nonetheless. Klopp has an infectious belief in people and a capacity to make them believe in each other. He has the rare ability to win over crowd, a group or an individual, to galvanise and educate and amuse and understand. He has to be psychologist, tactician, motivator, the man who sets the tone. It is why he will be an impossible act to follow.

Perhaps the cumulative effort of being Jurgen Klopp, the persona, for eight-and-a-half years is a factor in his resignation. He cannot take a back step because the Klopp project might not work if the wattage was dimmed; he has to bring the energy.

But he will go at the peak of his powers, finding new ways to win, finding new players to win with, doing things that he thought could not be done. “It is a night I will never forget,” he added. “If nobody else sees it like that no problem apart from me. It’s a really nice memory forever. Come on, this was so special.”