It’s the team meeting before the 2018 Champions
League final in Kiev and everyone’s waiting for Jurgen Klopp to find the right words.
Liverpool go into the game against Real Madrid with a degree of confidence, but they also
know that they’re the underdogs. There’s tension in the room. Klopp is about
to speak. But first, he lifts up his top and stuffs it back into his underwear. The players
are looking at him and then at each other, puzzled. Then, one by one, they notice the
branding on Klopp’s boxer shorts. “We saw he was wearing the boxer shorts
of Cristiano Ronaldo,” Georginio Wijnaldum recalls. “He did the meeting with his shirt
stuffed inside his ‘CR7’ boxers. The whole changing room was on the floor laughing their
heads off. That really broke the ice. Usually in those situations, everyone is serious and
concentrated. But he was relaxed and made this joke.”
Ronaldo and Madrid would have the last laugh on the night, with Real Madrid winning 3-1.
But Wijnaldum is still smiling, thinking back to that scene a year later. It’s one of
his favourite Klopp stories, he says, a neat illustration of the German’s ability to
anticipate his team’s mood and to change it — by means of physical comedy, if necessary.
“He’s done hundreds of jokes likes that,” Wijnaldum says. “If you see that your manager
is really confident and relaxed, it will have an effect on players. He is a father figure.
With his jokes and his body language, he takes the pressure off players.”
Klopp is close to many of the Liverpool players but his relationship with Wijnaldum is so
strong that it transcends the professional, the Dutchman says.
“When I have problems I can always go to the manager. I can text him a few days before
and ask if he has a minute for me. He is always curious about what it is. ‘Is it something
bad, good? What is it?’ He always tries to empathise with the other person, to feel
what they’re going through. “He is a really special man for me. I see
him as more than a manager — a really good friend.”
Klopp, he adds, goes out of his way to ensure that Wijnaldum can see his family, who live
in the Netherlands. They met for a long, personal chat at the
manager’s house in Formby before completing the midfielder’s £25 million transfer from
Newcastle in the summer of 2016. But unusually, it was Wijnaldum who had ‘tapped up’ Klopp
— in the literal sense — during Liverpool’s visit to Tyneside six months earlier:
“He is the kind of man who takes you aback when he looks at you. We had a few moments
like that in the first half. When we walked off the pitch, I was behind him and I tapped
him on one shoulder but was standing on the other side. He looked the other way. That
was the first moment we really had contact.” The classic schoolboy prank worked.
Friends and players from other teams often want to know if the Klopp they see is the
same man once the spotlight is off. “Everyone asks me how he is as a person. ‘Is it fake
what he does on the sidelines?’ No, that is how he is. Even in training he is the same.
That’s how he is.” In one particular aspect, however, Klopp’s
behaviour last season was a little misleading. The Liverpool boss was less animated on the
touchline than in recent years; seemingly more relaxed. Wijnaldum insists that the manager’s
public placidity should not be confused with a more forgiving attitude.
“On the inside, he is totally the same as before,” the 28-year-old says. “He tries
to keep us with both feet on the ground. At the beginning of the season, when we were
winning games, he was sometimes angry and mad at us because we were not 100 percent
focused. He was like, ‘Do everything right, work right, put in 100 percent. That is what
brings us here. Every slip will let it go, it can be the other side again.’ He kept
us with both feet at the ground. Klopp’s leave-everything-on-the-pitch approach
can be unnerving. “Sometimes it can be a lot for a player.
You are busy with the game and sometimes it is not going well. Then you see him at the
side, yelling at you. You are not allowed to bend over to take a rest, or show that
you are tired. He wants you to stand up and show [the opposition] that you are not tired.
It’s very demanding, but he is always trying to help you as a player to go forward.”
Wijnaldum himself has fallen short of Klopp’s high expectations in a handful of games.
He bore the brunt of his manager’s ire after the 2-0 defeat away to Red Star Belgrade in
the Champions League group stage, for example. “I had played a really bad game. A lot of
times he says that when I start a game badly, it never becomes good during the game. And
he said, in front of everyone, ‘I could see it in your eyes and in your body language
— this was going to be a game like that.’ And I was like, ‘Whoa, I don’t need that
in this moment.’ “But in the end, if you analyse it, he was
right. He didn’t say it to break me, but to help me. Sometimes it is difficult for
me, how he reacts or shouts, but if you ask me if I would like him to change, I would
say: absolutely not. He is the kind of manager that will be angry about things in the game,
or will show emotion during a game, but when it comes to half-time, he speaks with you
and gives you confidence. ‘You can do it better. You have to do this, have to do that…’
“He is one of the first managers I’ve had who doesn’t get angry when you try to
do the things that you are good at. He will never be angry when you try to use your talent
or quality. Even if it goes wrong. Since I am at Liverpool, he has helped me a lot. Not
only with football, but also as a person, the way you think about things. That is why
I enjoy every day of working with him. I can be really mad at him one day. But the next
day the anger is gone and we will love each other again.”