It was last November when Fenway Sports Group president Mike Gordon received the call he had long since dreaded.
The voice on the other end of the phone was Jurgen Klopp. On the field, “Liverpool 2.0” as the manager had coined it, were flying after the summer rebuild, but this wasn’t an upbeat progress report being passed on to the club’s American owners.
Klopp explained that after much soul-searching, he had come to the conclusion this would be the final season of his Anfield reign. His mind was made up — he would step down in May. He felt he simply didn’t have the energy to carry on. He was jaded and didn’t want to do the job on “three wheels”.
The German coach’s decision in April 2022 to extend his contract until 2026 had been the most pleasant of surprises for FSG given his earlier indication that he was going to take a sabbatical. This was the exact opposite.
As the news was relayed to stunned FSG executives John W Henry and Tom Werner, they knew that trying to change his mind would be fruitless.
This wasn’t about money or about having another job lined up. This was simply about wanting to take a break from the relentless demands of elite management. As painful as it was, the owners were united in the belief they had to respect his decision.
Klopp was given time and space. There was no need to make any snap announcements. However, the passage of time from November through to late January did not alter the 56-year-old’s stance.
The decision to go public with his seismic decision on Friday was Klopp’s alone. He was desperate to ensure that staff, players and supporters heard it from him first. He knew the longer he waited, the greater the chance of it leaking out via the media.
Klopp felt that his inner circle and their families deserved clarity now so they could start to plan for the future. Assistants Pep Lijnders and Peter Krawietz, as well as first-team development coach Vitor Matos, will also depart.
“In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have said anything to anybody until the end of the season. Win everything and then say goodbye, but that’s not possible,” Klopp said. “Because nobody will sack me, I have to make this decision by myself.”
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Lijnders and Matos have managerial aspirations of their own, with Klopp keen to stress they will be ready to take on a fresh challenge while he embarks on what he insists will be a year-long sabbatical this summer.
For other members of the backroom staff, such as Andreas Kornmayer and John Achterberg, there is ongoing uncertainty as they wait to discover whether their services will be required when a new era begins.
Klopp’s agent, Marc Kosicke, stood at the back of the room on Friday as the sombre Liverpool manager conducted an emotional press conference in a packed media room at the AXA Training Centre.
It was during meetings to discuss pre-season preparations ahead of the 2024-25 season, which will see Liverpool play a number of warm-up games in the U.S., that Klopp first questioned whether he had it in him to go again in July. “I’m usually the leading part of these meetings, but I couldn’t (this time),” he said.
The struggles of last season, when the wheels came off and Liverpool trailed home fifth in the Premier League, had taken their toll. Klopp had turned down the opportunity to lead Germany into a home European Championship following the sacking of Hansi Flick last September because he felt a duty to put his Anfield reign back on track.
“But my managerial skills are based on energy and emotion and that takes all of you. If I cannot do it anymore, stop it,” he said. “It was not my idea when I signed the new contract. I was 100 per cent convinced at that moment we would go until 2026. But I realise my resources are not endless. I’m not a young rabbit anymore.”
Friday morning was carefully choreographed. Klopp held a staff meeting in the coaches’ room upstairs at the AXA Training Centre, immediately followed, at around 10.30am, by a meeting with the players in the dressing room.
Some players had been calling this season “the Last Dance”, a reference to the Michael Jordan documentary, believing Klopp was taking one last run at achieving something special with this group. But they weren’t expecting this now.
Once the meetings were completed, the news was put on social media for the world to absorb, with Klopp outlining his reasons for feeling the time was right to leave in a 25-minute interview with the club’s media department, which had been filmed the previous day, amid much secrecy.
After that, Liverpool got on with their training session as normal. Photographs emerged of Klopp smiling and looking relaxed with the players as they prepared for Sunday’s FA Cup tie with Norwich City.
It had been a closely guarded secret. The fact Klopp’s press conference for the Norwich game had been held on Thursday rather than the usual Friday slot had prompted a few quizzically raised eyebrows. So, too, the decision to move Liverpool Women’s press conference to Saturday. Staff at Kirkby sensed an announcement was in the offing, but few thought it would be this significant.
The reaction from both staff and players was complete and utter shock. Apart from the chosen few in the loop, no one saw this coming. There were tears among some members of staff.
Klopp had appeared re-energised with Liverpool top of the Premier League table, in the final of the Carabao Cup, the last 16 of the Europa League and still in the FA Cup. This squad thought they had a minimum of two more seasons with him at the helm.
If this announcement had been made a year ago, it would have been more understandable. Back then, there was friction behind the scenes as Liverpool lost their way alarmingly: morale among the squad had nosedived and a sense of negativity grew, especially during a dreadful run of results after Christmas when they lost to Brighton (twice), Brentford and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Klopp’s record in charge of Liverpool is extraordinary, but he can also be a demanding presence, both to his players, staff and executives. Some senior members of the squad wondered whether he would walk away last May after the club failed to qualify for the Champions League.
But having stayed put and revived the club’s fortunes so spectacularly, the feeling was he was going nowhere any time soon, even if there was a recognition from some within the club that a draining job — amplified by Klopp taking so much more responsibility in recent years with other top executives having departed — had taken its toll.
During his short speech to the players, Klopp joked that his exit was partly their fault because Liverpool had reached such a high level so soon that he felt he could pass the baton on to someone else. He talked up the talent in a youthful, vibrant squad. Being able to leave Liverpool in a good place — his legacy — means everything to him.
“The players didn’t have a lot of questions,” he said. “I spoke to them all together and then a few after that. We have a really strong bond.
“Usually when a manager is in a dressing room and talks like that, he got sacked. It isn’t like that because of the things we achieved, so that is why my responsibility is so big.
“We had last year’s situation and I think a lot of managers would have got the sack and there was never any intention to do that and my responsibility grows and grows, so when it is not right anymore I have to tell.”
Klopp had been concerned at how the news would impact the afternoon training session, but he was delighted by the fact it was business as usual. He told the players they have the opportunity to “write more chapters” between now and May and ensure this unforgettable era ends on a high. He is convinced it will galvanise everyone rather than act as a distraction.
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So what now?
Klopp is adamant there will be no U-turn like Sir Alex Ferguson in 2002. Unlike the former Manchester United boss, he has no interest in playing a part in helping to pinpoint his successor. “The last thing they need is advice from the old man,” Klopp said.
He had been irked by former Liverpool left-back Jose Enrique’s suggestion that a lack of financial backing in the transfer market from the owners had contributed to his decision to step down. “FSG has nothing to do with it,” he said firmly.
Klopp has always accepted the financial restrictions of the club’s self-sustaining business model. The fact he has made it work makes his record at Anfield all the more remarkable.
When you consider that he inherited a team 10th in the Premier League in 2015 and took them to such dizzy heights as he won the Champions League and ended the 30-year wait for a top-flight title, he has been the most transformative figure in Liverpool’s history since Bill Shankly.
The search for a successor started in November when Gordon first took that unwanted phone call. The data department — headed by director of research Will Spearman — has been doing background work for the past two months on which candidates across the globe might fit the bill stylistically given Liverpool’s brand of football.
However, the active search starts now — at this stage, no approaches have been made to any candidates. The leadership of course knew this time would come and although Klopp’s contract ran until 2026, there was an understanding that the deal was informally until 2025 with the option of another year. With 18 months to go, as with a player’s contract, this might seem like a sensible time to make a decision.
Liverpool were so wary of the impact of the news leaking out that they did not contact managerial agents while Klopp was still in the job. Now the news is out, that is no longer a concern.
The plan is to appoint a new sporting director before identifying a new manager. Gordon, who appointed Klopp in 2015, will lead that recruitment drive. Lost amid the emotion of Friday was confirmation that interim sporting director Jorg Schmadtke will leave Liverpool next week. He was only ever a stop-gap option, brought in to help the club navigate a testing transfer window last summer.
There is plenty of uncertainty given three key senior players — Mohamed Salah, Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold — are all inside the last 18 months of their current deals and are waiting for talks to commence.
They will want assurances about the direction the club is heading in before they commit their futures to Liverpool and their bargaining position has arguably been strengthened by Klopp’s decision to leave in the summer.
Xabi Alonso is regarded as the frontrunner to succeed Klopp and understandably so given his bond with the club as a player who helped win the 2005 Champions League trophy and the outstanding job he has done at Bayer Leverkusen this season. He has led the club to the top of the Bundesliga, four points clear of Bayern Munich, and the fact he has done so with a smaller budget than their rivals will surely make him even more appealing to FSG.
However, the Spanish midfielder — also much admired at Real Madrid, another of his former clubs — was giving nothing away when he spoke to German media on Friday.
“A big surprise in Liverpool, of course. For what Jurgen did in Liverpool I have great respect and admiration,” he said. “Speculation is normal. My focus is here in Leverkusen and I have big motivation and I am very happy working with these players.”
Brighton’s Roberto De Zerbi and Tottenham’s Ange Postecoglou, a boyhood Liverpool fan, are also on the radar. Thomas Frank also has his admirers after his body of work at Brentford, allied to the fact there are stylistic similarities between his side and Liverpool’s high-pressing, ultra-energetic approach. Julian Nagelsmann may also be of interest, although he must first navigate the Euros with Germany.
Klopp’s decision to leave has certainly created ripples of uncertainty at other Premier League clubs. A figure at one top-flight outfit, talking to The Athletic on condition of anonymity, admitted that Klopp’s decision to quit had created anxiety at their own club, simply because of the profile of the vacancy about to be created.
Senior FSG executives have stressed that Liverpool’s owners remain in it for the long haul. They intend to oversee this new era and they have no intention of reviving their plans to sell their majority shareholding.
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Finding someone able to make their business model work quite like Klopp will be almost impossible. “The Normal One”, as he described himself on the day he walked into Anfield in October 2015, proved to be anything but.
“When I said Liverpool 2.0, that didn’t include me for the next 10 years, but the team is there, the basis is there,” Klopp added. “Whoever comes in cannot give anybody a guarantee to win trophies but can give a good chance to play really good football.
“They will get a top manager here. Changing from doubters to believers and staying believing in difficult moments… if we keep all of that, then it is a wonderful future ahead.”
That is a leap of faith without Klopp as FSG embarks on the challenge of replacing the irreplaceable.
Additional reporting: David Ornstein and Adam Crafton
(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)