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The Real Jurgen Klopp, part five: The manager who made Liverpool believe again

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The Real Jurgen Klopp, part five: The manager who made Liverpool believe again

After almost nine years in charge and seven major trophies, Jurgen Klopp is leaving Liverpool.

He has been one of the most transformative managers in the club’s history and in English football’s modern era.

To mark his departure, The Athletic is bringing you the Real Jurgen Klopp, a series of pieces building the definitive portrait of one of football’s most famous figures.

For part five, James Pearce spoke to more than a dozen current and former players, staff members and executives to reveal his managerial secrets.

Read the rest of the series here:

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Pep Lijnders takes his time as he ponders how best to sum up the scale of Klopp’s contribution to Liverpool.

What a vantage point he’s had. The Dutchman was there to greet Klopp when he first arrived in 2015 and has been beside him almost every step of the way ever since on his coaching staff.

“In the past 30 to 40 years, not many coaches have changed a club like Jurgen,” Lijnders tells The Athletic. “Louis van Gaal at Ajax, Johan Cruyff at Barca, Pep Guardiola at Barca, Arrigo Sacchi at Milan. Then, for me, Jurgen here.

“Wherever we would have gone in the world, even if we had worn different colours, people would have recognised what they saw and said: ‘Ah, this is Liverpool Football Club’. As a coach, you cannot get a bigger compliment than that.”

Ask the same question about Klopp’s impact at Anfield to Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, the dynamic full-backs who will forever be associated with his reign, and you get a similar answer: this was about far more than trophies.

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“Look at the stories that we’ve written, the journeys we’ve all been on,” Alexander-Arnold says. “He’s helped us all develop into what we’ve always dreamed of. He took us to the pinnacle.”

Robertson, nodding in agreement beside him, agrees. “From the moment I walked in through the door, I could sense the belief everyone had in him. It’s been a fun ride. There’s always been excitement. He’s pretty decorated when it comes to silverware, but it’s more a story of how he got a club and fanbase believing again.”

For owners Fenway Sports Group (FSG), there’s also a huge debt of gratitude. “He enthused the club with a competitive spirit that’s really quite unmatched,” says Liverpool chairman Tom Werner. “There’s something in his philosophy of life that bled into the storyline of Liverpool over the past nine years. Here is a man who is not even born in the UK, yet he’s become the Scouser we all love and admire.”


No managerial appointment in Liverpool’s history had created such a sense of fervour.

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It was just after 5.30pm on Thursday, October 8, 2015, when Klopp arrived at the city’s Hope Street Hotel. After the Mercedes V-Class he was travelling in had battled past the supporters outside, he headed for The Sixth boardroom to sign a three-year contract alongside Werner, chief executive Ian Ayre and agent Marc Kosicke.

A week earlier, Klopp had flown to New York to meet Liverpool’s owners at the New York offices of law firm Shearman & Sterling after deciding to cut short his sabbatical, five months after leaving Borussia Dortmund.

Werner: “My first impression was that he uses humour in order to make people feel good. Obviously, the position was important to him, but he was also just enjoying a trip to New York City. You could sense his great love of life when we said goodbye.

“After that first meeting, we turned to each other and said: ‘Forget his tactical strategy, he’s absolutely the right person for this club’. We had interviewed other coaches but he was just extraordinarily charismatic. He could be the CEO of any number of big companies outside of football. He has this remarkable ability to motivate people.”

First-team development coach Lijnders, goalkeeping coach John Achterberg and academy director Alex Inglethorpe were among those invited to have dinner with Klopp at Hope Street Hotel after he had signed his contract.

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Klopp is unveiled as the new Liverpool manager with chairman Werner (left) and managing director Ayre (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

Achterberg: “The conversation just flowed. I felt like I’d known him for 10 years. I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m going to enjoy working for this guy’.”

Inglethorpe: “The day after he came to watch the under-18s play Stoke at the academy. It was clear he had a genuine interest in what we do. An awful lot of managers talk about being committed to the development of young players but only some of them mean it. Jurgen’s commitment never wavered. He made our jobs easier by ensuring that pathway was always clear. I can’t think of another manager who has done it in quite the same way.”

At his Anfield unveiling, Klopp described himself as “the normal one” and urged fans to “change from doubters to believers”.

“If we want, this could be a very special day,” he said. “If you are prepared to work for it, if you are patient enough. If I’m sat here in four years, I think we will have won one title in this time. If not, the next one (job) may be in Switzerland.”

Liverpool were 10th in the Premier League with 12 points from eight matches. They had won just a solitary League Cup since 2006 and had only qualified for the Champions League in one of the previous six seasons as Brendan Rodgers’ reign unravelled following the heartache of missing out on the title in 2013-14.

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Klopp waited until the club’s internationals had returned to their Melwood training base before assembling the squad in the media room. Each member of staff on site was asked to pass through and describe their role.

Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet: “They all came through like a train. Jurgen said: ‘Who are all these people?’ Everyone said: ‘They’re the staff.’ He said: ‘No, we’re all one family: the Liverpool family. Everyone has to know everyone’s name. These people are here to help you perform.’ Jurgen’s point was that everyone is a part of the puzzle. That set the tone for everything that came after.”

Melwood gateman Kenny Grimes: “There’s no doubt that the players’ attitude changed towards us. Previously, sometimes they used to drive straight past you but after that (meeting with Klopp), they started to let on a lot more. Everyone just seemed happier, more relaxed. There were never any airs and graces with Jurgen. The culture changed. He made you feel part of Liverpool FC to a much greater extent.”

Klopp, who brought assistants Peter Krawietz and Zeljko Buvac with him, felt that the squad he inherited was talented but weighed down by expectation levels and pressure. He told them: “The only criticism which is really important is mine.”

He brought in new rules about players eating together and reinforced that Melwood was a place of work, not for hangers-on. Time off was reduced as the training schedule became more intensive in order to adapt to his gegenpressing strategy.

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As he stood addressing his players, he wrote on the board:

T – TERRIBLE
E – ENTHUSIASTIC
A – AMBITIOUS
M – MENTALLY-STRONG MACHINES

Mignolet: “I remember him saying that ‘terrible’ was how opponents were going to feel after going up against us for 90 minutes. He talked about how we were going to out-work and out-run teams.”

The defining image from his first game in charge — a 0-0 draw at Tottenham — was the sight of a shattered Adam Lallana falling into his arms after being substituted.


Lallana comes off exhausted during Klopp’s first match, at Tottenham, in 2015 (John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Lijnders: “I loved his team talk before that game. He said that Tottenham’s confidence was like a little flower. He stood up and then started stamping his foot down on the floor! That was what he wanted the team to do to the flower! I thought: ‘It’s going to be fun working with this guy’.”

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Achterberg: “His force of personality quickly changed the mood around the place. What I liked early on was that Jurgen talked up the standard of the players he inherited. He knew the transfer window was shut and he couldn’t change anything. He immediately got a lot more out of players who had been struggling. He told everyone that everyone would have a fair chance.

“The mantra was: ‘Don’t run forward if you can’t run back’. He said: ‘I’m responsible for the defeats, you boys are responsible for the wins’. He didn’t bulls*** anyone and he was demanding, but working for him was so rewarding. He trusted you to get on with your job and people were prepared to go into battle for him.”

Defender Martin Skrtel: “There was something about the way he talked us as players, the way he motivated us. With Jurgen, he’s real. He’s not playing games. He’s not talking behind your back. That’s why players love him.”

Striker Daniel Sturridge: “It was hearing his voice on the training pitch more than anything. The way he would give his messaging resonated with everyone. It’s hard to get players thinking they’d run through a brick wall for this guy, but he did that.

“With every top manager, it’s teetering on the line of fear and respect. The players need to respect the boss — but the boss needs to command the respect of the players. You have to control the situations at big clubs, and he did that.”

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It wasn’t just on the field where Klopp had to alter the mindset. A month into his tenure, he declared he felt “pretty alone” as fans left early when Liverpool trailed Crystal Palace 2-1 at home.

Achterberg: “He felt like the supporters were not fully behind the team. They didn’t really believe. He spoke a lot about that needing to change — how he needed everyone on board.

“Gradually, Anfield became a lot more positive. Critics said Jurgen was celebrating a point when he got the players to hold hands in front of the Kop after Divock Origi got a late equaliser against West Brom, but they missed the point. That was his way of saying: ‘Thank you, this is what’s possible if we all stick together’. The first big example of that was the fightback against Dortmund (in the Europa League). That underlined how he had tapped into the power of Anfield.”

Liverpool trailed 4-2 on aggregate in the second leg of the Europa League quarter-final with just 25 minutes to go but goals from Philippe Coutinho, Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren stunned Klopp’s former club.

Lijnders: “I believe that the character of the leader becomes the character of the team. You get a passionate guy coming in who really knows what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. He had the experience of knowing what works and came with new football ideas. People started seeing development and the people around him were able to express themselves freely.”

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In December 2015, the players had expected their Christmas party to be cancelled after a 3-0 defeat to Watford. Instead, they received a message from the manager that read: “Whatever we do together, we do as well as we can and tonight that means we party.” Nobody was allowed to leave Formby Hall, a golf resort and spa complex near Liverpool, until 1am.

By the end of the season, Liverpool had competed in but lost two major finals: the League Cup to Manchester City (on penalties) and the Europa League to Unai Emery’s Sevilla.

Determined to lift spirits at the post-match party in Basel’s Novotel, Klopp grabbed the microphone and said: “Two hours ago you all felt s***. But now, hopefully, you all feel better. This is just the start for us. We will play in many more finals.” He then launched into a defiant rendition of “We Are Liverpool”.


Klopp wanted to share in his players’ celebrations — such as at Norwich in 2016 (Lindsey Parnaby/AFP via Getty Images)

Achterberg: “Jurgen was adamant that the party should go ahead. He said sometimes you have to lose in order to learn how to win.”

Midfielder Lucas Leiva: “OK, we lost both finals but just getting to them was a real sign of progress. Jurgen was building something special – you could see it, you could smell it. He always found positives in defeats. His man management was the best I ever had.”

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Little by little, Klopp was beginning to build a squad in his own image.

Marko Grujic was the first signing of the Klopp era. Bought from Red Star Belgrade for £5.1million ($6.5m) in January 2016, the young midfielder stayed in Serbia on loan for the rest of the season before linking up with Liverpool in the summer. He made just 16 appearances for the club, but even he was shaped by Klopp’s philosophy.

Grujic: “Going to such a huge club probably came too early for me, but I learned so much from Jurgen. The most difficult thing was the high press — so much sprinting and changing direction. It became the most famous thing about the team. It became the biggest weapon but so many hours on the training field went into getting that right.

“Buvac would take a lot of the technical drills and he was a big help to me as he spoke my language, but Jurgen was such a good coach and also a nice guy. He would make everyone laugh with jokes and always had time for everyone — whether it was the ladies in the canteen or the kit guys.”

Sadio Mane, Georginio Wijnaldum, Joel Matip and Loris Karius were also new additions to the squad in the summer of 2016, while Klopp boosted his backroom staff by recruiting head of fitness Andreas Kornmayer and nutritionist Mona Nemmer from Bayern Munich.

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It was made abundantly clear that indiscipline would not be tolerated. Sakho was sent home in disgrace from the pre-season tour of America after being late for the team flight to California and a team meal and then failing to turn up to a treatment session. “We have rules. If somebody doesn’t respect it or somebody gives me the feeling he is not respecting it, then I have to react,” Klopp said.

The French defender had missed the end of the previous season following a failed UEFA drugs test. He was subsequently cleared but Klopp was furious that he had taken weight-loss supplements without the club’s knowledge. Sakho joined Crystal Palace, initially on loan the following January, and never played for Liverpool again.

With Roberto Firmino, who had initially struggled under Rodgers after arriving from Hoffenheim, transformed after being moved into a central attacking role and Mane scoring freely, Liverpool returned to the Champions League as they beat Middlesbrough on the final day of the 2016-17 season. It was Lucas’ swansong after a decade of service.

Lucas: “I had a year left on my contract but the team was evolving, I was playing less and less and I had a good offer from Lazio. It was hard to leave but I really appreciated how Jurgen handled it all. We had an honest talk and agreed it was best for myself and the club.”

Nurturing young talent proved to be a theme of the Klopp era. Alexander-Arnold was handed his debut at the age of 18 in 2016-17 and the academy graduate soon established himself as the first-choice right-back.

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Alexander-Arnold: “Especially early on, as a young player coming through at such a big club, you go through a lot: the demands, the pressure, the expectation. Jurgen helped me so much. He put an arm around me and took the pressure off. He talked to me about managing my emotions. He knew when a bollocking was needed, or a little bit of love. He helped me go from being a young player breaking through to being a leader of this team. I owe him so much.”

Shrewd recruitment ensured that momentum was maintained. In the summer of 2017, Mohamed Salah was signed from Roma for £43.9million. Klopp had initially wanted Bayer Leverkusen’s Julian Brandt, but sporting director Michael Edwards convinced him that the Egyptian attacker — who Chelsea had previously off-loaded — was the best option available.

Signing players with a point to prove appealed to Klopp. Robertson arrived in the same window for £10million after being relegated with Hull City. Wijnaldum had suffered the same fate with Newcastle United.

Robertson: “It’s pretty rare that a big club signs you off the back of something like that. The first time I met Jurgen, it was at Melwood; he had just flown back with the squad from Asia. He walked over, gave me a big hug and welcomed me to the club. He explained what he thought about me as a player, where he thought I could improve, how he wanted me to play. I believed in every word he said.

“The club had just got back into the Champions League and it felt like the first steps of the journey. You could see how much belief everyone had in him. The whole club was connected. Before, from the outside looking in, it didn’t look that way. Part of that was signing good characters: people who could carry his messages within the changing room as his eyes can’t be everywhere.”

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Salah, Mane and Firmino netted 91 goals between them in 2017-18. Salah, who was crowned PFA Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year, set a new best of 32 league goals over a 38-game season as he scored 44 times in all competitions.


Mane, Firmino and Salah formed a formidable trio (Laurence Griffiths/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

When Coutinho belatedly got his wish and was sold to Barcelona for £142million in January 2018, there were concerns that Liverpool’s charge would be derailed but Klopp didn’t share them. He felt that too often team-mates looked to the Brazilian to provide the creative spark and that without him they would become more unpredictable.

He was proved right. It helped that £75million of the fee was spent on the transformative signing of Virgil van Dijk from Southampton.

Lijnders: “We could play a higher line with Virgil — more aggressive because of how he deals with space and longer balls.”

With Van Dijk, Liverpool surpassed all expectations in reaching the Champions League final in Kyiv. Ahead of the game with Real Madrid, Klopp sought to relieve the tension in a team meeting by lifting up his top to reveal he was wearing Cristiano Ronaldo-branded boxer shorts.

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Wijnaldum: “Everyone was laughing their heads off. That really broke the ice. Usually in those situations, everyone is serious and concentrated. But he was relaxed. He is a father figure for players and a really special man for me. He really cares about the welfare of a player and wants to know you away from football.”

The tears flowed in the Liverpool dressing room after the 3-1 defeat to Zinedine Zidane’s side. Karius sat with his head in his hands after gifting Madrid two goals with glaring errors. Salah was crestfallen after being forced off with a shoulder injury.

Alexander-Arnold: “In terms of team talks, the biggest one for me was the messaging Jurgen gave us after Kyiv. He said: ‘This defeat is not going to define us. As a group, we are going to get back here. This is where we’re destined to be.’”

When Klopp finally made it back to his house in Formby just after 6am, the beer flowed and he led a sing-song with old friends including Krawietz, Campino, the lead singer of German punk rock band Die Toten Hosen, and Johannes B Kerner, a well-known German TV personality.

We saw the European Cup,
Madrid had all the f***ing luck,
We swear we’ll keep on being cool,
We’ll bring it back to Liverpool!

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It was typical Klopp. No doom and gloom, no self-pity. Transfer plans were already well advanced. Naby Keita was arriving from RB Leipzig for £52.75million and, within two days of Kyiv, they had completed a £40million move for Monaco’s holding midfielder Fabinho.

The big dilemma for the manager was the goalkeeper situation and how to handle a distraught Karius. His compassionate instinct was to wrap an arm around him and rehabilitate his Liverpool career rather than show him the door.

Four days after the final, Klopp received a call from Germany legend Franz Beckenbauer, who alerted him to the possibility that Karius may have been concussed by a blow to the head from Madrid’s Sergio Ramos shortly before his first costly blunder of the final.

Karius, who was on holiday in the U.S, was sent to see a specialist in Boston. Brain scans showed Karius had ‘visual-spatial dysfunction’, which can result in an inability to judge where objects are. “What the rest of the world is making of it, I don’t care. We don’t use it as an excuse: we use it as an explanation,” insisted Klopp, who branded Ramos “a brutal wrestler”.

Publicly, Klopp talked about a fresh start for Karius but the ‘keeper was a bag of nerves the following pre-season. His confidence was shot to bits.

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Behind the scenes, Liverpool had been working on a replacement long before the Champions League final. Klopp didn’t have complete faith in either Mignolet or Karius, which created uncertainty and a degree of resentment between the two ’keepers.


Loris Karius reflects on his traumatic Champions League final (Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

Achterberg: “It was a really hard situation for Jurgen and all of us to deal with. We played Chester away in the first friendly after Kyiv. I kicked the ball towards Loris during the warm-up and it went straight through his hands and legs and into the net. Someone filmed it and it went viral on social media. Then we played Tranmere and he dropped the ball and they scored.

“I’d been watching Alisson’s development closely since (ex-Roma and Liverpool goalkeeper) Alexander Doni told me about this guy coming through at Internacional in Brazil. The problem was he didn’t have an EU passport, which meant we couldn’t have signed him when he went to Roma in 2016.

“When we played against Ali in a pre-season friendly in the States (in August 2016), I told Jurgen: ‘This is the one I was telling you about’. I kept watching and writing reports on every game he played. I spoke to all the recruitment guys about him.

“There was a meeting in January 2018 with Ali’s agent when we said how highly we rated him. That summer, the club were going to sign midfielder Nabil Fekir from Lyon but they backed out because he had a bad knee (a fee of £62million had been agreed).

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“If the Fekir deal had gone through, would we have had the money to sign Alisson? Things certainly turned out for the best. I told the boss that Ali was the one. We needed to move quick in mid-July because we knew Thibaut Courtois was leaving Chelsea (to join Madrid) and they needed a replacement.”

Initially quoted £90million by Roma, Edwards negotiated a £65m deal for Alisson. It was the final piece in the jigsaw.

In his first season at Anfield, he won the Premier League Golden Glove for most clean sheets (21) and was crowned goalkeeper of the year by both UEFA and FIFA. Klopp would walk around Melwood singing “All you need is Al-i-sson Beck-er” to the tune of Queen’s Radio Ga Ga.

There was also a significant change among the backroom staff. Lijnders had left Liverpool in January 2018 to manage Dutch outfit NEC Nijmegen but he returned just four months later after Klopp offered him the assistant manager’s job. The vacancy had arisen following the exit of Buvac, who had become increasingly distant as relations strained with other staff members.

Lijnders: “Jurgen gave me responsibility for the entire training process and that was very important to me. I wouldn’t have come back just for my old job. It meant I could continue with the things that I loved: planning training, delivering training, finding tactical and strategical plans. We challenged each other.

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“I’ve known him for nine years and he still surprises me every day. I always loved the meetings in Jurgen’s office the day before each game. That’s where you decide who starts, how we’re going to build the game, how we’re going to press them, what the messages to the players will be. Things become clear in our heads before we speak with the team.”


Klopp and Lijnders have a close bond on and off the field (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Klopp then made some subtle changes to Liverpool’s blueprint. “We need more game management and control,” he explained. “Everyone talks about our intensity but sometimes when we run like devils, I have to say, ‘Come on, please cool down’.”

Prior to 2018-19, he prioritised improving Liverpool’s output from set pieces. Lijnders and Krawietz were tasked with coming up with the routines to make them count. By the end of the season, Liverpool were top of the Premier League set-piece goals table with 29.

Klopp the innovator was always seeking marginal gains. That summer, he recruited specialist throw-in coach Thomas Gronnemark after reading about his work in a German newspaper.

Gronnemark: “Before I met Jurgen, it was frustrating. I had all this knowledge about how to keep possession from throw-ins and create chances, but people didn’t want to listen. They only wanted long throw-ins. The first club that took it all on board was Liverpool. That says a lot about the mentality and the culture Jurgen created at Liverpool.”

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Fast forward to May 7, 2019, and Liverpool went into the second leg of their Champions League semi-final with Barcelona at Anfield 3-0 down and needing a miracle to avoid finishing the season empty-handed.

The previous night, title rivals Manchester City had beaten Leicester City courtesy of Vincent Kompany’s piledriver to remain masters of their own destiny. For the Barca game, Salah was sidelined by concussion and Firmino was injured.

Robertson: “The morning of the Barcelona game really stands out for me. The way he spoke and addressed Kompany’s goal, which pretty much finished the title race. It was like: ‘Right, does anyone want to say anything about what happened last night? No, right, here we go’.

“Then in the team meeting at the hotel, he said: ‘For anyone else, this is impossible, but because it’s you lot, there’s a chance.’ Belief built by the hour. You could sense it. You just couldn’t wait to get to Anfield. The changing room before the game was the loudest one I’ve ever been in.”

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Achterberg: “He said to the boys, ‘Close your eyes and imagine the best game you have ever played. Go out there and write a story to tell your grandkids one day’. The words were perfect. It was the greatest night ever at Anfield.”

The 3-0 deficit had already been wiped out when Alexander-Arnold’s quickly taken corner caught Barcelona napping and Origi swept home Liverpool’s fourth goal.

Alexander-Arnold: “That night epitomised what Jurgen had created. The mentality he had instilled in us that no matter what position we’re in, whoever we’re up against, we just believe that anything is possible. It’s happened so many times. All those fightbacks, all the late winners.”

Werner: “I was watching the game with John Henry in Boston. It will be etched in our memories forever. The fourth goal was just crazy.

“The sense of unity Jurgen had created was clear. I had the privilege of watching training one day and Jurgen got everyone in a circle to tell them it was Sadio Mane’s birthday. He got Sadio to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in his native language and then turned to Virgil and said, ‘Why don’t you sing it in Dutch?’ Then he turned to Mo Salah and said ‘Why don’t you sing to Sadio in Arabic?’ On it went with everyone laughing. I just thought, ‘What a wonderful way to start the day.’”

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Despite achieving a club-record haul of 97 points and losing just one league match all season, the Premier League title eluded Liverpool on the final day as City finished one point clear. “That was our first chance to win it — not our last,” Klopp reassured his players.

The three-week gap to the Champions League final in Madrid wasn’t ideal but a friendly was arranged with Benfica’s B team at Liverpool’s training camp in Marbella as their style and formation was deemed similar to opponents Tottenham.

Klopp, who was bidding to end a run of six successive final defeats as a manager, was so relaxed he had a two-hour sleep in his hotel room on the afternoon of the final.

Robertson: “The night before in the stadium, he got us all in a circle. He said: ‘This is where we become Champions League winners tomorrow night’. It made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. You just thought, ‘Yeah, this is it’. From the heartbreak of the year before in Kyiv, the feeling was: ‘Get us to that game, let’s do our job and get our hands on that trophy.’”


Klopp tells his players that this is where they will win the Champions League (Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images)

“Let’s talk about six, baby,” beamed Klopp after Salah’s early penalty and Origi’s drilled finish late on sealed the club’s sixth European Cup. “Did you ever see a team like this, fighting, with no fuel in the tank? They suffer for me. They deserve it more than anybody.”

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The celebrations inside the club’s private party in Madrid’s Eurostars Hotel went on until dawn. There was a symbolic moment when Klopp and friends, including Campino, headed to a side room to record an impromptu follow-up to their song from a year earlier:

We’re sending greetings from Madrid,
Tonight we made it number six,
We brought it back to Liverpool,
Because we promised we would do.

Around 750,000 people turned out in Liverpool for the homecoming parade. “If you could’ve put all the emotions, all the excitement, all the love in the air that day and bottled it up, the world would be a better place,” Klopp said.

With captain Jordan Henderson and vice-captain James Milner around, there was never any danger of standards slipping.  The 2019-20 season was one of ruthless and relentless consistency. There was no title race, just a procession. Klopp’s men took 79 points out of the first 81 on offer and lifted the European Super Cup and Club World Cup along the way. Everyone played their part, but the full-backs were so influential with the quality they provided from wide areas.

Robertson: “It was intense but the way the manager wanted us to play suited Trent and I in terms of trying to create. It was a massive part of our success, overloading the wide areas, having the three of us — myself, Gini and Sadio — more often on the left, and then Trent, Hendo and Mo on the right, trying to create overloads.

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“But we also had to be part of a strong defence. When Jurgen first came in, they were winning games 5-4 like the one at Norwich. That more often than not doesn’t win you titles. You have to be able to keep clean sheets.


Robertson and Alexander-Arnold were key under Klopp (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

“There are lots of elements to his philosophy — like when we lose the ball, reacting quickly to win it back. That’s especially important against deeper-lying, low-block teams. That’s when spaces open up because maybe one of them is out of position. It was full throttle. You knew you needed to be at 100 per cent every game. It wasn’t as controlled as some other teams but you knew when you played against us, you had to outrun us and want it more than us to have a chance.”

Lijnders: “If players feel inspired, if they feel like they’re improving, there’s nothing better. If you work for a long time with the same group, you need to dress up well. It’s the same if you’re in a marriage! You always need to find new ways to inspire. The reason why we were successful is our players had unbelievable character, potential and attitude. We created stability by keeping Jurgen, staff and players together, always doing the same type of work on the training pitch.

“In the best games, it was our counter-pressing that made the big difference; not waiting for things to happen. When emotions become high, players forget the tactical plan. It’s the training and the repetition that makes the difference.”

In the summer of 2019, Klopp recruited performance psychologist Lee Richardson. He also invited German big-wave surfer Sebastian Steudtner to speak to the players about managing stress and teaching them breathing techniques.

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Richardson: “Jurgen is the best communicator I’ve ever seen. The head psychologist at Liverpool is Jurgen in many ways. He’s the one who affects most people with everything he does — with every team talk he gives, every decision he makes. The role of the actual psychologist is about being a support for different things that the manager can’t always be dealing with.”


Klopp perfected the art of the team talk (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

With Liverpool on the cusp of ending their 30-year title drought in March 2020, the season was suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The players assembled in the canteen at Melwood when Klopp told them: “Don’t worry about football for now. You are the best team in England and the most worthy champions there has ever been.”

The triumph was belatedly confirmed on June 25, 2020 after Manchester City lost to Chelsea. Liverpool were an unassailable 23 points clear of City with seven games remaining.

Alexander-Arnold: “We knew there was a chance it could happen, so Jurgen got everyone together for a barbecue. You never grow up dreaming of becoming a Premier League champion sitting at Formby Hall in the middle of a global pandemic! You think about a last-minute winner that snatches it, a full house at Anfield, celebrating with the fans.

“But it was still a special one for us. It was such a dominant season. We blew every team away. Looking back on that season, I don’t see how any team could have beaten us with the mentality that we had. We won games in so many different ways.”

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Klopp was reduced to tears as he went around hugging his players. His knack of making even those on the fringes of the squad feel important was underlined on the night Liverpool lifted the Premier League trophy after beating Chelsea at Anfield. Turning to his fourth-choice goalkeeper, he said: “Andy Lonergan, champion of England, champion of Europe, champion of the world. What a guy!”

The players responded by chanting the name of someone who had not made a single appearance for the club.

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Liverpool’s 30 years of hurt


Having scaled such heights, Liverpool fell quickly – despite the arrivals of Diogo Jota from Wolves and Thiago from Bayern Munich. For a team that fed off the emotional energy in the stands, playing behind closed doors during the pandemic was a hard, soulless slog.

Klopp also had to deal with the personal anguish of losing his mother Elizabeth and not being able to travel home to Germany for the funeral due to travel restrictions. On the field, Liverpool had a centre-back crisis after Van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Matip all suffered season-ending injuries. Playing Henderson and Fabinho in the back line didn’t work as it weakened the midfield. Klopp turned to rookies Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams to help salvage their top-four hopes.

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Phillips: “I look back on that period with a lot of pride — it brings a smile to my face. I’d only played once for Liverpool before that season: the FA Cup tie against Everton the year before when Curtis Jones scored a brilliant winner. Jurgen placing his faith and trust in me was a huge boost. He was always providing reassurance. He was very complimentary about me in the press. He made me feel that I deserved to be there.

“Before I was exposed to first-team football, I always had the impression there would be big personalities and big egos in there. But what struck me was that no one in that dressing room thought they were better than anyone else.”

Lijnders: “We had to keep each other positive. The moment I became negative, Jurgen became positive. When he was negative, I stayed positive – that’s the best way to describe it. The mindset was always, ‘What do we have?’ Not, ‘What don’t we have?’”

Robertson: “Even during the tough times, I don’t think anyone ever doubted the manager – you always felt he would find a way out of it. Of course, there were days when his energy wasn’t as high, results weren’t great, and times when we had to lift him.

“At the start of that season, if you had said we would be relying on Nat and Rhys to get us into the Champions League I don’t think many would have believed you. But Jurgen found a way. After all the problems we faced, it felt like a massive achievement.”

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Liverpool took 26 points out of the last 30 on offer to finish third in 2020-21. The highlight of the run-in was Alisson’s headed winner at West Bromwich Albion in the last minute of stoppage time. He became the first goalkeeper to score a competitive goal in the club’s 129-year history.

Achterberg: “I thought maybe Ali could be a nuisance in their box — but I wasn’t expecting that! There was a lot of passion on the bench because we were so desperate for that win. Ali’s part in the story is so big. Without the save he made late on against Napoli (to deny Arkadiusz Milik in the Champions League group stage in December 2018), there would have been no run to Madrid, no European Cup, no Super Cup or Club World Cup.

“Jurgen joked that if he had known Ali was this good he would have paid double. With Caoimhin Kelleher, we created the best goalkeeper department the club has ever had.”


Klopp on the podium with his players after the 2019 Champions League win (Erwin Spek/Soccrates/Getty Images)

Liverpool are set to appoint Arne Slot as their new head coach — and The Athletic has every angle covered.


Klopp’s “mentality monsters” kicked on during a breathless 2021-22. Both domestic cups were won on penalties against Chelsea at Wembley with the manager saluting the “incredible impact” of Neuro11, the German neuroscientists that had been recruited to work with the players on dead-ball situations. Liverpool scored 17 of their 18 spot-kicks across the two shootouts.

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Quadruple talk gathered pace but Liverpool missed out on the two biggest prizes by the finest of margins. Once again the title race went down to the final day. City’s late fightback from 2-0 down to beat Aston Villa 3-2 ensured they finished a point clear.

Achterberg: “Jurgen never talked about City. His attitude was: ‘We only play them twice a season, so why worry?’ You can’t influence what they do. We knew that City had much greater resources but we were so close to winning the lot that year.”

On the same night that Liverpool beat Villarreal to reach a third Champions League final under Klopp, on-loan Phillips was celebrating helping Bournemouth win promotion back to the top flight.

Phillips: “My phone buzzed with a message from Jurgen. He thanked me and Rhys for the part we had played in getting them into the Champions League the season before. The fact he had us in his mind at that time says a lot about him.”

The chaos outside Stade de France blighted the showpiece occasion in Paris. On the field, Liverpool were thwarted by the heroics of Real Madrid goalkeeper Courtois and Vinicius Junior’s goal.

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Werner: “We spent a lot of time with Jurgen in Paris after that defeat. It was so discouraging because we all felt we were the better team on the night. If we replayed that match 10 times, we probably win eight. But Jurgen was so optimistic about the future. He was far more cheerful than any of us.

“He has such a unique perspective. There’s that famous quote that ‘football is the most important of the least important things in life’. Jurgen knows that football at its best is a real tonic for people. He appreciates the wins but keeps the losses in perspective. He articulates himself after a defeat in such a way that it soothes your pain. He carries that balance. It’s demonstrated in his relationship with the team, his staff, the supporters and the city. He always has a grasp of the bigger part.”


Having built one great team, Klopp set about assembling another. The frontline evolved with the signings of Luis Diaz, Darwin Nunez and Cody Gakpo. But he over-estimated what some loyal servants had left in their legs after an energy-sapping 63-game campaign.

The 2022-23 season was bleak as an ageing midfield was repeatedly over-run and injuries cut deep. The tactical tweak of moving Alexander-Arnold into the centre when Liverpool were in possession sparked a late revival but it was in vain as they missed out on a top-four finish.

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Henderson and Fabinho were lured away by Saudi Arabia’s riches, following the departures of Milner, Keita, Firmino and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as free agents. The midfield overhaul saw Alexis Mac Allister, Dominik Szoboszlai, Wataru Endo and Ryan Gravenberch recruited.

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Liverpool Reloaded: How an Ironman, Alisson deal and triple sessions sparked flying start

Lijnders: “Jurgen and I had good talks last summer about the future. We said, ‘OK, let’s do one more year, see how it goes’. I said to all the guys at the start of pre-season: ‘The first one who is negative, I’ll punch in the face!’ We needed a reset with new players and that worked out well. It must have been late October or November that Jurgen and I had some good talks.

“We both came to the conclusion that the right thing to do was to go at the end of the season. Jurgen had made his mind up and I was quite clear that it was the right time to make my own way. We wanted to leave the club with Champions League football and a team the next manager can really take care of. I think we did the right thing.”

When Van Dijk’s extra-time header secured Carabao Cup glory against Chelsea at Wembley in February, Klopp described it as “easily the most special trophy I’ve ever won”. At the time, he was wrestling with an injury crisis and turned to youth. Harvey Elliott, Conor Bradley, Jarell Quansah, Bobby Clark, James McConnell and Jayden Danns all played their part.

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Who’s who on Team Klopp

1 Michelle Hudson, masseur
2 Motonori Watanabe, masseur/therapist
3 Paul Small, masseur
4 James French, opposition analyst
5 Jonathan Power, club doctor
6 Lee Nobes, head of physiotherapy
7 Mona Nemmer, head of nutrition
8 Chris Morgan, physiotherapist
9 Jurgen Klopp, manager
10 Ray Haughan, first-team operations manager
11 John Achterberg, goalkeeping coach
12 Vitor Matos, elite development coach
13 Andreas Kornmayer, head of fitness and conditioning
14 Joel Bonner, post-match analysis
15 Jack Robinson, assistant goalkeeping coach
16 Dr Conall Murtagh, first-team fitness coach
17 Louise Dobson, senior first-team operations officer
18 Lorna Butler, assistant nutritionist
19 Connor Stewart, catering supervisor
20 Pep Lijnders, assistant manager
21 Daniel Spearritt, post-match and elite player development analyst

Inglethorpe: “Jurgen believes that anything is possible, and puts young players at ease. I would have wanted to play for him. Whatever talent you have, he would get the best out of you; that’s a magical quality. He’s consistently given young players a stage to play on and when it’s been best for their career to move on, he’s done it with care and thought. He will have a seat at the top table when people talk about the all-time greats who have managed this club.”

After Klopp publicly announced in late January his decision to stand down and take a break from football, there was a period when it looked like he would get the perfect farewell as Liverpool rode a wave of emotion. However, they couldn’t sustain it and their challenge for further honours wilted.

But his status remains undimmed. What a ride it’s been, and what a legacy he’s leaving behind, one that will be celebrated at Anfield on Sunday by many of the people who shared in the journey.

Alexander-Arnold: “It’s going to be a hard transition for us as players. It’s an emotional one. It’s going to be very difficult to say goodbye. It’s one that I’ll never be ready to do, to be honest. The only thing I can really say to him is ‘thank you’. Everything I’ve achieved is down to him and the opportunities he gave me. When I’m done with football, I’ll look back and think of the years we spent together as the most fun, the best and the most important.”

Achterberg: “Look where Liverpool were when Jurgen arrived and where they are now. As well as the trophies, look at the new training ground and the redevelopment of Anfield. He won everything and fulfilled all our dreams. He created one of the best teams European football has ever seen and brought joy to so many people.”

Werner: “It’s about far more than the trophies. Look at the number of young players from the academy who surpassed expectations. Jurgen is a very selfless man. Part of the love people have for him is that he really understands the club and the relationship the club has with the supporters. The idea of him ever coaching another Premier League team is absurd. It just wouldn’t happen. He’s got LFC tattooed on his heart.”

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Robertson: “Without him, what I’ve achieved in football wouldn’t have been possible. He gave us the best time of our lives. When my kids were born, he was one of the first to congratulate me and make sure my wife was OK. Those are the kinds of things you don’t forget. In the seven years I’ve been here, a lot has happened in my life and he’s been a key support throughout on and off the pitch. I will look back on it when I’m old and grey and think, ‘Without him, it wouldn’t have been possible’.”

Lijnders: “‘Unforgettable’ is the word I would use. I feel really blessed that we could stay so long at a club and conquer so many major trophies. What an honour it’s been — to work with Jurgen Klopp, to be part of something so beautiful.”

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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MLB world reacts to Willie Mays' death

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MLB world reacts to Willie Mays' death

Major League Baseball and San Francisco Giants legend Willie Mays died Tuesday at age 93.

The “Say Hey Kid” performed with a showman’s flair, making basket catches in center field, taking daring chances on the base paths, winning four home run crowns, 12 Gold Glove Awards and laughing with a gleeful high-pitched voice.

Mays spent 21 of his 23 major-league seasons with the Giants organization in New York and San Francisco. He batted .301 with 660 home runs, 339 stolen bases and 3,293 hits and won two National League MVP awards.

Mays left an indelible mark on baseball, sparking many members of the MLB community to pay tribute to him at Tuesday night’s games and on social media.

Quotes and anecdotes around MLB:

Ken Griffey Jr.: “My heart is on the floor,” the Hall of Famer told MLB Network. “I’m just grateful and thankful that I was able to spend the time I had with (Mays) because he is a true giant, on and off the field.”

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Aaron Judge: The New York Yankees star outfielder and a California native reflected on meeting Mays.

“I have a family friend that is pretty close with his family,” Judge said. “I got a chance to meet him. He showed me a couple of things about throwing the baseball from the outfield, which I still remember. I have a couple of cool things that are signed in my childhood room still.”

Judge added: “Terrible, terrible news (of his death). I was a big Willie Mays fan. What he meant to the game, California, all of the Giants fans out there, especially me growing up, you wanted to play like Willie and make those catches that he did.

“The numbers he put up on the field and what he did are impressive, but him as a person and human being was even bigger. It was bigger than baseball. He was something special. The baseball world is definitely gonna be missing a great one.”

Mike Yastrzemski: “The things that he did, we’ll never see again,” the Giants outfielder said of Mays’ career. “He was such a talented player and he played the game as purely as anybody could. To be able to watch that on film — I’m glad there was film for it — because it’s something that’s going to be watched and studied for the rest of time.”

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Giants react to the death of Willie Mays: ‘The things he did we’ll never see again’

Sergio Romo: “Every day he was very willing to give his time, to give his expertise, to give his advice,” Romo, a three-time World Series champion with the Giants, told NBC Sports Bay Area about Mays visiting the club. “He made you feel visible.”

Bruce Bochy: This game allows you to meet some tremendous players and people, and I got to spend a lot of time with Willie during my tenure (in San Francisco) and it’s a sad day,” the former Giants manager and current Texas Rangers manager said. “What a legend he is.”

Billy Owens: The Oakland A’s assistant general manager and a Bay Area native paid tribute to Mays in a text message to The Athletic’s Melissa Lockard.

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“Say Hey was EVERYTHING…….Right there with Muhammad Ali as the Greatest,” Owens said. “The Excellence was Documented. The Style can never be duplicated. His power, speed and grace forever unique. The catch still captured the imagination almost a century later. Willie was New York(Polo Grounds) and San Francisco(Candlestick Park). I’ll watch Rickwood Field(Birmingham) this week and imagine Willie doing basket catches in Center Field and hitting homers into the Stratosphere. RIP Say Hey Willie Mays.”

Steven Kwan: The Cleveland Guardians outfielder and a Bay Area native said, “(Mays) was the face of the Giants. It was him and Barry Bonds and they would always be together. You’d see them talking. You wished you could be a fly on the wall for those conversations.”

Stephen Vogt: Cleveland Guardians manager Stephen Vogt’s grandfather lived in Oklahoma, and there were no MLB teams nearby. He chose the New York Giants as his team, mostly because he hated the Yankees and Dodgers. He loved watching Mays, and he’d prattle on and on about the center fielder to his son, Randy.

The Giants relocated to San Francisco in 1958 when Randy was three years old. The Giants became his team, and Mays was Randy’s hero. The family visited Candlestick Park every year.

Stephen grew up a Giants fan, too. The Vogts had season tickets in the upper deck down the left-field line. Stephen signed with San Francisco for the 2019 season. That spring, he met Mays. The two chatted in the clubhouse and took a picture together. Randy framed that photo, which sits on a shelf in his office.

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“One of the people who was a god to you,” Vogt said of Mays. “It was just this unfathomable figure. You never really saw him on TV, (just) highlights. It was really cool to meet him and then get a chance to chat with him.”

Harold Reynolds: “Willie was like a father to all of us,” the former Seattle Mariners second baseman told MLB Network. “He was from that generation that was passing it on. … He had advice for you on every aspect of your life.”

Craig Counsell: “I’m saddened by the news about Willie Mays,” the Chicago Cubs manager said. “This is one of the Mt. Rushmore of baseball players in my opinion. A legend in our game. I got to meet him a couple times. He was the kind of person, along with Hank Aaron, that made you nervous because of how great they were. It was sad news to hear during the game today.”

Cody Bellinger: “I saw the news (of Mays’ death) in the seventh inning and was pretty saddened by it. Wearing the number 24 is special. He’s one of the best players in our game. Just seeing him around a few times on the field was a true blessing. An unbelievable guy and best wishes to his family right now.”

Bellinger wears No. 24 with the Cubs, the same jersey number Mays wore with the Giants and the New York Mets.

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The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner, Melissa Lockard, Zack Meisel and Sahadev Sharma contributed to this story.

Required reading

(Photo: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

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Lydia Jacoby, after surprise Tokyo Olympic gold, misses out on Paris

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Lydia Jacoby, after surprise Tokyo Olympic gold, misses out on Paris

INDIANAPOLIS — Lydia Jacoby looked up, stunned. Only 27 hundredths of a second separated her from Emma Weber’s second-place finish in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke final, but the two might as well have been two continents apart.

Veteran swimmers often describe U.S. Olympic trials as the hardest swim meet in the world — tougher than the Olympics themselves. In some events, the third-fastest American might be the third-best swimmer in the world. But only the top two make Team USA.

That razor-thin margin sets up the greatest of stakes; it’s make-or-break, all-or-nothing.

And Jacoby ended up with nothing, just three years removed from shocking herself and the world by winning gold in Tokyo in the same event. On Tuesday morning, she announced that she’d scratched the 200-meter breaststroke, which meant her meet was over. The 20-year-old won’t be going to Paris.

“I feel weirdly fine,” Jacoby said Tuesday. “I think it hasn’t quite hit me yet. I definitely had a little cry last night, but I’ve been doing pretty well today. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of time to process emotions in the next couple of weeks and I’ll … try to line up some fun things to look forward to this summer.”

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Two-time gold medalist Lilly King, who took gold in the event in Rio de Janeiro, touched first Monday night in 1:05.43. Weber’s second-place finish was a shocker, one of the true upsets of the meet thus far. After King congratulated Weber, she swam over to hug Jacoby.

“My heart absolutely breaks for her,” King said. “But on the flip side, what a performance from Emma Weber — and that’s just kind of how this meet rolls. It will make your career and break your career in a minute. It’s the hardest meet in the world. It’s a lot harder than the Olympics, in my opinion.

“I hope she can move forward from this, and I’m rooting for her always.”

In recent months, Jacoby has opened up about the severe depression she experienced after winning that gold medal in Tokyo. She felt like everyone wanted a piece of her, and she couldn’t say no. She couldn’t tell which people around her genuinely cared about her well-being and which just wanted to be associated with a gold medalist. There were days and weeks she didn’t want to get out of bed back home in Alaska.

“I was feeling like my identity was locked up in sports,” Jacoby said Tuesday. “The biggest thing for me lately is (remembering) that being a swimmer is something I do. It’s not something I am. I have so many interests and passions. I have amazing friends and family outside of the sport. Remembering those things is a big thing for me.

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“A lot of people outside of sports see this and think this is everything. It’s important that people realize, yes, this is something I do, and I’m very invested in it. Obviously, I put a lot of emotion into this, and it is pretty devastating. But at the end of the road, it’s not going to change my life.”


Lydia Jacoby and Lilly King embrace after the 100-meter breaststroke final at the U.S. Olympic trials. Jacoby, the Tokyo gold medalist, did not qualify for Paris. (Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

Jacoby said she seriously considered quitting swimming after Tokyo and even debated whether she wanted to swim at trials at times during the past year. She’s glad she stuck with the sport and swam here, despite the disappointing result.

Jacoby said she was frustrated with her performance here at Lucas Oil Stadium. Her time of 1:06.37 was more than a full second slower than her Olympic qualifying time at trials in 2021. She’d been training well, and she’s disappointed that her output Monday didn’t match what she’d been putting into the event. Jacoby said she had focused all of her training on the 100-meter breaststroke and was planning to scratch the 200 regardless.

“I don’t feel like I put up a swim that was a good representation of what I can do, which is the most frustrating part to me,” Jacoby said.

She said she plans to take a break from swimming to “get in a better place with where I am in my life outside of swimming and then reapproach the sport in a healthy way for myself.” She doesn’t think she’s done with the sport entirely, nor does she think the sport is done with her.

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But that’s in the long term. Right now, Jacoby isn’t sure if she’ll watch the event on television next month. She’s not sure she can bear it, sitting at home on the wrong continent while her friends and former teammates wear red, white and blue.

“I feel like I haven’t really processed the fact that I won’t be swimming there,” Jacoby said. “I’m honestly not really sure if I want to watch my event. It’s something I haven’t really put a lot of thought into. But the people that are making the team — like, I’ve been crying like the past week, tears of joy for all my friends making the team … so, I am absolutely looking forward to seeing everybody do amazing things in Paris.

“My not being there is definitely going to be tough, but I wish them all the absolute best.”

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Regan Smith reclaims WR in women’s 100m backstroke at Olympic trials

(Top photo: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

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Tears, pre-announcements, vanishing into thin air: The new rules of tennis retirement

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Tears, pre-announcements, vanishing into thin air: The new rules of tennis retirement

“There’s no wrong, only right,” Roger Federer says.

He is speaking with The Athletic about one of tennis’s defining issues this year, and possibly the defining issue right now: how best to retire.

As Wimbledon approaches, two fellow ‘Big Four’ members, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, are entering the endgame. Both are involved in valedictory tours — which, in Nadal’s case, could yet extend to next year — and in April and May, a flurry of retirement announcements and pre-warnings included former Grand Slam champions Garbine Muguruza and Dominic Thiem, both 30. They did it in very different ways and for very different reasons, just as Nadal and Murray are doing it their way, for their reasons.

In the new rules of tennis retirement, there are different methods of saying goodbye.

This is totally fine, according to Federer, who was 41 when he retired. “With Andy, Rafa and Novak (Djokovic), I could not tell you what I would now suggest and advise them,” he says. “I don’t know. It’s super deeply personal.”

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Federer was speaking at the premiere of his new film Federer: Twelve Final Days, which will be released on Prime Video tomorrow (Thursday). It documents the period between him announcing his retirement because of a knee injury in September 2022 and his final appearance on a tennis court, at the Laver Cup, playing doubles with his old rival and friend Nadal.

One of the themes that runs through the film is also central to tennis in 2024: the agonising difficulty of picking the right moment to step away from the thing that has defined you for almost your entire life. Serena Williams even avoided using the word “retirement” when she said farewell two years ago. “Evolving away from tennis,” was her preferred expression.

Federer’s view? Don’t stress about the how of it.

“Everyone does it differently,” he says. “There’s no script. And very often we don’t remember how people retired. You just have to take the best decision in the moment. And sometimes you run out of options too, depending on what your body does.”


Serena Williams said goodbye at her home Grand Slam (Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images)

Save for a few exceptions, that’s probably true. Pete Sampras went out in a slightly misremembered blaze of glory; Williams brought late-night thrillers to Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, but the story of her retirement was her redefinition of tennis in America and around the world.

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It’s not how players go, but what came before, that defines them.

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Serena Williams’ incomparable legacy is only growing in her U.S. Open farewell


In late April, the former French Open and Wimbledon champion Muguruza announced that she was formally retiring — calling a press conference and explaining that she wanted a new challenge. The news was unsurprising, given she hadn’t played in 15 months. The following week, Alize Cornet, 34 and a former world No 11, announced in a social media video that she would retire after the French Open.

A couple of weeks after that and within a few days of each other, former U.S. Open winner Thiem and one-time top-10 player Diego Schwartzman, 31, announced on social media that they would be retiring soon. The former at the Vienna Open in his native Austria in October, the latter in his home country at the Argentina Open next February. This is a pretty standard retirement route these days — setting a hard deadline and giving yourself a few months to say goodbye.

“The decision came some weeks before I made it public, and at first I told my family and closest friends,” Thiem told The Athletic in a video call a couple of weeks ago about a decision that was largely brought about because of a debilitating wrist injury.

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“So the decision to make it public was a small step but it was a relief and it meant that all the fans and everyone were clear about it.”

He explained that it wasn’t a particularly difficult decision because, although he is only 30, he has no interest in carrying on in such a diminished form. “I played some great matches (after the injury) but that was more because of my fighting spirit than my game,” he said. “It wasn’t because of my actual playing level — and that was always unsatisfying. That helped with the decision in the end.”


Dominic Thiem’s injury took away what were expected to be his prime years (Marcelo Endelli / Getty Images)

Thiem was so decisive that some players, such as his good friend Alexander Zverev, even thought he was being too hasty. Zverev explained to reporters at the Italian Open in May that he wondered if Thiem could have opted for wrist surgery — like Zverev’s brother, Mischa — in a last-ditch attempt to save his career. Thiem says that, in consultation with medical experts, they concluded this wouldn’t provide the answer.

This is in stark contrast to Nadal and Murray, who have battled through this year with no confirmed end dates, just indications that this will be their final season, which speaks to how hard it is to let go. Especially when they both still love competing.

“In lots of careers, retirement is something you celebrate and people really look forward to that day — that’s not something I feel,” Murray said on Sunday, as he strongly hinted that he was unlikely to go on beyond the Olympics. “I love playing tennis.”

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Nadal said something similar in January 2023, after suffering an injury in defeat to Mackenzie McDonald at the Australian Open — his last match for almost a year.“It’s a very simple thing: I like what I do. I like playing tennis.”

This is a recurring theme among players who are close to the end. Vera Zvonareva, the former world No 2 and Wimbledon finalist, turns 40 in September and is still competing, primarily in doubles. She is fresh from partnering the 17-year-old sensation Mirra Andreeva to the French Open quarterfinals and puts it simply: “I enjoy playing tennis. It’s my job but also my passion. I enjoy it or I would not be here. Mirra has great energy on the court, which also helps, and I try to support her.

“I like to play.”


How Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic reconfigured tennis


Retirement doesn’t just happen to players. For a player of Nadal and Murray’s stature, and for players who choose to retire on home turf, it brings a huge amount of ceremony, occasion, and logistics. Few players find all that comfortable — even ones as venerated as them or Federer.

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“You know inevitably that we’re all going to stop working at some point — and for us, it’s the same,” Federer said.

“The only problem for us is that maybe we can’t just send a quick text and say, ‘OK, goodbye everyone’. I have had too many incredible fans and incredible people who have helped me along the way — you need to get out there and do it the hard way. Face your demons, even though it’s a nice thing to do.”

That last line is very revealing. It’s little wonder that Nadal and Murray are desperate to pick the right moment after two decades on the tour, conscious that they’ll never be able to find something quite like professional sport. Tennis is also unlike many other sports, where a manager or someone from a club tells the player their time is up. It’s all down to the individual.


Camila Giorgi at the 2024 Miami Open, which proved to be her final tournament (Brennan Asplen / Getty Images)

Some players do take Federer’s “quick text” route, or even go to another extreme.

Camila Giorgi, a former world No 26 with a colourful past, won the award for the most low-key farewell when her departure was revealed by her status being changed to retired one morning on the International Tennis Integrity Agency (ITIA) website. It was another few days before she announced her retirement, following reports of investigations by Italian tax authorities into her affairs. A few weeks after that flurry of retirements, Dutch player Botic van de Zandschulp, 28, said at the French Open that he was “thinking about” quitting because he no longer enjoyed playing. A couple of days later, he told The Athletic that he had been mistranslated and that he was carrying on.

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Swedish 23-year-old Mikael Ymer, who is serving a drugs ban for missing three anti-doping tests in a year, announced in April that he would not be retiring but would attempt a comeback once his suspension was over in 2025. “Retirement was boring,” Ymer wrote on X. “See u in 8 months.”

When more ceremony is required, tournaments have to make several contingency plans depending on what players decide. At this year’s Wimbledon, the All England Club has numerous options in place depending on what Murray announces over the next few weeks. They feel they have prepared for every eventuality, which is a logistical challenge. How you pitch these sorts of farewells is not easy.

In 2019, the Australian Open put on a big farewell celebration for Murray after he revealed on the eve of the tournament that he needed hip surgery and that the end could be nigh. After watching various luminaries of the sport wish him well on a video montage, Murray had to say that, er, he wasn’t definitely retiring.

This year, Nadal’s victory lap at various clay-court events meant that tournaments in Barcelona, Madrid and Rome had to have ceremonies ready for every match in case he lost. This occasioned the awkward sight of Nadal walking off as the Italian Open prepared its celebration; the Spaniard was in no mood for adulation after a heavy loss to Hubert Hurkacz. At Roland Garros a couple of weeks later, the French Tennis Federation planned a farewell ceremony for Nadal, only to shelve it once he said it might not be his last French Open after all.


Rafael Nadal’s ceremony at the Madrid Open commemorated his five titles there (Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)

One of the problems Nadal and Murray have found is the media’s obsession with when they are going to retire (sorry, guys). They are at the extreme end of that interest because of their huge fame, but even for less high-profile players, there is an awareness that once you start talking about retirement it adds to the media interest.

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Cornet took a different approach. She decided she would retire last year but didn’t announce her plans until April, a month before her final tournament at the French Open because she “didn’t want the media to talk to me about it too often”.

Cornet found she was liberated by making the announcement, and went on her best run since realising it was time to go some months earlier. She reached the semis and quarters of a couple of Challenger events and then bowed out at Roland Garros. “It was a lot of ups and downs,” she says. “Emotionally, it was not easy. Some days, I was excited about retirement and other days, I was scared and uncertain.”

Danielle Collins, who is also in some of the best form of her career in her last season on tour, has been unequivocal about how endometriosis and arthritis have contributed to her decision to retire, and the fact that tennis is something she does, not who she is. In March, at Indian Wells, she told The Athletic, “I’ve loved what I’ve done and the opportunity and the doors it’s opened, but it’s not easy.”


More often for players who retire, tennis is all they have known, and they are acutely conscious that they will never get the same high again. “It’s super difficult because that’s the only way you know to live since you were a kid,” Thiem says. “And every tennis player who is probably even in the world rankings will never be able to do something as good as playing tennis.”

Cornet adds: “It means turning a page of 20 years of my life, 20 years of full commitment. When you have to turn that page and realise it’s over, yeah, it’s a void, in a way. And you have to fill it in another way and find stuff that makes you happy.

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“Psychologically, it’s one of the most difficult things to handle, and I’m very happy that I have a very good entourage to help me with that.”


Alize Cornet waved goodbye at this year’s French Open (Dan Istitene / Getty Images)

Then there is the search for the perfect ending. It’s a tantalising proposition that can convince players they should go on that little bit longer. Whether that’s the perfect venue, or achieving one last goal — Murray has been desperate for another second-week run at a Grand Slam tournament — it’s an elusive promise that is nearly impossible to grasp. When Serena Williams retired at the U.S. Open 2022, she had her ceremony after her first-round win, instead of bookending her career with a final defeat enmeshed with reflective celebration.

Federer feels that the way he went out, surrounded by his closest friends and rivals on the tour — including Nadal, Murray and Djokovic, who were all his Team Europe team-mates at the Laver Cup — was ideal for him. “It ended up being so beautiful,” he says. “Because in an individual sport, being surrounded by your contemporaries is rare. There were a lot of special moments.”

During the film, Murray comments on how appropriate it is that Federer’s last match should be playing doubles with Nadal, the rival who most defined his career. But before that Laver Cup farewell, Federer’s final singles match was a hugely dispiriting defeat to Hurkacz in the Wimbledon quarterfinal more than a year earlier — which included the only 6-0 set he ever lost in the tournament. Federer desperately wanted one last Wimbledon title, but his knee had other ideas.

Did the loss in any way damage his Wimbledon legacy of eight titles? Absolutely not.

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Federer’s celebration defined the end of his career. (Li Ying / Xinhua via Getty Images)

Sampras remains the gold standard for bowing out at the top. His last match was the 2002 U.S. Open final where he beat his biggest rival Andre Agassi to win his 14th Grand Slam, aged 31. But even that was preceded by two years without a tournament win and months of calls for his retirement (especially after an embarrassing second-round loss at Wimbledon to George Bastl a few months before that U.S. Open swansong). Sampras also then deliberated for almost a year over whether to retire, before eventually deciding it was the right thing to do.

And might he now wonder whether he went too soon? This is another fiendishly difficult element to all this and is something mentioned by John McEnroe, who returned to the sport to play doubles on a couple of occasions after his retirement in 1992. “Even Pete probably looks back and thinks, ‘I had 14 majors, had the all-time record, maybe I should have played past 31’,” McEnroe says. “So no matter what, you have regrets in a way and things you wish you’d done differently.”


As for the rest of the locker room, has the rash of retirements made them think about how they would like to go?

“I don’t have pressure,” says Zvonareva. “I’m not saying I’m going to play this and this and then I’m retiring. No, if I want to play more tournaments, I will play. If I don’t feel like playing, I won’t. It’s really open.”

Angelique Kerber, a three-time Grand Slam champion who is 36 and returned from maternity leave this year, says: “I really don’t think about this yet. I’ve always said I will play as long as my body allows me, and while the fire is still there.”

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Victoria Azarenka, 34 and another multiple major winner, wants to have a low-key exit when she leaves. “I’m not going to have a farewell tour,” she says. “It’s going to be simple. I’ll just say bye. To me, it will be at the point when I’m not learning something anymore.”


Azarenka’s last Grand Slam title came in Australia in 2013. (Manan Vatsyayana / AFP via Getty Images)

She also explains why playing is so addictive and why a lot of players eschew their earlier retirement plans. “When I was 20, I thought I’d never play past 27. Then I thought, ‘OK, 30 will probably be enough’. Now I’m nearly 35 and I think, ‘Why not keep playing?’. I’m still playing well, competing at the biggest events, and feel like I can beat anybody. I’m very competitive.”

Adrian Mannarino, the 35-year-old Frenchman, says that “when it’s time to stop, you feel it”.

Madison Keys, the American world No 12 who, at 29, is a way off from thinking about this, jokes that she’ll go down the Giorgi route. “I saw on Twitter a link to the ITIA site that said Giorgi had gone and I was like May 7, that’s yesterday. So I was like, ‘That’s how I’m going to do it’.

“I’m just going to disappear. You just won’t see me again. You’ll be like, ‘Where is she? We haven’t seen her forever’. I’ll just slowly fade away.”

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Keys laughs at the absurdity of what she’s saying, but as Federer alluded to, this probably is a route a lot of players feel they would like to go down if they could.

Perhaps it helps to have an outsider’s perspective. Asif Kapadia is one of Britain’s most respected filmmakers, and his credits include Senna, Amy, and Diego Maradona. He is the co-director of the new Federer film and is more of a football than a tennis fan. He says that one of the themes that most attracted him to the film was the idea that “athletes die twice” — a saying referred to in the movie.

“I was interested in this idea that even if you’ve won it all, and you’re really successful, with a loving family and everything’s great, for him it’s still like a death,” Kapadia says. “’Athletes die twice’. I had never heard that said so succinctly, and it’s right. That’s what they have to deal with.

“He’s crying and the people around him who haven’t retired are crying because they know it’s not that far off for them. And that’s what is really interesting.

“It doesn’t matter how successful you are when your body won’t let you do it anymore. If you’re a sportsperson who’s ever played or had an injury, you know what that’s like.

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“That feeling of: what do I do next?”

(Top photos: Jean Catuffe; Tom Jenkins / Getty Images; Design: Dan Goldfarb for The Athletic)

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