Jurgen Klopp's Borussia Dortmund exit a shock but makes sense for everyone
Jurgen Klopp has no plans to follow the lead of Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel in taking a sabbatical, but his voluntary departure after seven years in charge at Borussia Dortmund is a smart move nevertheless. It demonstrates a critical sense of self-awareness and ensures that his aura as a "different" kind of coach, one who is in charge of his own future, will remain intact despite a drab final Signal Iduna Park season that promises to end with a whimper.
He could have simply "sat out" this bad year and spearheaded the rebuilding of the squad. Dortmund certainly would not have fired him. The board briefly contemplated taking emergency measures when the team slipped into the relegation zone before Christmas, but in the end, they and the manager decided they would stave off the worst-case scenario together.
A strong charge up the table in the second half of the season could have well prolonged the relationship, but the absence of happiness and existentialist fear they found in mid-table only brought about introspection followed by exhaustion. When you've experienced such highs and lows together, starting all over again in footballing no-man's land doesn't get the juices flowing.
"I was no longer sure I was the best coach for Dortmund," the 47-year-old said on Wednesday, and in truth, neither were the club nor (all of) the players. Klopp's high-intensity coaching has taken its toll on the key staff. Either his ways had to change or "a big head needed to roll," as he said. "And it was mine."
Klopp's decision has sent shock waves through European football. Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke was close to tears at the news conference. The overwhelming majority of Black and Yellow fans are just as saddened by today's events, but they didn't come totally out of the blue.
Already in November, the club noted that Klopp had suddenly stopped talking about building a 10-year legacy (his contract was supposed to run until 2018) and instead envisaged employment in England in the not-too-distant future. Possible successors were discussed in the boardroom, but none of them were considered an ideal fit. Compared with Klopp, who combines technical know-how with charisma and the human touch, everyone else looked less impressive.
Tuchel is the obvious candidate to take over in June. He nearly signed with Hamburger SV at the beginning of the week but wisely changed his mind. He's easily the best man available in Germany at the moment, but are Dortmund the right club for him right now? He will have to succeed precisely where Klopp himself failed. It's one thing getting players from Mainz or the young Dortmund team of 2008 to run incessantly like maniacs; it's quite another to do the same with world champions and former German champions on very expensive contracts.
That Klopp never developed, nor believed, in a slower and more economical style was one of the main criticisms of his regime in recent weeks. Dortmund not looking nearly as quick and sharp as they did a few years ago was another. Whether that was down to motivation or the fitness coach, it's hard to say. But after the 3-1 defeat at Gladbach on Saturday, there was no use pretending that the poor results were simply down to freak mistakes and bad luck. Klopp's "pressing machine" has simply run out of steam after six very good years.
"If I had stayed, many changes would have had to be made," Klopp said, in recognition of Dortmund's tricky situation. Should they sell captain Mats Hummels and midfielder Ilkay Gundogan and aim for a total repositioning of the squad? Or should they rely on the next coach to work his magic with the existing team? Part of the reason Klopp's departure was announced now was to give the club ample time to make these key decisions before the players themselves force the issue, as Robert Lewandowski and Mario Gotze have done in recent years by forcing Dortmund's hand. The next coach's ideas and preferences will play a large role in these deliberations. By giving the club ample notice, Klopp has done his bit to make the difficult transition less painful.
Jurgen Klopp leaving Dortmund
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- Brewin: Would Klopp suit Man City, Arsenal, Liverpool?
- FC TV: Where will Klopp go next?
- Buczko: Will big stars follow Klopp out of Dortmund?
- Uersfeld: Five reasons Klopp is leaving
Feverish speculation about his next move will follow but sources close to him emphasise that there have been no negotiations with future employers, only a raft of emails and text messages by interested parties and intermediaries. He will take time and choose carefully. In hindsight, he might regret not taking the Manchester United job last summer. As a man who thrives on emotion, it's easier to picture him at Anfield than at the Etihad but people who know him well insist he's open-minded, not a football romanticist.
Only Champions League clubs should apply, however. That leaves Manchester City as the most probable destination but that's not a straightforward proposition, either. The soon-to-be-dethroned Premier League champions are in the midst of their own big change, both in the dressing room and the boardroom. City will need to make up their mind how far the purge will go before they can approach candidates for Manuel Pellegrini's successor in earnest.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.