It was perhaps the most perfectly executed moment of the ultimately disappointing 2019 Champions League final. As Jordan Henderson danced his way across the podium, storied trophy in hand, the culmination of the project started by Fenway Sports Group (FSG), Liverpool’s owners, back in 2010 and picked up by Jürgen Klopp in 2015.
Upon acquiring the Merseyside based club, FSG’s aim was to turn Liverpool back into one of Europe’s most feared sides, a team that would be able to consistently challenge for titles once more. It was why Klopp was hired. It was the single-guiding aim for the club in the past decade, and one that has finally been accomplished.
Yet, this upcoming season feels like a pivotal one for the legacy of the team Klopp has built. FSG’s other sporting venture, Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox, recently completed their own incredible season, winning 108 out of 162 regular-season games (a major league record) and confidently dispatching three strong teams to clinch the World Series title. The current season has been one a relative struggle for the Red Sox, however, with them trailing the New York Yankees in their division, and in the battle for a post-season spot rather than comfortably secure like a season ago.
Comprised of much the same roster as their historic 2018 season, the Red Sox have suffered a regression this season, with their star names being good but not great. There are lessons in their struggles that Liverpool can learn from this season, especially with the transfer window still open, and the actions taken by Klopp and the management team at the club could help shape the legacy left behind once they are gone.
HEAVY METAL FOOTBALL
When the German arrived on English shores, it was widely expected that he would implement his “heavy metal football” onto his new team and that was the initial policy. The 2017-18 season, where Liverpool reached the Champions League final losing 3-1 to Real Madrid, saw a reliance upon the scintillating form of the front three: Roberto Firmino, Saido Mané, and Mohamed Salah.
The 2017-18 season, however, saw a lessened focus on the goal-scoring exploits of those players, with the football transforming from “heavy-metal” to something more akin to “smooth jazz”. The gegenpressing style that Klopp favoured had brought an improvement in the fortunes of the team, but it struggled to break down teams that set up in a deep block, often taking the long-ball approach, thereby bypassing the effects of the high press. Great results including a remarkable 4-3 home victory over runaways leaders Manchester City were negated by a shock 1-0 defeat away to Swansea.
There was a tactical shift during the 2018-19 season, one which many saw as a sign that Liverpool were not a team of the same quality from the year before. In reality, Klopp’s team had probably become even stronger based on their ability to control games rather than a reliance on pure energy and pressure.
With no major new signings looking likely, this shift will once again reduce the pressure on the front three, an important facet of Liverpool being able to challenge Manchester City domestically. Although the abilities of Salah, Mané, and Firmino will be one of the keys to Liverpool’s season, having the players behind them to dictate the game, notably Fabinho, will ease their load.
Having taken the steps away from the pressure-intense focus that Klopp initially favoured, there may be a greater appreciation for the talent being shown by this Liverpool team. Unfortunate to be competing against an equally historic and, perhaps, more talented Manchester City side, the lack of extreme press and counter-attack saw many feel that the side was not firing on all cylinders. The opposite was closer to the truth.
With largely the same side, it seems a logical assumption to suggest that Klopp will continue along these lines again this season. Having reacher a staggering 97 points in the league last season, it would be strange to revert back from this stylistic change and the more refined version of the German’s style could well be the launching block for Liverpool finally ending the elusive search for another top-flight English title.
Arguably the most surprising aspect of Liverpool’s league campaign last season was the strength of their defensive unit. The arrival of Virgil Van Dijk in January 2018 had begun the process, but once Alisson Becker arrived from Roma, Liverpool’s defence became the best in the league. It is this solidity that allows the new tactical system to perform so effectively.
More than just keeping four extra clean sheets and allowing 16 fewer goals, Alisson’s presence provides a more stable base from which Liverpool can build. Even with the errors that come with being a goalkeeper that plays out from the back, the defenders appeared to have more confidence in their shot-stopper than they had previously in either Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius.
Van Dijk and whoever partners him, either Joe Gomez or Joel Matip with Dejan Lovren offering a back-up option, form a solid base in the middle of the back-line, but it is the full-backs that provide a key aspect to Liverpool’s play.
Scottish captain Andy Robertson had matched the record for most assists in the Premier League with 11, but it was his opposite full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold who broke the record, providing 12 assists for his team-mates. It was the first time in Premier League history that two defenders from the same team reached double digits, and it was a testament to the impact that both have made upon their team.
With Mané and Salah regularly drifting inside from their flanks, space is consistently available for both full-backs to regularly push forward, with the quality of their decision making and their crossing ability amongst the best in the world regularly providing chances for the forwards.
If the performances from the defensive unit continue into the new season, even with a ten percent drop off, it is likely that they will once again provide the least porous defence in the league, and one of the best across the continent. It feels like a long time ago that Liverpool were a team that typically struggled defensively, but this team feels like a step above anything that has come in a long time for the club.
Another aspect of Liverpool’s play that was often seen as a major weakness was their ability to make the most of set-pieces, primarily from a defensive standpoint. When the club hired Thomas Gronnemark, a Dane, to become their throw-in coach, there was much derision aimed at them. Fast-forward to the end of the season and the attention to detail with which the management structure at the club view set-pieces has become a source of inspiration for others.
When Alexander-Arnold quickly played a corner across for Divock Origi to score the fourth goal of an incredible night against Barcelona, it was praised as a moment of brilliant ingenuity. The reality, however, was that it was a moment of brilliance at the end of an orchestrated strategy.
The analysts at the club found a pattern when watching Barcelona defend set-pieces. They noticed that after the ball had gone out of play for a corner, many of their players took their time before getting into their defensive shape, often leaving their opponents free in the box. The instructions handed out, including to the ball-boys, were to get the ball back into the field of play quickly to allow for maximum opportunity for exploitation. The quick thinking of one ball boy and the diligence of those working behind the scenes at the club helped to provide one of the best moments of the season.
When there is talk of a team being focused on making the most of set-pieces, especially in the British media, it is often with derision. The reaction to Tony Pulis’s teams where far from flattering. But, from the ownership group that won a World Series pioneering new and untraditional methods, exploiting the gaps in the knowledge is the perfect way to win, and that is the path that Liverpool appear on heading forward.
The upcoming season does feel like one of cautious optimism for Liverpool, with a sustained charge at winning the Premier League likely. Yet, if FSG want to avoid the mistakes that the Red Sox are currently making, then reinforcements should be more of a priority.
With the first eleven fully available, Liverpool and Manchester City feel evenly matched. The problem the Reds face is if any of those players face a prolonged spell out of the side. If Manchester City were to lose Sergio Agüero or Fernandinho to injury, two of their most important players, they have Gabriel Jesus and new signing Rodri to step into the void.
If Liverpool were to lose Roberto Firmino or Fabinho, the two players in the same role, the replacements would likely be Divock Origi and Jordan Henderson. Whilst Henderson would be dropping back to fill in and Origi was the hero of the latter stages of the Champions League, they are not of the same quality that City possess on their bench.
The issue runs deep throughout the squad. With the injury sustained by Nathaniel Clyne in pre-season, the back-up full-backs would have to be someone from the youth system and any injury to Van Dijk would be basically impossible to cover for. The front three are being covered by Origi, Xherdan Shaqiri and Rhian Brewster meaning any periods missing for those players would significantly impact Liverpool’s attacking potency.
It is impossible to expect any team to be able to lose one of the key players to injury and be replaced by a player of similar quality. It is just not a viable option for the majority of football clubs. For Liverpool, there is a feeling that the drop-off between the first team and the rotational options is larger than that of their Premier League and Champions League rivals.
There are worse positions for teams trying to push for trophies to be in, and the return to fitness of both Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keïta should help to bolster the quality of players to choose from. And yet, when the winter months hit, particularly with Liverpool’s involvement in the Club World Cup, the lack of squad depth may be the determining factor in whether they can finally overcome the hurdle of winning the league.
Potentially, all the cards may be falling into place for Liverpool’s run at the Premier League title. Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea are all in the midst of rebuilding their squad, Tottenham are perhaps still a step behind and Pep Guardiola’s City side are likely to have their focus on conquering Europe. With the Champions League already secured for Klopp and his team, a determined run at the league title appears the next priority.
Whilst strength in depth may be the biggest weakness facing Liverpool heading into the new season, there is still reason for hope on Merseyside. Each season since Klopp took over, the team has gotten better, more complete and competed further into all competitions. Now that European dominance has been taken care of, a full focus on reclaiming England’s title is the order of the day. Whatever the outcome of the season, Liverpool are certainly one of the most interesting teams to follow across the new season.