Liverpool are Premier League champions, ending a long wait for glory
Thirty years after winning their last title, England’s most decorated club have won the league in the middle of a pandemic
Liverpool don’t do things the easy way. In 2005, they won the Champions League after going 3-0 down. In 2014, they slipped up, literally, when on the cusp of winning the Premier League with two games to go. This season, the reds have finally ended their long wait of becoming the champions of England, but not before a pandemic threatened to throw their season out of gear. When Chelsea beat Manchester City 2-1 on the night of 25 June, it became impossible for second-placed City to catch Liverpool mathematically over the remainder of the season. And so, Liverpool have won the league with 7 games to spare, setting a new record, 23 points ahead of City. But manager Jürgen Klopp and the team won’t mind how the league was won. After 30 years out in the wilderness, England’s most successful club have won title number 19.
Liverpool have played an amazing season. Before all games were suspended in mid-March due to covid-19, Liverpool had been exceptional. They won 18 consecutive games, a joint-record before a slight wobble, when Liverpool lost four games across all competitions just before the lockdown. But they were still on course to achieving a record points total. And with 7 games left to play, they might still rack up 107 points, creating another new record.
Despite Manchester City’s brilliance over the last two seasons, Liverpool have been the strongest team in the country for a while. In the 2019 calendar year, Liverpool played 37 games in the league, winning 31, losing one and drawing five. This was more than what Manchester City managed in 2017 and 2018 or Manchester United in 2012. In the one year since June 1 2019, Liverpool have won the Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup. And now the Premier League.
Klopp’s winning mentality
In more ways than one, this Liverpool team under Klopp is completely different from all other Liverpool teams in the Premier League era. Since the transition of the old First Division into the Premier League in 1992, Liverpool have had 7 managers before Klopp took the reins in 2015. Three of them—Gerard Houllier in 2001-02, Rafael Benitez in 2008-09 and Brendan Rodgers in 2013-14—came close to winning the title, each time coming a close second. Yet, each of those second-placed seasons were followed by collapse, as the teams lost important players, their rhythm and ultimately the managers. In short, Liverpool had been one of the most inconsistent top teams in the past 30 years. However, Liverpool finished second in the 2018-19 season as well, but bucking their own trend, have gone on to greater success.
What makes Klopp’s re-fashioning of the team so admirable is that now Liverpool is the most consistent team, not just in England, but also in Europe. The Reds had finished with 97 points at the end of the 2018-2019 season, losing out to Man City, which had accumulated 98 points. Now 97 points would have been enough to win any of the preceding seasons, bar one. To find belief in the middle of that disappointment shows character. In Europe, Liverpool reached the Champions League final two seasons in a row, 2017-18 and 2018-19. In the former, they were thumped by Real Madrid, who won 3-1. Yet, the Reds came back even stronger the next season, defeating the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich to win the trophy. The sheer bloody-minded addiction to winning that Liverpool display under Klopp, was last seen in Liverpool’s arch-rivals, Manchester United, under Sir Alex Fergusson. In a way, it’s kind of poetic that Liverpool has climbed back on the perch that Fergusson had famously knocked them off by showing a sense of belief and resolve that would certainly impress the Scot.
The team before individuals
The current Liverpool is the epitome of a supremely well-oiled team. Past Liverpool sides were often overwhelmingly dependent on one or two star players to get them over the line, like Steven Gerrard or Luis Suarez. This team is sprinkled throughout with superstars, but it isn’t reliant on any one player. In Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané, they have two of the most lethal wingers/centre-forwards in the world. Roberto Firmino epitomises the modern false Number 9, who pulls the strings with sublime vision and ability. The two full-backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, are probably the best in their positions in the world. Goalkeeper Alisson won the Golden Glove, the Best FIFA Goalkeeper as well as the UEFA Champions League Goalkeeper of the Season last season. He may win the Golden Glove again this year. Central defender Virgil van Dijk won both the UEFA Men’s Player of the Year and Defender of the Season awards last year. He was also the PFA Players’ Player of the Year. This season they have both been even better. But the relentless, intense and infinitely creative football that Liverpool play is ultimately down to the almost telepathic understanding between all the players.
This Reds team also, in a way, symbolize the peak of a particular tactical revolution that began in Germany about a decade ago, when Klopp was the manager at Borussia Dortmund. This was a time when Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and their possession-based tiki-taka was the epitome of the global game. Klopp’s gegenpressing tactics overlap with Guardiola’s style, like in the use of the false Number 9 or playing out from the back, but there are some notable exceptions. In this system, it isn’t a crime, unlike in tiki taka, to give the ball away. However, if that happens, the team presses the opponents ferociously, but also with tactical intelligence, to win the ball back. The point here is to not just prevent a counter-attack, but after nipping it in the bud, launch a counter to the counter-attack, with fast, one-touch transitions, leading to a goal.
It’s an exhausting style that demands, among other things, supreme levels of fitness. Teams across the world now attempt their own versions of gegenpressing, but Klopp’s Liverpool have mastered the intensity and the lightning quick counter-attack. In 2017-18, Liverpool scored 9 goals this way, the most in the league. This season, they again lead the charts with 10. Before the lockdown break, Liverpool had made the most number of sprints this season: 3,794. Individually, striker Salah and left-back Robertson had made 547 and 531 sprints respectively. This team knows put in a hard shift, apart from playing some silky football.
Jordan Henderson is the best captain that Liverpool have had in the past 30 years, and this includes club legend Steven Gerrard’s 12-year reign between 2003 and 2015. Henderson is a central midfielder like Gerrard, but that’s where the similarity ends. The latter, despite his immense talent, ability, and talismanic influence on the club with heroic turns in winning the Champions League in 2005 and the FA Cup in 2006, was often guilty of trying to do everything on his own. Liverpool’s game, in those years, depended on how well Gerrard was playing. And in many respects, his boyhood connect with the club, tended to put an additional burden on him. If Gerrard succeeded, Liverpool succeeded. If he slipped, Liverpool slipped spectacularly.
Henderson, on the other hand, is a very different kind of captain. A very vocal presence on the pitch, he reads the game well, galvanizes his teammates and through his own tireless effort, sets an example for all the other superstars to follow. He also keeps a very cool head. Henderson shows his emotions after a match, not during it, which is one of the reasons why Liverpool have been so successful with him as leader. Individually, he had a great 2018-19 season. In the league, he made 54.38 passes per match, made 30 defensive interceptions and had a tackle success of 76%. This season he’s made even more passes per game, and has become a better offensive player, with many more goal assists, as well as big chances created.
When he succeeded Gerrard as the club captain, many supporters scoffed. He wasn’t as good a player, they said, and didn’t have the personality to be the captain. Yet, after five seasons of shouting, cajoling, pointing, scolding, hugging and running, not only has Jordan Henderson delivered more success to Liverpool as captain, his relentless drive to become a better football player has lifted all the others around him. He is in line to win the Player of the Season award, and if he does, it would be richly deserved.
And so, the long and winding road of the saga of Liverpool’s search for the elusive title has come to an end. They may or may not continue to be successful, but this big monkey is finally off their back. It’s been a long-standing football joke that for Liverpool, the next year would always be “their year". So, to reiterate, next year may be their year again. But England’s biggest team will head into the uncertain world of the post-pandemic 2020-21 season knowing that it’s already their year.
FIRST PUBLISHED26.06.2020 | 08:15 AM IST