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Dublin: 13°C Sunday 20 September 2020

How Jurgen Klopp made light of Liverpool's heavy history to finally deliver their holy grail

It’s taken just the 11,009 days…but Liverpool are once again champions of England.

SO IN THE end there was no great moment of collective euphoria, but instead a million distant ecstasies of relief.

There won’t be a grand event of catharsis at Anfield – at least not for a while – so Liverpool fans will have to burn off their private images of Premier League failure and despair all by themselves.

liverpool-v-flamengo-fifa-club-world-cup-final-khalifa-international-stadium Jurgen Klopp. Source: Adam Davy

Still, the final act has delivered a weird mirror of the 2014 heartbreak: they beat Crystal Palace and then saw Chelsea dent a challenge in a game featuring a comedic slip and a late Willian goal. 

But Liverpool fans can now unburden themselves of all of this implausible Premier League history because their team did that long ago; they shucked it from their shoulders like flakes of snow.

“It’s not allowed that you take the history in your backpack”, said Jurgen Klopp at his unveiling in 2015.

They’ve instead carried around their own pain.

It’s striking just how often Klopp and his players use the word. Daniel Sturridge needed to understand “real pain”. said Klopp, while Jordan Henderson picked himself off the floor having been clattered in the first half of the Barcelona comeback and said “it’s only pain.” His manager later called these “the famous three words in our dressing room.”

Pain, wrote Don DeLillo, is just another form of information, and Liverpool have treated it as such.

One of Klopp’s great talents is his ability to reframe a negative as a positive – he did it recently, recasting the notion of an asterisk by Liverpool’s name as a good thing, given the season’s challenges – and so, rather than be burdened by the club’s history, Klopp’s Liverpool have been inspired by their own failures.

That’s been seen across the last two Champions League finals. Whereas the quixotic 2018 defeat to Real Madrid ended in tears and recrimination, last year’s was a steely, dreary win over Tottenham.

Before leaving the dressing room in Madrid, Mohamed Salah looked at a photo of himself leaving the final a year earlier, clutching his broken shoulder in tears. He scored within two minutes. 

spukraine-kiev-champions-league-liverpool-real-madrid Salah leaves the 2018 European Cup final in Kiev. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

A similar arc has played out on a one-year time delay in the Premier League.

Last season, Liverpool finished second with a points total that was enough to win all but two league titles across the history of English professional football, and have rebounded at a pace that not even City could match.

Their glut of late goals speaks to a resolve forged in the harsh smithy of defeat: in six games across October and November, Liverpool scored five goals after the 85th minute, earning themselves eight points.

They beat City in this run too, and have hardly paused for breath since. “If we keep getting 97 points, we’ll win the league eventually”, said Andy Robertson earlier this year.

That this Liverpool side have had the chance to stay together to atone for disappointment is unique in the club’s last three decades, as other nearly-men were broken up almost immediately.

Brendan Rodgers’ side of 2013/14 was instantly lobotomised when Luis Suarez left for Barcelona,  Rafa Benitez’ 2008/09 team finished four points behind Manchester United but lost Xabi Alonso, while Gerard Houllier’s team finished second in 2002 and then swapped Nicolas Anelka for El Hadji-Diouf.

Klopp’s Liverpool, in contrast, finished second and sold Sturridge, Simon Mignolet and Alberto Moreno.

soccer-barclays-premier-league-liverpool-v-chelsea-anfield Steven Gerrard after that slip against Chelsea in 2014. Source: PA

They didn’t add a first-team player of note either, but that might not have been a bad thing. 

In 1997 Roy Evans’ Liverpool finished fourth – level on points with the teams in second and third – but would have gone top with seven games to go had they beaten Coventry at Anfield.

(Narrator: they didn’t.)

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The following season Evans’ side technically improved to third but were further off the title pace, finishing third but 13 points from champions Arsenal.

Unlike his successors, Evans didn’t lose a starting player after his title tilt, but instead added one in the form of Paul Ince. This, wrote Jamie Carragher years later, changed the shape of the team and diminished it, with Steve McManaman shunted to the wing to accommodate Ince centrally.

Klopp’s side, by contrast, have maintained continuity, with each and every player capable of slotting into his precise and demanding system.

There are, of course, more obvious factors in Liverpool’s success, and they stem from the ownership making like their players and learning from mistakes.

Fenway Sports Group have run the club for almost a decade at this point, and it’s hard to reconcile their sheer competency with the errors of their early years, like spending £35 million on an injured Andy Carroll. 

They have conceded some elements of the utopian, “moneyball” corner-cutting they first preached, and in 2015 acted swiftly to appoint Klopp once they learned he was available.

In Klopp they have one of the world’s best coaches, someone with the personality and intelligence to sit comfortably at both the cutting edge of the game and the jagged edge of the game’s scrutiny.

Pep Guardiola is the great innovator of the age, but Klopp led the response with his counter-pressing style. He has refined that style in direct competition with Guardiola, and the pair are the game’s defining coaching rivalry.

Klopp’s side doesn’t sprint quite as often as they used to, and have become ruthlessly adept at strangling the life out of the games. (That last year’s Champions League final was such a dire spectacle is probably interpreted as a compliment by Klopp.)

And to make an even more obvious point about the roots of Liverpool’s success: they finally have a reliable goalkeeper.

That they have one is testament again to the club’s owners loosening the purse strings. They made Alisson the world’s most expensive goalkeeper and Virgil van Dijk – arguably the most singularly transformative Premier League signing since Cantona – the world’s most expensive defender.

These signings were facilitated by the sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona, whose addled recruitment lies in stark contrast to the cohesion and success of Liverpool’s, who have had an unprecedented run of success in the transfer market. 

Of the signings Klopp has made since the summer of 2016, only Loris Karius and Dominic Solanke have been failures, with the jury still out on Naby Keita.

As to who has been the biggest success? Take your pick from Alisson, Van Dijk, Andy Robertson, Salah, and Sadio Mane.

The much-maligned transfer committee has lost its title and gained respect, led by Sporting Director Michael Edwards and Director of Research Ian Graham. The latter leans heavily on statistics to identify and recommend signings, made easier by the trammels set by Klopp’s distinctive style and demands.

tottenham-hotspur-v-liverpool-uefa-champions-league-final-wanda-metropolitano Klopp is hoisted high after last year's Champions League final. Source: PA

Their work has earned Liverpool a major edge in the transfer market, and have allowed them to conduct deep research on players with a view to signing them for specific roles.

This has been made possible, however, by the hierarchy’s acknowledgment that for all that the club do differently, they sometimes have to play the same grubby transfer game as anyone else: Liverpool have spent more on agents fees than any other Premier League club in the last three years.

Liverpool spent 30 years defining themselves by the league title and the last 30 being lampooned by it; the Premier League became the reference point for Liverpool’s many mediocrities, misfortunes, and humiliations. 

The waiting is over now though, ending in circumstances nobody could have imagined.  

Let’s reach for another DeLillo quote to finish, that “longing on a large scale is what makes history.”

Liverpool’s longing has finally been ended, and is now a history written and dealt with.

The English league title can be someone else’s problem now.

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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