Yes, it’s happening! Liverpool FC, the 2018/19 champions of Europe, are now the 2019/20 champions of England! For the first time in the Premier League era, and the first time in thirty years, Liverpool have claimed their spot on top of the perch.
I celebrated with a beer at the end of the decisive Chelsea/Manchester City clash last night – City had to win to deny Liverpool for at least one more week, but despite some good periods of play, they were beaten by a Chelsea side with motivations of their own, and not for the first time, City were their own worst enemy, a midfield blunder contributing to Chelsea’s first, and a penalty and red card for handball handing Chelsea the winner.
Credit where credit is due. Manchester City remain a potent side. Their inconsistency stems from injuries and the lack of an adequate replacement for defensive rock Vincent Kompany, who organised them superbly in recent years. With the resources available to them, I’d expect a tougher title fight next season.
But, this isn’t the moment to look forward, despite football inevitably being the sport that moves forward. This is about the here and now, a season defined by one team’s absolute domination, and some of the strangest circumstances to affect the sport. The Coronavirus and the lockdown brought calls to abandon the season, and led to anxious, nervous waiting and watching as other leagues around Europe and the world reached different conclusions. In the end, a means to complete the season was found, and it’s taken Liverpool just two games to conclude the title race.
Yet, for all the dominance, there were plenty of moments where I refused to believe. Liverpool have had a number of false dawns and near misses down the years – last season we lost only one game, finished on 97 points, and still missed out on the title. This season, after 31 games, we’re champions with 7 games to play, a new record, and yet, as I said, at times I still had doubts. In a way it was foolish – after 10 games we had a reasonable lead, and after 15 games that gap had grown – but all the while, I kept telling myself it wasn’t over till it was over. We weren’t champions until we couldn’t mathematically be caught. Each win brought us closer, each time City dropped points you could sense the anticipation levels rise… But football is a peculiar game, often full of surprises, and nothing was to be taken for granted. Also, I was afraid of jinxing it!
The Premier League trophy will now go to Anfield, where hopefully it will stay for many years! How did it wind up there? Let’s take a look…
It was October 2015 and Liverpool were struggling. Brendan Rodgers, who had gotten Liverpool so close in 2014, had struggled (in the absence of key players like Luis Suarez) to keep the momentum going. A disappointing run of one win in nine games sealed his fate, and a few days later, Jurgen Klopp left German club Borussia Dortmund (where he had enjoyed title success to much acclaim) for the Anfield side. Klopp’s style of play was a hit with the fans, an approach known as Gegenpressing, which had the players working hard to regain possession immediately after losing it. Klopp was prepared to give existing players a chance, but he also put into place off the pitch the foundations of success on it, with keen analytical minds joining Klopp’s backroom staff, to look in detail at new signings, and how to maximise the potential of existing players.
Focused planning in training, strong communication with players, and a genuine desire and passion for the club – his club – to win have endeared Klopp to the Kop, but also ensured he gets the very best out of the squad. When he arrived, there were doubts surrounding Jordan Henderson’s ability – flash forward five years, and Henderson has captained the side to Champions League and Premier League glory. More on him later.
Klopp has lived and breathed Liverpool football club, displaying the same determination and passion that made him so popular at Dortmund. He has had his doubters (not least because of a failure to win major cup finals), but no one can doubt him now.
I alluded to new signings earlier, and whilst not every new face at Anfield has delivered (which is true of any club), Klopp and his people have been astute in identifying weaknesses and fixing them. It was painfully clear that Liverpool had defensive problems when Klopp arrived – but the signings of Virgil Van Dijk, Joel Matip, Andy Robertson and keeper Alisson Becker have provided a huge boost. In particular the trio of Alisson, central defender Van Dijk, and left-back Robertson have given Liverpool an mightily solid platform at the back, with Robertson also proving potent going forward.
It isn’t just about new signings. Klopp has been keen to look at the young prospects at the club, and two of them have made their mark in a big way. Joe Gomez has settled into his role as a centre-back alongside Van Dijk, as well as earning himself several England caps. He can only get better, and he’s pretty good already!
Perhaps the best player to emerge from the youth setup is Trent Alexander-Arnold. The right-back has burst onto the scene as a clever, fast, powerful runner, with an eye for a keen cross and the ability to take players on. He’s also competent defensively! Alexander-Arnold’s vision created a wonderfully cheeky goal against Barcelona in last season’s Champions League, and he has one of the highest chance creation ratings in the Premier League this season. Between him and Robertson, Liverpool’s flanks have been secure, and a whole new dimension added to the attacking side of the game.
Moving up the pitch, we come to another Klopp signing, Fabinho. Fabinho is consistent, efficient and effective at getting the ball and pinging it where it needs to go. He helps provide a shield in front of the defence and a link to the pacy attacking players. His plum pass to Mo Salah against Crystal Palace on Wednesday, a long ball, brilliantly timed and weighted, sums up what he can do.
I mentioned Jordan Henderson before – a player Klopp inherited. Henderson took on some heavy expectations – the role of midfield leadership, the central playmaker. He was taking on the role Steven Gerrard performed so brilliantly in for several years. Quite a few people expected him to fail, to struggle, but under the guidance of Klopp, Henderson has been a reliable, determined, focused captain. Henderson can play devastating passes, and also the short, neat and tidy passes to just keep the ball and steady the ship. He can also score goals! I cannot put him on the same level as Gerrard, but he has become a top player for club and also for country.
Next up is another one of Klopp’s purchases, something of a surprise when it happened, and unfortunately a player hit by injury, but when he plays he adds a different dynamic to the midfield – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Chamberlain can run with the ball, dribbling out of the centre to danger zones, where he can also hit the ball with real venom, straight into the back of the net. Because of fitness concerns, Chamberlain doesn’t start as many games as I’m sure he’d like, but his appearances as a substitute can often give Liverpool a fresh attack impetus late on.
I have to confess, when Klopp signed Georginio Wijnaldum from Newcastle for the midfield, I had no idea who he was. That is a great disservice to the Dutchman, who has become a regular starter for the Reds. He works hard, and can contribute goals – most notably the brace against Barcelona in that legendary Champions League semi final.
Roberto Firmino was already at Anfield when Klopp arrived. The Brazilian forward certainly had potential, though at that moment in time he was yet to fully realise it. Under Klopp’s tutelage he has developed into a world-class striker, part of a trio of players that have built up a phenomenal understanding over the past few years. Firmino not only scores but creates, he has tremendous confidence on the ball and it would not be an exaggeration to suggest he at the very least the equal of countryman Neymar. Firmino has 56 goals in 168 appearances for Liverpool – pretty good!
If you’re looking for a workhorse, look no further than James Milner, a versatile player of great experience, who is always prepared to run his socks off for the team, no matter where he ends up playing. Milner can provide services from the right or left flanks, he can be a ball-winning midfielder, and he can patiently pass the ball. One thing is always guaranteed – 110% effort and commitment.
Next is another of Klopp’s inspired signings, Sadio Mane. When he arrived at Anfield he already had a reputation for scoring goals in Premier League, having been doing the business for Southampton. When he joined Liverpool in 2016, he became the second part of the budding triumvirate that would become so dominant. In 120 appearances for Liverpool he has scored 60 goals – not a bad ratio at all!
Liverpool fans will often take into their hearts players who strive to win for the club. Players who embody the spirit and ethos of Anfield. One such player is Mo Salah, signed by Klopp in 2017, becoming the final part of the trilogy of attacking forwards upon which so much of Liverpool’s success has been based. Salah could be considered a little greedy (hardly a bad quality in a striker), but he has done a fair bit of goal creation as well. With 71 goals in 101 games, his ratio is unbelievable, and his link-up play with Mane and Firmino has given Liverpool a potent attack, as dangerous as any in Europe.
There are other players who have played their part in Klopp’s revolution. Adam Lallana, a talented attacking midfielder. Divock Origi, whose goals against Barcelona in the Champions League last season, and goal against Spurs in the final were crucial. There’s defender Dejan Lovren, who has improved under Klopp. There’s a lot more to come from midfielder Naby Keita. Youngsters Neco Williams and Curtis Jones are getting the opportunities to develop at the club.
Things have moved forward, Liverpool are ascendant once more, and now the baggage is cast aside. Liverpool have sometimes had a few great players and a few average ones that didn’t click. Now Liverpool have a great team, and a strong, confident setup. Inevitably thoughts will turn to how to sustain success – a Champions League title in 2019 and a Premier League title in 2020 are platforms to spring from, not the end of the journey, and I have no doubt that Jurgen Klopp and his people will be hard at work planning the future. This is only the beginning.