For a team that has played in such a rush, as if determined to end this wait as quickly as possible, Liverpool have had to learn the true meaning of patience.
This is just another balance Jurgen Klopp has struck, as he finally lifts the Premier League trophy. His team become both the earliest and latest champions in history: winning it with seven games to go, but crowned on 25 June.
These are another few sides to a victory that has often seemed of impressively singular force. This is what they’ve waited for, in so many ways.
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
It’s not just 30 years, or these added four months. It’s that Klopp has been the figure they’ve waited for, after so many false prophets and false dawns. If you want to extend that religious language, which seems appropriate given the adulation, he really is the messiah delivering the Holy Grail.
Fenway Sports Group have been lauded for their forward-thinking approach, but there are some around the club who believe it was Klopp – and that it could only ever have been Klopp – that brought it on and made it work.
“It illustrates the value of a club getting it right,” one figure involved says. “When that happens, the manager makes the recruitment look good and vice versa. At the same time, none of this happens without Klopp.”
For anyone looking to the lessons of Liverpool’s victory, that “great leader” model is a classic sporting quality – that this club has exemplified as much as any other – here re-interpreted for the modern game. Klopp isn’t a Bill Shankly. He’s the best manager in the modern game.
That tension between the past and the present is another huge part of this story. There were many times – even in the last year, and especially the last four months – when it seemed like this moment would never come. Klopp, who got his players so far by first whipping them into an emotional frenzy, had to calm many down. He had to reassure people.
That isn’t as easy as a 22-point lead would make you think.
The thing about a wait like this is that a lot of ghosts gather, and a lot of doubts accumulate. Wrapped into this joyous release are the frustrations of the 1990s, the misses of 2009 and 2019, the pain of 2014.
There was then the uncertainty of Covid-19.
It actually only deepens the extent of the feeling that this victory, like the last victory, is so tied to a real-life tragedy.
While 1990 followed Hillsborough, a disaster that Steve Nicol says fundamentally changed how the club viewed what it was and what winning meant, 2020 will always be linked to the Covid-19 crisis.
One side reminds us of the preciousness of life, the fragility of it all.
The other side reminds us what we live for, the joy of it all. There’s little joy like celebrating a long-awaited victory, and what it means to a city, a people. Through that, a triumph can also become a tribute.
The star of that 1990 team, John Barnes, says it didn’t feel like the end of anything at the time.
“We didn’t even celebrate that much. That was because it was how we always did it. ‘Onto the next one.’ That was still the case in 1991, even 1992… then by 1995 you start to wonder when the next one will ever be.”
That was a feeling that remained. The cub kept falling into the same frustrating patterns. They’d forgotten what it took to be champions, and struggled to adapt to the elite end of the modern game.
The club had changed. Football had changed. This was what Klopp had to challenge.
A key moment came in winter 2017-18, when it seemed like the same old patterns were going to play out again, and a wealthier club were going to pick off one of Liverpool’s stars. Philippe Coutinho looked set to go the way of Luis Suarez, Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres, Javier Mascherano and Steve McManaman in leaving the club in a perpetual state of rebuild; only ever going to so far before they had to start again.
Klopp was all too familiar with this from Borussia Dortmund. There was some who felt it was why he’d romantically made the wrong choice of club, and was always destined to be a mere moral winner.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that some players had thought differently about him in the period up to that, too.
They liked Klopp, but there was some discussion over whether he was “one dimensional”. The Coutinho decision, as well as the ruthlessness shown in discarding Mamadou Sakho, changed all that for good. It also showed how adaptable he was, how many sides he had. Along those lines, you don’t hear much about “gegenpressing” or “heavy metal football” any more. They’ve been consigned to the past, or incorporated into something greater.
That properly started with the Coutinho sale. Klopp had initially done his utmost to keep the Brazilian, before taking the executive decision to let him go.
As is the case with so many great managers, and with many of Klopp’s lines from those first few years, his comments now seem prophetic.
“It was kind of a solution for us to give him the ball. No. We don’t want to look for that. It can make us more unpredictable if we don’t.”
That sale did more than allow Klopp to reshape the attack. It allowed him to both complete the team, and take it to the next level. Virgil van Dijk and Alisson were signed. Defensive composure was added to the chaos wrought by their attack. Patience was added to pace.
Those at the club cite it as by far the best piece of transfer business Liverpool have done since 1987, when Ian Rush was sold, and John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and John Aldridge were brought in. A good team instantly became a great one.
It also set up one of the greatest runs of results ever produced by any team. That is no exaggeration, not when the last two years have seen a return of 2.65 points per game in the league.
Since January 2018, Liverpool have reached two Champions League finals, won one and now won the Premier League – as well as over 80% of their matches.
It is an astonishing level of performance, that is actually difficult to truly assess, because it is such an outstandingly good outlier.
You can’t even compare to previous Liverpool winners, because the context is so different.
That in itself does raise two wider points about this victory.
The first regards the debate about its manner, and talk of “an asterisk”. It is, frankly, ridiculous.
As has become something of a mantra around the club, and refers back to their glory days, a title isn’t actually won on the date it’s confirmed. It’s won over a long period of time, after a lot of work. In this case, it’s after that sensational run of wins, that meant victory was virtually certain by Christmas.
The “true” date they secured the league was probably 26 December, when they so convincingly beat Leicester City 4-0, in one of those truly complete champions’ performances.
Even that was set up by those crucial eight days in November, when they stopped a swing at the top with that vintage late 2-1 victory at Aston Villa, before again sweeping defending champions Manchester City aside 3-1 at Anfield.
All of these fittingly showcased the team’s finest qualities, and brought them together in brilliant statements.
There was that patience and persistence against Villa, characteristic power against City, and commanding control against Leicester.
That is what so stands out about this team. Klopp has fitted them together so well that, when they’re on form, they’re close to perfect. They have certainly been close to unbeatable for a very long time. That’s because they just don’t let you out to hurt them.
Consider their general pattern of play. Liverpool are at their most exhilarating when Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane are shredding you at pace, but Klopp has calculatedly evolved the side so that is now only their most identifiable weapon. Van Dijk and Alisson offer the assurance at the back that allows everyone else the confidence to step up, and means the two full-backs and number-eights form a line that completely controls the shape of a game and where the ball goes. So, even when that first wave is repelled, the ball just comes straight back so that opposition defence is that bit more disorganised and those forwards ready to pounce. Your response becomes just another resounding weapon for them. That’s what makes it feel relentless.
That’s why they won 18 games in a row to secure the title by December, matching City’s run from 2017-18.
That, and that very perfection of the team, touches on the second point about this victory. You couldn’t reach this level in any other era of football. The economic context is frankly unrecognisable from any of Liverpool’s previous titles. Comparisons don’t compute in any meaningful way. The game has never been so loaded towards the wealthiest clubs, where it’s an open market with all talent funnelled towards the top.
And Liverpool are back among the wealthiest.
That’s one thing to consider about those 30 years of hurt. They still involved two Champions League victories, another two finals, four different title challenges, and a series of other trophies. These would represent glory eras for all but about 10 clubs across Europe.
It points to the financial potential Liverpool always had. They were just badly run. FSG, and then Klopp, rectified that.
And the economic structure of the modern game is such that if one of the super-clubs gets it right, they will barely put a foot wrong.
We’ve already seen that in England with City. We’ve seen that all over Europe with Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain. It has never been so easy for the richest to rack up records. The financial platform allows them to go so much higher.
It is why the records Liverpool break maybe shouldn’t be given the stock they usually would. They are as much a product of a loaded game as the manager’s genius.
This isn’t to take away from what Klopp has done. It is that we shouldn’t be completely taken aback by those points returns.
They don’t tell the full story. Neither, however, does that economic context. The actual victory is all Klopp’s.
While Liverpool are a super-club, they are nowhere near as wealthy as Manchester City, or Manchester United. Many for a long time thought that gap was unbridgeable, including some within FSG. Almost everyone thought 2018-19 was their single chance.
Klopp has defied that, and so much else. He has pushed past limits, smashed ceilings, and done what seemed so frustratingly impossible again at Dortmund.
Through that, in a combination that really distinguishes this side, they have offered a great feat but also a great team. They are two different things.
Leicester City for example offered the greatest modern feat, in how they defied all economic realities, but no one would call them a truly great team.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United offered many great teams, but you wouldn’t say their domestic titles were truly great feats given their financial dominance.
Klopp has combined both, along with so much else. He’s offered a team of so many sides, and that singular joyous emotion.
He’s reminded Liverpool what winning titles takes, but in a way even they have never seen before.
He’s done what he said he would on that fateful first day, and that doesn’t just apply to winning a title within four seasons.
“My teams must play at full throttle and take it to the limit every single game,” he said, before adding a warning. “Everyone must be patient enough to be successful.”
They now know the meaning of those words better than ever. They now know what it means to be champions again.
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