Over the week leading up to Liverpool clinching the Premier League title on Thursday with Manchester City’s loss to Chelsea, NBC wanted you to believe that their 30-year wait was on par with some of the more storied championship droughts in North America. Hell, a great number of Liverpool supporters wanted to believe that, too. The New York Rangers’ 54-year wait. The Red Sox’s 86 years (and given the Sox and Liverpool share ownership, this is a cynically easy connection to make). Even the Cubs’ 108, or Cleveland’s combined eternity.
That’s not the case. 30 years is not enough time between triumphs where you are tempted to assign some sort of dark force or power from above manipulating tiny moments to alter the whole. The desire to blame some form of voodoo is easier than facing the incompetence and bad luck that’s actually there.
There is nothing mysterious about it. Liverpool’s wait compares more to the Montreal Canadiens or Dallas Cowboys (and as a Liverpool supporter, these comparisons send vomit marching triumphantly into my throat, if not eyes, especially as they once shared ownership with said Canadiens). Once great, dominant, signature teams in their leagues that simply watched as the league and game passed them by, and wondered haughtily why their name and history alone didn’t simply warrant the success they had come to regard as their right.
Liverpool watched as their greatest rivals, Manchester United, brought in their own transformational figure in Sir Alex Ferguson who made that club the biggest and most successful in England. Then came the absurd amounts of money from Russian oligarchs or Middle Eastern oil kingdoms. Liverpool couldn’t keep up with either, nor find their own versions.
But unlike the Habs or ‘Boys, Liverpool eventually caught up. Not only caught up, but caught up in another way, and then surged ahead.
Liverpool’s 30 years in the woods, league-wise, was marked by either poor management or poor front office work. Sometimes both. At times they had very good to great managers (Gerard Houllier, Rafa Benitez) who brought them limited cup success, but ownership stood in the way of the sustained consistency needed for a league win. Especially the reign of terror that was Tom Hicks and George Gillett.
When Fenway Sports Group took over from that Statler and Waldorf combination with their analytical ways and bigger pockets, they couldn’t get the manager right. At first, they were stuck with Roy Hodgson and his limited scope, and then the stop-gap of club legend Kenny Dalglish to simply mollify the supporters for a bit. Brendan Rodgers brought them as close as you could get, but his naivety and inability to make a defense look anything other than a grade-school production of Cats kept Liverpool from glory.
But FSG finally found the cohesion and vision with Jurgen Klopp. As even Tom Werner said, Klopp changed the vision from merely being a Champions League perennial to champions themselves.
Liverpool still can’t quite compete with the money of Manchester City, or Chelsea, or even United (though much like the Red Sox, FSG almost certainly has more money for Liverpool than they’ll let on). They’ve had to dig a little deeper to find their team. Or more to the point, dig a little smarter.
Which they did. Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Gini Wijnaldum, Andy Robertson, Joel Matip were all reasonably priced or even on free transfers when brought to the club (though Mane and Salah may have been prohibitively more expensive in the post-Neymar world than the pre- one). Klopp was also able to build on what was already there in Jordan Henderson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Joe Gomez.
Perhaps what’s most stunning about Klopp’s work in the first team is just how many players he’s turned into $100M players. Salah and Mane would certainly be. Firmino would come close. Alexander-Arnold’s potential would probably push him toward that. Virgil van Dijk cost Liverpool $92M, and would probably go for at least 50% more than that now. Give Gomez a full season as van Dijk’s partner and he might get in that ’hood given his age as well.
It’s these kinds of finds that allowed Liverpool to be economical with even their biggest risks. Selling Philippe Coutinho in January 2018 at first looked like ripping the creative heartbeat out of the team midseason. Instead, it allowed a system that never really fit Coutinho to flourish, while also providing the cash injection for big splashes of van Dijk that same month and Alisson Becker in goal the following summer. They could spend the ungodly sum of $175M on just two players and break even. Liverpool have had the meanest defense in England in the two seasons since by a distance.
That’s another smoothing out of the team and club. Klopp’s first few seasons on Merseyside saw every bit of his hallowed “HEAVY METAL FOOTBALL,” except it was on both sides of the field. They could score five but give up five, both in one half. Klopp’s cayenne-pepper-on-balls style of pressing opponents that had worked so well in Germany didn’t fly so well in England, at least not constantly, given the greater amount of games with no winter break, and opponents’ happiness to just punt it over that press that isn’t found on the continent.
So the throttle was pulled back. Liverpool began to pick their spots, control games, smother them to their desires rather than trying to spray the area. Instead of drone strikes, games were won through controlled demolitions.
As Ryan O’Hanlon pointed out, though Liverpool are on pace for the greatest haul of points in Europe’s big five leagues ever, their goal difference per game is only the eighth-best of just the Premier League’s history. They’ve won 13 games this season 1-0, three short of the record. They were actually better last season in these terms. Their expected-goal difference per game, based on what “should” happen given the shots they generate and concede, is only seventh-best, behind every Man City team of recent vintage.
But what Liverpool do is finish the chances they get at a better rate than expected, which will happen when you have Mane and Salah and Firmino creating one of the most lethal attacks in world football. And they concede less than expected because van Dijk or Alisson or almost always in the way. Sure, to win that many games 1-0 takes a slice of luck, as does any championship. But just like everything else, Liverpool have meted out just the right amount of that along with everything else. And when you’re 23 points ahead, it’s hard to argue a different finish here or a different bounce there would have made much difference.
While the age of Liverpool’s squad puts them pretty much square in their prime instead of at the dawn of a years-long run, Man City’s European ban, United’s clown-shoes management team, and Chelsea’s youth suggest it could be a little bit before anyone looks Liverpool square in the eye.
Liverpool shaved down their excesses and eschewed those of other clubs. They dulled the frenzy of their play just a touch. They found ways to make the machine run smoother without constantly tricking it out. And now with all that efficiency, they’re suddenly miles ahead.