The Premier League trophy remains draped in sky blue but that will change when it is handed over to Jurgen Klopp and his team in the coming weeks.
It has been such a long wait for Liverpool; false dawns, near misses and years of mediocrity, but Klopp was quick to point out that his search for the most precious prize of them all has been relatively little time in the making under his stewardship.
Man City vs Liverpool
July 2, 2020, 8:00pm
“I didn’t wait 30 years – I’ve only been here four-and-a-half years, and we didn’t have a chance really before last year,” he told Sky Sports.
Klopp told supporters to change from doubters to believers at his first press conference in October 2015 but the self-proclaimed ‘Normal One’ came with charisma, pedigree, and a long-term vision. Success with Borussia Dortmund at the expense of German football’s behemoth Bayern Munich and his rallying cries to the Yellow Wall made him the obvious choice.
In his first full season, there were signs of progress, and Klopp acknowledges that his side’s dominance has been shaped over time.
“We are compared with the history created at the club but we found a good way to get rid of it as we had to create our own story,” he said in the aftermath of Chelsea’s defining win over Manchester City last week.
“We have a wonderful mix of players. They’re all winners without having won 50 times in the past so we can start winning together. It’s incredibly difficult but it’s only possible with consistency and that’s what drives us.”
Liverpool were 10th when he took charge. Now, despite an incredible 2018/19 campaign, they have taken 10 more points than at this stage last season and remain on course for the highest points total in Premier League history.
It has been quite a rise, but the nature of their eventual return to the summit strikes an ominous sound to those now trying to prevent the advent of another red dynasty. Klopp unpicked a masterplan to dethrone City, and the challengers must now do the same.
How do you beat a side that has dropped seven points all season? Liverpool have been in a class of their own, breaking records, built on an unshakeable team ethic.
“We had a really good season three years ago but finished fourth,” Klopp reflected during this past week. “What we lacked was consistency, but you have to work on that, create that and convince people.”
Manchester United, City and Chelsea have all managed to retain titles with managers who followed this same mantra, but very few champions do. Between October and February, Liverpool won 18 consecutive league matches, a joint-record in the English top flight – and while they have been crowned champions with seven games to spare, City can take credit for creating that ferocious pace.
A slight drop-off is only natural, but recent history suggests it can be quite significant. It is historically very difficult for a side to defend the trophy, with City becoming the first to win successive league titles for a decade only last year.
During Leicester’s miraculous campaign in 2016, Chelsea finished 31 points off the top, but the following season, they won the title by seven points and were 49 points ahead of Leicester. Things can change very quickly, and with football in the midst of a financial crisis, that is the message Klopp will be projecting to his players. It will be good coaching more than recruitment that will form the bedrock of Liverpool’s defence.
Liverpool have records in their sights but Pep Guardiola’s side have conspired to lose eight Premier League games and are on track for their lowest points total since the Catalan’s arrival. The regression has been startling; the most number of league games City have won consecutively is three, while Liverpool have stuck by their principles and been on a roll ever since narrowly missing out last season.
Part of the problem has been City’s refusal to play any other way. Liverpool tend to hound their opponents into submission but at other times, they have been functional. Fourteen of their 28 league wins so far have been by a single goal (50 per cent). By contrast, 75 per cent of City’s league wins have been by two goals or more (15 of 20).
Even in City’s 2-1 defeat at Chelsea, some of their football was mesmeric, but poor decision-making was their undoing. For all their dominance of Newcastle during their 2-0 win to reach the FA Cup semi-finals, one lapse in concentration from Nicolas Otamendi almost proved costly.
City have lost more Premier League games this season than in the past two campaigns combined, and they have shown themselves to be vulnerable in the absence of Aymeric Laporte on the back of Vincent Kompany’s departure.
“Kompany brought a fear factor to the opposition when he was on City’s teamsheet,” former City defender Joleon Lescott told Sky Sports.
“When I was playing, it was the same with coming up against Wayne Rooney – there was relief if he wasn’t playing. It’s not easy to replace. You can’t just go out and buy a Vincent Kompany, they are created over time and hopefully given time Laporte can develop into that figurehead.”
“The first goal conceded against Chelsea just summed up what Man City have been like this season – just so vulnerable on counter-attacks and transitions, and that’s why they’ve not been able to compete with Liverpool. We saw it in Pep’s first season with City.”
It is a remarkable but accurate assessment when you contextualise that 12 months ago, Guardiola’s team were being considered as the greatest side to ever grace English football.
City were finely tuned when they secured a domestic treble last season but dropping Fernandinho into defence to cover for Laporte’s injury has had a knock-on effect further up the pitch, and the overall machine has suffered.
The subsequent tailing off in City’s drive for success is typified by Raheem Sterling’s form since Christmas. The England forward scored 14 goals in his first 20 appearances this term, but he has managed just eight in his last 22, although he did look back to his best at St James’ Park.
It is different when you have narrowly missed out on success, year on year: a Europa League final defeat, a Champions League final loss and second with 97 points, Liverpool have shown they can take setbacks in their stride. They won’t rest on their laurels and will only improve.
When Klopp won the Bundesliga with Dortmund in 2011, the feeling was that he and the club had reached a pinnacle, but he duly defended the title with an even greater points margin to Bayern and made it a domestic double for good measure.
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City must begin search for new nucleus
Klopp has shown there is always room to grow, and with four years remaining on his current Liverpool contract, City must now show they too can bounce back, starting with defensive reinforcements.
Liverpool have rewritten the rulebook and revolutionised the role of the full-back. Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah stay narrow to allow Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold to exploit the space in wide areas. When you watch Liverpool’s full-backs, every recovery run is a sprint.
Manchester City do not currently possess the same quality both offensively and defensively in this area. It was hoped that Benjamin Mendy would make the left-back berth his own, but injuries have meant the Frenchman has featured in just 49 of the 167 games City have played since his arrival.
Besides the full-back area, the absence of a commanding defensive pairing has allowed for City’s deficiencies to be exposed – something the manager was keen to address a year ago.
“Guardiola wanted to sign Harry Maguire last summer, but City wouldn’t pay £85m,” the Daily Telegraph‘s northern football correspondent James Ducker told the Sunday Supplement.
“Coupled with Laporte’s absence for five months through injury, we’ve all seen the damage that has done to City’s title bid. They’ve had other issues at left-back, which they’d managed to mask superbly over the previous two seasons but not this time.
“Joao Cancelo has been a disappointment at right-back and hasn’t been able to push Kyle Walker in the way Guardiola would’ve hoped. To be 23 points behind Liverpool with seven games to go, Guardiola will regard that as an affront and as a humiliation.
“That’s not to say the season has been a humiliation as if they can add the FA Cup and the Champions League to the League Cup they’ve already won, it’s a miraculous campaign again. They’ve won eight of the last 10 domestic trophies, so people would be daft to write off City next year.”
In addition to the existing issues, there is the potential for further obstacles ahead.
City are now in an uncertain phase, facing a two-year European ban subject to appeal which puts immense pressure on recruitment. If they do get banned, the impact on players and finances could be astronomical. Until there is clarity over the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s verdict, it is hard to know exactly how City will go about their bid to regain the title.
“They need clarity with their appeal,” Ducker continued. “They were looking to bring in three to five players this summer before the coronavirus crisis… I would say it’s very doubtful for them to do that now, even if the Champions League ban is overturned. If it’s upheld, it will have a significant financial impact, and that could affect key personnel but also the money they would have to spend.”
The futures of Kevin De Bruyne, Sterling, Sergio Aguero and Guardiola himself will be brought into question if the ban is upheld or indeed reduced to a season. Guardiola is entering the final year of his current contract and has refused to commit beyond for the time being.
The focus will turn on whether working under Guardiola will entice players in, but if City are to catch up with a liberated Liverpool, they must pinpoint how a 50-point swing has emerged over the past two years.
“We have to take a little bit of perspective and be humble,” the City boss said. “You can’t win all the time, but we have to learn what we have to do to avoid this again. Two seasons ago, we finished 25 points ahead of Liverpool, two seasons later, they’ve turned the distance on its head. Now, we have to think about how to recover.”
If Guardiola stays and commits himself, City are a much better bet than any of the challengers behind that. They have the experience, the squad, and the quality, but his future could hinge on the outcome of their European ban. When the two teams face on Thursday, Guardiola will be keen for his side to regain that verve to prove that Klopp’s men will not have things all their own way next term.
Chelsea need balance to mount challenge
How far away are Chelsea from being title contenders? They are capable of periods of sustained form but across the course of a season, they may still be a year or two off being genuine rivals to Liverpool’s crown.
Displays that have dripped with the joys of youth have been interspersed with occasional naivety against stubborn but less technically adept opponents, as witnessed in the 3-2 loss at West Ham.
Only Bournemouth (four), Aston Villa, Norwich and Tottenham (all five) have had fewer clean sheets than Chelsea’s six in the Premier League. By contrast, Liverpool had had more than double (14). This, despite Chelsea having faced 99 shots on target, the second-fewest in the division behind Liverpool – 44.4 per cent of shots on target faced have led to goals.
There will be lingering concerns over whether Kepa Arrizabalaga is the suitable long-term No 1 given his save percentage record this season – the worst in the division of any goalkeeper to have played at least 20 games.
Lampard will also seek improvement in the number of points gained from losing positions. Resolve has been in short supply, with only eight points collected from deficits compared to 21 points gained by Wolves, a side who will have Chelsea firmly in their sights.
But they have been mobilising in the transfer market and there is a growing belief that another title challenge is not far away. The age of their squad is in their favour, with the vast majority capable of playing at the highest level for the next decade should they reach their potential. At 24, the £50m capture of RB Leipzig striker Timo Werner resembles a real-life cheat code.
His obsessive quest for goals propelled him to a career-best 28 in the Bundesliga last season, and his addition alongside the arrival of Hakim Ziyech from Ajax will make Chelsea a formidable attacking outfit.
In contrast, many of Liverpool’s players fall within the 28-30 age range; while currently at their peak, Klopp will have to start thinking about how to supplement his stars with younger legs.
Can improving Man Utd launch a title assault?
Manchester United endured a 26-year wait between 1967 and 1993 to win a top-flight league title, before the club enjoyed sustained success under Sir Alex Ferguson. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer does not believe Liverpool, after their 30-year wait, can match those achievements.
He said last week: “The run of titles that we won under Sir Alex… I don’t think that’s going to be easy for anyone to emulate. Sir Alex was a master of staying at the top. Our challenge is to make sure it doesn’t go 26 years until the next time we win it. We’re going to do everything we can to shorten the distance.”
Patrice Evra won five Premier League titles in seven years at United, and the Frenchman touched on what makes a serial winner in a recent interview with the UTD Podcast.
“I always say that (Didier) Deschamps taught me winning is important, but Ferguson taught me that winning is normal.”
Klopp is doing that at Liverpool now. He is creating a culture within his staff and players where winning has to become normal.
Solskjaer insists it is not the time to talk about how far his club are away from once again winning the Premier League, but a 15-game unbeaten run that has coincided with the emergence of Bruno Fernandes and the return of Paul Pogba has heightened expectations.
“It’s a lot more likeable team than the one that was in place two years ago when you felt Manchester United’s recruitment policy had lost direction completely,” Gary Neville said prior to the 3-0 win at Brighton.
“I would urge a word of caution: United are still fifth in this league, they’ve got a squad that is improving with young players that the fans like, but there’s still some work to do in the transfer market to turn this into a title-winning team, which has to be United’s ambition.
“The players are progressing month upon month, but they still need three or four more players of high quality, of the Bruno Fernandes-type, if they are going to challenge.”
Ducker outlined the next obstacle standing in the way of the club returning as a formidable force to be reckoned with.
“Solskjaer has no clarity over his transfer budget and when you look at the numbers, they’re estimating a £20m rebate to broadcasters this season alone, they’ve lost a minimum of £21m in matchday income this year.
“There’s no pre-season tour which will cost them between £12m and £16m, if they miss out on Champions League again this season, their Adidas kit deal takes a hit of about £22.5m spread of the remaining time of that contract.
“Then we face the threat of behind closed doors games next year. For a club making £4.25m per home match, that’s a considerable amount of money. They need a good signing or two to stand any chance of getting near the title next year, and that would be a giant leap for a side that is currently 37 points behind Liverpool.”
But can Liverpool create a dynasty? As European champions, Club World champions and Kings of England, will they have the hunger to just keep on dominating?
An emotional Klopp dedicated the title to those who have waited and those who tried hard but failed; to Kenny Dalglish, to Steven Gerrard and to all those who have been hurting and yearning for another since 1990. It took him four-and-a-half years to reach the Holy Grail, but he understood what it was to Liverpool from day one at Melwood.
Having redefined excellence, the challenge facing him now is to cement this Liverpool side as one of the finest of the modern era. Building on success is nothing new to Klopp, but doing so in the Premier League has proven to be the biggest challenge of them all.