How Liverpool became Premier League champion, at long last

For a city and a club groaning under the weight of expectation, the joy of a long-awaited success knows no bounds.

Long after getting knocked off its perch, Liverpool — after many a false dawn — finally climbed to the zenith of the English game in a season like never before.   -  AP

Liverpool’s date with destiny finally arrived, but it was a date a little late, a date away from the joyous fans, and a date without the euphoria that everybody expected.

For a city and a club groaning under the weight of expectation, the joy of a long-awaited success knew no bounds, though the social restriction norms of today made it impossible to bask in the glory of the collective.

Long after getting knocked off its perch, Liverpool — after many a false dawn — finally climbed to the zenith of the English game in a season like never before. The three-month pandemic-induced break has extended the current season to the next, but the Merseyside club, which last tasted English glory three decades ago, took two games and a Manchester City loss to Chelsea to secure the coveted trophy with seven games to spare. A subsequent humbling defeat to the deposed champion will do little to sully this party whose finer details no one knows.

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Jurgen Klopp’s team has admirably built on its European success and the Premier League disappointment of last season to forge a ruthless efficiency that has annihilated any realistic opposition to its charge for the holy grail. With 25 goals conceded and 72 scored (after 33 games), the team has found a harmonious balance between attack and defence and a newfound confidence to grind results, as evident from the fact that Liverpool has overturned more goal deficits (six) than any other team this season, while also scoring the most goals (23) in the last 20 minutes of the game. “Our mentality is that you just keep going no matter what happens,” defensive lynchpin Virgil van Dijk told Sportstar during the FIFA Club World Cup held in Doha last December.

And time and again, throughout the season, Klopp’s team has answered the manager’s clarion call to find that final ounce of energy to secure climactic wins that seemed improbable. This change in mentality for a club prone to implode under pressure has been the striking feature of the German’s continuing reign.

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The Liverpool forward line of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah offers a triplicity of problems for the opposition defence, with the Brazilian central striker — despite a lower number of goals — offering a vital avenue to Liverpool’s play by dropping deep to enable Mané and Salah to drift in and exploit space. The inside movement of the two wide attackers in the 4-3-3 system allows Liverpool’s full-backs — Andy Robertson and the ever-impressive Trent Alexander-Arnold — to gallop ahead and provide creativity and crosses from wide areas of play.

Evolving from Klopp’s manic “gegenpressing” ways (a strategy of trying to win the ball back as soon as it has been lost in the opposition half, with the forwards acting as the front line of the press — Firmino often is the first one to lead this charge), Liverpool today is more structured, with smaller space — usually not more than 20m — between players, which enables the team to encircle the opponent and win back possession without losing much sweat. “If you want good counter-pressing, then having shorter distances between the players is important,” says assistant coach Pepijn Lijnders, who sets up training on Klopp’s behalf. “If the distances in midfield are quite wide, then it is difficult to put pressure on when you have lost the ball. If the distances are close and they play with each other, then the way the ball moves can create surprise and space for when the opposition reacts.”

The Liverpool forward line of (from left) Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino offers a triplicity of problems for the opposition defence, with the Brazilian central striker — despite a lower number of goals — offering a vital avenue to Liverpool’s play by dropping deep to enable Mane and Salah to drift in and exploit space.   -  AFP

 

Maintaining such intensity over a long campaign — Liverpool has won the UEFA Champions League, the FIFA Club World Cup and the Premier League in 13 months — can be attributed to the hunger of the players, the bond of togetherness Klopp has forged and the air of positivity that wafts through the club. “The way we play, you need to enjoy that because if you don’t enjoy that, then you cannot play all the games with our intensity. We try to do our best and be happy on the pitch. In Brazil, we always say that you need to enjoy the game to be happy playing football because football is happiness,” says goalkeeper Alisson Becker, who, along with van Dijk, has brought solidity to Liverpool’s defence.

Klopp’s fun-filled football and the faith reposed on his captain Jordan Henderson, who has done an unenviable job of filling in the leadership void left by the departure of Steven Gerrard, have brought in their reward, with the team leading a self-disciplined life.

“Everybody is enjoying their football, but it’s also about the work ethic and giving everything for each other – and that’s the most important thing to me. Just give everything you can for your teammates, which we have been doing. If you do that, then you get your rewards at the end,” the captain says.

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The reward has come for Liverpool in its 19th league title – one short of arch-rival Manchester United’s 20 – and Henderson will be the 10th Reds skipper to lift the trophy. The captain had a tough initiation after joining from Sunderland in 2011, but he has grown in his role as the leader and his bristling bite in the midfield has enabled players around him to stay focused and maintain professionalism even in trying circumstances.

Throughout the season, Henderson has stepped up to deliver when needed – scoring the equaliser against Tottenham Hotspur and leading a second-half carnage against Southampton in early February. His subsequent absence saw a drop in Liverpool’s intensity as it suffered a first loss of the campaign away to Watford on the last day of February.

“The way we play, you need to enjoy that because if you don’t enjoy that, then you cannot play all the games with our intensity. We try to do our best and be happy on the pitch. In Brazil, we always say that you need to enjoy the game to be happy playing football because football is happiness,” says goalkeeper Alisson Becker, who, along with van Dijk, has brought solidity to Liverpool’s defence.   -  Reuters

 

After winning 26 of its first 27 games of the season, the title triumph looked a forgone conclusion by the end of 2019 and, despite the stutters that came with the new year, Liverpool had the cushion of the early lead to canter to its goal despite winning only one of its last four away games while losing two of them. The defeat to Manchester City, though coming after the league title was secured, showcases the tough task Klopp and his boys have accomplished in pushing back the relentless challenge from Pep Guardiola’s team, which is stacked with players of guile and beauty in every department.

After paying the price for showing reluctance in bolstering his defence following the departure of Vincent Kompany, Guardiola, with a manic obsession to improve and win, will come back stronger in the coming season.

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The 52-year-old shepherd of Liverpool’s fortunes is aware of the challenge and says: “It’s (the 4-0 defeat) a reminder of how good Man City is. I didn’t need that, that’s true, because I knew it before. Still, the surprise is, and it’s nice, that in a league where City is playing, it’s still possible that somebody else can be champion because that’s not really likely with the quality they have. So it’s not a reminder. We will see how next season [goes], it’s a while until then.”

It is a while since the league trophy came to Merseyside and Klopp and his boys and the entire city deserve their party, though there are still records to forge, a legacy to cement and history to create. But Liverpool can breathe easy again with the perch reclaimed.