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Charting Liverpool’s Title Winning Season

A Season of Trials, Tribulations and Title Triumph

When it comes to talking about Liverpool’s league-winning season, one has to go back, not to the start of August but as far back as the end of last season. When the league ended last year, like many Liverpool fans, I was left with the reoccurring thought of what might have been, but that thought wasn’t allowed to fester too long. Just like the team, the supporters had to refocus as there was a Champions League final on the horizon, and with a defeat in the final the previous year, nothing but victory and silverware would do in Madrid against an impressive Spurs side. Unlike the proceeding year, things would be much different.

Liverpool would not only score early through Mohamed Salah, but they would also control much of the action, totally overrunning the Spurs midfield in the process. This was not only a continuation of the imperious form that saw Liverpool push Man City to the last day of the league, but it would also be a sign of things to come. The Champions League victory changed the question that every supporter had on their mind: instead of a summer of what might have been, it was a summer of what may be yet to come.

Then the summer came. We were all excited at the prospect of who Liverpool may sign to bolster the squad, hopefully giving them the extra push they needed to topple Man City. The reigning champions, with their billionaire backers and constant flouting of the rules of financial fair play, are never shy in the transfer market. Since the Guardiola era has begun in Manchester, the Spanish manager has spent an ungodly sum — somewhere north of half a billion euros on improving his squad — the sole purpose of bringing Champions League glory to the blue side of Manchester.

This is a feat that he has come up short on, not just since his arrival at Man City, but also during his tenure with German giants Bayern Munich. So with that in mind, as a Liverpool fan, I was surely on edge to optically discern what way the ostensibly bottomless pit that is the Man City transfer budget was going to react to being run so proximately in the Premier League, with the added factor of missing out on the Champions League. Once again, Man City reinforced the squad, and as the summer months went by, all of us Liverpool fans watched on with bated breath to see who Klopp was going to bring in.

Then, as the transfer targets and rumours came and went, it became increasingly likely that Liverpool would not be strengthening again this summer in the same way they had the previous year. This lack of activity in the transfer market would have set alarm bells ringing under the guidance of any other previous Liverpool regime, but not this one. This regime was not like any other in the modern era. With our German maestro at the helm, the supporters were willing to show not just an unprecedented level of patience but also trust in the leadership at the top of the club.

As the transfer window came to a close, and with the exception of the free transfer of Adrian, Liverpool only brought in youth to the team. The likes of Sepp van den Berg and Harvey Elliott are ones for the future but would have minimal impact on the first-team squad for the upcoming season. The season then kicked-off, slamming shut the transfer window and leaving Liverpool’s squad from the prior season to close the one-point gap with Man City. To do so, they would have to start the season in the same fashion they finished the previous year. Each game had to be nothing short of a win. Even a drawn fixture is equivalent to a loss when in a title race against Guardiola’s City.

Harvey Elliot in mid sprint
Future Liverpool prospect Harvey Elliott

Ultimately, it was the draws, not the defeats that cost Liverpool the league the year before, losing only one game all season to City, but drawing seven. This fact weighed heavily on not just the minds of the supporters: it must have been nagging in the back of Klopp’s mind too over the off-season. It was this nagging that led to Klopp tweaking Liverpool’s style of play and the system that is within the 4-3-3 formation that begins many of the games that Liverpool play. Instead of heavy-metal football, this year saw more of controlled chaos. Gone are the days of tit for tat football, with nothing but a counter-attack to break down the opposition defences.

In its place came the deployment of a much higher defensive line, thus putting the squeeze on the opposition. This allowed the fullbacks to push further forward, enabling them to get more crosses into the box. The high defensive line also provided the opportunity for Vigil Van Dijk to use his passing ability, unhindered by a pressing forward in the midfield, which allows one of the sitting midfielders to pick him up. A shield is created for Van Dijk’s diagonal balls cross-field to stretch the opposition’s backline, creating space in behind for the ever-willing runners that are the Liverpool front three.

The increase for chances to run in behind is not the only benefit to Van Dijk’s cross-field passing, but it also offers the chance for more 50/50’s in the air, which in turn offers more opportunities for the second ball high up the field. Something Klopp mentions a lot in interviews is the ability to get the second ball, especially in the opposition third. This prevents teams from getting set on the second attack, and it also offers a chance of a goal-scoring turnover in possession. This leaves the runners with less ground to cover, as they will be inherently closer to the goals, once again creating more goal-scoring chances.

Virgil Van Dijk sprint away in celebration with his tongue sticking out and with two fingers raised in the air
Virgil Van Dijk sprints away in celebration

Some of the other tactical changes that Klopp has made within the 4-3-3 formation is the adaptability to change the structure of the team mid-game, a fluidity they missed in previous seasons. The 4-3-3 formation is indeed the mainstay of this Liverpool team. Within the game, Klopp has often gone to a 5-4-1, 5-3-2 or even a 4-4-2, depending on the nature of the game or the scoreline. Not only that, but the German has also used his former system of 4-2-3-1 in certain games, which worked incredibly well against both Southampton and Everton. Xherdan Shaqiri was the star on both occasions, although the Swiss attacker was only brought on at half time in the match against the Saints.

This was another example of Klopp’s adaptability, his willingness to put the team ahead of individuals, no matter how unfair it might have seemed at the time. Albeit the first half against Southampton was magnificent, it was more of the heavy-metal football that Klopp has veered away from this season, with a loose midfield and open game. This is what prompted the change in tactics and personnel at halftime. I think it was games like this that made Klopp use the 4-2-3-1 system sparingly. It offers a lot going forward but, with the caveat of less control in the centre of the park, and without this control, Liverpool suffers defensively.

It is plain to see that, when Liverpool is successful, it tends to be when they control the midfield. it harkens back to what I said about the Champions League final. They overran Spurs on that night, and this is not something that happened in isolation either. Liverpool has proven time and time again that they can outrun and outwork any team on any night. This midfield dominance allows the defence more time on the ball. It also enables the forwards to stay higher up the pitch and gives the fullbacks the ability to start their attacking positions nearer to the halfway line.

When you look at the evidence, it becomes clear that Liverpool’s change in tactics created many possibilities for forward motion, all to make the pitch smaller and to get as many people as close to the opposition goal on any and every possible possession or turnover. Another part of Klopp’s strategy is to not only shorten the length of the pitch by using a high defensive line with midfield dominance, but he uses the fullbacks to widen the pitch as much as humanly possible. Nobody can doubt not only the influence of Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, but the proficiency of the British pair is without question.

Andy Robertson looks at Trent Alexander-Arnold with a smile on his face
Left: Andy Robertson Right: Trent Alexander-Arnold

For a second season in a row both Liverpool fullbacks have hit double digits in terms of assists. Their delivery is second-to-none, but it is not just their skill that is without question: the work rate of the two is just next level. Although Alexander-Arnold is the more skilful of the two, it is Robertson who is the more capable defender of the pair. His level of industry and persistence on the left flank is an absolute nightmare for both the attacking and defensive player on the opposing side.

The importance of Liverpool’s fullbacks is and has been undoubted for a while now, but there is also one other member of the starting eleven that holds the key to so much of what makes Liverpool the team they are, and that is the Brazilain number nine, Roberto Firmino. There was such a huge question mark over how Liverpool would adapt to the departure of another Brazilian, that being Philippe Coutinho. Before him leaving — for what turned out to be a disastrous move to Barcelona — the minute playmaker was the lynchpin in the Liverpool side. Often, it was his form that dictated the team’s form, and more than a few were rightly concerned when he set sail for Spain.

The concerns of the supporters were quickly at ease when the midfield trio of Fabinho, Wjnaldum, and Henderson showed what they were capable of. Their industry and calmness on the ball did a lot to replace Coutinho’s presence in the middle of the park, but it was the change of role for the much-loved Firmino that replaced Coutinho’s influence going forward. Firmino has always been known for his excellent linkage game, his selfless style of play, and these attributes have been even more pronounced this season.

The Brazilian’s ability to link the midfield to the front three has always been exceptional, but this season he has taken it to another level, his starting position becoming deeper and deeper. This method of dropping off the defenders not only aides in bringing the midfield and front three together; it also causes defenders to get sucked out of position, thus creating more space for Mane and Salah to cut in from either wing. This new role has seen Firmino’s goals tally suffer, but it has increased his importance to the team overall.

The Brazilian is the metronome from which everything else is set. Firmino is much more than just a linkage player: his ability to play with his back to goal is only equalled by his ability to move between the lines, and his gaming intelligence is beyond reproach. Firmino provides the perfect foil for the high flying Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah on the wings. They are the pair that provide most of Liverpool’s goals and can do so because of Firmino’s role in the team.

Roberto Firmino stands with his arms outstretched in celebration
Roberto Firmino stands with his arms outstretched in celebration

When you combine these elements alongside the continuing emergence of Joe Gomez beside Virgil Van Dijk in the back and the undoubted quality of Alison in goals, the reason for Liverpool’s recent success becomes clear. Gomez offered Van Dijk a steady and reliable defensive partner at the heart of the Liverpool defence, and Alison is arguably the best goalkeeper in the world at this moment, which is some departure from the Liverpool goalkeepers of recent memory. This Liverpool team, unlike others before, is strong in every department, and they would have to be to conquer the rampant Man City side in search of Premier League glory.

Just like every other Liverpool supporter, I watched in awe as Klopp’s men racked up the wins — only dropping points away to Man United. Liverpool then jetted off to claim a first Club World Cup title, which they did despite having to play Jordan Henderson at centre back for the first tie in the Middle-East. Another chance was given to Liverpool to show that they are mentality giants — a term Klopp coined after Liverpool’s 4-0 comeback victory against Barcelona in the second leg in last season Champions League. It would not be long before another opportunity arose to test their much-lauded mental capabilities. This test came in the shape of the upward mobile Leicester City, who was undergoing a massive resurgence under the leadership of the former Liverpool manager Brendon Rodgers.

Although Liverpool had beaten Man City at Anfield earlier on in the season, it was the 4-0 away victory against Leciester that many view as the pivotal moment in Liverpool’s chase for the title. At that time, the league was tight, and Liverpool had just come back from the previously-mentioned Club Word Cup, so the result was most definitely in question. The performance on that night did so much for creating the momentum they needed to open up the gap going into the new year, which is a period that Liverpool have often struggled in before.

With the fears over the new year’s struggles being gently swept under the rug, there was something else brewing that could curtail not just Liverpool’s championship success but the season as a whole and create absolute chaos on a global scale: that being the reports of the Coronavirus outbreak in the Wuhan province of China. What at first was thought to be a non-communicable disease later spread throughout the world and put a halt to all public gatherings, including large sporting events, with most, if not all, the global population going into lockdown to prevent further spread of the disease.

The last of the gatherings for Liverpool would be their Champions League exit to Atletico Madrid in extra time, due to an unfortunate error by Adrian which turned the tide in the fixture. Even with that mistake, the Spaniard’s contribution during Alison’s absences this season was priceless — even though the pain of not being able to defend the Champions League trophy stung. It was the decision to allow travelling fans from Madrid — which was at the beginning of a Coronavirus outbreak at the time — to travel to Merseyside that was the real cause of pain from that fixture.

Jan Oblak reaches for the ball ahead of Virgil Van Dijk, their are other players in the scramble for position
Jan Oblak reaches for the ball ahead of Virgil Van Dijk

Whoever decided to allow the match to go ahead should be held accountable for the untold ramifications. It should have a hand in the number of Coronavirus cases in both Liverpool and Madrid from the travelling fans going back and forward, interacting with not just the supporters but the population of the City of Liverpool as a whole. After the game against Atletico, it was not long before Premier League action was called to a halt, thus starting a three month period where the league paused and the calls for the season to be cancelled was coming now, from most of not all quarters. Just like every other supporter around the world, all I could do was wait and see how the remainder of the season would play out, but also how the leaders of the world would look to contain the Coronavirus.

This period of the season was by far the most difficult from a footballing perspective. In the grander scheme of things, it is not very important with the world on shutdown, but from a supporter waiting their whole life to see their team lift the league title, it was a crushing blow to what had been an almost perfect season up until that point. As the months went by, the summer became increasingly closer and time was slowly running out for Liverpool to finish their assault on the Premier League title. The project restart was brought forth by the English Football Association and the chiefs at the top of the Premier League. Then news broke that the league would go ahead, with training to begin at the end of May. First, it would be stunted, minimizing contact between the players and staff in training before eventually going back to full contact. The games would be taking place behind closed doors, meaning no fans would be in attendance.

This left every Liverpool fan with a sense of mixed emotions. Of course, we were all happy that the league was going ahead, but any Liverpool fan said that it didn’t hurt a lot not to have Anfield packed for the title run-in would be a bold-faced liar. Although that pain is there and will be until Liverpool lift the trophy in front of a full Kop, the task at hand was to do as Klopp, and the club, said, and that was to support them from home, and that is what we did.

Liverpool play Blackburn in a warm up game in an empty Anfield
Liverpool play Blackburn in a warm-up game in an empty Anfield

Every Liverpool fan rallied around the team, doing what we have done before: putting our trust and faith in the hierarchy of the club to see this through to the very end, which would make the title-winning moment a special feeling if it was to come to pass. When that moment did occur, it was two games after the restart: Liverpool’s draw with Everton had been followed by an impeccable performance at home to Crystal Palace at Anfield. That victory was followed by Man City losing to Chelsea, which sealed the title for Liverpool, with a record seven games left to play.

It was a surreal moment, to say the least. Finally, after all this time, Liverpool would be again crowned champions of England. All my life, I had watched my beloved team do everything the hard way, but not this time. They had romped to the title, only losing one game before wrapping up the league. This was beyond my greatest imaginings. I have to admit the next few games went by in a bit of a haze for both club and supporters alike. Understandably, there was a bit of a hangover — both on and off the field — from the success that had just followed.

The defeats to Man City and Arsenal were clear evidence of this drop off in performance, as was the home draw with Burnley, which were the only points dropped at home all season. This capped off the third season Liverpool have gone undefeated at home in the league — the fortress is once again very much alive and well, which provides a huge benefit when you are trying to compete for a league title. The haze around Liverpool began to lift as the season came to a close and the trophy lift grew ever closer. All that was left was a chance to exercise some demons against a Chelsea team that were gunning for Champions League football.

The performance before the trophy lift was everything that encapsulated Klopp’s time on Merseyside so far. At times they overran and bossed Chelsea’s midfield, turning over the position at will with their constant pressing. The first half was almost flawless. They showed just how far they had come under Klopp this season, until just before half time, when Chelsea scored, which allowed them back in the game. Then in the second half, it was a very different game indeed. Liverpool went in 3-1 at half time and looked to press that dominance going forward.

The game almost looked out of reach for Chelsea when Liverpool scored the fourth goal, but then Christian Pulisic came on for Chelsea and changed the game. This is not the first time he has done this for Chelsea against Liverpool. The American had an excellent performance in the European Super Cup final at the beginning of the season, which was also a tightly fought contest between the two sides. The second half now saw the other side of Liverpool. The heavy metal, tit for tat football was back, and if Mo Salah had his shooting boots on the game, it would have been put beyond all doubt.

This was hard to watch as a supporter, but it was almost fitting to see the two sides of Liverpool, the evolution of the club encapsulated within one game, the game that would see them beat Chelsea in a cracking 5-3 encounter but also see them finally get their hands on the Premier League trophy. It was an incredible experience as a supporter to watch the counter-attack for the last goal, the flying red arrows storming down the field to put the match to rest with an excellent finish by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Liverpool players are grouped together. celebrating their title triumph with a large firewroks display in the background
Liverpool celebrate their title triumph

Now it was time to celebrate, and celebrate we did! After full time there was a short wait before the trophy lift and, like children on Christmas Eve, we counted down the minutes until it was time for the presentation. When the time came, I think that is when it felt most real. Before that, Liverpool were champions in name only. Now was the true representation of that, the tangible moment when Jordan Henderson would lay hands on the one trophy that had eluded the club for all my life.

The moment was unlike anything I had ever experienced before as a supporter. It was incredible to watch the fireworks display and to see Anfield lit up in the night sky, not just by the pyrotechnics but also by the shimmering of Premier League silverware. It was the most amazing moment that I can recall as a Liverpool supporter. The only other occasions that even come close are the two times I have witnessed them lift the Champions League trophy.

After Liverpool finally got their hands on the trophy, there would be one last game left to play against Newcastle away. After getting caught cold at the start, Liverpool took control of the game and ran out as eventual 3-1 winners. The performance against Newcastle was the return to the control which saw them end the title drought. It was a sign of what I think Liverpool’s attitude will be going into next season. Even if they do not strengthen the squad during the transfer window, this attitude is the key to further success.

Whether or not Liverpool makes many transfers in the summer, the rise of Neco Williams, Curtis Jones, and Harvey Elliott on the youth side of things look very promising. Although it is true that January signing Takumi Minamino remains an unknown, his potential is undoubted. Putting all these things alongside the resurgence of Naby Keita will surely provide the team with a much-needed boost for the coming season. All of these things are so important for Liverpool, but it will be the dedication to Klopp’s ethos that will decide how bright the future of the club is going forward, not just going into next season, but also over the next few years.

Written by Vincent Greene

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