Two matches spanning just four days crystalized the difference between this season and last for Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side. In their 2-1 win away to Tottenham last weekend, they trotted out four new players on their backline from their 4-1 defeat last October. And as former Celtic manager Neil Lennon remarked on Liverpool’s 3-2 win over PSG in the first round of Champions League matches days later, the victory displayed a significant growth from a side that took a 3-0 against Sevilla before conceding three goals for a draw in last season’s Champions League. The two wins showcased a maturity and character only reached by persistence through disappointment, an ability to see out matches on top of the speed and style they already possessed.
Beating Tottenham and PSG in less than a week is impressive by any measure, but it was also the manner in which they won. Against Tottenham, they out-pressured and out-pressed a side known for their own high tempo play. Liverpool’s pressure manifested itself in the opening goal with Christian Eriksen’s failed clearance playing in Sadio Mane for an eventual corner kick. While their second goal came during a spell of possession and featured Mane’s off-ball running catching Kieran Trippier ball watching, their high pressure consistently forced Tottenham into wayward back passes that would have been turned into goals on another day. In winning five consecutive matches to start the season, Klopp stated that the win was their best match of their young season.
“The third is down to completely not concentrating off the ball...four mistakes from us,” lamented Klopp last October after the 4-1 loss against Pochettino’s side. That match was punctuated by Dejan Lovren getting subbed off after giving up two goals in 31 minutes. The starting backline for that match - Simon Mignolet, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, Alberto Moreno and Lovren - cost $70 million, less than the individual fee of Alisson and Virgil van Dijk. As one columnist put it, Liverpool’s defense were so poor they were “Kaned and should be caned” after the performance. Yet we assumed that bad defending was a byproduct of Klopp’s pressure attack, with no middle ground. His style was exciting for both the right and wrong reasons, and giving up late goals was thought to be part of the blitzing experience.
And we almost got a flashback to the past as PSG handed Liverpool a taste of the high press as Kylian Mbappe equalized off a turnover stemming from Mo Salah’s wayward backpass in the 83rd minute. Taken without context, a 2-2 draw against PSG is not a bad result. Perhaps the match would have ended in draw a season ago, with analysis centered around Liverpool’s inability to capitalize off early pressure and further articles about the roller coaster experience surrounding Liverpool in Europe.
We were already guilty of unpacking too much meaning from individual goals, yet Firmino’s late winner was a convenient example of how much this side’s maturation through adversity. It was created in a Liverpool way, with James Milner stripping Mbappe in his own third, followed by van Dijk quickly playing Firmino wide for a 1-on-1 inside the box. In his post-match interview after the Sevilla letdown last year, Klopp said his side became too passive in letting their opponents back into the match. This time around, Klopp put no limit on what Liverpool could accomplish.
The late goal made it six wins out of six to start the season and featured the same back five that made up the Tottenham match. After dealing with the threat of Harry Kane and Eriksen, the relatively young backline held their own against Neymar, Mbappe and Cavani. We know that Liverpool can score goals. But the ability of the defense to calm a match down to its end is what gives Klopp’s side a potentially transcendent quality.
Jose Mourinho began the mind games against Klopp in the preseason by saying that Liverpool’s spending brings pressure upon the German to win a trophy. He then made a tongue in cheek observation that he was happy that Klopp could change his opinion when it comes to splashing money to build a side. The last comment was in reference to Klopp saying he wanted to do it “a different way” after Manchester United signed Paul Pogba for a nine figure amount. When pressed for a response after his own summer signing spree, Klopp simply stated that the world has changed in those two years.
Part of the mystique of his Dortmund sides was how cohesive and dominant they became on a budget, whether through youth academy players or savvy transfer signings. This current Liverpool side has those traces with Trent Alexander-Arnold earning promotion through the academy, and Gomez, Milner and Andy Robertson as under the radar moves. But there may be truth in the idea that the Neymar’s $260 million move to PSG changed the global landscape of the transfer market. Not only is quality as expensive as its ever been, but high transfer fees may have driven out those bargain bin, overachieving European sides.
Yet having transfer funds and building a cohesive team are two different things entirely. After the Liverpool loss, Thiago Silva criticized PSG’s sporting director in asking why Angel Di Maria and Marquinhos were played out of position. Right back Thomas Meunier remarked that PSG needed to replicate Liverpool’s style of intensity, saying that their attack “comes in waves” and “never stops.” PSG’s front three of Neymar, Cavani and Mbappe are more individually gifted than Mane, Firmino and Salah. Yet as we’ve stressed in the modern game, what separates Liverpool’s attacking trio is how they function without the ball. Andy Brassell suggests that PSG ship Neymar and focus on the balance of the rest of the team. While that sounds extreme and would certainly dip into jersey sales, there is truth in how a side works, especially in big European matches.
And though he came with his own eight figure fee, Gini Wijnaldum’s development from fringe player to keeping the $52 million Fabinho on the bench still highlights the importance of player development as a side grows with expectations. Klopp explained how he liked his ability to play both the six and an eight while switching between aggression and control. But most of all, Wijnaldum compliments Liverpool’s midfield alongside Milner and Naby Keita in creating a large block of physicality and pressure exceedingly difficult to find space within. That Milner’s tackle on Neymar has already racked up over 1.1 million views showcases the steel that balances Salah, Mane and Firmino’s goals.
Lennon noted in his analysis that Alisson and van Dijk were the two missing jigsaw pieces of Liverpool’s lineup. That a keeper and a center back would make this much difference in both defending and in possession is a byproduct of the modern, pressing game. Both players have taken responsibility for building up possession in lieu of a deep lying playmaker. Upon getting hired at Sevilla last winter, Vincenzo Montella spoke of the importance of a team’s personality in possession. Alisson and van Dijk give Liverpool personality, regardless of any playmaking mistakes from the Brazilian keeper.
Van Dijk went on to say that out of Liverpool’s four competitions, he wants to “win everything” and “write history.” It is an intangible drive and mentality backed by quality, not just from the center back but in Milner and Firmino refusing to give into a late draw and pushing forward to get the final goal. Having a big transfer fund makes creating a winning a side exponentially easier, but there is a final magic in team building, and a sense for winning every match. Liverpool came close last season, losing in the Champions League final. But the loss only spurred them to getting stronger and more dominant - more Kloppian Liverpool - and that feel is impossible to replicate on a transfer market.