The celebrations on December 21st were brief, a reminder that there was always another match no matter the highs. Roberto Firmino scored his game-winning goal against Flamengo in the 99th minute of regulation as Liverpool won its first ever Club World Cup, cementing Jurgen Klopp’s side as the most on-form team in the world heading into the next decade. Klopp described winning the trophy as “absolutely sensational” before adding that Liverpool had a top-of-the-table clash against Leicester City just five days later. On December 26th, Liverpool beat second-place Leicester City 4-0 to go up 13 points in the Premier League. Klopp continued to keep his guard up, saying that he would put his side’s accomplishments into perspective sometime later in life.
That December span represented a historic week for the club, both from a literal and a spiritual perspective. Taking into context the global stage combined with opening up a double-digit gap in the league, it is the most significant sequence in modern club history. The numbers tell a story of dominance: Liverpool last lost in the league on January 3rd, 2019, and have won 32 out of 37 domestic matches since. They haven’t lost at Anfield since April 2017. Liverpool have experienced singular triumphs in winning the Champions League in 2005 and 2019. But this past year was a prolonged period of evolving into a feared side.
We outside observers analyze teams from a tactical standpoint - of lineups, substitutions, and performances - since that is what we see on screen. But what this team developed most is a mentality, something more difficult to explain. They’ve scored eight match-tying or match-winning goals past the 75th minute since October 5th. Even Liverpool’s top rivals had to acknowledge there was something beneath the surface. Pep Guardiola admitted this current side have a “special character.” Brendan Rodgers simply said “they’ve become winners now.”
Jordan Henderson, Naby Keita, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started in midfield against Flamengo. In a decade where we’ve lionized midfield trios, especially from Spain, Liverpool’s group are hardly the most vintage in terms of possession or style. Yet they operate as a sacrificial block giving the team energy, intelligence in transitions, and defensive solidity. Henderson, the early adopter coming into the team in 2011, was named as the defining player of Liverpool’s decade. Klopp admitted that while Henderson is hardly a perfect player, he is essential to making the overall team function.
Would it be wise for another side to attempt to replicate Liverpool’s model of functions, or is it singular considering Klopp’s personality? In re-watching the match against Leicester, there were stretches when Rodgers’ side matched Liverpool when they had the ball. The gap was in the synchronicity and sacrificing off the ball over 90 minutes. Liverpool aren’t attempting to submit opponents through passing, but through an exertion of physicality and energy. The combination of high-tempo, pressing, attacking fullbacks, and a fluid front-three makes them a “distillation of the modern game.”
The small details were put into place four years ago, behind the scenes. Klopp poached then-Bayern Munich trainer Andreas Kornmayer, whom he credited for the fitness of the German club’s 2013 treble-winning season. Klopp, whose Dortmund lost to Bayern in at year’s Champions League Final, experienced Kornmayer’s work first-hand. Kornmayer left Bayern during a season in which they would win another league title and reach the semifinals of Europe, an example of Klopp’s hagiographic personality. For his part, Klopp’s philosophy of delegation is to surround himself with people better than him, explaining that “when I started I was alone, but that was years ago and the world has changed.”
In a league that differentiates itself through the havoc of second-balls, the biggest challenge for any team is in controlling a game that inherently does not want to be controlled. James Milner insisted that Liverpool become more boring by pressing less frequently and sitting back in defense. I’d add that Liverpool control matches through a combination of fear and illusion, that any mistake an opponent makes can not only costing a goal, but a goal coming in a matter of seconds, through a wave of pace and intensity. It is the immediacy that breaks the spirit.
It was Henderson and Virgil van Dijk who first suggested to Klopp that they sign FC Salzburg attacker Takumi Minamino after their most recent 2-0 win over the Austrian side in the Champions League (his volley goal against Liverpool in the first leg brought out a bemused reaction from Klopp). As the story goes, Klopp was one step ahead of his players as Liverpool had already come to terms with Salzburg for a deal. But the even deeper story is that Liverpool had been tracking Minamino in their database since 2013, the season he won the J-League newcomer of the year award as an 18-year-old playing alongside Diego Forlan at Cerezo Osaka.
European football is at a point where Minanimo’s $8 million transfer fee is described as “almost a free.” From bargain transfers to record-breaking positional fees to van Dijk and Alisson, there’s a versatility in how Liverpool find players to fit the squad. Minamino is described as a skillful player with “supreme workrate that can cover all attacking positions” and who “stars in a high-pressing and aggressive” team. Sometimes, the players attract themselves.
“We’re light-years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in planning, in how we’re going to go about things,” Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob famously bragged in 2016, a year after winning the NBA title. Likewise, Liverpool hit a halcyon middle-ground of long-term planning, players in their prime, and championship results. Not that anyone would express it in that manner. There seems to be the opposite of that brashness, and instead, an acknowledgement of mortality: ownership has given Klopp the mandate to win the Premier League again next season, with the understanding that the club will rebuild starting in 2022. Klopp, who signed a contract extension through the 2024 season, will see out the first stage of the next era before turning the team over.
On the same day Klopp signed his extension, Steven Gerrard also extended his deal with Rangers through 2024. Even if it were coincidental, it was still a symbol of the long-term planning that began to peak last year. Klopp, in his introductory press conference as Liverpool manager, didn’t promise titles, only that he would bring “emotional football” back to Anfield. That ephemeral goal turned into trophies in Europe and on a world stage. There is only the Premier League left, followed by a decrescendo, and then the next era of building.