“What we do in these last nine games will set the tone for next season,” implored Virgil van Dijk about finding inspiration in playing out the rest of this Premier League calendar with Liverpool holding a 25-point lead coming back from suspension. After officially winning the league with seven matches remaining, the earliest its ever been won, Liverpool could set another historic standard in averaging 2.83 points per game, a full .2 points ahead of the 2017 Manchester City side. Of the unprecedented nature of a league suspending play midway through its schedule, Jurgen Klopp said that he wants Liverpool’s first title in 30 years to have an asterisk to denote how this was the most difficult season in Premier League history, and as a reminder of what we went through as a society.
This season’s hunger and dominance came in response to last year’s disappointment of losing the league on the final day after topping the table throughout much of the season. Their 97 points would have won Liverpool the league in 25 out of 27 seasons. But there was no panic - only excitement and ambition - with this current cycle carefully planned through analytics and transfer strategies, record-breaking losses and all. Yet with a core group currently in their late-20s prime, and already taking advantage of marginal gains from set pieces and throw-ins for a record points-per-game average, how does a team get better than historic?
The cliche is that it’s easier to get to the top than to stay there as competitors rapidly improve and have a blueprint to copy from. There is a debate surrounding the viability of building a dynasty in the modern Premier League, a competition filled with billionaire owners and endless resources (at least before the pandemic). Both Klopp and Jamie Carragher were skeptical that Liverpool would absolutely win the league next season, especially if played without supporters. Interestingly, Wayne Rooney warned that Liverpool could dominate England like Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.
“Let Klopp go on and on,” wrote Rooney of Liverpool’s key to future success.
Amid the title celebrations, a transfer deal completed during the lockdown made supporters recognize a timeline within the club’s almost-invincible season. RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner, who was rumored to sign with Liverpool either this summer or next, agreed to a deal with Chelsea. Werner was the Platonic idea of a modern Liverpool signing. At 24 years old, he still has room to improve. He averaged 1.13 goals and assists per match this season. His game is built upon pressing, pace, and playmaking. He wanted to play under Klopp. The inability to close Werner was so unlike recent Liverpool standards that it gave way to deeper existential questions: the analytics department discovered something in the numbers and pulled out of the deal, right? Surely it wasn’t other teams that were catching up to Liverpool’s ways.
Losing Werner in the market also reminded us that there would eventually be a life beyond this current Liverpool front three, which may come sooner than we’re conscious of. Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, and Firmino are all 28 years old, a roster construction tactic in which they would all peak (then decline) at the same time. A thought game asks who the most valuable and most expendable is of the three attackers. Firmino’s skillset as a creator is unique and irreplaceable. Rooney compared Salah’s form on counter attacks to prime Cristiano Ronaldo, with analysis showing that he may still be underrated even in the midst of a historic five-year goal-scoring run (the possibility that he’s undervalued solidifies him on the roster). Mane’s ability to push defensive lines back with his directness gives his teammates time on the ball, though he is often linked with Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid.
Recent rumors of signing Adama Traore and Ruben Neves from Wolves let us imagine new possibilities for Liverpool’s next decade. Analysts examined the viability of swapping the 30-year-old Henderson with the 23-year-old Neves, ultimately concluding that Henderson’s mentality and leadership are the two essential yet unquantifiable variables that potential transfers would need to replace. Looking for attackers in the market is relatively straightforward by comparison - group players by goals, assists, and dribbles - while the search for Henderson’s replacement involves nuance as we may not completely understand how to evaluate Liverpool’s midfield.
If the front three provide the goals, and the backline provides the assists, what exactly does Liverpool’s midfield do? Our descriptions for the group bend towards soft skills, how they energize and drive the team forward. One could conclude that without the analytics, it is the least important and most easily replaceable unit in Klopp’s side. We have clues in how the value of Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum, and Fabinho comes from what they don’t do, in how they don’t make mistakes or give the ball away. At best, this interplay between defense, midfield, and attack is equivalent to on-base percentage in baseball or shooting 3s in basketball, delivering a framework for building a modern, efficient side in soccer.
Liverpool’s return match, a 0-0 draw against Everton in which Klopp admitted that their opponents deserved to score, brought the historic expectations back to reality within the silence of empty stadiums. There was a physical and technological distance in the eventual title celebrations following City’s loss, with interviews delivered to the world through videotaped Zoom calls. There is a “real” celebration somewhere out there, where we’re all together, crowded with friends and strangers. The ghost matches could unexpectedly give Liverpool further motivation for next season, this time to celebrate in front of supporters.
Over 750,000 people attended Liverpool’s victory parade following their Champions League title last June. The route featured a viral moment of Klopp almost falling off the bus. There surely will be no official public celebration for Liverpool’s first Premier League title. It is a cruel joke that there will be no collective expression of relief, joy, and exuberance after waiting this long.
“We also won the Super Cup and the Club World Cup,” reminded van Dijk of this group’s accomplishments that seem so distant now considering the circumstances.
Klopp extended his contract through the 2024 season, creating a deadline to this current Liverpool iteration. Klopp added that he wanted to “leave this club in a good place” after signing the extension. There are four seasons left to extract the most from this group while setting up the foundation for a new core led by a new manager. But looking ahead at the carefully planned, fine-tuned moments of building and waning cycles shouldn’t take the pleasure out of this current celebration. We acknowledge that there will be an end. And whether behind video conferencing screens or in stadiums, we’ll be together for that as well.