Explained: What’s behind Liverpool’s stunning Premier League triumph?

Liverpool crowned Premier League champions: There were times when they were stretched, pushed and shoved, but they hung on, drawing games that they could have lost, and winning games that they could have drawn.

In the 2017-18 English Premier League (EPL) season, Liverpool finished fourth, 25 points adrift of champions Manchester City. But there was still something remarkable about the way they played that season, their third year under manager Jurgen Klopp — it suggested they would be Manchester City’s sternest title challengers not too far in the future. Indeed, they came tantalisingly close last season, but withered in fatigue towards the end. But 2019-20 was undoubtedly theirs — on Thursday (June 25) evening, as Manchester City lost 1-2 to Chelsea at empty Stamford Bridge, Liverpool clinched the league with a record seven games in the bag. So spectacular was the triumph that Klopp’s Liverpool side is already being spoken of as one of the finest ever in EPL history.

So, what was the standout feature of their title triumph?

While Liverpool narrowly missed out emulating The Invincibles, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal that won the 2003-04 Premiership without losing a game, having lost to Watford in February, they exuded a streak of ruthlessness in closing out games.

There were times when they were stretched, pushed and shoved, but they hung on, drawing games that they could have lost, and winning games that they could have drawn. No team has overturned more goal-deficits than Liverpool did this season. No team has scored more goals after 70 minutes in the league than them. Klopp, like the best managers of the world, has instilled a sense of bouncebackability in a club that has seemed to wilt under the slightest whiff of pressure in recent years. After winning the first 25 of their 26 leagues games, it was inevitable that they would stroll to the title.

What is Liverpool’s fundamental style of play?

What would please most Liverpool faithfuls, neutrals and connoisseurs is that they won the title playing football the “Liverpool way”.

Klopp’s unwavering faith in ‘gegenpressing’, the style of high-pressing football that involves pushing high up the pitch, even when you lose the ball, and his ability to instil its principles in his players preceded him. It took time for Liverpool to acquaint and then master the style, but Klopp persisted, tweaked formations and players around, brought personnel that suited his system and jettisoned those that didn’t, and refined the style of play, forging Liverpool into an invulnerable, unstoppable machine.

How does the system work?

Liverpool players seldom sat back and let the adversaries enjoy possession. The moment they lost the ball, they began attacking them like a pack of hounds. For, Klopp believes that the players are most vulnerable to losing the ball when they have just received it.

The pushing was relentless, panicking the opposition, who eventually conceded the ball for Liverpool’s lightening fast attackers to launch themselves upfront. It was not blind pressing either — once the opposing teams were set with possession, the wide-men would drop back so they would defend with two very traditional banks of four.

Klopp has what he calls a ‘shadow man’. Often the first man to commit at attack when they lose the ball is a dummy — he knows, more often not, that he can’t win the ball, but his mere presence can sow doubts, as the man to his side presses harder to dispossess the opponent. It’s generally the forwards who’re deputed in the role, while hard-tackling midfielders like Johan Henderson, Fabinho and James Milner snatch the ball back and feed the waiting, vibrant attackers, equipped with pace and anticipation.

Also read | Dominance and late winners: The games that defined Liverpool’s long march to glory

The three fundamentals in such a system are speed, compactness, and fitness. To attack blindingly without losing shape requires heightened coordination, a reason Liverpool took so many years to fully settle in. So you don’t see forwards loitering around when they lose possession. Instead, they are the first to press forth while the defensive players regain their shape and territory.

So from the defensive resoluteness emerges their attacking fluidity. It’s the reason the otherwise conservative Liverpool shelled out a record sum for purchasing the best defender in the league, Virgil Van Dijk. They have quite a few pace-setters, none so marauding as fullback Trent-Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson. It goes without saying that for such a system to sustain their energy levels, they need to be super fit. Klopp has been laying a lot of emphasis on elevating their fitness levels in the past few years, which fully bore dividend this season.

How good is their attacking trident?

There have been few versatile forwards attacking in harmony like the Liverpool trio of Mohammad Salah, Sanio Mane, and Roberto Firmino. None of them is a traditional poacher, but all three could score with precision, all three could interchange roles and positions, all three could create goals, and are utterly selfless. Sane had blinding pace, Salah vision and ingenuity, and Firmino anticipation and physicality. Between them, they have netted 40 goals and 21 assists.

But the creativity of Liverpool neither stops nor begins with the front three. That a pair of full-backs, Arnold and Robertson, have between them chipped in with 20 assists shows how lethal they could be on all fronts. Both could score too, as Arnold illustrated with a curling free-kick goal against Crystal Palace.

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How good are they defensively?

Van Dijk is the world’s most expensive defender — the Reds spent 75 million pounds—but he seems more than a bargain buy. The commanding Dutchman has already established himself as one of the finest in the business, some say he’s the finest ever in the league, though that’s debatable. Imposing, unflappable, and yet not hot-headed, he has been as central to Liverpool’s triumph as Salah or Klopp himself.

That he came close to pipping Lionel Messi for last year’s world footballer of the year award tells the story. He could stake his claim this season too, after yet another stellar performance. He has won more aerial duels and effected more clearances than any other Liverpool player, and incredibly no one has completed more passes than him in the league, which shows his centrality in Liverpool’s attacking scheme.

Not just Van Dijk, his centre-back partners Joel Matip and Joe Gomez, besides goalkeeper Allison, ensured that Liverpool has the stingiest goal-conceding record in the league (21).

How good have they been in the transfer market?

Klopp chose his men wisely. He could have panic-bought after losing the talismanic Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona in 2018; he had the money too, but he instead picked the missing pieces in his diagram than hunt for fancy names with hefty paycheques. It’s more data and research-driven, and only those men that fit into his system. The acquisition of Mane best exemplifies this.

What are the challenges in the coming season?

Liverpool are the best team in the league, but can they be the best ever? Even a passing suggestion could invoke famous names — Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho, and Pep Guardiola have all won the league multiple times and set up dynasties.

History will remember Klopp’s men as the first Liverpool champions of this Premier League, that they won it with a high degree of style and composure, but for this team to be equated with Fergie’s Fledglings or Wenger’s Invincibles, they need to stack up trophies in the coming years.

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