Nobody Has It Better Than Liverpool

Photo: Nigel Roddis (Getty)

Along the vast spectrum of possible states a soccer club could exist in, there is a vanishingly small patch that, for my tastes, qualifies as ideal.

Most of the applicable criteria require a delicate balance. The club should be good, but not too good; big, but not too big; rich, but not too rich. Its prospects for success shouldn’t be so unlikely as to be functionally impossible, nor so probable as to be considered obligatory. Its style of play should be breathtaking, cutting edge, deeply ingrained, but also flexible. Its manager should be great, and its star player blindingly brilliant, but the club shouldn’t rely so heavily on any one figure that their departure might bring ruin.

All clubs exist somewhere on this spectrum, and their positions slide around each season, often in unpredictable ways. But right now, after a storybook season that culminated in Champions League glory, no club is closer to that sweetest of sweet spots than Liverpool.

No club in soccer’s major leagues is more fun to root for than Liverpool today. As it always should, the giddying, enthralling spectacle that is this team starts on the pitch. If manager Jürgen Klopp’s style is, as he has described it, heavy metal, then at Liverpool he has formed his Metallica. As the possession era of the sport’s elite has given way to the pressing era, the rabid tenacity of Liverpool’s press stands out as one of the exemplars of the tactic. With the ball and without it, Liverpool are almost always attacking. The Reds set the terms of nearly every match they play, and their preferred tempo is break-neck, with furious transitions up and down the pitch, the players thumping the ball and their opponents’ bodies in search of the quickest, most lethal way of putting the ball into the back of the net.

No attacking trio in the sport this season has been as fearsome as Liverpool’s three-headed monster of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, and Roberto Firmino. The speed, the intensity, the recklessness, the control, the grace, the creativity—the three players combine the game’s most terrifying physical traits with its most elegant ones, creating something as brutal as it is beautiful. Salah is of course the star man. While he wasn’t quite as sensational this season as last, he still preformed like one of the best players in the world.

Nonetheless, Mané was actually Liverpool’s most important attacker this season, especially during the back half. For most of the 2019 portion of the campaign, Liverpool’s main attacking strategy involved parking Mané high and wide and sending him flying down the left flank, building most of their attacks either directly or indirectly through that movement. Like Randy Moss taking the top off an opposing secondary, Mané gave depth to the Reds’ possessions, creating much of the space he and his teammates used to wreak their havoc. It was that action that brought Liverpool both of their biggest wins, against Barcelona in the second leg semifinal comeback and Saturday’s UCL final.

As important as Liverpool’s goalscorers have been to their success, the biggest change between the great but trophy-less season of last year and the European Cup-winning, best-ever-Premier League-runners-up campaign this time was their defense. As we said earlier today, part of that development was tactical, but even more of it was down to the enormous influx of defending quality. To fix their longstanding shaky defense, Liverpool went out and made Alisson and Virgil van Dijk the most expensive goalkeeper and defender, respectively, in the game’s history, betting that those two pieces were all that stood between them at all-conquering greatness.

The gamble paid off. Alisson is the total package. In just his first season in England, the Brazilian has already solidified his spot amongst the finest keepers currently tending nets across Europe. van Dijk has exploded since becoming a Red in the winter of 2018. As the possessor of elite talent in literally every aspect of defending, he has emerged as one of the two or three best central defenders on the planet. Thanks mostly to van Dijk’s individual skills and the effect they’ve had on everything around him, Liverpool’s defense got the club from within a point of an impossibly good Manchester City team in the league and carried them all the way to the European Cup. Apart from D10S himself, no one player has exerted such a profound influenced on European soccer this season. It’s been a performance we’ve not seen from a defender in ages.

Those two big-money additions haven’t done it all on their own, either. Joël Matip and, when healthy, Joe Gomez have been great deputies to van Dijk’s sheriff when it mattered most. Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are the best full back tandem in the world. Alexander-Arnold is only 20 years old, just started in the Champions League final, and was comfortably one of the best players on the pitch. (Of the game’s young players, only Kylian Mbappé and Matthijs de Ligt are more sure-thing superstars than Alexander-Arnold.) And Robertson, who just turned 25, was even better on Saturday. The team is absolutely loaded with talent, almost all of it yet to or only starting to enter their primes, managed in a style that gets the best out of them in the most aesthetically pleasing way possible.

Though Liverpool may have been the story of the season, and van Dijk and Mané and Salah that story’s most important characters, it’s Klopp who deserves the bulk of the credit as its author. More than any one person, Klopp has been the one to transform Liverpool from the self-pitying, overly entitled and underly successful club Liverpool have been for most of their recent history into the confident, composed, title-winning team that exists today.

Because of how the lazy and the stupid have abused the notion over the years, modern, savvy sports fans and writers tend to shy away from invoking things like “mentality” when discussing what happens on the field or court or wherever. But there’s no way to understand what Klopp has done for Liverpool without alluding to how he’s altered the club’s mindset. His mere presence as one of the very best managers in the game put Liverpool in a different air, changed what the club thought it could be and what players thought of it. Without Klopp’s proven track record of success, the likes of Mané, Salah, van Dijk, and Alisson probably never join Liverpool in the first place. Without his relentless positivity, they probably never come to believe themselves equals to Man City, or capable of mounting the stunning comeback against Barcelona. Without Klopp’s charisma and deep emotional connections with his players, the best of them probably go the way of Philippe Coutinho and leave. Klopp’s managing style—tactically, interpersonally, culturally, etc.—created the environment in which this Liverpool arose.

Remove Klopp, and none of it is possible, which is why the success belongs so much to him. Keep him in the job, and Liverpool should guarantee themselves continued success of the sort they’re now enjoying, no matter which players come and go. (Liverpool have become one of the smartest actors on the transfer market, and so even if they somehow lose Mané or Salah, you’d feel good about their chances of finding a suitable replacement sooner or later. Few things in this game are more reassuring than rooting for a well-run club.) The Liverpool fans understand this, which is why Klopp is so beloved.

These are many of the reasons why being a Liverpool fan today is best there is. They are a club with a rich history of success, but also with enough decades of pain and heartache to make any eventual success feel earned. They hired one of the best (and probably the coolest) managers in the world, and in doing so finally began to see the light at the end of the tunnel. They’ve signed extremely talented players and watched them hit new heights since joining. They’ve spent enough money to buy their way into contention, but not so much money as to make the success feel cheapened, nor is their money stained with as much human blood as some of their competitors.

Most importantly, Liverpool are a club good enough to possibly win something, but for whom the prospect of winning is still special. Liverpool exist as one of the legitimate contenders for all the major titles, alongside several of the other big clubs around Europe, but with a luxury many of their peers do not share that makes all the difference: the ability to view trophies as something to hope for rather than something to expect. Winning is the best, but the best kind of winning is when it still means something. Go too long without winning and you might not ever win again. Win too often and you become inured to the taste, coveting victory less for its own sake than out of aversion for the bitterness of failure.

It’s been a long, treacherous journey to the top, but Liverpool are finally back there, with a the most prestigious trophy there is in their hands as validation of the hard work. Not only that, but Liverpool have the hunk of silverware their fans pine for the most, the Premier League trophy, still out there as an even larger goal to aspire for. Eventually, Liverpool will either have won more trophies in the Klopp era or will have come up short, and their best players will age and leave, and the variables will change, and they will be replaced as the club with the best claim of having it better than anyone else. But today, Liverpool can relish this time in the sun, because today there truly is nothing better than being a Pool Boy.

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