February 16, 2020 By Ben Victor
It is a little disparaging that all of Jürgen Klopp’s work over the years is at risk of being reduced to buying titles through big-money signings. This is the same Klopp who overachieved at Borussia Dortmund. A Dortmund team that was essentially a feeder club for giant Bayern Munich. The same Klopp who inherited a mid-table squad, and slowly reassembled it to make Liverpool the domestic and European giant it is. How much disrespectful can football get?
Klopp and his style of management is probably not every fan’s cup of tea. However, credit must be given where its due. In his five year stay at Liverpool, most rival fans remember the big-name and big-money signings; Virgil van Dijk and Allison Becker.
However, they are quick to “bird-box” the other signings that did not cost 50 million, the vast majority of the Liverpool team. And this is the stick fans are using to claim that Liverpool and Klopp, like Chelsea and Manchester City before, have essentially bought the Premier League title. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Aren’t all title wins bought?
Spending money on squad improvement does not guarantee success. Ask Ed Woodward over at Manchester United. And if spending money on squad improvement does lead to title wins, then all Premier League winners since 1992 (or sooner for those who get riled over this kind of thing) are as guilty of buying the title as Klopp and Liverpool.
It is a reductionist argument that has little to no merit most of the time. It is one thing to buy the best players in your favorite console game and beat other teams on video games; it’s another when actual human beings are involved.
Can Fergie or Wenger be accused of buying Premier League titles?
Sir Alex Fergusson was never afraid of drawing a blank cheque to get his marquee signings. Rio Ferdinand was signed for £30m back in 2002, a British record, on a defender no less. The Sebastián Veróns, Berbatovs, the van Persies, the Wayne Rooneys, to name a few, these were big-money signings. Yet, Fergie is rarely accused of buying any of his 13 Premier League titles.
The “non-flying Dutchman” Denis Bergkamp was a British record signing for £7.5m in 1995. At £3.5m in 1996, Patrick Viera did not come cheap either. But no one will ever accuse Monsieur Arsene Wenger of buying his way to his double success in the 1998/1999 campaign.
Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea is inexcusable. Sorry.
But… Leicester City in 2015/2016?
Claudio Ranieri, the surprise package of the past decade, would probably be the last man to be accused of buying his Leicester league title. But in 2015, Leicester recruited Christian Fuchs, Robert Huth, Shinji Okazaki, N’golo Kante, Gokhan Inler, among others, for a combined £27.3m. The year before, Leicester City had recruited other integral members to the title-winning team; Riyad Mahrez, Leonardo Ulloa, Marc Albrighton, Danny Simpson, etc.
The transfer figures are not mercurial, and the signings were not marquee. But if the argument is that signing great players is akin to buying the title, then surely without Robert Huth and N’golo Kante shoring the defense, and Fuchs runs wide from the fullback position, and the wizardry of Mahrez from far right, then there would be no Leicester title.
There is no denying that recruitment is essential to assembling an elite competitive squad. But is it easy to get drawn into the signings, and forget the training and coaching that takes place to create a unit. Moreover, it is easy to overlook other integral members of the team, recruited for less, or promoted from a team’s youth academy, who go on to make immense contributions.
However brilliant a player is, if he cannot fit, or sacrifice for the team at the expense of his talent, then he is toast.
When can a team be considered to have bought the title? The famed Real Madrid Galacticos for one were an expensively ensembled team, for the sure purpose of dominating the league and European competitions. That project did not last long. The argument for Pep Guardiola is a little complicated. Pep Guardiola has a lot of critics, but they cannot take away the fact that Pep is an elite coach, probably the best coach in men’s football. His work is there for all to see.
His teams rarely rely on individual brilliance, save for that stint in Barcelona, where the genius of Messi cannot be argued. His Bayern and City teams, despite the big-money transfers, have functioned because of Pep’s work in getting a functional system, not because of individual brilliance. In Pep’s side, the system comes before the player. However brilliant a player is, if he cannot fit, or sacrifice for the team at the expense of his talent, then he is toast. Zlatan Ibrahimović, Samuel Eto’o, Ronaldinho, would back this up.
The transformation of Raheem Sterling from a directionless English winger to a lethal forward cannot be simply put to his £49 million transfer fee. The same as Kevin De Bruyne, the league, and probably Europe’s most elegant midfielder. Fernandinho’s ‘undroppable’ status at the heart of City’s defense is not down to his transfer fee, but his ability, and the rigorous coaching and training.
Most City signings did cost vast sums, but the coaching in transforming these players from good players to world-class in their respective positions is the true hallmark of great coaching. The genius in Pep, and one that makes the argument of buying league titles moot, is that his football is more about how the players fit into the system to execute a brand of football that is both exhilarating to the fans, and lethal to the opponents. It is time the genius of Jürgen Klopp was acknowledged in the same measure.
Klopp’s Transformation of Liverpool
When Klopp joined Liverpool in October 2015, he inherited a squad in shambles, both in terms of quality and depth. Klopp’s debut game featured Moreno and Mignolet at the back, Lucas Leiva and Emre Can in the middle of the park, and Divock Origi, Lallana, Coutinho, and Ibe as the attacking options. The initial three years of Klopp’s Liverpool exhibited high press football, but zero defensive responsibility featuring very few clean sheets. On one matchday, Klopp’s team would win 4-3 at Emirates, then lose 2-0 the following week at Turf Moor to Burnley.
It was an exciting team to watch, but frustratingly inconsistent. These three years were characterized by the 2016 Europa League final loss to Unai Emery’s Sevilla, and the 2018 Champion’s league final loss to a Gareth Bale inspired Real Madrid. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool was a “near team.” A team that dazzled but did not have the spine to win when it mattered.
Sadio Mane joined in the summer of 2016, a proven Premier League goalscorer, but not the finished product. Roberto Firmino, contrary to popular belief, was not a Klopp signing, having joined Liverpool earlier in the same summer as Klopp. Mohammed Salah, another frustrating winger from Roma, joined Liverpool in 2017. Thus, as early as the 2017/2018 campaign, Liverpool had the attacking arsenal they currently possess.
In midfield, Klopp inherited the tireless James Milner and Jordan Henderson. Milner, signed on a free from Manchester City, led the assists table in the 2017/2018 campaign with 8, but that counted for naught to Gareth Bale. Naby Keita, Liverpool’s most expensive midfield acquisition for £75 million, has never nailed a place in the side. Instead, Fabinho, the £39 million signing from Monaco in 2018, has cemented his place alongside Gini and Henderson.
It is in defence where Klopp has made the most improvement to this Liverpool side. Both in the attacking and the defensive sense. Out went Simeone Mignolet, for Loris Karius. Karius clownish theatrics in Kiev would cost Liverpool the UCL final, which led to his immediate replacement with Allison Becker, a £66.8 million goalkeeper record signing from Roma.
In the heart of the defense, Klopp has gambled with different permutations, but it was not until the world record £75m signing of Virgil Van Dijk, that Liverpool’s defense became a force to reckon with.
The Genius of the Full-backs
The most impressive of Klopp’s work is definitely his fullbacks. Nathaniel Clyne was a decent enough fullback, in the mould of Manchester United’s ‘spider’ Aaron Wan-Bissaka. But just like Wan-Bissaka at United, Clyne was not an elite fullback for an ambitious team like Liverpool. The emergence of Trent Alexander Arnold solved Liverpool’s right-back problems.
Indeed, in the words of Arsene Wenger, having to find solutions internally is a blessing, and no one can argue otherwise that Trent is a blessing to this Liverpool side. At left-back, Moreno was so poor that Klopp preferred fielding midfielder James Milner, before the signing of left-back understudy, Andy Robertson. The £8 million signing from Hull City player would soon make the left-back spot his own.
Trent and Robertson are the 2nd and 3rd most passers in the league, stats typically dominated by central defenders and holding midfielders.
In the 2018/2019 season, Trent and Robertson had 12 and 11 assists apiece, the most by any defenders across the league. To further illustrate how integral the fullbacks are to Liverpool’s play, Trent and Robertson are the 2nd and 3rd most passers in the league, stats typically dominated by central defenders and holding midfielders. Liverpool’s full-backs are as involved in the game as typical midfielders. No wonder Trent is hailed as Liverpool’s key playmaker from the right-back position.
Manchester City, the dominant passers of the ball in English football, have Fernandinho and Rodrigo as their most passers of the ball, featuring at 7th and 8th respectively in the league. Fernandinho has featured heavily at centre-back in this campaign. Trent leads the league in crosses and is only second to De Bruyne in the assist table.
… have Liverpool bought the league title and European title? Not really; when this argument is reduced to such simplistic terms, the gains to be made are eroded because they won’t stand the test of time.
The two marauding Liverpool fullbacks form part of Liverpool’s attacking front 5. The fullbacks allow the team to maintain its width as the lethal wide forwards tuck inside into goalscoring positions. Thus, while other teams find other permutations for a front five featuring midfielders and forwards, Klopp has transformed his fullbacks into an attacking force in the league and across Europe. And they cost Liverpool less than £10m. So much for buying the European and Domestic titles.
Virgil Van Dijk and Allison Becker are no doubt unique talents. But without a proper functioning system, they can’t impose themselves. When Juan Mata fumbles his shot, and Mo Salah asks Allison for the ball and gets on his bike to score the second goal against Manchester United, all in a span of ten seconds, that is money well spent, and a team well drilled. It makes one wonder where the £80 million Manchester United investment was in that specific moment in that game.
Well, there is no denying that Liverpool has indeed spent considerable sums in the strengthening of their squad. But have Liverpool bought the league title and European title? Not really; when this argument is reduced to such simplistic terms, the gains to be made are eroded because they won’t stand the test of time. One would have to entirely forget that last campaign, Liverpool lost the league title by a solitary point, beaten by a mercurial Manchester City side.
Liverpool hard work or Manchester City’s decline?
It is also reductionist to claim that City has lost the title race because they lost Aymeric Laporte to injury. This is a hogwash argument. Manchester City won the league title last campaign without their best player, Kevin De Bruyne. Moreover, Laporte is not the world-class centre-back that people make him to be. Yes, he is integral to Manchester City, but the whole system cannot and should not crumble because of one player. It did not crumble when De Bruyne was out last campaign.
Again, Aymeric Laporte is not Rio Ferdinand. Manchester United may claim that they lost the title to the Invinsibles because Rio Ferdinand was banned for doping for eight months in 2003/2004. Still, everyone knows the Invinsible train was just too good for Rio to derail it. This is a Liverpool side that has lost once across two seasons to date. A side that has just dropped two points, two-thirds into the 2019/20 campaign, and one which may yet dethrone Arsenal’s 2003/2004 Invinsible team. Laporte or no Laporte, this Liverpool train takes no prisoners.
This is Pep’s fourth season at Manchester City, and just like his fourth and last season in Barcelona, something has given. But that has nothing to do with how good Liverpool is…
Crucially, City has lost the title chase because it is impossible to maintain the same levels of motivation after winning consecutive league titles and shattering records along the way. Manchester City needed to reinvigorate their squad last summer, especially to strengthen at centre-back after losing Vincent Kompany. Instead, Pep went ahead to get two fullbacks he did not need, and an extra central midfielder he could do without.
Pep Guardiola himself likes signing short term deals at his clubs because he acknowledges that it is challenging to motivate serial winners. Maintaining success is extremely difficult, even with some of the best players in the world at your disposal. This is Pep’s fourth season at Manchester City, and just like his fourth and last season in Barcelona, something has given. But that has nothing to do with how good Liverpool is, or how good Mourinho’s team was in 2011/2012 when Pep lost the La Liga title to Real Madrid and stepped down as Barcelona boss.
To create a counter-narrative about big money spending, or Manchester City’s shortcomings is to do grave injustice against the genius of Jürgen Klopp. Liverpool has won the 2019/20 title because of hard work, both on and off the field, and five years of dedication and coaching, refined by challenges along the way. Can’t a German-led army on British soil be on the right side of history for once?