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Liverpool’s Unrelenting Dominance Leads to a New Challenge: Reinvention

Jürgen Klopp succeeded in crafting Liverpool into a European and Premier League champion. Now he faces the challenge of maintaining that position.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The unique challenge of being an elite soccer manager at the top of your game is that you must find solutions to problems that do not yet exist. You’re at the top of the food chain, but you know that somewhere out there, nature is developing a natural predator just for you. Liverpool, of course, are kings of the jungle. Within 18 months, they have claimed the UEFA Champions League, the FIFA Club World Cup, and the Premier League, winning the latter title by a near-record margin. Yet as Jürgen Klopp looks around English soccer, he can see signs that some of its long-slumbering giants are currently waking up. Even though he is at the head of the queue, he must somehow press forward.

Every now and then, a very special expression crosses Klopp‘s face: It appears whenever the Liverpool manager seems to be looking into the future and has seen something he does not like. This look—his lips parted, pressed against his bared teeth—was most recently on display following Arsenal’s second goal against Liverpool in the Premier League, a strike by Reiss Nelson that would eventually give the Londoners a 2-1 victory over Klopp’s men.

It’s the same look that his colleagues probably saw when Liverpool drew Atlético Madrid in the Champions League round of 16. They would lose over two legs to Diego Simeone, perhaps the best coach in the world to unravel any team’s attacking strategy. Klopp’s grimace then was one that said Trouble is coming, and fast, and we are going to need a plan. Klopp’s assistant, Pepijn Lijnders, knows that they need a plan, too. He recently commented that Liverpool must “remain unpredictable,” noting that their two particular strengths—the brilliance of their front three and their fullbacks—were now well known. Whenever that happens, there is danger.

It’s risky when your strength becomes so well known it can be used against you, and one unlikely example of this is found in American politics. In the 2004 American presidential election, George W. Bush, who didn’t serve in the Vietnam War, faced John Kerry, widely acknowledged as a hero of the same conflict. Bush chose to humiliate Kerry by attacking his greatest strength—his combat record—using a technique known as swiftboating. The result for Kerry was devastating. Kerry, previously confident that Bush would not try to destroy the central pillar of his candidacy, duly succumbed.

When Arsenal defeated an admittedly title-drunk Liverpool, they effectively swiftboated them: That is to say, they rudely challenged them in the areas that they were not expecting. Alexandre Lacazette twice refused to let Liverpool’s defense settle and ended up with a goal and an assist. Seeing his success, other teams will take note, and Klopp can expect much more rudeness of a similar nature in the next campaign.

It has been an interesting season for Liverpool. Like Real Madrid, their championship triumph has been defined by calm control rather than constant onslaught. After 37 Premier League games, they have been substantially outscored by Manchester City—by 97 goals to 82—but have conceded 32 goals to City’s 35. In Spain, the picture is similar: In 38 La Liga games, second-place Barcelona scored 86 goals but conceded 38, while Real scored 70 and let in just 25. To maintain their top spots, both Klopp and Zidane must embrace a slightly greater element of chaos without sacrificing the team’s overall structure. In effect, “If it ain’t broke, do fix it.”

This is far easier said than done. In 2001, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, in an attempt to improve one of the best midfields in Europe, acquired Juan Sebastián Verón from Lazio. His arrival disrupted the team’s chemistry, leaving Manchester United to trail Arsenal. Verón emerged as one of United’s leading players in a redemptive Premier League triumph in 2003, but by then, the danger of meddling too much had already become clear.

The good thing from Klopp’s perspective is that he already has a blueprint for controlled mayhem: If the world’s defenses may prove harder and harder to raid, then he has at least carried out this bank job before. In his days at Borussia Dortmund, during their run to the 2013 Champions League final, Klopp would sometimes play with a pair of deep-lying creative midfielders, Ilkay Gundogan and Nuri Sahin. While Gundogan and Sahin were both masters of controlling the tempo of the game, the former was more likely to surge forward in the manner of Liverpool midfielders Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Naby Keita. Sahin, meanwhile, preferred a different form of disruption. He’s the type of player Klopp perhaps needs most now, as he possesses one of the rarest gifts in world soccer, which is the ability to hit the pass before the gaps close.

There is a pass that Bayern Munich’s Thiago Alcântara hit a couple of seasons ago—it’s a swirling, searing ball from the edge of his own half, and this play explains why he is one of the players now linked with Liverpool. That ball, which rolled into the path of an onrushing winger, eventually resulted in a goal, struck firmly and early, without warning. It was the equivalent of watching Indiana Jones roll under a rapidly plummeting temple door. There are only a handful of others on the planet who could have played it, including Borussia Dortmund’s Julian Brandt, which probably explains why Liverpool tried to acquire his services last year.

Following his team’s victory against Liverpool, Mikel Arteta told Arsenal Digital of the need to keep evolving with each game: Playing successful soccer is essentially a question of finding spaces on the pitch that can be exploited, he said, but “every day the spaces are somewhere else.” Of Liverpool’s 66 assists in the Premier League this season, 24 of them came from the front three of Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah, and Roberto Firmino; 24 of them from their fullbacks, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Roberston; and just 14 came from midfield. It seems only fair, then, to expect Klopp and his staff to develop different threats, which means providing more creativity from farther down the field. As Liverpool prepare to defend their title, it would be ironic if one of the most innovative coaches of his generation managed to press forward by looking back.