Sometimes the less said about the actual game the better. The most important moment of Saturday’s Champions League final came within the first minute, when Tottenham Hotspur’s Moussa Sissoko decided that the most important part of defending was standing in the penalty area and pointing authoritatively. Liverpool’s Sadio Mané promptly kicked the ball into his arm (or at least his arm-ish area), Mohamed Salah converted the penalty, and the die was cast.
What happened next was one of those sports questions that is forever in the eye of the beholder. Was it Liverpool’s defensive genius that allowed them to coast for the next 70 minutes and hang on for the last 20, before Divock Origi’s goal put the game away for good? Or was it mediocrity from Spurs that let the eventual champions off the hook? After the early goal, Spurs spent a lot of time with the ball, but very little of it actually challenging Liverpool’s goal. Spurs had the lion’s share of possession but turned it into a grand total of five shots in the first hour of the match. They repeatedly worked hard and long to get the ball into the final third, only to see Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold take it back. It wasn’t until the final quarter of the game that Liverpool’s keeper, Alisson, was really called into action.
However the blame for the dullness of the game gets distributed, the takeaway is clear. Liverpool are a great team, Spurs merely a pretty good one. That gap in talent and ability, when combined with an early penalty that was the very definition of harsh but fair, dictated the game. It also dictates the two very different paths ahead for these Champions League final teams.
The task ahead for Spurs is easy to define and almost impossible to execute. The side needs to go from being a team that’s good enough to beat the best teams in the world if everything goes right, to one that competes on even footing with them. The final was a painful reminder of just how large the gap is.
There is no shame in this Spurs season, but there’s also no room for them to rest on their accomplishments. Spurs finished fourth in the Premier League, a whopping 26 points behind Liverpool, and 27 points behind champions Manchester City. Magical cup runs are great, and Spurs walked down an incredibly tough road to reach the final, surviving a group with Barcelona and Inter Milan, dusting Borussia Dortmund comfortably, and doing to City what they ultimately couldn’t to Liverpool, before staging an unreal three-goal comeback against Ajax. But there’s a reason these kinds of runs are magical—they don’t happen very often.
The good news for Spurs is that improvement shouldn’t be that hard. They famously haven’t bought a single player the last two transfer windows. In April they moved into their brand-spanking-new stadium, a project years in the making. A Champions League final, and cool new digs (and the added revenue that comes with it) are a great platform to build from, a launching pad to take Spurs from, “unlikely contender” to simply “contender.”
And the holes they need to fill are obvious. The team has struggled to field a top-notch midfield all season. Mauricio Pochettino has done an admirable job of managing around the problem, constructing a unique attack that emphasized his attackers and got the most out of idiosyncratic players like Sissoko and Harry Winks. But, getting the most out of players like Sissoko and Winks still means that Sissoko and Winks were on the field to start a Champions League final. If Spurs go out and splash some cash this summer on a star, or even a merely very good midfielder, that’ll be a step in the right direction.
Then there’s the attack, a unit built around four undeniably excellent players in Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, and Son Heung-min. But Liverpool strangled that group. In part that was because Kane was returning from a long-term ankle injury, and at least for large swathes of the first half looked rusty, sluggish, and just not ready to be on a soccer field. But, there’s a reason he was out there. OK, there are two: The first is that he’s a human cyborg whose only purpose on this earth is to score goals, and he was alive, and could stand on his ankle, and there was the possibility of goals to be scored. The second is that his backup is Fernando Llorente, who, despite some heroics on the way to the final, is 34 years old and winding down a career that’s previous stop was at Swansea City. In two seasons with Spurs, he has played just 921 Premier League minutes and scored a grand total of two league goals. All season long Spurs’ attack has been exceptionally thin. It’s the four stars, one quality backup in semifinal hat-trick hero Lucas Moura, and that’s the list. All it took was Kane’s being rusty, and the group was swallowed whole by Liverpool for over an hour.
The ways for Spurs to improve are easy to see: more attacking depth and a better midfield. The bad news is that it’s also easy to see how this might be as good as it gets. While the team has been linked with big-time midfield transfer targets like Real Betis’s Giovanni Lo Celso and Lyon’s Tanguy Ndombele, those moves might occur in concert with losing current playmaker Eriksen to Real Madrid. Additionally, star central defender Toby Alderweireld has a relatively cheap £25 million buyout clause in his contract, which Manchester United are sniffing around. And if that’s not enough, the architect of Spurs success, Pochettino, who was previously rumored to be on Madrid and United’s radar before they each went in different directions, is again attracting attention from some mammoth clubs, with Juventus at least casually inquiring about his availability. Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri is favored for the job, but Pochettino was noticeably coy about his future after the final. If it’s not Juventus now, Pochettino has always indicated he’d be open to the next big opportunity (and used that openness as a contractual bargaining chip), even if one hasn’t quite materialized yet.
The last few years for Spurs have been remarkably stable. Kane has led the team in goals scored for five straight seasons. The last four years they’ve finished third, second, third, and fourth. Next year will mark their fourth season in a row in the Champions League, the second-longest current streak in England. Under Pochettino, the club has grown a core group of young talented players into a perennial Champions League side, and it culminated with this season’s improbable run to the finals. But this summer is likely to be one of transition. And what happens next will determine whether this loss to Liverpool will be remembered merely as the springboard to something bigger or the highwater mark for a club whose time competing toward the top of Europe’s pyramid is destined to be short.
Liverpool are a great team. They handled Spurs comfortably. The fact that they staged a historic semifinal comeback against Barcelona overshadows the fact that despite the lopsided scorelines, they played Lionel Messi’s side roughly even across 180 minutes. The only reason they didn’t also win the Premier League title is that Manchester City finished the season winning 14 straight matches. Sometimes you’re historically great, and somebody else is just a little bit historically greater. Liverpool put up the third-best Premier League season in history, and the other team still nipped them at the wire.
The question for Liverpool is how to take a great team, one that will assuredly compete at the top of the game for a few seasons, and cement that success in perpetuity. The biggest soccer clubs in the world do this by consistently throwing dollar bills (or pounds or euros or all three) at problems. And while money doesn’t solve everything (just ask sixth-place Manchester United), it sure solves a lot of things. Liverpool have plenty of money, but they don’t have oil sheik money or even Russian oligarch money. Nobody should feel bad for Liverpool, they have the kind of resources that would make anybody but a half-dozen of the richest clubs in the world jealous. They’ve combined those deep pockets with a savvy data-driven approach to close that gap with world’s most well-resourced sides.
It’s hard to remember now, but all of Liverpool’s beloved front three of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino, and Mohamed Salah came with question marks. It was only 18 months ago that the team made the decision to sell one star, Philippe Coutinho, to Barcelona, for somewhere between 105 and 142 pounds depending on incentives and use a healthy dose of the proceeds, about 75 million, to buy a central defender in Virgil van Dijk. In retrospect (especially considering Coutinho’s struggles in Catalonia) the moves seem obvious. At the time they were somewhere between bold and controversial.
Liverpool are currently reaping the rewards of that boldness. But this current group, like all groups, have a window, and it’s closing faster than it might initially seem. Part of the brilliance of Liverpool’s team-building is that they built a squad that will hit its peak age together. The vast majority of Liverpool’s stars are in their mid-to-late 20s. Van Dijk, Man é, and Firmino are all 27 years old; Salah is 26.
That’s exactly the age when you want your resources concentrated, players who have not aged past the peak of their athleticism but have also been around long enough to know how to harness it. The problem is that you don’t want the majority of your resources concentrated in players who are 29 years old—guys whose best years are behind them, whose returns are diminishing, and who are increasingly less likely to bring in the big transfer bucks if you want to get out from under the remaining years of their contracts.
The price of being smart and building a team that maximizes its ability to win now is that pretty soon all those great players start to get slightly older all at once. The question looming for Liverpool is how will they handle it. Even teams with more money than Liverpool struggle when their players start to approach and pass 30. Just ask the Barcelona side Liverpool ran rings around by the end of the semis.
If Liverpool are going to continue to play at the absolute peak of the footballing pyramid, it’s going to mean continuing to make the kind of bold decisions that got them here. It’s going to mean selling some players while they’re still great in order to make room for slightly younger, newer talent aging into their peak instead of out of it. Would Liverpool consider selling a player like Firmino or Mané if it meant bringing in a younger superstar like RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner? They should. Continued success is going to mean understanding that this team—as perfect and wonderful as it turned out to be this season—is going to need to constantly evolve to remain one step ahead of the situation that befell Barcelona, where everybody got old at once.
If anybody can pull it off, though, it seems like Liverpool might. As owners, Fenway Sports Group have proved to both be willing to spend and be ruthless in cutting bait. Director of football Michael Edwards has worked in the game since Harry Redknapp hired him at Portsmouth in 2003, and he also has a cutting-edge familiarity with analytics (it was Edwards who was lampooned as being soft and modern for enjoying air-conditioning in his office). And, of course, Jürgen Klopp has a history as not only one of the best in the game, but also as a manager comfortable working both with players below him and a front office above him. If any power-sharing arrangement, from ownership at the top to the man on the sideline, might permanently outstrip its financial resources, it’s this one. And it doesn’t hurt that they all just won the Champions League together as proof of concept.
Ultimately, Spurs’ task, difficult as it may be, is a fairly common one: How do you ascend to the top of the mountain? And if they’re looking for a model, well the team that just beat them provides a pretty good one. Make smart, gutsy, well-considered (and expensive) decisions. Don’t be afraid to spend if you’ve identified the right target, and don’t be afraid to sell if you get the right price. That’s easier said than done, of course, and if everybody could do it, then everybody would be Liverpool. Still, while the execution is hard, the concept is proven.
Liverpool, on the other hand, now get to enter the land of the unknown. Nobody in the modern game has been able to reach the pinnacle and stay there while not also having the megabucks to fund a near endless stream of superstar purchases. Can they do it? Given their meteoric rise, it’d be foolish to bet against them.
Mike Goodman is the managing editor of StatsBomb.