Liverpool are going to win the title. But beyond that, after the team, the fans and the city have sung and celebrated and danced arm-in-arm, what needs to happen to ensure that 2020 isn’t the club’s modern peak?
Perhaps some inspiration can be drawn from the last fixture before the lockdown and that curious defeat to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. It’s still not entirely clear how Liverpool lost that game. It was a bit to do with Adrian, because he didn’t have a good night. It was also partly because of Jan Oblak’s fine performance at the other end, as well as Atletico’s stubborn resilience in general.
Those factors aside, though, Jurgen Klopp’s side were just a bit wrong. As in not right and not themselves. They created chances and had the better of the game, but they weren’t able to generate that knee-buckling power that wins them so many games at Anfield.
That’s really a very special quality. Calling it unique is a stretch, but watching your team defend at Anfield is harrowing in a way that it isn’t at other Premier League grounds. It’s like a sensory assault. It’s the effect of that virtuous cycle between the players and the fans – the ‘activation of the atmosphere’ as Klopp once called it – and at one point or another every team in the country has withered within it.
But Atletico didn’t. If Liverpool had been a boxer that night, all of their combinations would have had one punch too few. Over the months since, it’s been tempting to wonder whether that would have been the case had Liverpool still been chasing the European Cup, rather than being in possession of it.
It’s a suspicion perpetuated by the way that team plays and what its dependencies are. It’s the way its supporters clamour for its success and how, invariably, Liverpool’s football seems defined by all that noise and wild life. Aesthetically, it’s the sound and look of a pursuit; it has that desperate, febrile quality which the game’s dynastic teams, with their regal possession football, generally don’t possess.
But that night it wasn’t like that. Everything was dialled back to eight or nine, rather than the usual eleven.
That’s probably why it’s so difficult to retain a trophy like the Champions League. It’s such a long slog and the standard of opposition is so continuously high, that a team’s desire has to remain consistent and total. If it wavers at any moment, even just by a degree, then there’s always a Diego Simeone lurking in the shadows, ready to dangle a leg and pick a pocket.
Liverpool weren’t beaten because of any single factor, but one of them was likely that the Champions League just wasn’t important enough this year. Which isn’t to say they were guilty of being flippant or arrogant or complacent, but that – subconsciously – some of those players just remembered that they already had that medal on their mantel. It was different last year. They had a journey to complete and a painful memory to avenge.
A league season is even longer and even more taxing than a European cup, so the same potholes are likely to be waiting in 2020-21. Perhaps Liverpool’s advantage over the rest is so substantial that they could survive a few stumbles and still retain the trophy. But to match or exceed this season, Klopp will have to change the chemistry of his team – and not chemistry in the sense of tactical dynamics, but the actual formula of its energy.
This squad is about to become immortal on Merseyside. They’re European Cup winners who will also soon have ended a three-decade quest for the league title; how can that kind of achievement not change a team? These players will soon be the heroes of dozens of new books, probably many documentaries too and, in a few cases, possibly a few poems as well. Trent Alexander-Arnold already has his own mural and by the end of the summer he probably won’t be alone.
There’s a singularity to this latest triumph which is wonderful and which the city will bask in, but which is also dangerous. When something has been an objective for so long, how does it retain its draw after being accomplished?
It leaves Klopp in a difficult situation, needing to tweak his side’s genetics but with no obvious or easy way of doing so. Does he recognise that as of next week all three of his starting forwards will be 28, treating that as justification for introducing a fresher, younger element? Or is he more subtle: does he manufacture selection controversies in different positions? By challenging players’ pride, can he keep Liverpool’s boilers alight with competitive friction?
That option only exists with certain players. Virgil van Dijk is immovable, so is the goalkeeper and so, most likely, are the two full-backs. But is there value in jettisoning someone from the midfield, just to change how it would feel to play for this side – to make it slightly less automatic and familiar – and, by doing so, would that allow it to remain fresh and challenging and reset its mentality back to what it was at the beginning of 2018?
These are really, really difficult decisions. They involve all sorts of risks, too. Selling a player to create that kind of effect sends a tremor through a dressing room, particularly one which has been successful. A player isn’t just a component, but a person with friends in the squad, some of whom would take his departure personally and respond negatively to any successor.
But it can’t remain the same. Unless there’s some novelty, even success will start to feel old for Liverpool. To the players, to the fans, to Klopp. When that happens, even if it’s just a relaxation of a few degrees, that virtuous cycle will start to lose its power. And that mustn’t happen, particularly in this case. More than any other team to separate themselves from the pack over the last decade, Liverpool depend on their restless spirit.