ANALYSIS: Liverpool's triumph means more than the end of a title drought

Soccer Football - Premier League - Leicester City v Liverpool - King Power Stadium, Leicester, Britain - December 26, 2019   Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold celebrates scoring their fourth goal                 REUTERS/Andrew Yates    EDITORIAL USE ONLY. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or "live" services. Online in-match use limited to 75 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.  Please contact your account representative for further details.     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
(From left): Liverpool's Jordan Henderson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson celebrate their fourth goal against Leicester City in a Premier League match in December 2019. (PHOTO: Reuters/Andrew Yates)

SINGAPORE — In the context of the long history of English football, Liverpool’s first top-flight league title in 30 years is a momentous triumph – and it is not just because it ended a famous title drought.

When Chelsea forward Willian stabbed the ball into the net from the penalty spot to give the Blues a 2-1 lead over Manchester City on early Friday morning (26 June), Reds fans knew. The long agonising wait for their club’s 19th top-flight English league title was over, and they could allow themselves to be overcome with joy.

The Chelsea win meant second-placed Man City stayed a massive 23 points behind Liverpool. With only seven matches left, Liverpool’s lead was unassailable.

Sure, their fans must be delirious with joy at finally clinching the trophy they treasure the most. And they deserve every bit of this glee, as their passion often lifted the Reds to monumental heights at their Anfield home ground.

But to non-Reds fans who do not care much about the Merseyside club’s title drought and number of trophies, Liverpool’s EPL triumph still matters.

For it showed that, with astute recruitment and management, together with the right intensity of team spirit and desire, a football club can still win the league over clubs that are flushed with riches from team owners.

A triumph over huge financial odds

Ever since Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought over Chelsea and immediately poured in money to buy the top players for the Blues to win two straight EPL titles in 2005 and 2006, English clubs have been obsessed about spending insane amounts of money to win the league.

Manchester United, stung by Chelsea’s intrusion to their dominance then, allowed themselves to be bought over by the Glazer family from the United States in 2005, and found a new spurt of financial strength to lead them to five more EPL triumphs.

Then came Manchester City to top it all off in 2008. With the seemingly limitless financial backing from the Abu Dhabi United Group of investors, Man City were transformed from a struggling club to an EPL behemoth, gobbling up the best global players (and managers) and steamrolling to four EPL titles in the last decade.

Admittedly, the standard and style of football played in the EPL have been boosted spectacularly. But the league also saw the above-mentioned three clubs dominating – some say monopolising. If you don’t have the financial might to match them, your best bets at a trophy lie outside the Premier League in the Cup competitions.

Since 2005, the three clubs won all the EPL titles except two.

One was in 2016, when Leicester City stunned the football world by winning the league against all odds. It was certainly the most “fairy-tale” title triumph of our times, yet any illusions of more of such David vs Goliath wins were quickly shattered when Man City won two titles in a row in 2018 and 2019 with record-breaking points total.

And so we come to Liverpool, the other team that broke the three-club dominance.

Liverpool's manager Jurgen Klopp celebrates at the end of the English Premier League soccer match between Liverpool and Bournemouth at Anfield stadium in Liverpool, England, Saturday, March 7, 2020. Liverpool won 2-1. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
Liverpool's manager Jurgen Klopp celebrates at the end of the English Premier League soccer match between Liverpool and Bournemouth at Anfield stadium in Liverpool. Liverpool won 2-1. (PHOTO: AP/Jon Super)

Meticulousness hidden behind Klopp’s smiles and hugs

A lot has been said about Reds manager Jurgen Klopp being a man-management “genius” who just goes around smiling and hugging a lot, and somehow that is all it takes for his players to run through walls for him and the club.

It is, frankly, an insult to the German, after the sheer meticulous lengths he took in creating his title-winning team.

Hiring a renowned nutritionist to plan nourishing meals for players; insisting the grass lengths be the same for training and playing pitches; and even getting a throw-in coach to work out special routines among players. These are just a few of Klopp’s methods in preparing his players to be in tip-top conditions to play his high-intensity, high-pressing strategy.

It’s not just pre-match groundwork that Klopp is meticulous in. When it comes to player recruitment, he is also extra picky. Talent and skill are not enough; character and drive are equally crucial, if not more. Klopp has nixed transfer deals just before they could conclude because he found flaws in the players’ temperament, or even among the agents or friends they hang out with.

There’s a method to this madness: they ultimately create a harmonious environment for the Liverpool squad to train in. When players get the ideal environment to hone their skills, that is when they are most likely willing to run through walls for a gregarious character like Klopp.

Extraordinary belief among players

Of course, on the pitch, it is the Liverpool players who have to execute the strategy to win matches, not Klopp. And this season, they have found such a magnificent blend of style, intensity and belief that they swept past all opposition with a sense of inevitability that this will finally be their year.

And the records they set are mind-boggling – best start in any of Europe’s top five leagues (61 points after 21 matches); biggest lead the top (25 points); most home wins in a row (24 matches and counting); earliest title win (seven matches to go). There will be more to come when the season ends.

There could be more records being broken when the season is completed. Yet these statistics are secondary as they have finally achieved what many of their illustrious predecessors could not – win the EPL trophy for their loyal fans.

Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman, Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres, Luis Suarez – these are just the tip of the iceberg of the formidable list of former Reds who failed in the EPL title quest. Which just shows how difficult it has been in the last 30 years for Liverpool to outwit the rival clubs with better financial strength and management nous, even with those world-class talents at Anfield.

And to beat the current financial giants like Man City and Man United, Liverpool had to reach unreal levels of astuteness in preparation and belief in execution to allow themselves to be on equal ground with their rivals.

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah, 3rd left, celebrates with teammates after scoring his sides first goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Liverpool and Watford at Anfield stadium in Liverpool, England, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
Liverpool's Mohamed Salah (third from left) celebrates with teammates after scoring his sides first goal during the English Premier League football match against Watford. (PHOTO: AP/Rui Vieira)

After coming desperately close last season to pipping Man City, many thought that window of opportunity had closed for Liverpool. No way could they replicate last season’s title challenge in which they amassed more points than 25 past EPL-winning teams, and still lost to Pep Guardiola’s brilliant City side.

Yet this season has been a stunning continuation of relentlessness amid a tough fixture schedule, and it is truly a masterclass in management by the staff and belief by the players that they were able to be so dominant that the title triumph had been a forgone conclusion since the start of the year.

Fans will obviously be flooding social media with Liverpool’s highlights this season. But non-fans should also appreciate the level of excellence that the Reds reached, with a bunch of players who will be revered in Merseyside for the rest of their lives:

  • Alisson Becker, the ocean of calmness who makes the hardest saves look easy.

  • Trent Alexander-Arnold, the not-so-secret weapon with the most lethal cross in the league.

  • Andrew Robertson, the feisty motormouth who never stops running.

  • Virgil van Dijk, the towering pillar of strength who hardly puts a foot wrong in defence.

  • Joe Gomez/Joel Matip/Dejan Lovren, the supporting centre-backs who always lift their games.

  • Jordan Henderson, the underrated captain who propels this winning machine.

  • Fabinho, the “lighthouse” who provides the guidance in initiating the attacks.

  • Georginio Wijnaldum/Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain/Naby Keita/James Milner, the definitions of tirelessness who cover every blade of grass to link up play.

  • Roberto Firmino, the embodiment of everything good and crucial about the word “team”.

  • Sadio Mane, the humble assassin who scores great goals with unerring ease.

  • Mohamed Salah, the whirlwind of goals and assists who never stops running and trying.

  • Adrian/Divock Origi/Adam Lallana/Xherdan Shaqiri/Curtis Jones/Harvey Elliott, the bit-part role players who never griped but are always ready to chip in.

Together with Klopp as the mastermind, they engineered one of the most impressive title triumphs in English football history. They reminded all of us that obstacles – be it world-class opponents, error-prone referees, unreliable VAR (video assisted referees), untimely injuries, tough fixture schedules, and the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak – are all meant to be overcome.

All it takes is style, intensity and above all, belief.

The author has covered both Singapore and international sports for the past 17 years, and was formerly sports editor of My Paper. He is also a die-hard Liverpool supporter for the past 34 years. The views expressed are his own.