Liverpool’s pre-season starts tomorrow at the Etihad. The Premier League match against Manchester City has little meaning for Jurgen Klopp and his team. The campaign was over the moment the Premier League trophy was in the bag. The next few weeks provide the perfect opportunity to prepare for 2020-21 and the title defence.
The champions can set a number of new benchmarks. City’s 100-point record points haul is in Liverpool’s sights. Klopp’s side are 23 points clear at the top of the table, easily on pace to beat the widest winning margin of 19 points, another mark set by Pep Guardiola’s team. With seven games remaining, Liverpool can rack up the most wins in a season and set new standards for home and away victories. They can spend their next seven games underlining their dominance.
Or they could take a different approach, one that may be more beneficial in the long run. Klopp has the chance switch to friendly mode. Most of Liverpool’s main rivals will spend the majority of July battling for top-four spots. City’s season will last even longer. The Champions League – Guardiola’s main target – restarts at the knockout stage on August 7 and climaxes with the final in Lisbon 15 days later.
The short turnaround to the new season which begins on 11 September means there will be little time to rest, recover and prepare between campaigns. While everyone else is charging around, Liverpool can take the time to recharge their batteries.
This is the perfect situation for the runaway champions. Managers and players rarely get the luxury of being able to plan ahead. They are fixated on the next match and are hostages to the tyranny of results. Every game matters in the Premier League. Except now. For Liverpool at least, they don’t.
The Coronavirus emergency has skewed the calendar and it will be hard to assess the impact of this elongated season until next May. Clubs need to adapt to the new environment. It is not the same for everyone. City’s schedule is punishing. If they reach the Champions League final they will barely stop for a breath between now and the new year. Liverpool, meanwhile, can stroll through to September at their own pace. Never have the defending champions had a greater advantage in their quest to win back-to-back titles.
Klopp’s competitive instincts – and sense of sporting fairness – will militate against filling his team with backups and allowing youngsters to learn on the job in the next seven games. The 53-year-old should take a canny approach to the next month, though. In February his team were showing signs of tiredness after their blockbusting start to the season.
Even if Covid-19 had not intervened, a dip in form would have barely delayed clinching the title. If Liverpool do things right over the next few weeks, they could be in a similar position next February – adrift of the field and racing to a second Premier League trophy – only fresher. The most important members of the squad will benefit from some physical and psychological downtime in the next few weeks and fringe players will relish the chance to make their mark.
Anfield’s golden age in the 1970s and 80s was characterised by a simple ethos: the most valuable trophy is the next one. Records were a mere by-product of glory and not an end in themselves. Klopp has reset attitudes within the club and the German will not lose sight of what’s most important.
Everything is falling Liverpool’s way at the moment. The postponement of the Africa Cup of Nations until 2022 means that Sadio Mane and Mo Salah will be available to play throughout next season instead of being absent for up to six weeks. That is another blow to opponents. City will clap their rivals on to the pitch at the Etihad with gritted teeth but no one can claim Klopp’s team are lucky. Liverpool warrant the applause, in the same way they have earned the right to cruise through to the end of the campaign.
Klopp’s team are in a no-lose situation. They can bask in success and ready themselves for the next challenge at the same time without any real concern for results.
The road to the next title begins at the Etihad and the best thing about it for Liverpool is they do not even need to win.