At the start of February, Liverpool already had a crystalline strategy for how they would evolve from chasers to being chased.
This was no premature celebrating of a league title that hadn’t been secured yet, although they were 22 points clear at that stage. It was an important analysis of the state of play and what could be done to stay ahead of the competition.
Jurgen Klopp, sporting director Michael Edwards and Fenway Sports Group president Mike Gordon are almost obsessive in scoping and plotting the way forward early.
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On January transfer deadline day, the trio discussed their strategy for the summer and beyond over dinner.
The unprecedented loss of income due to coronavirus has forced a slight shapeshift in their transfer thinking, which was never going to be major anyway, but the fundamental objective remains: ensuring Liverpool’s relentlessness continues.
Rivals do not like being so comprehensively outdone. Rivals will react. Liverpool will have to remain on the front foot.
Since the beginning of 2018/19, the club have lost just two out of 69 top-flight matches, racking up a remarkable 183 points in the process with seven games still to play this season.
Manchester City, who have set the benchmark in English football, managed a haul of 198 over consecutive campaigns.
Liverpool are on course to better that, but how do they guard against a significant drop off like Pep Guardiola now has had to contend with?
City are projected to end on 77 points – a world away from their previous two finishes and more in line with the Catalan’s debut term of adjustment in England.
If their two-year Champions League ban is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, it will further undermine their ability to rise again and elite players are not likely to hang around while being out of the company of Europe’s elite.
City are being counted on to strike back, but how do Liverpool avert such a tumble from the top?
It will not be through mega investment. For one, Klopp is confident that he will not be ceding any of his spine, with the core of the squad tied down with long contracts.
By contrast when Vincent Kompany, the standard setter at the Etihad, departed at the end of last season it left a gigantic void that City failed to fill. They have also surrendered Leroy Sane to Bayern Munich and the influential David Silva will leave after a stellar decade with the club.
Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho, aged 32 and 35 respectively, are in the final year of their contracts.
City are in need of an immediate rebuild, while Liverpool are already consciously working on not letting the squad grow stale together. Jordan Henderson is 30, Virgil van Dijk and the front three are 28, but there is youth in the squad (Joe Gomez, Trent Alexander-Arnold) with the next generation – Harvey Elliot, Neco Williams, Ki-Jana Hoever, Layton Clarkson and the like – being blooded. Edwards has been forward planning for each area of the squad.
When the time comes to replace their crucial assets – whether due to passing their peak or seeking new challenges like Philippe Coutinho did – Liverpool’s recruitment team back themselves to produce.
None of their incomings were considered world class before moving to Anfield. Van Dijk was the closest, but just as he has elevated the club, they have helped him rise to a different stratosphere.
Under Klopp, transfers have been a small part of a wider picture. The 53-year-old will spotlight the reaction to setbacks as equally important.
It is undoubtable that the injury to Aymeric Laporte was destabilising to Guardiola’s rearguard this season, but Liverpool were without Alisson (67 days), Fabinho (53) and Henderson (43). Joel Matip, who is unavailable again, was absent for three months.
The Merseysiders have proven better than City at finding internal solutions to conundrums. They seem more comfortable with adversity and the art of overcoming it.
Liverpool’s drive to be crowned England’s best this season was fuelled by going so close in 2019/20. Without question, they wanted it more.
“Maybe after winning titles we didn’t get or arrive with the same passion and I had the feeling after Liverpool won the Champions League they were incredibly focused, after 30 years not winning the league, to win every single game, like it was the last chance they had,” Guardiola conceded.
But now, having restored themselves as the division’s kings, can Klopp’s side still keep such resolute focus?
“People will be afraid that these boys will get lazy,” the German pointed out. “These boys, like they showed at Crystal Palace, they cannot get lazy. It is just not in their nature. We will not stop.
“Until we finish our career, we have to give our everything. I’ll say it again, I like to say it – as long as you wear this shirt, less than 100 per cent is not allowed.”
It was instructive that in the aftermath of winning the league, Klopp, Henderson, Andy Robertson and Van Dijk all immediately steered the conversation to the rest of this campaign and attacking the next. There was no desire to indulge in celebrations when there’s still work to be done.
“The mentality of the lads will never change,” Liverpool’s captain said. “I know what they’re like and I know they’ll want more.”
Of course, there can be a departure from intention and reality, when human nature and tiredness can kick in. But having been denied the opportunity to win the title in front of supporters due to the global pandemic, there is talk at Melwood of them going again to do it with the full works.
Liverpool are no longer in any doubt over their capabilities, which hamstrung them for so long. They no longer fear failure having learnt from it.
The postponement of the Africa Cup of Nations is also a huge fillip for the club and the short turnaround to the new season seems advantageous – it will feel like a continuation.
Guardiola is absolutely correct to say that winning is “not eternal” and that being unrelenting is not easy. City, having been 25 points clear of Liverpool in 2017/18, would not have seen this switch coming.
Klopp will not allow such oversight on Merseyside.