There are dozens of vantage points from which to view the past 25 months for Liverpool Football Club. In Europe, they reached consecutive Champions League finals, winning one and losing another. Domestically, they of course won their first title in 30 years, while also losing just two of 70 matches since May 2018: That’s 186 of the past 210 points at stake, for those keeping score at home.
When a club enjoys such a period, you’ll read many “how” pieces, and rightly so. We strive to understand, seeking formulas and best practices that explain success. Amid all of this, there’s one thing that stands out and makes this all the more remarkable because it confounds conventional wisdom.
Very few Liverpool players arrived at Anfield with an unquestioned, “can’t-miss” superstar label, something you simply don’t see very often at top clubs. That many of them now enjoy superstar status is a function of what they achieved at Liverpool, working with Jurgen Klopp and his staff.
The closest you get to guaranteed star signings are probably goalkeeper Alisson and central defender Virgil van Dijk. The former cost £56 million from Roma; he was the Brazil goalkeeper. But even with Alisson, we’re talking about a guy who had one season of European football under his belt and who, until 12 months earlier, had been Wojciech Szczesny’s backup in Serie A.
Van Dijk was the most expensive defender in history at £76m, but he came with a raft of caveats, which prompted other clubs to consider the fee way too high. He had suffered a serious injury the year before. He was 26, but had played for only Groningen, Celtic and Southampton and he had all of 16 caps for the Dutch national team. Both suggested that either he was the latest of bloomers or the myriad scouts and coaches who had watched him his entire career to that point didn’t appreciate his gifts.
It rather goes downhill from there.
Mohamed Salah had enjoyed two prolific seasons at Roma, but many still remembered him as the fruitless winger who couldn’t get a game at Chelsea. He arrived in the summer of 2017 and cost £37.5m. Between forwards and attacking midfielders, you’ll find no fewer than 20 who switched clubs between 2016 and 2018 for more money. Some of them understandably so (Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Romelu Lukaku), others less so (Hulk, Thomas Lemar, Alvaro Morata).
You can make a similar point for Salah’s teammates in the front three. Sadio Mane cost £37m from Southampton, where he’d scored 21 goals over two years as a clever winger. Roberto Firmino, who predates Klopp, arrived from TSG Hoffenheim, who had finished mid-table the previous two seasons. Liverpool signed him during the Copa America; he was 23 at the time and making his first competitive appearances for his country. Nice players and definite upsides, but not exactly two guys to bring traffic on Merseyside to a standstill with excitement.
The midfielders? Georginio Wijnaldum arrived from a relegated Newcastle side. Fabinho had enjoyed success at Monaco, but he was still a defensive midfielder with four Brazil caps to his name and who had already been discarded by a big club (Real Madrid). Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain offered a lot more in terms of name recognition, of course, but more in terms of unfulfilled promise. He was a 24-year-old winger who, between injuries and inconsistent performances, had started barely 20% of Arsenal’s league games over the previous six years. Again, a gamble.
Naby Keita was, on the other hand, eagerly anticipated, partly because Liverpool paid a whopping £53m for him, partly because they signed him a year before he actually arrived. But again, we’re not talking about a household name at the time, but rather another promising Red Bull alumnus. What’s more, in part due to injuries and in part to the play of teammates, he’s been somewhat peripheral to these two seasons of success.
Liverpool fans turn out en masse to celebrate their club’s first Premier League title since 1990 with pyrotechnics.
Need more examples? Jordan Henderson came nearly a decade ago as a promising kid from Sunderland, no more than that. Joe Gomez was a teenager from Charlton. Joel Matip, a free transfer from a Europa League-standard Schalke. Andy Robertson, a 23-year-old wingback from a relegated side who cost £8m plus bonuses. (Trent Alexander-Arnold, who, ironically, might end up being the single greatest player on this team, has of course been at the club since the age of 6, so he’s in his own category.)
You get the picture. Aside from 5000-to-1 fairytales, title-winning teams who excel for multiple seasons normally do so with stars who arrive as stars: last-piece-of-the-puzzle type guys. Not so with Liverpool. The vast majority of these players are stars now, but they became stars at Anfield, working under Klopp. Their résumés pre-Liverpool are generally unremarkable, at least at the highest level.
(Oh, I almost forgot: James Milner. He did have a glittering career before being signed by Brendan Rodgers as a free agent in 2015, a few months before Klopp’s arrival, and he’s been a spectacularly solid servant to the club. But as befits a man who has a parody Twitter account named @boringmilner, it’s safe to say nobody was thronging the streets in celebration when his move was announced.)
Much has been written about the Borussia Dortmund sides that Klopp built, and such parallels are often tricky. That was another era (particularly at the start of his reign) and another sporting landscape. The players he signed skewed younger and, with a few exceptions, even less heralded than at Anfield, which is understandable, given the differences in budget.
That said, there is one quirk that jumps out at you. With a few obvious exceptions (such as Robert Lewandowski and, to a degree, Mats Hummels), a number of players who excelled under Klopp at Dortmund struggled elsewhere. From Mario Gotze to Shinji Kagawa, from Nuri Sahin to Kevin Grosskreutz, from Neven Subotic to Lucas Barrios to even Henrikh Mkhitaryan, you’re struck by how many looked so good in the Klopposphere only to hit roadblocks once they moved on.
Is that also a Klopp effect? Did he make good players look like great ones? Will it happen if and when some of the current crop at Anfield leave, or is it just an irrelevant quirk and a tiny sample size?
All of this is a testament to the work Klopp and his staff have done. They not only made Liverpool greater than the sum of its parts, they made the individual parts better. And no, this isn’t simply a case of buying promising talent and watching it flourish, either. Any executive with enough money could buy a 20-year-old Kylian Mbappe, watch him score 50 goals at age 25 and take credit for his development. Not only were the vast majority of these guys not ready-made superstars when they arrived, they weren’t superstars-in-waiting, either. That they are now is down to Klopp and the environment Liverpool were able to create.
Klopp’s seeming ability to multiply the talents of his players feels positively biblical, like something out of the Wedding at Cana. It’s not the only facet that explains the the past two mind-blowing seasons at Anfield, but it might be the toughest for any club to emulate.