Laurence Reid analyses the balance Jurgen Klopp has created at Liverpool and the how Philippe Coutinho’s departure propelled the Reds to the top.
When Liverpool allowed Philippe Coutinho to depart for Barcelona in January 2018 it seemed like a sign of regression. Jurgen Klopp was building something exciting at Anfield but surely the loss of their only obvious world-class star would dash that process?
It might have also been a slight on the self-hyped Premier League – another of its best entertainers was opting to ply his trade in the more technically demanding Spanish league.
The club earned a king’s ransom for Coutinho but fans don’t care about bank balances – they want to see talent on the field. What positives could they take from the loss of The Magician?
Two seasons later, Liverpool are two games or a pen stroke away from being declared champions and English teams dominate European football as only Spanish clubs have done before.
Selling the Brazilian midfielder solved two problems for Klopp: it funded purchases for the two positions he knew he had to strengthen and it removed the luxury player who upset the balance of his team.
Those who accuse Liverpool of buying success miss the point. The club did spend eye-watering sums on a centre-half and goalkeeper, but Jurgen Klopp’s net spend at Liverpool is less than £75m.
For context, in the same period, Manchester City’s net spend is over £500m, United’s is £380m, Barcelona’s is £320m and Real Madrid’s is an uncharacteristically conservative £195m. Even without the Coutinho money, Liverpool’s net spend is lower than most mid-table English sides.
So how have they managed this success? The Moneyball comparisons are difficult to resist, especially with John Henry’s ownership of the club.
Jurgen Klopp has expertly blended a group of good and very good players to form a great team.
Most people point to their free-scoring trident up front but if great strikers alone won league championships then Messrs Fowler, Owen, Torres and the axis of Suarez-Sturridge-Sterling would have ended Liverpool’s wait for a title long before now.
Mo Salah might be the single selfish link in the chain. Dozens of times this season he’s gone solo where a pass seemed preferable. His assist statistics would refute this accusation, however. Beside Salah are the equally prolific Mane and the genuinely unselfish Firmino. Together they are the most deadly attacking force in football, yet none of these players arrived on Merseyside with the calibre of a European or World Champion.
As sweeper-keepers go, Alisson Becker joins Ederson in being far less flaky than most but he’s no unassailable wall. Look to Jan Oblak for that. His two displays of agility and unlikely shot-stopping for Atlético Madrid marked Liverpool’s only real disappointment this season.
But Alisson does what Klopp needs him to do.
At the back, Virgil van Dijk is the fabled Rolls Royce defender that English football has spoken about without possessing in living memory. Some Manchester United fans produced statistics to suggest their Harry Maguire might be the better player. That laughable notion should have been put to rest when van Dijk effortlessly outmuscled Maguire to score the opener in the most recent Liverpool-United match.
The Dutchman’s supremacy wasn’t always undisputed. Furthermore, Southampton’s reluctance to deal with Liverpool at the time meant City, United or Chelsea could have sneaked in to grab van Dijk if they had rated him highly enough.
Beside van Dijk, Klopp is presented with his only real headache. Joe Gomez seems the most stable partner, Joel Matip gets by, and if Dejan Lovren was half as good as he thinks he is then he’d be twice the player he is. Expect this to be Klopp’s next area for improvement.
At left-back, Liverpool’s only viable option is Andy Robertson. Some cite him as the best in the world, but this is a player who, after being released by Celtic, barely stood out as a youngster playing in the fourth tier of Scottish football or even in his early twenties playing for Dundee United in the SPL.
He seemed to have found his level at Hull City before Klopp paid £8m to take him to Anfield. Watch him toil for Scotland without Mane in front of him and then tell me he’s the heir to Marcelo. But that’s the point: he does exactly what the Liverpool manager needs him to do and he does it very well indeed.
Liverpool’s other first choice full-back might be a genuine boy wonder. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s statistics to date are very similar to Robertson’s but he has the potential to go stratospheric. Where the Manchester clubs spent half a billion between them on full-backs, Klopp was brave enough to pluck a kid from the academy.
The midfield is said to be the engine room of any team. Games are won and lost in the midfield. Ask yourself then, would Liverpool’s rivals, foreign or domestic, rush to swap their stars for any of Henderson, Wijnaldum or Fabinho? Probably not and more fool them.
Whichever three players Klopp picks in the centre, they bring more industry than skill, but that’s what his system requires.
Is there a Coutinho-shaped hole in Liverpool’s midfield? Oddly, no. Things didn’t work out for the Brazilian at Barcelona and it doesn’t look like he’ll fare much better at Bayern Munich. Jurgen Klopp told them that would happen.
For this reason, reports linking this player or players like Paulo Dybala to Liverpool are almost certainly works of speculative fiction. The German knows better than to upset his team.
Fans of Barcelona and Real Madrid crave superstars. Club Presidents appease them, paying a premium to buy up the headline-grabbing players from across Europe and South America, regardless of whether or not they fit their system and style.
You might argue that Manchester United have fallen into this trap, just as Chelsea and Manchester City once did.
Expensive new faces bring hope. Sometimes it’s the desperate hope of a gambler chasing his losses.
Jurgen Klopp isn’t gambling. He picks the players he knows will compliment each other and he’s making a habit of showing up teams of expensively assembled globetrotters. That’s why you won’t see any prima donnas arrive at Anfield in the near future.