Jürgen Klopp had worked with Liverpool’s squad for only three days before his first game. As such, he could have been forgiven for sticking with the tactical setup and style used by his predecessor, Brendan Rodgers. Instead he went full-on gegenpressing from the get-go.
The team were organised in Klopp’s favoured 4-3-3 and ran themselves into the ground. Tottenham did not know what had hit them, literally at times, as their opponents pressed relentlessly. There was a thirst to win possession quickly and use it even quicker, and the afternoon ended with Liverpool covering more distance than they had in any previous game that season and becoming the first team to run further than Spurs had (116km to 114.8km).
The revolution was immediately under way but it was obvious there was work to do: Liverpool’s play was unrefined and out-and-out chaotic at times, and that remained the case for the rest of the season. The weaknesses were exposed in the two finals they reached, against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup and Sevilla in the Europa League, the latter an especially chastening occasion because defeat not only meant missing out on a trophy but on Champions League qualification.
Liverpool recorded this fourth league victory, and third in succession, early in Klopp’s first full season via a performance that well and truly showed the German was delivering on his promise of bringing heavy-metal football to Anfield.
The hosts were excellent against Mike Phelan’s Hull and key were two changes to the frontline: Roberto Firmino taking up a false 9 position, something introduced in the 4-1 victory at Manchester City the previous season, and the inclusion of Sadio Mané after his summer arrival from Southampton. Eyebrows were raised when Liverpool spent £30m on the Senegalese but he injected devastating speed and ruthlessness, and it was a measure of his importance that Liverpool’s pursuit of the title essentially collapsed while he was on Africa Cup of Nations duty.
Liverpool also signed Georginio Wijnaldum from Newcastle for £25m in the summer of 2016 and, like Mané, the midfielder played a significant role in the team securing Champions League football via a fourth-place finish.
Ask Liverpool supporters to name their favourite season under Klopp and it’s possible many would go for 2017-18 despite it ending with no trophies and a Champions League final defeat by Real Madrid in Kyiv. That’s because the football was thrilling from a team that signalled the glory to come.
Klopp had the high-energy, high-quality full-backs he had wanted since arriving in Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson – the latter an £8m purchase from Hull that highlighted Klopp’s shrewd eye for unheralded talent – and, crucially, a world-class centre-back in Virgil van Dijk, bought in January from Southampton for a club-record £75m, the deal funded with some of the £142m Barcelona had paid for Philippe Coutinho that month. The Brazilian was a big loss but Liverpool fans got over it because of the manner in which Van Dijk brought calm and order to the backline and allowed the team to play higher up the pitch with his outstanding positioning, awareness and pace. His was a gamechanging arrival.
Speaking of which, this was also the season Mohamed Salah joined from Roma for £36.9m and scored 44 goals in 52 appearances. The Egyptian completed one of the greatest frontlines in English football history, the trio demonstrating their prowess, individually and collectively, in February’s Champions League last-16 first leg thrashing of Porto. Mané scored a hat-trick while Salah and Firmino got one each.
Another season, another Champions League final and this time Liverpool triumphed. Among the most obvious reasons was a change in goalkeeper. Loris Karius had essentially cost Liverpool in Kyiv and Klopp, having been loyal to him and Simon Mignolet for some time, realised he needed a genuine, world-class No 1. Step forward Alisson, who arrived from Roma in July 2018 for £65m – essentially the remainder of the Coutinho money – and capped an excellent season with an excellent display against Tottenham in Madrid, pulling off eight saves.
Like Van Dijk, Alisson was a gamechanger, the Brazilian combining supreme technical ability and assurance with speed and positional awareness that meant he fitted seamlessly into a team that played with a high line.
Another important signing in the summer of 2018 was another Brazilian: Fabinho. Klopp appeared content with not deploying a specialist defensive midfielder but, after Emre Can’s departure for Juventus, he went and got one. Fabinho took time to settle after his arrival from Monaco for £40m but was fully established by the turn of the year, his athleticism, aggression and technical quality bringing greater security, in and out of possession, to a Liverpool side that had gone up a level, reflected not only in Europe but also at home where they racked up 97 points, missing out on the title to Manchester City by a point. It was the birth of Klopp’s “mentality monsters”.
The team that captured Liverpool’s first title in 30 years – as well as the Super Cup and Club World Cup – was essentially the same as from the previous season. They had momentum and belief and made it count, all but wrapping up the championship before the pandemic forced a break.
If there was one change it was in central defence. Joël Matip had been excellent alongside Van Dijk during the 2018-19 season but the following campaign serious knee and ankle injuries restricted him to 13 appearances. In his place came Joe Gomez, Van Dijk’s regular partner in 2018-19 until he sustained a serious ankle injury in December.
Gomez returned to full fitness and made 43 appearances in 2019-20, including in the victory against Crystal Palace on a warm evening at a near-empty Anfield that put Liverpool within touching distance of the title. They won it without playing again after Manchester City’s defeat by Chelsea the following evening.
Liverpool’s first season as champions since 1990-91 saw Klopp take on a firefighting role after he lost Van Dijk, Matip and Gomez to long-term injuries. With Dejan Lovren having also joined Zenit Saint Petersburg in the summer, the manager found himself in a hole at centre-back and tried various solutions, including deploying Jordan Henderson and Fabinho as a partnership. It led to the midfield, and the team, breaking down.
Klopp signed two defenders in January – Ben Davies from Preston for £1.6m and Ozan Kabak from Schalke on loan. The former never featured and the latter struggled in a side that lost their way, seen starkly with a run of six successive home league losses. A lack of crowds contributed to the slump and whereas there was nothing Klopp could do about that, he could solve the on-pitch deficiencies, turning to two academy graduates. Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams started together in central defence in each of the five end-of-season wins that secured Champions League qualification, among them a 4-2 victory at Old Trafford. The pair, aged 24 and 20 respectively, were raw but displayed maturity in trying circumstances.
Other factors contributed to Liverpool’s revival, including the displays of the summer arrivals Thiago Alcântara and Diogo Jota. And then there was Alisson’s header at the Hawthorns, an extraordinary moment that added to the sense of this being a one-off campaign in the Klopp timeline.
Klopp’s most recent season has been one in which his senior centre-backs have returned and, in general, he has been able to lean on the players who have served him so well for so long. But it has also seen a notable renewal of his resources.
That has been most striking in the frontline. Luis Díaz has been a revelation since arriving from Porto for £37m in January, his speed, skill, aggression and hard work making him a seamless fit. And such has been the Colombian’s impact that Klopp has moved Mané into a central position to accommodate the pair. Jota has also featured prominently, meaning Firmino increasingly finding himself on the sidelines, albeit in part because of injury.
In central defence Ibrahima Konaté has proved a towering presence after his £36m arrival from RB Leipzig, and in midfield Thiago has established himself as fundamental, his passing range bringing a new and, at times, stunning level of control and incisiveness. He and Fabinho are first-choice picks with Naby Keïta increasingly chosen ahead of Jordan Henderson as the third midfielder after Wijnaldum’s summer move to Paris Saint-Germain. The Dutchman’s departure also opened the door for Harvey Elliott to play more, something the 19-year-old grasped before a serious injury in September. Elliott has featured since and as with Alexander-Arnold, Phillips, Williams and Elliott’s fellow midfielder Curtis Jones, it speaks to the manager’s willingness to trust in the right young player at the right time.
This feels like Klopp’s third great team, after those of 2017-18 and 2018-20, exemplified in April’s FA Cup semi-final victory over Manchester City as Liverpool established a 3-0 lead through football as positive and purposeful as anything seen during the past seven years. Injuries permitting, the same XI could face Real Madrid in Paris as the team chase a third trophy, testimony not only to how much Liverpool have changed under Klopp but to how much more there is to come.