Liverpool begin the New Year in first place and are favourites to win the Premier League.
They ended their quest to become champions for the first time since 1990 in June and the triumph was masterminded by Jurgen Klopp.
DOMINIC KING, Sportsmail’s man on Merseyside, has followed Liverpool’s journey under the German every step of the way and as 2020 ends, he picks out his 10 defining moments that saw the club transform themselves from one that kept falling short to the one that sets the standards.
Liverpool begin the New Year in first place and are favourites to win the Premier League
They ended quest to be champions in June and triumph was masterminded by Jurgen Klopp
Fenway Sports Group always had a plan that involved Klopp. Back in May 2012, after Kenny Dalglish had been sacked, the German was on a longlist that included Andre Villas-Boas, Didier Deschamps, Roberto Martinez and, of course, Brendan Rodgers.
Another huge name in European football had his eyes on the job: Louis van Gaal. FSG had approached him to be Liverpool’s Director of Football after Damien Comolli’s sacking but in meetings with Van Gaal in Portugal, the Dutchman made it clear he wanted the biggest role.
It was never going to happen. Nor, at that time, was a move for Klopp, who had just won his second consecutive title with Borussia Dortmund. Ultimately, FSG went with Rodgers but they never stopped watching – or wanting – the man from the Black Forest.
Fenway Sports Group always had plan with Klopp in it – club owner John W Henry (front right)
(Left to right) Ex-Liverpool chief executive Ian Ayre, Linda Pizzuti Henry (wife of John), owner John W Henry, Klopp, chairman Tom Werner, and president Mike Gordon at Anfield in 2016
When Rodgers was jettisoned following a miserable start to the 2015-16 season, there were two choices: Carlo Ancelotti or Klopp. FSG spoke to Ancelotti but once Klopp had made it known he was ready to return to work, it was fait accompli. He would be the man for the FSG era.
His first press conference proved to be memorable. Famously, he told TV crews that he was ‘the Normal One’ but away from the cameras, sitting in a lounge in the Centenary Stand, Klopp jabbed his finger on a table repeatedly and made it clear what to expect from his Liverpool team.
Liverpool got their man in 2015 as German boss Klopp replaced Brendan Rodgers at the helm
‘I am not the guy who is going to shout “we are going to conquer the world!” or something like this,’ he said. ‘We will conquer the ball. Each f*****g time! We will chase the ball. We will run more, fight more. We will work more together. We will have better organisation than the other teams.’
The first time he met Liverpool’s squad at Melwood, he told them before the first training session that he had joined because he believed in their potential. The first impression could not have been more positive.
The first impression from the ex-Borussia Dortmund boss could not have been more positive
There were highs and lows in that first half season, the best moments came in Europe and an unexpected charge to the Europa League final. Liverpool, though, were second best against Sevilla and lost 3-1 in Basel, the second major final they had lost on Klopp’s watch in a matter of months.
A party had been planned at their hotel, the Novotel Basel City, but the mood was sombre when the entourage decamped. Then, around 1.30am, Klopp took a microphone and stood in the middle of the dancefloor to say a few words.
Liverpool were second best against Sevilla in 2016 Europa League final and lost 3-1 in Basel
‘It was s*** three hours ago and it s*** feels shit now,’ Klopp said. ‘But in the future, it will be better. This is just the start for us and we will play in many more finals. Remember: we are Liverpool.’
The speech was greeted with a huge cheers and the music carried on until day light. It proved to be an emotional evening, too, as a number of the squad knew this would be the last time they were together. A number of them would be sold as Klopp began to make his changes.
After the defeat, around 1.30am, Klopp took a microphone to deliver a rousing speech in hotel
GETTING TO WORK
The summer of 2016 was huge. Klopp made important appointments to his backroom staff, recruiting fitness guru Andreas Kornmayer and nutritionist Mona Nemmer from Bayern Munich. There were also statement signings in the shape of Sadio Mane (£30m) and Gini Wijnaldum (£25m).
Perhaps the biggest signing of all, though, was Klopp himself. FSG has been so impressed with his work, they had initially approached him in the January about ripping up the terms he had signed in October 2015. Klopp waited and, instead, committed to a six-year deal in June.
Liverpool spent much of their pre-season on the west coast of America, training at Stanford University. It was here Klopp really put his stamp on things, the complexity of his sessions challenging the players mentally as well as physically.
In the summer of 2016 Liverpool made statement signings, including star forward Sadio Mane
He also made it clear how there would be new levels of discipline. Mamadou Sakho was sent home from the tour for a number of breaches, including turning up late for a flight to San Francisco and showing a poor attitude in training. Klopp’s message was firm: there was no room for slacking.
America, however, provided the perfect preparation for the new campaign and they started by making their intentions clear: they won a rollercoaster game at Arsenal 4-3, with Mane scoring a quite magnificent goal. This was when the journey really started in earnest.
Reds started by making intentions clear: they beat Arsenal 4-3, with Mane scoring a stunner
THE MAJOR STEP
Having only played in the Champions League once since 2009, Liverpool’s first objective under Klopp was to qualify for Europe’s Premier competition. There were a number of eye-catching wins in the campaign and they got over the line by taking 10 points from the final 12.
A 3-0 win on the final day against Middlesbrough got the job done and Mike Gordon, Tom Werner and John W Henry – the axis of FSG – had front row seats in the new Main Stand, whooping and hollering with delight as Adam Lallana scored the clinching goal.
‘It is the best tournament in the world and Liverpool needs to be there consistently,’ said Klopp, whose team finished with 76 points. ‘We should do everything we can to change this. Now, with (sporting director) Michael Edwards, we will sit together and think about what we need.’
Liverpool qualified for the Champions League at the end of 2016-2017 and in that season had appointed Michael Edwards (L) to become the club’s first sporting director
THE EGYPTIAN KING
There are a number of ‘what if’ moments in Liverpool’s modern history: what if Julian Draxler had not asked for huge wages and instead gone to Paris Saint-Germain? What if Julian Brandt had not asked for assurances that he was going to start regularly if he was to leave Bayer Leverkusen?
What if Liverpool had signed Mohamed Salah from Basel in 2014, rather than missing out to Chelsea? Would he now be one of the world’s best forwards? Fate works in strange ways and it should be noted that Liverpool never stopped watching players if they miss out first time around.
Liverpool had missed out on the chance to sign forward Mohamed Salah to Chelsea in 2014
When things failed to work out for Salah at Chelsea and he went to Italy, where he had spells with Fiorentina and Roma, Barry Hunter, Liverpool’s chief scout, remained adamant that the Egyptian would be a huge hit at Anfield.
Liverpool had considered 15 options for the role on the right side of attack, to balance Mane on the left, but Salah was always at the head of the list. He arrived in the summer of 2017 for a club record £36.9million. He has consistently made a mockery of his price tag.
But they waited and the Egyptian star arrived in summer of 2017 for then club record £36.9m
Another signing would have arrived in 2017 – Virgil van Dijk. A well-documented fallout between Liverpool and Southampton delayed the move by four months but Klopp’s insistence that it was Van Dijk or nobody to command his defence ensured the Anfield club were patient.
Liverpool looked at other targets, including Kalidou Koulibaly, Aymeric Laporte and Davison Sanchez, but nobody had Van Dijk’s profile. Klopp was instrumental in making the deal happen, convincing the Holland international that he should come to Merseyside.
His signing was exactly what Liverpool needed. He cost £75million and this transfer screamed ambition. Jordan Henderson remembers being at Melwood the morning Van Dijk arrived on New Year’s Day 2018 and thinking as he walked in: ‘He’s going to be good.’ He’s been more than that.
Liverpool had to wait also for colossal defender Virgil van Dijk but snapped him up in 2018
Liverpool reached the Champions League final in May 2018 but, again, fell short against Real Madrid in Kiev. It can be argued that things might have been different had Salah not suffered a game-ending injury after being wrestled to the floor by Sergio Ramos but it is a moot point.
They were beaten and it actually proved to be the best defeat of Klopp’s reign because it stiffened the resolve of the squad. They had fallen short too many times and it was not a feeling they ever wanted to experience again.
Klopp called an impromptu meeting when the squad got back to Melwood in the early hours of the morning and told them to remember how far they had come as a group and that their best days were in front of them. It proved to be prophetic.
Liverpool lost to Real Madrid in Champions League final in 2018 with Salah going off injured
Goalkeeper Loris Karius had a night to forget – making mistakes for two of Real Madrid’s goals
For all the improvements Liverpool had made to their squad, one final area needed to be rectified: the goalkeeper. Events in Kiev proved as much, with Loris Karius making mistakes for two of Real Madrid’s goals.
Karius was subsequently discovered to have suffered concussion in the match but his performances had never convinced beforehand. So Liverpool, again, scoured the market and, as was the case with Van Dijk, went with the best available.
The decision to sell Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona for £144million enabled Liverpool to sign Van Dijk and Alisson Becker. Liverpool looked at Jan Oblak and Kepa Arrizabalaga, they had enquired about Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the summer of 2016. Alisson, however, had always been on the radar.
Following the events in Kiev Liverpool scoured the market and found No 1 Alisson Becker (R)
‘You have a number one list, a number two list,’ John Achterberg, Liverpool’s goalkeeping coach, told Sportsmail in July. ‘Mike Gordon decides if the money is available, the scouts look and then I tell the boss. I wrote to the boss and I said – the only one I would take is Ali.
‘It didn’t mean that it would happen. It was just he was the only one I would pay the money for.’
Liverpool did pay: £64.6million, to be precise. But in the last two years, Alisson has shown himself to be the best in the world and his saves in the biggest matches have made the difference between winning and losing.
Look at the trophies Liverpool have won with him in goal. His most important save of all was denying Arkadiusz Milik a crucial goal for Napoli in the 92nd minute at Anfield in December 2018. Had Milik scored, Liverpool would have been out. Instead, they went on to conquer Europe six months later.
Alisson’s saves in the biggest matches have made the difference between winning and losing
MIND OVER MATTER
Winning the Champions League in 2019 was huge for the club, as it helped them get the taste of success. Many wondered, however, whether being pipped to the Premier League by a point by Manchester City – after finishing with 98 themselves – would leave a mark.
Klopp is fastidious in paying attention to the smallest details, nonetheless. He had assembled a squad that was technically perfect, the best at Anfield since the glory days of the 1970s and 1980s, so it wasn’t a question of finding another player.
Instead, at the Grand Hotel in Evian, Klopp introduced his group to Sebastian Steudner, a World Champion surfer. He gave an inspirational talk and then took different members of the squad into a swimming pool to show them breathing techniques, aimed at controlling their thoughts.
Winning the Champions League in 2019 was huge, as it helped them get the taste of success
Klopp introduced his group to Sebastian Steudner, a World Champion surfer, following glory
Some may scoff at this making a difference but the amount of late goals Liverpool scored through the autumn of 2019, when they started to grab hold of the title race, was freakish. They had a relentless will to succeed and that mentality proved infectious.
Liverpool, eventually, were crowned champions with 99 points, smashing records along the way.
The title was a triumph for FSG’s ambition to pursue Klopp and it rewarded Klopp’s desire to revive a sleeping giant, while improving players on the way. It was plan that reaped spectacular dividends.
The amount of late goals Liverpool scored through the autumn of 2019 was freakish
Liverpool, eventually, were crowned champions with 99 points, smashing records along way