Watching Liverpool’s Awesome, Fretful Return to the Top of English Soccer

On a raw, windy night earlier this week, I went to watch Liverpool play its twenty-seventh match of the English Premier League season. The team had won twenty-five of its games and tied the other, against Manchester United, its traditional rival, which currently sits in fifth place in the league, an astonishing thirty-eight points behind Liverpool, the runaway leaders. Since August, Liverpool has not so much cruised through England’s most important and gruelling soccer competition as questioned its logic as a contest. The E.P.L. imagines itself as a hurly-burly, blood-and-thunder affair, in which less skilful teams can always find a way to topple the grandest opponents. And, in fairness, for the other nineteen teams in the league this season, that has been the case. But Liverpool has defied the rules that apply to everybody else. Leading up to Monday night’s match, the team had won seventeen E.P.L. games in a row and had not lost a league match at Anfield, its home stadium, for the best part of three years. Earlier in February, Liverpool had led the second-place team in the standings by twenty-five points, something that has never happened in a hundred and thirty-two years of professional soccer in England. Liverpool’s steamrolling of the E.P.L. this year has been the equivalent of Tiger Woods’s improbable demolition of the Masters, in 1997, or of a rider being half a day ahead in the Tour de France. “The gap is so insane, I don’t really understand it,” Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool’s coach, said, after the team narrowly beat Norwich City last week. Liverpool hasn’t always won by much this season, but it has pretty much always won.

This week’s visitor was West Ham, a fitful side from East London, whose coach, David Moyes, had not won a match at Anfield in fifteen attempts. Liverpool has a swarming, energetic style of play that is designed to catch opponents off guard. On Monday night, it took less than nine minutes for Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool’s precocious right back, to dig out a deep swerving cross, which Gini Wijnaldum, an all-action Dutch midfielder, headed low into the right-hand corner of the West Ham net. Afterward, some pundits said that Lukasz Fabianski, the West Ham goalkeeper, could have done better. But I was standing behind the goal—getting pawed and jostled and screamed at by Liverpool fans, who swore and thanked the dark heavens above, while Wijnaldum and Virgil van Dijk, the team’s captain and totem, broke out a celebratory dance on the windswept turf—and the header looked fast and true to me.

Liverpool was in front. But the lead didn’t last long. Three minutes later, to everybody’s amazement, West Ham scored a soft, headed goal of its own—a near-post nod by Issa Diop, the club’s tall French center back. On the sideline, Klopp, in a gray jacket, spectacles, and black tracksuit pants, made a frantic revolving motion with his hands—to indicate something obvious that his defenders were supposed to have done—and then threw them wide apart in the universal, post-verbal gesture of WTF. In a corner of Anfield, the West Ham fans, whose team is at risk of being relegated from the E.P.L., sang, “Now you’re going to believe us. Now you’re going to believe us. We’re going to win the league!” And everyone was still relaxed enough to laugh.

Liverpool’s success this year is how things used to be—and then weren’t. When I was growing up, in the eighties, Liverpool finished at the top of the First Division, the predecessor to the E.P.L., six times in ten years. Between 1977 and 1984, Liverpool also won the European Cup, the forerunner to the Champions League, four times—an unprecedented achievement for a British club. The team was built in the image of Bill Shankly, a charismatic Scot who managed the club from 1959 to 1974, then bequeathed it to his assistant, Bob Paisley, who hauled in trophies for the following nine years. “My idea was to build Liverpool into a bastion of invincibility. Had Napoleon had that idea, he would have conquered the bloody world,” Shankly once said. “I wanted Liverpool to be untouchable. My idea was to build Liverpool up and up until, eventually, everyone would have to submit and give in.”

I didn’t understand it, growing up as a middle-class boy in London, but Liverpool’s footballing power was—in part—an expression of its rage and despair as a city. “When I arrived at Anfield, it was the biggest slum in Liverpool,” Shankly also said. “You should have seen the place.” During the twentieth century, Liverpool suffered a frightening and, at times, vindictive decline from its former status as the prime port of the British Empire. In the late nineteenth century, it was fashionable to predict that Liverpool, which was exotic, futuristic, and commercially minded, would overtake London one day. In 1886, The Illustrated London News described the city as “the New York of Europe, a world-city rather than merely British provincial.’’ It had more embassies and foreign consulates than the capital. But the future passed Liverpool by. The port declined. Industry left. The Empire fell. Between 1930 and 2001, the city’s population was reduced by half. When its football club was at its zenith, Liverpool was cratering—a cultural and economic cast-off in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.

But you didn’t get any of that watching the Red Machine play on TV. The great Liverpool teams of the seventies and eighties were exuberant and cosmopolitan. They played with stylish, ball-carrying defenders, tigerish midfielders, and explosive wingers. “This will sound like a working-class sob story, because it is,” a friend of mine, who grew up in the city, told me. “We didn’t have anything, but we were fucking aristocrats when it came to the only two things that mattered, which were rock and roll and football.” Liverpool’s monopoly of the English game ended in tragedy. On April 15, 1989, ninety-four of the club’s supporters were killed in a stadium crush at Hillsborough stadium, in Sheffield. (Two more died later.) Liverpool won the league the following year. And then it couldn’t. At some point in the coming weeks, the club will return to the summit of English football for the first time in thirty years.

There have been moments, during the intervening decades, when it looked as if Liverpool might win the league again. In April, 2014, the club was three games from the title when Steven Gerrard, the team’s captain and pivotal figure of the previous decade, slipped while controlling a routine pass—allowing Chelsea to score and, ultimately, Manchester City to beat Liverpool to the trophy. In October, 2015, when Klopp took over the team, Liverpool was in tenth place. “History is great,” he said. “But only to remember.”

Klopp is one of the sport’s rare, genuine innovators. He spent most of his playing career in defense for Mainz, a club in the second tier of German football. For two years, he trained under a maverick coach, Wolfgang Frank, who schooled his defenders by making them watch hours of videos of A.C. Milan’s legendary back line, from the late eighties. When Klopp took charge of Mainz himself, in 2001, he pioneered a high-energy tactic known as gegenpressing—counter pressing—in which players, when they lose the ball, furiously rush to close down angles and areas of the pitch. Gegenpressing differs from other forms of pressing in its attack-mindedness and its determination to win back possession at the very moment the opposition has regained it. “The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team has just lost it,” Klopp has said. In Germany, Klopp led Borussia Dortmund, another great club that had fallen away, to consecutive Bundesliga titles, deposing the mighty Bayern Munich. When he arrived at Liverpool, he instigated gegenpressing immediately. The club’s star forward line, led by Mohamed Salah, often grabs the headlines, but most people acknowledge that Liverpool became serious E.P.L. contenders when Klopp assembled a fluid, formidable defense, anchored by van Dijk—who was signed from Southampton, for seventy-five million pounds, in December, 2017—and also Alisson Becker, the Brazilian goalkeeper, and its two fast, flat-crossing fullbacks, Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.

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