Liverpool FC: the club pioneering football’s post-modern era
How Klopp’s Liverpool is setting a marker for the future
Liverpool’s signing of Luis Diaz had almost gone unnoticed. The big story of winter transfer window was the task on hand for Newcastle United’s new owners as the club faced a relegation scrap. At the elite end, speculation on the anticipated transfers of Mbappe and Haaland was gathering steam.
The £37.5 coup of the Porto winger transpired rather quickly. With not much known about Diaz, it felt akin to the signing of Jota, another winger, in the previous season. Not a blockbuster signing, nor one driven by a desperate situation, but, one who could grow into something special. Liverpool fans had seen this with Jota. Diaz’ electric debut against Leicester had a sense of deja vu. He was exciting to watch, had potential, and had reached the place where he would grow. When we juxtapose this against Klopp’s recent and previous ruling out of big-money transfers for Haaland and Mbappe, we get a glimpse of how Liverpool is carving its unique post-modern identity, in a humble, pragmatic and sustainable manner.
For a club whose nadir came less than a decade ago, Liverpool has undertaken a remarkable transformation. How did it transform its identity? What makes it well-poised to adapt to the future? I present an analysis.
- : of, relating to, or being an era after a modern one
- : of, relating to, or being a theory that involves a radical reappraisal of modern assumptions about culture, identity, history, or language
For Klopp’s Liverpool, the terms radical and reappraisal, both play an equal part. The much-needed departure from their (unflattering) past was indeed radical. Others things were reappraised relatively slowly, but surely.
Liverpool’s transformation to its current reality, and evolution towards becoming a post-modern exemplar, I feel comes down to three themes.
Liverpool FC had lost its way in the Premier League era. The failed title challenge of 2013/14 (“Crystanbul” and “Slippy G”) and the squandering of Suarez’ sale money on a meme-worthy frontline of Balotelli-Borini-Lambert would’ve depressed even the most ardent fans. LFC had reached its lowest point. Midway through the 2015/16 season, Rodgers was sacked, and the “Normal One” was ushered in, from a club (Dortmund) whose challenger spirit had shaken-up the monotony of the Bundesliga.
In his press conference, Klopp openly set a target of winning a trophy within four years (his first trophy was indeed won after four years!).
The target articulated; Klopp’s immediate tasks seemed obvious: bring in his brand of football and rebuild the squad. Until the arrival of Guardiola a season later, Klopp’s gegenpressing based model was the most esoteric tactical import into the Premier League. While the tactical changes were implemented quickly, the personnel changes were more circumspect, to ensure that the right personnel were brought in. It would take 3–4 seasons to build up to their best squad which including buying Salah, and later Alisson and van Dijk — added to address specific, and gaping, defensive deficiencies.
The most radical shift was in terms of outlook.
Under Klopp, Liverpool made a clean break from its past. For clubs with long histories, this is not easy to do. As Klopp said in a brilliant club interview:
the history of this club is so big and it was all about winning, but it always caused the following generations problems because everybody thought, ‘we are just not good enough’…you will never be happy, so get rid of that”
Klopp talks about the pressure of historic expectations, and the importance of setting them aside in order to make a new start which suits the present circumstances and conditions. He credits the players and public for buying into this vision which allowed Liverpool to break cleanly from its past. Perhaps reaching a nadir before Klopp’s arrival, and acknowledgement of that, helped this transition. Today, there is rarely, if ever, a mention to historic achievement or rivalries. It’s about the present — always. The past is set aside — purposely. It is however is not forgotten entirely. Klopp had a rule that players could only touch the sign at Anfield after they had won a trophy.
Timely transition is the most important survival skill for a club. Just 50km apart, Manchester United find themselves struggling with just this. They are stuck in their glorious past and afflicted by the damaging hubris and sense of entitlement it brought. Their transition path is ironically blocked by their former greats. Three are popular commentators, and through that, exert an influence. SAF also has an almighty shadow. The links to the past are all-encompassing and have become a burden. FC Barcelona also failed to transition their ageing (and expensive) squad in time. Now, when a rebuild is required, they find themselves in a financial quagmire.
The right vision is nothing if not matched by style. Today’s audiences demand that their teams play, or attempt to play, beautiful football. LFC have a distinctive style, built around gegenpressing, a tactic invented (ironically) by interim United coach Ralf Rangnick but taken to heart by Klopp. The team uses a high-press to generate turnovers. Its front-three, aided by mobile full-backs forms a formidable attacking quintet. For anyone watching Liverpool, this style is visibly evident, validating Klopp’s “dream”:
“…we can play in any random shirt but if you watched us play you would say ‘Ah that’s Liverpool’”.
Comparison for LFC once again comes from Manchester, where Guardiola’s City, play with a stratospheric level of tactical sophistication. The concepts of Total Football are at the heart of both teams. Klopp is an admirer of Sacchi, who made AC Milan into the greatest club side of all time. Guardiola’s credentials come from his Cruyffian infusion and the aesthetic zenith that his Barcelona (2009–2011) side reached. Their execution strategies however are different. Liverpool relies on compressing the field to attack through the middle, while Guardiola uses width to expand attacking options. Guardiola’s tactics are more sophisticated. Liverpool’s tactics however are more “understandable” by the lay person.
Having a style which people can understand, makes a huge contribution to people’s perception of whether or not a team plays “good” football. LFC’s coherent “identity” on the pitch benefits its image immensely.
The equations guiding the today’s game are quite simple:
- Big Money = Trophies
- Trophies = Success
Liverpool have already re-appraised the concept of big-money. Its data driven approach to recruitment is acclaimed highly. While they have boldly broken records for Alisson and van Dijk, LFC’s model under Klopp has been to buy astutely, the right players — and not necessarily the biggest names, and develop them for maximum performance. As Gary Neville remarked begrudgingly yet succinctly, Klopp “has turned 50m players into 150m players”. While money makes every club go further, Liverpool is a club making money go further. As the game becomes more competitive, this is an important capability for the future. In a game characterized by greed and excesses, prudence and sustainability are standout virtues.
As competitions expand mindlessly and as clubs become more competitive, trophies will only get harder to come by. Except in one-horse leagues, no team can win a trophy every season. The demands of fans are also changing. While they always want trophies, they also demand good style. To be sure, trophies are important. The (sporting) aim of professional clubs is to win trophies.
Success however is more nuanced than trophies. Fans today are willing to temper trophy expectations if their team employs a good style and puts in honest, robust and technically proficient performances.
The antecedents of success are (becoming) just as important the final result. Importantly, while results can be influenced by external factors, including luck, the antecedents of success are fully under a club’s control. In his interview with Sky Sport, when questioned on Liverpool's lack of signings this season, this is precisely what Klopp was getting at:
“[we want to] give each team in the world a proper game and hopefully more often than not we can win these games and then it’s all good so let’s carry on…don’t compare with others”
While there is a clear emphasis on results, it’s ensconced in the broader context of being competitive. While trophies are important, success is just as much about setting a standard of honest robust performances every time and about satisfaction that comes from maturing visibly as a team. Success is about growth — growth tailored to the unique circumstances and aspirations of a club, rather than being merely a competition of comparative statistics.
While winning is the paramount aspiration the locus of control is noticeably internal. When Liverpool takes the field, fans (and neutrals) know they can, expect a robust performance with a coherent style — every time. This is precisely what fans pay for.
Klopp’s Liverpool has distilled the softer side of success co-related it crisply with satisfaction. Success is as much about satisfaction as it is about trophies. This re-appraisal of success is perhaps its greatest accomplishment, and one which will set a marker for clubs in the future.
Satisfaction through sustainable growth. This is the post-modern mantra Liverpool has pioneered.
“Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment, full effort is full victory.” — Mahatma Gandhi
Football is poised for big changes. Aesthetics, social responsibility, environmental emissions, humanitarian concerns — clubs are facing newer and higher expectations both on and off the field. The sensibilities of society are changing. Money, trophies and entering the “arms-race” for marquee signings will soon take second place. Moving away from sensationalism, fans of the post-modern era will favour wholesomeness and multi-dimensionality over racking up statistics or stacking up superstars.
The football club of the future will, above all, need to have likeability. A likeable brand, likeable coach, likeable players and a likeable ethos. To do this, clubs will need to get the fundamentals right. Success will have to be attained using the right values and the right processes.
A challenger spirit, a commitment to sustainable growth and a holistic re-definition of success. The Liverpool FC of today is a wholesome and likeable club. The club that made a radical break from the past to compete better in the modern era, is now setting the marker for the attributes that clubs will need to thrive, and indeed survive, in the new upcoming era.
In the Champions League quarterfinal where talisman Salah blanked, Diaz’s 87th minute strike gave Liverpool a 3–1 lead to take to Anfield. At the time of writing, Liverpool are three competitions. By Klopp’s own admission:
“we are not the favourites in one of the competitions we are in, but who cares, we will give it a try”
Liverpool’s title-deciding show-down with Manchester City is just a few hours away, followed by the UCL quarter-final and the FA Cup semi-final.
My original intention was to write this article after seeing the results of these games. However, I thought the better of it. Doing so would belittle the post-modernist shift that Liverpool has pioneered. Results influence judgements but who cares? Liverpool watchers know that their club will give it a try. Having this level of satisfaction is success in itself.