A common theme in some of my favorite pieces of art is whether or not people truly change. Be it the light-hearted philosophy thought experiment The Good Place or the weighty Les Miserables, there’s a rich catalog to pore over as it concerns the idea of redemption and personal transformation.
Football teams, generally, pose a less slippery proposition when considering change. Often, certain managers may flex tactics over the course of a career, but their reputations cling to them. Mourinho: Master of the dark arts. Pep: King of Tiki-Taka. And, of course, our own Jurgen Klopp: Purveyor of heavy metal football.
Over the course of Klopp’s stewardship, we have watched as Liverpool have taken to his high-press, high-frenetic style of play. As we wound our way through the end of last season, it appeared that we had generally found the best possible version of Klopp’s Liverpool: irrepressible at the front with their swashbuckling trio and a bit prone to calamity at the back. The system, it seemed was built to privilege the world class attackers on the squad, tilting the entire set of tactics forward. Liverpool would live and die by the attack.
The previous season closing out in generally the same way, there wasn’t much in the offseason to suggest that things might be different for this year’s Liverpool. The attack would, presumably, still be scintillating even if we were to account for Mohamed Salah’s historic goal return to regress a bit. With additions like Xherdan Shaqiri and the much-anticipated Naby Keita to the midfield, there was every expectation that this year’s squad would likely look as incisive as it did in previous years.
But as the calendar turned through the end of 2018 it became clear that Klopp’s Liverpool had undergone a bit of a metamorphosis. With lists of 1-nil and 2-nil wins sprinkled across the results in 2018, it became clear that this was not going to be the same swashbuckling attack that we saw in the previous season.
The immediate response was that the front three were somehow misfiring. At some point this season, all three of Liverpool’s world class trio bore the brunt of blame. First, it was Mo who endured a rocky World Cup experience that included being wedged in the middle of messy geopolitical issues. Then it was Sadio Mane, who maybe looked to be pressing to fill the void of Salah’s downturn in production. And last but not far behind was Roberto Firmino, whose contributions as a striker extend beyond goals which is fine unless Liverpool aren’t throttling opponents 4-2 as they had in the past.
There was something wrong, it appeared with this group as they took on teams that were deeply organized. Despite the number of difficult wins adding up - and, of course, the point total leading to a rise in table position - there was an anxiety around Anfield that something felt a bit off. A frustration born out of just how easy the attack made it look last season.
What was happening under the surface, though, was a transformation of the squad. A shedding of that old way that tilted the field forward and one that is better-suited to slowly, but assuredly, picking the lock on tightly-drawn defenses. We didn’t know it, but the team was undergoing a metamorphosis.
As a Child of the Hodpocalypse, I’ve been cursed to see some terrible Liverpool squads. More, even when the team was doing relatively well, the sense of dread that this was all a façade never left. That meant that part of what made the highs of season like, say, Brendan Rodgers’ cardiac kids in 2013-2014, stand out was that they were elevated by the sense of deep anxiety and dread that came out of that team’s victories.
In fact, there are a few parallels one could make between Klopp’s 2017-2018 Liverpool and the one from 2013-2014, but perhaps the most intriguing one is that both teams were essentially dragged forward by the electric attack. The offensive play of both teams served to neutralize the many wobbly moments of their respective defensive units. It’s easy to forget now, but Suarez - like Salah - often needed to hang an obscene number of goals on the opposition because the backline was a bit of a sieve.
Even with the acquisition of Virgil Van Dijk shoring up the defense in the back half of last season, that old anxiety never truly left. It was a comfortable couch, a familiar face. It was always there.
But when we looked at the table come the new year, I think we had to finally allow ourselves to see with clear eyes: this Liverpool was a wholly different one from last season.
I don’t know yet if people really do change completely. I think that we are who are, our temperament being completely ingrained over years. That we don’t really unlearn things as much as learn new ways to deal with them. But I also know that you can teach an old dog new tricks. That you can find different paths to take that break up the old processes.
So, the same but different.
I think that goes the same for Liverpool. They’ve got the personnel in Van Dijk and Alisson Becker to expect to keep clean sheets. They’ve re-worked the tactics to ensure more solidity throughout. And now, instead of that deep anxiety that comes when facing a team that’ll play 10 men behind the ball for the full 90, this team has earned a sense of peace and serenity. Sure, they may run up against a squad where they may not pick that lock in time, but I don’t expect the other shoe to drop like I did in past seasons.
And that’s what stood out as the starkest difference in following this Liverpool squad: that even as they turned out a performance that looked like it belonged much more to last year’s team than this year’s, there was a deep calm. Because this is a professional squad with world class players. Whether it be a gritty and professional 1-nil win against Brighton Hove Albion, or a rollicking 4-3 scramble against Crystal Palace, I think this team is capable of nabbing a result each and every time out on the pitch.
There’s no accounting, of course, for luck and its fickle sense of favor. But for the things that it can control, this team does precisely that. Professional. Unflappable. A Liverpool in full ascendancy.