Three years ago, following the firing of Brendan Rodgers and the hiring of former Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool took to the pitch at White Hart Lane under new management.
Although there was hope he would improve the Reds short-term as well as long-term, most Reds didn’t appreciate just how much of a transformation, from top to bottom, that would entail. Unlike the past manager, Klopp fully put his faith in the recruitment team, and brought in backroom specialists ranging from nutritionists, to physios, to the much-derided (or at least derided by footballing dinosaurs) throw-in specialist, Thomas Grønnemark of FC Midtjylland fame.
But of course, Klopp didn’t just transform the backroom staff, but the most visible part of the club, the players who would be implementing his grand vision of how football should be played.
The Tottenham side that Klopp faced that first match lined-up with 9 players still on their books (most of whom would still be considered first-teamers): Lloris, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose, Dembele, Alli, Lamela, Eriksen, and Kane.
Of Liverpool’s starting XI that day, only James Milner would be considered a first-teamer. Divock Origi, Adam Lallana, Alberto Moreno, Nathaniel Clyne, and Simon Mignolet are still technically at the club, but aside from Lallana—whose effectiveness has been greatly diminished by a series of injuries—none of the other players would be part of Klopp’s plans, barring an injury crisis.
The other five starters? Mamadou Sakho was infamously bombed out of the squad mid-preseason tour during Klopp’s first full preseason. Martin Skrtel was sold to Turkey during the same summer. Lucas Leiva moved on a summer later for more playing time. And then there’s Emre Can and Philippe Coutinho (two players we’d still probably like to have around, but we all know how their departures unfolded).
Moving beyond the starting XI, the bench is even more telling about how far we’ve come as a club. Adam Bogdan was Mignolet’s understudy. Joe Allan and Jordon Ibe came on for Lallana and Coutinho, respectively. A well past his prime (though still loveable) Kolo Toure was the last senior (very senior) player on the bench. Jerome Sinclair, Joao Carlos Teixeira, and Connor Randall rounded out the 18.
Let’s compare this to our last match, coincidentally, also a 0-0 draw (against a MUCH better Manchester City squad). Klopp signings in bold:
Starting XI: Alisson Becker, Joe Gomez, Dejan Lovren, Virgil van Dijk, Andrew Robertson, Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino.
Bench: Mignolet, Joel Matip, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho, Naby Keita, Xherdan Shaqiri, Daniel Sturridge.
There are caveats, of course.
When Klopp came in, the likes of Lovren, Henderson, Firmino, and (naturally) Sturridge were injured. That’s not nothing. A similar number of injuries would likely see our current version of Sinclair on the bench. But equally, Klopp’s staff have done well to get the previously chronically injured likes of Henderson and Sturridge up, running, and an important part of the squad.
It’s impressive, and underrated, that Klopp took that first squad to two cup finals, and 45 minutes (plus or minus some handballs) from Champions League qualification.
However, the constant evolution of the squad, by coaching players up (when possible) and improving through the transfer market (when necessary) is even more impressive.
He took a squad that could occasionally show up on the day for a big performance, to one that consistently dominates football matches. One that was lucky to make it to a Europa League final, to one that deserved to make it to a Champions League final. One that looked up at the Top 4 as a target, to one that’s challenging for the top spot in the league.
While it’s true that Liverpool have not won anything yet under Kloppo, in some ways he’s already achieved more than many thought possible. It’s fair to say that he has brought us back to being an elite side, in England and beyond.
Unlike previous title tilts in 2008/09 and 2013/14, this season doesn’t feel like a flash in the pan. Klopp’s greatest accomplishment has been building the foundations for sustainable success, and doing it while playing a fantastic brand of football. We’ve come a long way since that first kickoff under Klopp three years ago, and long may this upward trajectory continue.