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Will Liverpool equal Manchester United's title record this season? What life is like back on the perch

(Image credit: FFT)

Liverpool had won the Premier League seven days earlier, but Jurgen Klopp was angry.

As the Reds’ boss stood pitchside at the Etihad Stadium, fielding questions from Sky Sports’ roving reporter Geoff Shreeves, his agitation grew greater with every passing second. No matter that Liverpool had become league champions for the first time in 30 years, and that Klopp had been the man to deliver it with no fewer than seven games to spare. No matter that he had been the happiest man in the world earlier that week. His team had just lost 4-0 against closest challengers Manchester City, and he was irritated.

Eventually, growing tired of the interview, he put his hands on his hips as if gearing up for a stand-off. Then he let rip. “If you want to lead this story in a direction that we were not focused on that match, then do it,” the Reds' head honcho hissed, misinterpreting an innocuous question as a grievous insult; a personal affront on his professionalism.

This feature first appeared in the Season Preview 2020/21 issue of FourFourTwo – subscribe today to get 5 issues for £5! (opens in new tab)

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Rarely has a moment of historic glory been followed quite so fast by a moment of such hide-behind-the-sofa, toe-curling discomfort. But there have been few greater insights into the relentless mentality of Jurgen Klopp.

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“The reason they’re going to be competing for a few years is because of that interview,” said pundit Roy Keane. “It was nothing to do with the questions he was being asked – he was just fuming because his team got beat.”

In fact, Klopp has brought that mentality into post-match games this season, too – as Keane himself discovered after Liverpool's 3-1 victory over Arsenal.

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Keane was part of the Manchester United generation that shifted the balance of power in English football, as Sir Alex Ferguson’s men surpassed Liverpool’s tally of 18 league titles and took the record to 20. After finally ending their long wait for a Premier League crown, Liverpool have the opportunity to draw level with their rivals once more this term.

At Anfield, the ambition is not just to land one crown, but to restore the dominance of their Boot Room days. With Manchester City around it will be far from easy, but as Klopp showed at the Etihad, he has no intention of letting standards drop in 2020/21.

Pedal to the metal

Only three bosses have managed to secure back-to-back Premier League titles: Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. For Jamie Carragher, Klopp’s prickly side is one reason why he has a chance of following that trio.

“He’s a terrible loser,” the former Liverpool defender tells FourFourTwo. “Thank God that Liverpool didn’t lose too often last season – when things haven’t gone well, you can see how much it means to him in his post-match interviews. Maybe supporters of other clubs look at him and think he can’t take it, but Pep is pretty similar, Ferguson was the same, and Mourinho as well.

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“That’s the type of mentality that Jurgen’s got, and that’s why I don’t see anyone within the club taking their foot off the pedal. One of his big strengths is motivation. I don’t see Liverpool falling away under Klopp.”

Ian Rush fired Liverpool to five First Division titles from 1981/90, en route to becoming the club’s all-time leading goalscorer. Alongside fellow hero Kenny Dalglish, he was a special guest at Anfield on the night the Reds lifted the Premier League trophy in late July.

(Image credit: Mag Issue 317)

“I was with Kenny when the players came into the boardroom afterwards,” Rush tells FFT. “They were all so excited, and it brought back memories of when we won the league. I thought, ‘Go and celebrate, you deserve it’.

“They won the Champions League but said, ‘We still haven’t won the league’ and raised the bar once again. That was down to Jurgen Klopp and his backroom staff – he’s done an absolutely incredible job. It was like the Holy Grail, because we’d been waiting for so long. The last time Liverpool won the league, I was playing – it had been that long. The younger generation must have been fed up of hearing their parents and grandparents saying, ‘I was there when Liverpool last won the title’. I’ve got two sons – one of them’s 30 – and they’d never seen Liverpool do it.

“The supporters can relax a little now and say, ‘All right, we’ve won the Premier League, let’s see how we can build on it’. Bob Paisley always said that the easiest thing is winning the league – the hardest thing is retaining it.”

The Merseyside giants won 13 league titles between 1964 and 1990. Roy Evans was at the club throughout those 26 years – first as a centre-back, then as part of the legendary Boot Room coaching team.

“I only played about 14 or 15 games for the first team – when they said they’d like me to join the coaching staff, I think there was a bit of a hidden message in there!” he chuckles, chatting to FFT.

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The 71-year-old witnessed first-hand how Liverpool became such a winning machine, triumphing season after season. Only once in 19 years did they finish outside the top two. The tone was set by Bill Shankly. “When he came to Liverpool, the whole thing changed – like with Jurgen now,” says Evans, who also managed the club between 1994 and 1998 and lifted the League Cup in 1995. “Winning mentality was all he ever talked about – and if you didn’t do the right thing, he’d tell you. He was right on top of everything.

“He was a bit like Chairman Mao – he made statements of fact. He’d say, ‘It’s a great day today’. You’d say, ‘It’s raining outside, boss’, but he’d just reaffirm, ‘It’s a great day today’ and you’d say, ‘OK!’ Then once you’ve won the first title, your belief changes.

“Bob Paisley took charge and was probably more successful than Bill in terms of what he won, but he was totally different as a person. Bob wasn’t the best speaker – he was a bit of a mumbler and couldn’t always get his words out – but we knew exactly what he wanted. The players understood him and if they didn’t, Ronnie Moran would be on their case.”

(Image credit: Mag issue 317)

Moran was on the coaching staff during the Boot Room era, and Rush also viewed him as a driving force behind that trophy-hoarding. “It was down to the coaches, and Ronnie was the worst,” he smiles. “I remember when we won the title once, Ronnie said, ‘Enjoy it now, because in three weeks and four days you’re back for pre-season training’. If you did take it easy over the summer, they’d be the ones to let you know, ‘That season’s gone now, forget about it – only remember it when you retire’. They were always trying to improve you, and Klopp does things very similarly.”

BVB: A running joke

In May 2011, all was eerily quiet as Borussia Dortmund’s team bus began to leave Werder Bremen’s Weserstadion.

Seven days earlier, Klopp had steered BVB to their first league title in nine years. No one had expected them to claim the Bundesliga that year, but they had sealed top spot with two matches remaining. Then they went to Bremen, and lost 2-0. “We all sat on the bus in silence, ashamed,” Sven Bender later said. “Thirty minutes in, everyone looked at each other and thought, ‘Have we lost our minds? Are we totally insane?’ We were German champions. Let’s sing!”

They sang for two hours on the trip back to Dortmund, but that early silence was telling – a sure sign that Klopp had instilled the same relentless mentality as he has at Liverpool. That Werder Bremen defeat hurt him, just like defeat at the Etihad did.

Dortmund got off to a bad start in 2011/12, losing three of their opening six games. They weren’t defeated again all season, and Klopp collected a second consecutive league title.

“We had a family environment at Dortmund and lots of repetition in our training sessions, which helped us bring the club back to the perch they had previously been on,” explains defender Felipe Santana, a member of that successful Dortmund squad. “We were very intense, and we had a goal of running 120km per match, which Klopp always demanded from us. That was the internal deal between the players and the coaching staff – when we achieved that number, Klopp would grant us some things, like more days of holiday at the end of the season.

“That agreement and results on the pitch helped to keep us going. In the first year, we won the league and created a big gap at the top of the table like Liverpool did last season. In the second season our plan was to double the intensity, because we knew other teams would try to replicate what we had done and neutralise us. If our initial winning recipe was running 120km per match, we then had to run 125km per match now that other teams would be copying us.

“It’s tough to start the next season at full speed when you’re champions, because you become the main target. We struggled a bit at home, but once we started to win games again and play well, the confidence quickly came back. When we went to Bayern Munich and beat them 1-0, we knew that we were back on track.

“Teamwork paid off, and Klopp took all the attention on himself. He took the pressure off the players’ shoulders. That was key for our second title. He managed the good and bad moments incredibly well.”

Dortmund registered a club record points total for two successive seasons: 75 from 34 games in 2010/11, then 81 in 2011/12, before 66 meant they came second to a resurgent Bayern in 2012/13.

Likewise, Klopp’s Liverpool have set a club record in each of the last two campaigns: 97 points in 2018/19, then 99 in 2019/20. Of the four highest tallies in the history of England’s top flight, Liverpool now have two of them – even if the first somehow wasn’t enough to usurp Manchester City.

Unusually, the Reds’ task in 2020/21 is not simply to defend the title and maintain their standards for a second consecutive season – it’s the harder challenge of staying consistent for a third season on the spin. Guardiola’s City found that difficult – racking up 100 points in 2017/18, then 98 in 2018/19, before dipping to 81 last time out.

“I saw a stat that if Liverpool get 88 points this coming season, no team will ever have picked up that many points three seasons in a row,” claims Carragher. Manchester United amassed 89, 87 and 90 – a mere 266 in total – across Cristiano Ronaldo’s last three years at Old Trafford before moving to Real Madrid.

Playing favourites

When the 2019/20 campaign finally ended on July 26, it was Manchester City who were instantly installed as bookmakers’ favourites for 2020/21 – even though Liverpool had just won the league by 18 points and City were losing David Silva after 10 years at the club. The Reds finished sixth in the post-lockdown table, but played most of those games after the title was already won.

(Image credit: Mag issue 317)

“City being made the favourites did surprise me,” admits Carragher. “Liverpool won the league by some distance and have only lost four league games in two years. City lost nine times last season, even if, on their day, they are almost the most impressive. They can hit six or seven goals in a game and completely dismantle the opposition – we saw that a lot after lockdown, against Burnley, Newcastle, Brighton and Norwich.

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“I’d expect it to be much more competitive this season. Normally, Pep teams get 90-plus points. Liverpool’s problem could be if they lose one of the front three – Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané – for a long period of time.

“Manchester United and Chelsea will both be better because of signings. Frank Lampard and his young players also have another 12 months of experience, and United have Bruno Fernandes for a full season – I think he could be one of the stars of the league.

“But I’m not sure they’ll get 95-plus points – well they can’t, not this season. They need Liverpool to drop 10 points, so maybe winning the title becomes 85 points – they may come into the equation if that happens. However, if Liverpool and City do what they normally do, there’s no chance for anyone else.”

Evans wouldn’t moan if the Premier League delivered a tighter title race this time around. “Dare I say it, you don’t want teams winning by nearly 20 points – unless it’s us,” he jokes. “Fans want to see great competition.”

Competition in the Liverpool squad remains important, too – something that was pivotal during their trophy-laden era.

“Even though we won the title, we always seemed to sign two players – an experienced one and a younger one,” explains Rush. “You need to keep everyone on their toes, to say, ‘You’ve got to maintain your high standards, otherwise you won’t be in the team’.

“But the Liverpool academy is so good now that they don’t need to sign a younger one. Curtis Jones is there, and I had Neco Williams when he was 14 in the Welsh team, because I’m the Welsh FA’s elite performance director. His passing was always perfect.

“Rhian Brewster went on loan to Swansea, and I’ve seen Harvey Elliott in training when I’ve visited Melwood – he looks good. Jurgen loves him, and he’s one of those managers where if you’re ready, you’re playing.

(Image credit: Mag Issue 317)

“It’s like a family whenever I’m at Melwood. It’s the same as when I played, with no big heads. The hardest thing is keeping players happy when they’re not playing – that’s the sign of a brilliant manager. Bob Paisley did it, and I think Jurgen Klopp does it.”

Captain Jordan Henderson, voted Football Writers’ Association player of the year, has an influential role, too. “Jordan’s a good egg – he used to be quite quiet, but he’s gained leadership qualities as he’s gone on,” adds Carragher, who played alongside Henderson when the midfielder joined the club.

Henderson’s 2011 arrival from Sunderland came weeks after Manchester United had taken Liverpool’s record for the most league crowns – one they had held since matching Arsenal in 1973. But some always feared that Klopp could turn the tide in the Reds’ favour. “I am worried,” Sir Alex Ferguson conceded back then. “It’s a good appointment.”

Not only did Klopp end Liverpool’s 30-year title drought, the over-excited German even called Ferguson at 3.30am on the night they were confirmed champions, as the squad celebrated at Formby Hall. Now, Manchester United’s record could be equalled this season.

“That would be massive,” says Carragher. “Liverpool could get their hands on a couple of titles in the next couple of years and get themselves above United, so it will be a big thing for United to try to stop them. A lot of people have been talking about Celtic going for 10 in a row in Scotland against Rangers – something similar could happen in the next year or two with Liverpool and United.”

Since 2009, only Guardiola’s City have been able to retain the title, so Liverpool face a tall order to repeat the dominance of their last triumphant era. A tall order, but still possible.

“There’s a chance they can do it – they have the right mixture of youth and experience,” insists Rush. “They’ve got players who are 28 or 29 and you can play until you’re 32, easy – then there’s youth coming through.

“They’re not going to win the league by so many points again – we have to get in the real world now, and the real world is going to be hard. Teams will want to beat Liverpool, but Ronnie Moran and Joe Fagan used to tell us, ‘They want to beat you because you’re the best, so show them you’re the best’.”

Jurgen Klopp could well be delivering a similar message to his team. Liverpool have been showing people they’re the best for some time now. Klopp is in no mood for that to stop.

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Chris joined FourFourTwo in 2015 and has reported from 20 countries, in places as varied as Jerusalem and the Arctic Circle. He's interviewed Pele, Zlatan and Santa Claus (it's a long story), as well as covering Euro 2020 and the Clasico. He previously spent 10 years as a newspaper journalist, and completed the 92 in 2017.