A Rebuilt Liverpool Hopes to Reach New Heights With Its Soul Intact

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At the start of the last Premier League season, Liverpool fans had some fun online passing around a picture labeled “Liverpool F.C. as a car.” The image showed one vehicle Frankensteined together from the parts of three: The front was a sports car, the center a boring family sedan and the back a rusted junker missing its wheels. And for the first half of last season, the image seemed to be a perfect metaphor for their team.

Liverpool’s attack, headlined by the transcendent Mohamed Salah and the almost-as-good Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino, blitzed through the league terrifying opposing defenses. The midfield, typified by the stereotypically English grit of Jordan Henderson and James Milner, did its job capably if unspectacularly.

But the defense? In many matches the back four appeared leaderless or, worse, confused. Whichever goalkeeper played was invariably shaky.

Over the past year, though, Liverpool has given itself a significant — and expensive — overhaul. In January, the club paid a record transfer fee for a defender in prying centerback Virgil van Dijk away from Southampton, and he backstopped the team en route to last season’s Champions League final. Liverpool paid another record price this summer, this time to add Roma’s Brazilian goalkeeper, Alisson Becker, and completed deals worth tens of millions more to bring Naby Keita (from Germany’s RB Leipzig) and Fabinho (most recently at Monaco) into a suddenly crowded midfield.

These days, when fans pass around pictures of Liverpool as a car, it is a sparkling new version, flawless and sleek. But as a new Premier League season opens this weekend, and as Liverpool looks back on a $210 million summer spending spree that capped a multiyear remaking of its roster, even Manager Jürgen Klopp knows that his team can only be bright, relentless and on the verge of greatness for so long.

“I know that people want to hear that I tell you we can win this or that, but I have no clue if we will win something,” Klopp said in an interview during his team’s preseason tour of the United States. “But we will go for it with all we have.”

Liverpool’s story is not just its transformation back into a swaggering, title-challenging club. It is of a club trying to remain identifiably local in a fully globalized sport — of attempting to thread the needle between Manchester United and Arsenal (owned by profit-maximizing Americans increasingly reviled by their own fans) or Manchester City and Chelsea (owned by foreign oil money) while still competing financially and on the field.

“We talk about having a local heart but a global pulse,” said Peter Moore, Liverpool’s chief executive. It is a cliché and a marketing catchphrase, sure, but in Liverpool it also rings of truth. “The city is opinionated. The city is unique. The city likes to be the People’s Republic of Liverpool. We think we are different.”

To see how far the club has come, though, first one has to go back a bit. In 2010, under the American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, Liverpool was one day away from bankruptcy when John W. Henry and his New England Sports Ventures, later renamed Fenway Sports Group, bought the club at a cut-rate price after its creditors went to court to force a sale.

Henry’s group found itself holding a proud franchise in disarray, a club whose manager and best player were both on their way out, and whose history-drenched stadium, Anfield, was in need of either repair or replacement.

The new ownership group made its share of missteps early on, squandering some of the good will it had earned simply by ousting Hicks and Gillett. It cycled through a couple of managers and sporting directors, and mostly failed to either identify elite players to acquire or to persuade them Liverpool was worth their time. There were high points, including a second-place Premier League finish in 2014, but Liverpool mostly fumbled around outside of the top-four Champions League places, retaining its big-club status mostly out of respect for its history.

The birth of the new Liverpool may have been Oct. 8, 2015, the day F.S.G. announced the hiring of Klopp, the former Borussia Dortmund manager. In less than three years, Klopp has become the exuberant, backslapping and hugging face of the club. His aggressive gegenpressing, or counterpressing, system is the key to Liverpool’s ruthless attack, and it can be a pleasure to watch — provided you’re not supporting the team being subjected to it.

But Klopp also has brought a focus to Liverpool’s transfer targets. With the help of Michael Edwards, the former head of analytics who has risen to become Liverpool’s sporting director, he has built a team capable of playing the way he wants it to play, and of challenging its more moneyed rivals.

That has allowed the club’s American owners to recede into the shadows, where they are more comfortable, to focus on the boring but necessary structural work. (Henry and F.S.G. declined to speak on the record for this article.)

Anfield has been redeveloped, increasing its capacity by 8,000. Ticket prices have been frozen for three years, with F.S.G. publicly apologizing for planned price increases several years ago that were met with widespread outrage. F.S.G. learned the hard way the value of sacrificing relative pocket change in matchday revenue in order to ensure that the fans kept coming and the lads kept singing.

There has been no magic formula to Liverpool’s on-field makeover, however: In the current arrangement, Klopp and his staff identify the players they want, Mike Gordon of F.S.G. approves the funds and then Edwards does the grinding work of acquiring them. “I don’t think that it makes sense that I call them — agents — and have a long process of about 500 phone calls for one player,” Klopp said. “That would really not fit in my day, to be honest.”

It is style, he hopes, that will put Liverpool over the top, and it is on that point that Klopp is uncompromising. Liverpool’s system relies heavily upon fitness, and making the various pressing triggers second nature involves a steep learning curve. But that aggressiveness can also be the system’s Achilles’ heel, because it can compel opponents — especially weaker ones — to bunker defensively, surrendering possession in favor of security.

In its six games against the three teams that eventually would be relegated from the Premier League last season, Liverpool had three draws and a loss. It was those results, as much as anything, that saw Liverpool finish fourth, behind Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham but also José Mourinho’s far-more-pragmatic Manchester United.

But Liverpool will never sacrifice its style, Klopp said, at least not as long as he calls the shots.

“I didn’t think about shifting tactics or whatever and starting something completely new,” Klopp said. “We have to improve in all departments. That’s how it is, and first of all we need to reach the level of last year again, then we need to show consistency, and then you can build on that. That’s the plan.”

So as long as Klopp stays on — his contract runs for four more seasons — playing with verve will be paramount. But while club officials loathe talking about it publicly, they know it is time to produce something to show for all the style, for all the goals, for all the spending. The club’s last trophy, after all, remains the 2012 League Cup.

Liverpool is not yet best team in the world, either; by Klopp’s own judgment it is not even the best in England. But it might be the most feared, and entering his third full season in charge, Klopp finally has a squad molded to his tastes.

Turning that into trophies, plural, will require an elaborate high-wire act. Liverpool’s brand of soccer must be exciting but also must produce wins. The club must increase global sponsorship revenue but remain recognizably local. The owners must meet the fans’ expectations but not at any cost.

The Liverpool car, in effect, must run perfectly, and look great while navigating sharp turns. It is a demand that the assured Klopp — whose team won more games by a score of 7-0 (two) than by 1-0 (one) last season — is still grappling to reconcile.

“The boys have to enjoy their football, we have to enjoy our football, otherwise it makes no sense,” he said during the U.S. tour. “We cannot only go for a 1-0 here, 1-0 there — I know if you win in the end, any silverware, people are probably happy. But the whole year was still rubbish.”

Two weeks later, writing in the program for the team’s final preseason match, he had seemingly reversed himself: “Don’t let the expectations grow somewhere because the PL is hard work and not flying football,” he wrote.

“It’s not about winning 5-0,” he added. “It’s much more about winning 1-0 five times.”

Original Article

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