A new dawn for Liverpool as perennial underdogs face the test of champions

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It’s a new dawn for Liverpool in 2020/21, as they are no longer the challenger but rather the team with a sizeable target on their back as they seek to hold onto their crown.

“The history in the backpack,” as Jurgen Klopp aptly described on his coronation day, is now firmly unloaded as his Liverpool side continue to forge ahead with etching their own successful chapter into the club’s history books.

And by ending the 30-year wait for a league title, the narrative has now swiftly been flipped on its head.

Inquisitions of ‘is this Liverpool’s year?’ have now been replaced with ‘are Liverpool capable of defending their title?’

A frightening level of consistency saw the Reds steamroll their opposition to the crown, setting a new benchmark by wrapping it up with seven games in hand.

But underdogs no more. Liverpool are now leading the pack and have a handful of clubs throwing their weight around to make up ground.

The challenge for the Reds now is to continue to evolve under a new set of circumstances, as reigning champions with a relentless schedule in a season which continues to go against the grain as the world remains in a battle with the coronavirus.

 

Underdog champions?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, July 22, 2020: Liverpool's captain Jordan Henderson (C) celebrate with Virgil van Dijk and the Premier League trophy as the Reds are crowned Champions after the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC at Anfield. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Days after Liverpool were officially out of sight and the 19th league title was wrapped up following Man City’s slip-up at Chelsea, Klopp swiftly laid the foundations for what was to come next.

We will not defend the title next year,” he insisted, “we will attack the next one.”

The manager has always been one to look to disarm those outside the club’s four walls and resist any narrative thrown his way.

But there can be no hiding from the fact that this is uncharted territory for the Reds, both being English champions and the hunted rather than the hunters.

An underdog mentality has served Klopp’s side tremendously well, with the riches and dominance of Man City providing a key source of motivation while also serving as a formidable benchmark.

It has acted as an invaluable source of fuel for the team’s effort and focus, one which aims to avoid the hype and release the pressure valve and the weight of expectation.

And while a similar state of mind can be adopted in 2020/21, the outside perception is firmly that Liverpool are the kings of the land and are there to be toppled – a title to be lost rather than won.

That in itself presents an entirely new set of circumstances to navigate. In a results business, wins, draws and losses govern the game, and performances are secondary as all eyes will be on Liverpool’s ability to set the pace once more.

And that is where the first trap door can be hidden.

SALZBURG, AUSTRIA - Tuesday, August 25, 2020: Liverpool's Joe Gomez during a preseason friendly match between FC Red Bull Salzburg and Liverpool FC at the Red Bull Arena. (Pic by Propaganda)

An underdog mentality dominates a team identity, an emotional motivator which focuses on the processes of achieving success, of proving the doubters wrong, of maintaining a keen attention to detail and focusing on the present with one challenge at a time.

And so any slip-up in focusing solely on an outcome becomes a distraction, one which causes a shift away from the behaviour which propels the mindset.

Klopp has seen his side adopt the underdog mentality and uses every opportunity he can to extrinsically reinforce it, as he did by stating the Reds will “attack” the title in 2020/21.

Joe Gomez’s words before the reigning European champions met Atletico Madrid last season provide the ideal case in point for how he has seen his players intrinsically adopt it.

“It’s just about establishing yourself. You aren’t proven winners until you show you can do it again and again,” he said.

“People might say, ‘oh yeah, they’re performing well’, but as a team we have still got an underdog mentality.”

Should it remain central to Liverpool’s title bid over the coming season, the new challenge for the boss is to ensure he keeps the fire burning brightly as the Reds now respond to being the title-holders instead of the challengers.

 

Few fresh faces

Liverpool players react during the Community Shield at Wembley Stadium, London. ( Andrew Couldridge/PA Wire/PA Images)

Liverpool will be straight into the fire as they meet Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United on opening day, the first stern competitive test of their credentials since Atletico Madrid in March and the first ‘meaningful’ game since meeting Crystal Palace in June.

Such was their precession to the title, the Reds played without pressure or the need to be at their barnstorming best for the best part of 2020, with the title win having been a case of when not if.

Klopp’s side have justifiably had their foot off the gas, and as such have looked a shadow of their frightening best.

Coupled with the absence of fans in stadia due to the pandemic, Liverpool’s drop in intensity was duly noted. But at the end of the day, it didn’t really matter.

However, come dusk on September 12, a rise in intensity becomes a non-negotiable.

The pressure of a new season as the reigning champions comes into play and judgment day will come.

Liverpool will need to be switched on against the newly promoted outfit, one which operates on a similar ethos of intensity and suffocating their opponent. There will be no choice for Liverpool but to push off their heels and be on their toes.

SALZBURG, AUSTRIA - Tuesday, August 25, 2020: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp during the pre-match warm-up before a preseason friendly match between FC Red Bull Salzburg and Liverpool FC at the Red Bull Arena. (Pic by Propaganda)

But while Liverpool quietly plots their season ahead, rivals have made a splash in the transfer market aiming to catch up, which has become the main gripe among supporters as a position of strength has yet to be capitalised on.

“The lack of signings does slightly worry me, just purely for the sake of fresh faces coming into the dressing room and how much of a huge boost it could be for everyone,” Keifer MacDonald (@KeiferMacd) told This Is Anfield.

“It won’t be the making or breaking of Liverpool, but if the signings are there and they make sense to pursue (Thiago), then I’m all for it.”

Kostas Tsimikas has been the only incoming in a summer like no other, when Liverpool have opted to tread carefully in a volatile financial landscape rather than act like a bull in a china shop.

The club have been firm in their desire to be self-sustaining, ensuring a £27 million move for Thiago has consistently been mooted with the caveat of a departure, in the form of Gini Wijnaldum, with further outgoings key to incomings.

Frustration has simmered for many in response, as Liverpool look to wait out the financial ramifications of the pandemic and push on with their retention policy.

SALZBURG, AUSTRIA - Tuesday, August 25, 2020: Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum during a preseason friendly match between FC Red Bull Salzburg and Liverpool FC at the Red Bull Arena. (Pic by Propaganda)

Despite the early indication of creating “internal transfers” through the likes of Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott and Neco Williams, a significant reason for pessimism comes from a lack of internal pressure in key positions.

For a number of seasons, Liverpool’s first-choice XI has been a consistent one, with only the midfield providing a selection headache for Klopp.

It has paid dividends and is a world-beater, with the manager’s desire to prioritise squad harmony paramount to the success – with no risks taken over potentially destabilising an element which underpins the Reds’ rise to the top.

However, the competition for places, or lack thereof, in key departments, and the inability, so far, to freshen up the squad, has raised questions over the champions as they look to compete at the highest level for yet another season.

While there is no doubting the expertise of Michael Edwards and Co. in the transfer market, and there is still over three weeks in the window, the intangible aspect of greater rotation options, new competition and the pressure it brings has yet to be addressed.

Although Andy Robertson now finds himself with specialist left-back at his heels, the Scot perfectly surmised the importance of new signings back in 2018:

“If there’s competition in training then the training is intense, and then you have the pressure of a weekend that if you don’t put in good performances then your place is maybe up for grabs.”

While such threat exists in midfield, the likes of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino are all acutely aware that their spot in the XI is all but guaranteed with the exception of injury and suspension.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, July 5, 2020: Liverpool’s Sadio Mané (C) celebrates scoring the first goal with team-mates Mohamed Salah (L) and Roberto Firmino (R) during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Aston Villa FC at Anfield. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

There is certainly an argument that few realistic targets can provide a real threat in displacing the front three, but the drop-off to current options is too vast and does keep the door ajar for complacency and staleness to creep in.

The pursuit of Timo Werner, which came undone due to the pandemic, was case in point, but a player of his quality would have also been able to bridge the drop-off in output during vital rest periods throughout what will be a taxing 2020/21 season.

“Right now, I would be concerned if Liverpool’s squad started the season as is,” supporter John O’Sullivan (@NotoriousJOS) told This Is Anfield.

“But Tsimikas – a player whose signing seems to have been drowned out by a sea of whinging about the lack of other signings – will surely prove a shrewd acquisition

“Further additions would be welcomed in the front three and at centre-half. Ismaila Sarr would be a good attacking option who, at 22 years of age, has the scope to improve further.

“In many ways, certain Liverpool players need to be protected from themselves and any signings that can afford them the rest to let them bring their A-game more often will be worthwhile.

“But let’s not use the idea that a few signings would be beneficial detract from the fact that this squad is brilliant. But fresh blood would certainly be welcomed.”

SALZBURG, AUSTRIA - Tuesday, August 25, 2020: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp prepares to bring on five substitutes during a preseason friendly match between FC Red Bull Salzburg and Liverpool FC at the Red Bull Arena. (Pic by Propaganda)

Liverpool and Klopp are not in the business of spending for the sake of it, and while there are justifiable concerns for the lack of transfer activity so far, as Keifer and John both noted, the Reds are reigning champions for a reason.

Rivals strengthening plays no part in Liverpool’s team becoming stale overnight, it just means Klopp needs to continue the process of evolution within his side after two remarkable campaigns that saw no punches held back in the pursuit of the holy grail.

 

Going again

LONDON, ENGLAND - Saturday, January 11, 2020: Liverpool's captain Jordan Henderson celebrates after the FA Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur FC and Liverpool FC at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Liverpool won 1-0. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It all begs the question of consistency.

The Reds have set a frightening pace in the Premier League over the last few years, sustaining two back-to-back 90+ point seasons.

In that time, Klopp’s side have tasted defeat just four times in their last 76 top-flight games and amassed 196 points from a possible 228.

Such levels of output typically result in a downward trend – see Chelsea 2004 to 2006 and Man City 2017 to 2019 – and the intangibles of hunger and desire come into question – not to mention general physical and mental fatigue.

Few will expect such a procession in 2020/21 such is the relentless schedule of squeezing in four different competitions in addition to international fixtures in a shorter time, and Liverpool’s evolution will need to continue – with or without new faces.

“It’s difficult to envision Liverpool winning the title by such a margin again, but they’ll certainly be there or thereabouts again next term,” John added.

“With the crazily compressed nature of the season to come rotation will be a recurring theme and with that will come inconsistency, but that will be across the board and the Reds – along with City – are best placed to weather that specific storm.”

Pep Lijnders was eager to stress in the off-season that the team need to “remain unpredictable” if they are to build on their foundations of success, with negating the opposition’s ability to stop Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold at source key.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Saturday, August 29, 2020: Liverpool’s Takumi Minamino celebrates after scoring an equalising goal to level the score at 1-1, his first goal for the club, during the FA Community Shield match between FA Premier League Champions Liverpool FC and FA Cup Winners Arsenal FC. The game was played behind closed doors. (Credit: Lynne Cameron/The FA)

The full-back pair are the creative hub of the side, but a new edge to propel attacks is required and the “freedom that gives colour to our game” that he later touched on nods to the potential influence of Naby Keita and Takumi Minamino this season.

The pair both benefited from the breaks in 2020, returning as stronger players who, clear to the eye, finally feel comfortable and at home in the setup.

With Liverpool’s midfield known for its industry rather than its creativity, the two offer experienced options who are now embedded into the side – ones who can operate in a 4-2-3-1 formation as seen throughout pre-season.

This is a system which Klopp was well known for using at Borussia Dortmund and has used sporadically during his Anfield tutelage so far, and one which can play into the hands of the players at his disposal.

For John, “it could stave off stasis, give the opposition a new organisational headache and be a means to fit Mane, Firmino, Salah and Minamino into the team,” while Keifer feels “it could help Bobby find some of his best football again, if he is able to play centrally in that No. 10 role.”

The boss has already acknowledged that Liverpool “can be more stable, more creative, have better solutions and react quicker,” as “when other teams develop, we have to develop.”

There is no doubt that Liverpool are battle-hardened and now firmly have the know-how to win trophies, the question now is how they handle a different pressure war.

Consistency will be key and it has not escaped the mind of Klopp, as he concluded: “The good thing is the consistency level we showed so far, now the challenge is to keep that.”

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