The Triumph of Merseyball: How Liverpool Won the Premier League

LIVERPOOL, England — Gingerly, Liverpool’s players clasped each other’s hands and turned toward the Kop, Anfield’s iconic, sweeping grandstand. Many of them felt awkward, unsure. They had never done this before. Some wanted to leave the field as soon as possible; all they had done was draw at home with West Bromwich Albion. The point they had earned had moved them up to ninth in the Premier League table.

But Jürgen Klopp, their new manager, was insistent. He had noticed, in the previous few weeks near the end of 2015, how fans streamed out of Anfield long before the full-time whistle. He understood that the traffic tended to snarl, and that people had to get home, but he wanted them to linger a little longer, to feel that there was a reason to stay.

This was how he would do it, for now. He would walk his players, strung out across the field, toward the Kop, where they would offer their thanks to the fans. It was a common sight in Germany, where Klopp had made his name and career, but rarely seen in England. The players were uneasy, almost coquettish. The fans were a little bemused.

To outsiders, the whole scene was laughable. Liverpool, a team that used to win championships and European Cups, celebrating a draw at home to the team in 13th place? It was the perfect illustration of how far the club had fallen. To Klopp, though, it said something else. Two things, actually.

First, that his team and their fans would nurture and cherish their bond. And second, that just because something was not a tradition did not mean it could not become one. Doing things the way they had always been done did not mean it was the right, or the only, way to do them.

Credit…Phil Noble/Reuters

The morning after what was — until recently — the greatest night in Liverpool’s modern history, as tens of thousands of fans drifted toward the city and toward Anfield, to celebrate, the doors on the club’s official store remained locked. The windows were shuttered. There was nobody around to open up.

It was late May 2005, and the shop staff was, instead, several thousand miles away, in Turkey, coming to terms with what they had just seen: the greatest Champions League final of them all, Liverpool’s fifth European Cup, the Miracle of Istanbul. The club had flown all of its employees to Turkey for the game. It had not wanted them to miss the occasion.

At its heart, of course, it was a kind, caring gesture, but that lack of foresight was telling. From a business perspective, that morning after, as Liverpool swelled for a victory parade, represented an unrivaled commercial opportunity, the sort of chance a modern sports team could not afford to miss.

But then, for much of the 30-year interregnum between the club’s English championships, Liverpool has hardly been the archetype of a modern sports team. Before European soccer’s rebirth in the early 1990s — the dawning of the Premier League and the Champions League, the melting away of borders, the rampant march of commercialization — what had made Liverpool successful was its sense of self.

Credit…Phil Noble/Reuters

Through the last three decades, that was eroded to the point of oblivion. Liverpool thrashed and veered, searching for an identity, searching for a place. It appointed young managers and experienced managers, club icons and ultimate outsiders. At one point, it even had two managers at once. It looked to leaders who could make the team more resolute, and to those who could make the team more attractive.

As it fought to stay afloat on the field, it struggled to keep up off it. As Manchester United opened superstores at Old Trafford and set out to build an international brand, Liverpool seemed to coil inward, too coy or too proud or too slow to hawk itself to sponsors.

While its rivals redesigned their stadiums or moved into sleek new homes, Liverpool dithered and dallied. The Centenary Stand at Anfield, opened in 1992, spoke of a club of limited horizons: a stand for what the club had needed previously, not for what it might need in the future. It was outdated almost as soon as it was finished.

Financially, Liverpool could no longer compete. A club that had once only needed to flutter its eyelashes to attract players, one that was always a destination, was too slow, too cumbersome and, to some extent, too poor for the increasingly cutthroat global transfer market.

Idols ran down their contracts, handed in transfer requests, agitated to leave. Recruiting their replacements was haphazard. Sometimes, it lacked money. Mostly, it lacked nous and connections. Above all else, it lacked an identity. Liverpool did not know what it wanted to be.

Even when it tried to modernize, it failed. When it raised the prospect of building a new stadium, the plans were rejected, once, twice, three times. When it tried to find a new owner, someone with pockets deep enough to compete with the oligarchs and the sheikhs and the vulture capitalists descending on English soccer, it chose two Americans, Tom Hicks and George Gillett. They promised a spade in the ground for a stadium but instead used it to dig a grave.

Credit…Phil Noble/Reuters

In 2010, Liverpool came within a whisker of bankruptcy. There was, for a time, a chance the club would cease to exist. In some ways, it already had. What Liverpool once was, what it had been, seemed to be gone forever. The club had been adrift for so long that it was hard to conceive how it might pick its way back.

A decade later, Liverpool stands as champion of England, champion of Europe and champion of the world. It has never held all three of those titles simultaneously. When the most recent was confirmed, on Thursday night, Liverpool’s social media team had a suite of videos ready. One unveiled an official line of merchandise to celebrate the championship.

Liverpool is not the sort of club, not the sort of business, to miss an opportunity like this. Not anymore.

Credit…Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the 66 days that John Henry and the rest of Fenway Sports Group spent poring over Liverpool’s books, assessing whether it made sense to take over this ailing club in this sport they did not understand, he could not help but notice the parallels between Liverpool and the other team in his growing sports empire.

Just like Liverpool, the Boston Red Sox had seemed destined never to win a championship again. The club’s 86-year wait for a World Series had been rooted, so the myth ran, in the so-called Curse of the Bambino. Henry and his group had ended that in 2004. He believed they could do the same for Liverpool. After all, he said, they had developed “a unique skill set for breaking curses.”

Central to it, of course, is the fact that Henry does not believe in curses. As the scenes outside Anfield on Thursday night illustrated, Liverpool is an inherently emotional club. The secret of Henry’s success is that what is undeniably true on the outside does not necessarily hold on the inside.

Liverpool’s rise has been a triumph of planning, of science, of reason. Under F.S.G.’s aegis, it has been transformed from a club uneasy in the modern world to one at the cutting edge of it. Its commercial arm is slick and dynamic, enabling the club to turn a record profit last year, and to maintain a $350 million wage bill. It navigates the transfer market easily enough that, for two years straight, it has had the deeply dubious honor of paying more in agents’ fees than any other Premier League team.

But it is on the field that the transformation has been most remarkable. A team that has spent 30 years trying to follow is now in a position to lead. In its success, there are lessons not only for other members of soccer’s moneyed elite, but for clubs much further down the food chain.

In those early days, when Fenway Sports Group first arrived on Merseyside, it was widely assumed that the group intended to try to apply to Liverpool the data-driven approach that had led the Red Sox to glory. This would be, it was thought, the grand Moneyball experiment that soccer, with an eyebrow raised, had been expecting.

Trace elements of that approach have survived. Liverpool remains, arguably, the most effective user of data in soccer. Much of that is down to Michael Edwards, the club’s sporting director, and the cadre of academics and statisticians and quants who work alongside him. Liverpool, perhaps uniquely in soccer, employs one actual rocket scientist.

Credit…Rob Stothard for The New York Times

Data is incorporated into almost every decision the club makes, a central plank of not only a recruitment record that has, in recent years, been so fine-tuned it is almost flawless, but in the team’s style of play, too. How Liverpool attacks, how it controls space, how it defends: all of them have a basis in information, in analytics, in numbers.

But that, in truth, is just one part of it. To interpret Liverpool’s approach as a mere facsimile of Moneyball is a misrepresentation. It is, instead, a successor of it, an upgrade to it: Merseyball, perhaps.

The club has internalized a philosophy of marginal gains, of seeking out any small thing to give it an edge. It has, in Thomas Gronnemark, a full-time throw-in coach. Klopp is always quick to credit Mona Nemmer, the team’s nutritionist, as one of his most vital colleagues. When, two years ago, he became convinced Liverpool was not scoring enough goals from free kicks and corners, he tasked his assistants with drawing up specific schemes.

It is Klopp, of course, who binds all of those distinct strands together. The edifice only works because he is happy to delegate, because he is a fervent believer in the idea that he does not need to know everything, he just needs to know the people who do.

Liverpool has always been a manager’s club, eager to venerate the man in charge of its dreams. Klopp fits into that tradition perfectly, with his megawatt smile and his easy demeanor and his touchline fervor, but he is no autocrat.

In many ways, that is the greatest evidence of how F.S.G. has dragged Liverpool into the 21st Century: It has taken a place predisposed to building a cult of personality and — with Klopp’s blessing — turned it into a democracy.

Credit…Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Klopp signed Mohamed Salah, rather than Julian Brandt, on Edwards’ insistence. John Achterberg, the goalkeeping coach, is the one who pushed for the acquisition of Alisson Becker on a world-record fee. Klopp empowers his players to think for themselves: the iconic winning goal against Barcelona in last year’s Champions League semifinal came from the squad’s observation that its opponent was dallying during set pieces.

That is not to say that Klopp has not been the central figure, of course, the lodestar around which everything else turns; there is a reason it is his face that flutters on the flags that fly from the Kop.

It is Klopp who has, in his own phrase, turned “doubters into believers,” and in the space of four short years taken Liverpool from mediocrity to glory: two Champions League finals, one Champions League victory, a world club title and, now, at last, a Premier League title. It is the German who ended the wait.

No less significantly, Klopp has given Liverpool an identity again. Though the most natural frame of reference would be one of his predecessors at Anfield — Bill Shankly or Bob Paisley — the most compelling is Arsène Wenger. Like Wenger, Klopp has modernized an archaic club. Like Wenger, Klopp’s legacy will resonate beyond his own crowd, his own stadium.

And like Wenger, Klopp has bestowed on Liverpool a style and a reputation that will outlast him. Liverpool will, for years to come, be synonymous with the intensity, the desire and the speed that has helped this team burn away the rest of the Premier League.

It will search the data to sign players who can fit into that blueprint. It will hire coaches who can maintain the tradition. Thanks to Klopp, after 30 long years, Liverpool knows what it wants to be once more.

First, he took Liverpool where it wanted to go. Then, he showed Liverpool how it wanted to stay.

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