AS we approach the halfway mark of the Premier League season with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City next up at Anfield on New Year’s Eve, Liverpool have recorded their joint highest ever points total from the first 18 matches of the season, already hitting the 40-point mark.
It’s not been a perfect campaign so far, by any means. Yet it would be fair to say that for the majority of fans, Liverpool have exceeded expectations.
In this excellent season to date, we have witnessed almost every kind of possible scenario. Liverpool have beaten Arsenal and Chelsea on their own turf. They have blown lesser sides away at Anfield on numerous occasions. They have come back from behind and found a way to grind out three points when not playing anywhere near their best.
Liverpool can play, they can fight and they can scrap.
As the season has progressed, it has become clear that for most opposition sides outside of the top-six, there are broadly two game plans to attempt to combat this Liverpool side. A team can either set up to defend and frustrate, hoping to scrape a 0-0 draw or even grab a goal from a set-piece. Alternatively, the second approach is to go hell for leather and try to unsettle Liverpool with a high-intensity start in the hope of snatching an early goal or two in the first half hour before dropping deep and clinging on for dear life.
That second approach has become an increasingly common theme of late, with both Everton and Stoke starting very fast and preventing Liverpool from finding any kind of rhythm early on. In Everton’s case, they hardly caused Liverpool any problems and expended virtually all their energy by 35 minutes. Thereafter it was one-way traffic until Sadio Mane delivered the killer blow in the 94th minute. Everton’s legs had gone completely.
Stoke tried the same kind of tactic, disrupting Liverpool’s attempts to play out from the back early on and hassling Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan into booting the ball long. They succeeded in getting the early goal, courtesy of some highly questionable defending from Mane and Lovren. Joe Allen almost doubled their lead soon after, only to be denied by Simon Mignolet. It felt like a crucial moment in the game and so it proved.
By the time Adam Lallana squeezed in the equaliser, Stoke had given everything. Liverpool were on level terms despite still not having got out of first gear. Once again, a similar pattern developed as Liverpool dominated against an exhausted Stoke side, eventually running out with a comfortable 4-1 victory.
Just over a month ago, David Moyes’ Sunderland attempted the opposite approach at Anfield, setting up with what was at times a flat back six. Liverpool still found a way.
What remains consistent in all these victories is Liverpool’s mindset. At no point did the players in Red feel like they weren’t going to win the game. They just kept patient — playing their football, shifting the ball until their opponents inevitably wilted, seemingly safe in the knowledge that their superior quality would eventually shine through.
In the victory over Stoke, Liverpool ran 120.284km — their record distance ever covered in a Premier League game. While Liverpool’s talented individuals and mental fortitude have undoubtedly been pivotal to their success, their superior fitness levels is increasingly paying dividends.
It is a common misconception that Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool are fast starters. Liverpool are, in fact, usually quite slow out of the blocks. They tend to grow into a game before dominating and controlling around the 30-minute mark, eventually wearing the opposition down until they crack.
We’ve seen it time and time again — Liverpool are simply fitter and stronger than virtually every side they come up against.
You would be hard pressed to argue that Liverpool have better individuals than most of their title rivals. Even Manchester United, player for player, are on a similar level. But Liverpool’s fitness gives them that extra edge which makes the sum of Klopp’s team greater than that of its individual parts.
Sergio Aguero, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mesut Ozil and Paul Pogba might all be hugely talented individuals, perhaps more so than the likes of Roberto Firmino, Lallana, Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson. Liverpool are competing with these teams, though, because they have a system which gets the best out of every single player — a system which requires an extraordinary level of physical fitness.
When Klopp first took over, a frenetic fixture schedule and injury-ravaged squad meant that he was tasked with implementing his own style on a group of players who were not physically equipped to cope with the demands of gegenpressing. When the summer transfer window opened, Klopp went out and brought in players perfectly suited to his system.
Not only that, Klopp went one step further. He also recruited fitness coach, Andreas Kornmayer, and nutritionist, Mona Nemmer, both from Bayern Munich. A gruelling pre-season training programme combined with cutting-edge food science were crucial ingredients in preparing his squad for the new season — to be fitter and stronger than any other team in the country.
If you haven’t read Rory Smith’s piece on Nemmer and her impact at the club, you really should. It’s excellent.
In the words of Pep Ljinders, “we win the fitness, we win everything”. It’s all about meticulous preparation for Klopp, getting the absolute maximum out of the resources at his disposal. Work on the training pitch will, always, trump expensive transfers for Klopp.
As a tennis fan, this reminds me of Andy Murray’s rise to world number one. Playing in the golden era with all-time greats such as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, Murray’s path to success has been founded on an unrelenting commitment to physical training and nutrition.
Murray realised that to get the most out of his own ability, he had to find a way to give him an edge over perhaps more naturally gifted individuals. Much of that has come down to building up an exceptional level of physical endurance that allows him to play at the top of his game over the duration of a match — making himself the most energy-sapping opponent to face. No player can match him in that department.
To quote a piece in the Guardian: “Perhaps the key to his success in the toughest era of his sport has been his almost maddening attention to detail.”
It draws close parallels to what Klopp is doing at Liverpool — building a team that is physically superior to every other side, leaving no stone unturned in the quest to give Liverpool every possible edge in what is a very strong Premier League this season.
When Bill Shankly arrived at the club back in December 1959, he and his coaching staff spent hours on end picking up stones and pieces of broken glass on the Melwood turf until he had the best possible playing surface for his players to train on. He too took nutrition very seriously, overhauling the meal times and food selection available at Melwood.
Times have clearly changed since then, but the principles Klopp is installing behind the scenes are all part of the process of creating the long-term foundations for success.
While the 4-3-3 formation and the individual brilliance of Mane, Lallana and their team-mates are the obvious sources of Liverpool’s excellence this season, one should not ignore the degree to which Klopp’s attention to detail in physically conditioning his squad is of paramount importance in what the Reds are trying to achieve.