In the era of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, trophies alone may not be sufficient to measure the ultimate greatness of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool. A pair of functioning eyeballs and the courage to believe them will, as ever, be essential. [Includes May 2022 update]
[Strap yourself in, we’re going around the houses with this one…]
It is notoriously difficult to directly compare performances across eras. This is true of most sports, and football is no exception. Indeed, given all of the varied and intricate elements involved, football is perhaps one of the best examples of the above truism. Times have a habit of changing quickly in this game, and mindsets that have been calcified for decades can suddenly soften as innovations are introduced and demonstrated to be effective.
Sometimes a visionary coach can come along, quickly spawning acolytes who embed new philosophies into the established order. Some high-profile examples over the years include the likes of Herbert Chapman, Helenio Herrera, Rinus Michels, Arrigo Sacchi and Arséne Wenger. Such is the power of these changes when they happen that even the most talented and successful coaches can be left behind if they don’t adapt: witness the career trajectories of José Mourinho and Rafael Benítez in recent years, indisputably two of the best managers in the world in during the first decade and a half of the 21st century but now treading water at sleeping giants in Italy and England respectively, their influence on the game very much supplanted by managers like Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp.
On other occasions a rule change is introduced that has far-reaching, and often unforeseen, consequences. For example, the introduction of three points for a win (1981 in English football) was intended to encourage teams to win games rather than settling for draws, the idea being that adopting a negative approach would now be costing them two points rather than one. There has been some debate over the years about its efficacy in this regard, whether it may actually encourage teams to get ahead and then “park the bus”. That argument may have some validity, particularly towards the bottom of the table, and it remains difficult to gauge whether approaches have become more attacking over time as a direct result. However, as we shall see, it is a change that has certainly come of age in recent years at the top of the league, given that results like Liverpool’s 2-2 draw at Tottenham and Chelsea’s 0-0 draw at Wolves on Sunday now feel like losses in the context of Manchester City’s relentless march.
Meanwhile, the back pass rule (introduced worldwide in 1992) was intended to reduce systematic timewasting and has, to a large extent, succeeded, although this type of gamesmanship continues to fester under other guises and probably always will. Human beings will always adapt.
Interestingly, in terms of Goals Per Game, which may admittedly be a somewhat crude way of measuring attacking intent, an examination of 166 English league champions and runners-up (i.e. Premier League and old First Division) going back as far as the first 38-game season (1905/06) shows that 31 of the highest-scoring 50 were before the introduction of either rule. Conversely, 11 of the 40 best defences over the same time period (105 years) in terms of Goals Against Per Game were in the thirteen seasons immediately preceding the introduction of three points for a win, so perhaps the game had begun to skew towards negativity by 1981. Given that the subsequent decade gave us several of the best defences in English football history amongst that cohort statistically (Arsenal 1990/91, Liverpool 1987/88 and 1988/89, Everton 1986/87), it is difficult to attribute definitive causation. However, the 1970s were undoubtedly ugly in terms of goal average:
Perhaps the most relevant rule change at the moment, given the instruction handed down to English referees earlier this season to “let it flow”, is the ban on tackles from behind that was originally introduced in 1998. Ken Early, writing in the Irish Times the day after Liverpool’s Harvey Elliott suffered a serious ankle injury against Leeds United in mid-September following a tackle from behind (which referee Craig Pawson initially let go, incidentally, until he saw Elliott’s foot pointing 90° the wrong way), summarised how rule changes can have a far-reaching effect on mindsets within the game:
English football is obsessed with turning the clock back to the days when men were men, and the old men who now populate the stands were children. That’s what the return of “common sense” to refereeing is all about. But, like the fictional John Hammond, wretched impresario of Jurassic Park, PGMOL failed to grasp the destructive potential of what they were unleashing in a world that is no longer equipped to deal with it.
By all means summon the “let it flow, it’s a man’s game” spirit of yesteryear, but you better hope you can also bring back the nine-stone players, the boggy potato-field pitches and, most importantly, the ingrained habits of self-preservation that characterised that uncompromising age.
Look at the incident that left Elliott with that terrible injury. Fabinho chips it forward towards Elliott, who lets the ball drop beyond him then takes a touch on the run and accelerates after it.
The important thing to note is that his touch takes him back across the path of the pursuing Pascal Struijk. This is entirely deliberate. Elliott has seen Struijk, he knows he is there, and he is cutting across his path to make sure he gets his body between Struijk and the ball.
No footballer of the 1960s would have done this. Any player who deliberately took the ball back across the path – and thus within the range – of a chasing six-foot-three defender knew he would be taking his life in his hands. Any player who did somehow end up in this dangerous situation would at least have understood he was in danger – he would be expecting a big sliding challenge to arrive at any second, and would be focused on the question of how to evade it.
Elliott, who was born in 2003, didn’t expect it. Elliott, who grew up playing academy football on nice pitches, thinks the worst that can happen is he gets barged in the back and wins a free kick. Elliott has simply not considered that Struijk might come leaping through his space, right foot stretching for the ball and left knee crunching “hard-but-fair” through the back of Elliott’s planted leg. He has grown up in an era when dangerous tackles from behind are banned and so he never learned how to avoid them. Now he pays for that gap in his knowledge with a big chunk of his promising career. Let it flow! Pawson, who would send Struijk off when he realised the extent of Elliott’s injury, never even blew for a foul.
“Let it flow” is, of course, a self-defeating nonsense – the game flows much faster now than it did in the days when legbreakers were legal.
In other words, the way in which the game has evolved since 1998, the manner in which brilliant attacking players like Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Thierry Henry, Ronaldinho, Mo Salah and others have been able to thrive, is likely to have been a direct consequence of this rule change. We don’t even have to go back as far as the 1960s to see it, merely ask ourselves whether the zenith of players like Diego Maradona and Marco Van Basten would have endured longer had they been plying their trade post-1998. It is, as Early so eloquently describes, also the reason why attackers like Elliott have invariably been able to fully prioritise looking for an attacking advantage rather than having one eye trained over their shoulders, in the process creating a faster, more exciting spectacle for those watching.
Of course, the ability of rule changes to influence the game in far-reaching ways is not limited to matters on the pitch. There are also financial and administrative structures to consider.
I have made the case previously that the abolition of the maximum wage in English football in January 1961, although certainly the right thing to do, had a direct effect on the stratified nature of the 21st century game, whereby the clubs with the larger catchment areas and attendances were gradually able to gobble up the best players by paying them more, in the process assembling better teams, winning more trophies and increasing their power in time to exploit burgeoning television revenues, merchandising opportunities and the increasing globalisation of commerce in later years. Nowadays, a rich foreign owner like Roman Abramovich (Chelsea) or a nation state (Manchester City, Newcastle United) is the only way to join the exclusive cabal at the top of the English game that monopolises the silverware.
The drive to emulate and/or simply compete with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City has subsequently seen quite a few clubs fall into some unsavoury hands over the years, including giants of English football like Liverpool and Leeds United. In this regard, the circumvention of the FA’s rules (with the FA’s blessing) represented by Tottenham’s stock market flotation in 1983 opened the door for speculators from all corners of the globe to try and make a killing, in the process distorting the competitive fabric of the game still further.
The advent of the Premier League in 1992 brought with it unprecedented riches for its member clubs, primarily arising from Sky’s purchase of the television rights. Within a couple of years, the 37 foreign players registered to Premier League clubs at the start of the 1992/93 season had mushroomed. These imports, undoubtedly attracted by the wages on offer in the first instance, included some of the very best players in the world (e.g. Ruud Gullit and Jürgen Klinsmann in 1994, Dennis Bergkamp in 1995), something which had hitherto been unheard of in English football. The Bosman ruling in 1995 accelerated matters further. The same decade, December 1999 to be precise, would ultimately see an English club side comprised entirely of foreign players for the first time ever. It wouldn’t be the last.
The increased wealth and profile of the league soon began to attract managers from abroad too. This was more of a trickle than the torrent of players, but was still noticeable: whereas 100% of the managers in charge at the start of the inaugural 1992/93 season were British or Irish, this had reduced to 75% by 1998/99. The key figure was undoubtedly Wenger, whose arrival at Arsenal in September 1996 and subsequent success had a seismic effect on English football. Wenger’s first signings as manager included a glut of foreign players that simply wouldn’t have been scouted or signed by your average British manager at the time, relative unknowns like Frenchmen Nicolas Anelka and Patrick Vieira chief amongst them. Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars, the latter one of the world’s most accomplished wingers, also joined the club ahead of Wenger’s first full season in charge. It changed the way in which English clubs scouted for players, and undoubtedly influenced Liverpool to bring in compatriot Gérard Houllier during the summer of 1998.
Crucially, the arrival of managers like Wenger and Houllier modernised the English game, from tactics to fitness and nutrition, and it forced their British rivals to adapt or die. Having watched Wenger win the double in 1997/98, Alex Ferguson looked abroad in breaking the world record for a defender (Jaap Stam) in the summer of 1998, then steered his team to a domestic and European treble in 1998/99 and, perhaps equally as impressive but more easily forgotten, went on to set the highest ever marks for Points Per Game (2.39) and Win% (73.9%) in English football’s top division the following season, at least over a 38–42 game season. For good measure, the 1999/00 Manchester United team also set the highest Goals Per Game mark amongst champions and runners-up since Tottenham Hotspur in the early-1960s.
Wenger’s Arsenal would subsequently respond in 2001/02 and 2003/04, of course, the latter of which set an undefeated mark in the league that had not been achieved in over a century. Suddenly, the bar was being pushed higher and higher. The arrivals of Abramovich and Mourinho at Chelsea one year apart (2003 and 2004 respectively) would push it even higher again, buoyed all the time by the increasing access to players from all over the world rather than simply a handful of monolingual, mono-tactical countries as had been the case previously. Ever the perfectionist, Pep Guardiola has lifted it again at Manchester City since his arrival in 2016.
* * *
So, to return to my initial point: how do you compare performances across eras? How do you take into account the influence wrought by all of the rule changes, both on and off the pitch, the tactical innovations and subsequent pivots in mentality, the effects of globalisation, mass-merchandising, satellite TV and the increasing stratification of the game that has arisen, or the influx of foreign players, coaches and methods that had barely registered prior to the early-1990s?
It’s certainly not a perfect science, but I think all you can really do is judge how teams performed against the standards of their own eras, not necessarily in terms of trophies (which are inevitably influenced by matters outside of their control, like how good their opponents happened to be at a given time) but more in terms of performance metrics, such as how many games they won, how many points they accrued and, perhaps a little bit more subjective, how many goals they scored and conceded (because, certainly by today’s standards, a team can be great at scoring goals while remaining thoroughly mediocre, and vice versa).
On that basis, I have had a go at measuring every winner and runner-up of English football’s top division since the introduction of three points for a win in the 1981/82 season. It is always difficult to accurately measure subsequent shifts in approach following a rule change, which are invariably nuanced and subtle. By limiting the main study to post-1981 teams, it should hopefully ensure a level playing field. I have, however, purely for comparison purposes, gone back as far as the 1905/06 season (the first played over 38 or more games – anything less than that becomes too significant a difference in my view) and done the same with all champions (and statistically-significant runners-up) from the two-point era. The primary data, therefore, contains a sample of 40 seasons and 80 teams, while the secondary sample added for comparison extends it to 105 seasons and 166 teams. All of them are measured across four metrics, namely:
- PPG (points per game): the average number of points accrued per game across a season, which also allows us to convert to three points for a win as appropriate;
- Win% (win percentage): number of games won out of the total played for a season.
And then, as more of a secondary measure given how neither metric is strictly related to a team’s overall consistency in a given season:
- GPG (goals per game): average number of goals scored per game for a season;
- GAPG (goals against per game): average number of goals conceded per game for a season.
There will inevitably be other metrics that could be used, which can be investigated by those with more time on their hands than I have! This, essentially, is a review of league tables and a few averages calculated, nothing more. It is also purely quantitative in nature; there are a myriad of qualitative factors that could be taken into account when comparing teams across eras, the most pertinent of which, at least in my view, are:
- Was it a tougher task to manage in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when provincial and/or unheralded clubs like Burnley, Wolves, Ipswich Town, Derby County, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa could become English or European champions, or in an era where the power to do so is vested in a small number of super-clubs?
- In an era where money is more of a factor than ever before, does a club spending three times that of one of their main rivals on players across a 10-year period (net) and 25% more across a five-year period (gross) grant an advantage that must also be taken into account?
There is unlikely to be a definitive answer to either of those, so I’ll stick to the numbers for now. What is interesting about this exercise is that you can see patterns in the figures that clearly reflect deviations in mentality over time. The initial period under review, from 1906 up until about 1925, was relatively stable, with records that weren’t too unlike what we might expect from a modern team in terms of wins, losses, goals for and against, etc. There then commenced a long period of about 40 years where it was common to see title challengers score 100+ and concede 60+ in the same season.
By modern standards, this is ludicrous. The worst defensive record of any Premier League champion is the 45 conceded by Manchester United in 1999/00, while 100 goals scored has only been achieved five times by the 80 teams under consideration in the primary sample (Chelsea 2009/10, Manchester City 2013/14, Liverpool 2013/14, Manchester City 2017/18 and Manchester City 2019/20). It isn’t the only ludicrous statistic of that era. For example, in 1929/30, Derby County conceded 82 goals and were still able to finish 2nd. By contrast, their club counterparts for the 2007/08 season conceded 89, only seven more (albeit in a 38-game season), and finished bottom. To this day, they remain statistically the worst ever Premier League team. And Sunderland’s title win in 1935/36, though exemplary in a number of facets (e.g. 25 wins, 2.6 GPG), saw them concede 74 goals for a GAPG of 1.76. For context, last season’s bottom side Sheffield United conceded 1.66 per game.
The madness began to stabilise in the mid-1960s. Indeed, in a top-40 comprised of the best defensive records (i.e. GAPG) of 166 champions and runners-up going back to 1905/06, all bar two arrived after 1968. Clean sheets were a priority from that point onwards in a way that they hadn’t been before, and this seemed to have a related effect on the numbers being scored. In a top-60 of the highest scorers amongst the same cohort, only two teams out of the 33 seasons between 1965/66 and 1997/98 made it onto the list (Liverpool 1985/86 and 1987/88, at a rate of 2.12 and 2.18 goals per game respectively). But despite this, one constant remained: if you wanted to win the league title, whether in a 38-game or a 42-game season, you needed to be winning over half your games, and typically quite a bit more along with it. In the extended sample of 105 seasons, 70 title-winners had a 59% Win% or better, and only 1 out of 105 (Everton in 1927/28) failed to hit the 50% mark.
The differences between eras in terms of approach and the consistency required to be champions becomes a lot more marked from that aforementioned 1999/00 season onwards, fittingly the start not only of a new century but a new millennium. In truth, it represents a new universe compared to what went before:
- 1999–2001: Firstly, as we have seen, Ferguson met the challenge of his most serious foe to date by creating a monster that set new marks for PPG and Win% during the 1999/00 season. They also won three league titles in a row, and a treble in 1998/99. Left to its own devices, that monster might have petered out and the game returned to something approaching normality, but that didn’t happen.
- 2001–2004: Instead, Wenger responded with a monster of his own:.Arsenal’s 2001/02 season set marks for PPG (2.29) and Win% (68.4) that ranked 2nd and 6th all-time, then increased the pace to 2.37 PPG for 2003/04 and went unbeaten into the bargain, an achievement that had not been seen in over a century.
- 2004–2007: Then, while Ferguson was away conjuring up something even more frightening, Mourinho entered the picture. His Chelsea team in 2004/05 set records for PPG (2.50) and Win% (76.3%), and still sits 2nd behind only Liverpool’s 1978/79 team for the best defensive record in the history of English football (0.39 GAPG, basically a goal conceded once every three games). The following season they repeated the same Win% but slipped a little on the PPG: 2.39 was only good enough for third all-time.
- 2006–2010: And then, suddenly, Manchester United were back again. They averaged 2.33 PPG across three title-winning seasons from 2006/07 to 2008/09, a feat only bettered at that point by Mourinho’s Chelsea. Their Win% for each of those seasons also sat 4th, 5th and 6th all-time, behind only Mourinho’s title-winning sides and their own predecessors from 1999/00. What’s more, their 2007/08 vintage is still the joint-7th best defensive record of all teams studied (0.58 GAPG).
- 2009–2010: Then Carlo Ancelotti arrived at Chelsea and oversaw the highest-scoring title-winning team since the early-1960s, scoring 103 for an astonishing GPG average of 2.71. To put it another way, every three Chelsea opponents that season could expect to ship around eight goals between them.
- 2011–2014: By then Manchester City had been purchased by the Abu Dhabi United Group, and their heavily-invested title-winning teams of 2011/12 and 2013/14 under Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini respectively maintained the standards being set. Those teams were good enough to rank 7th and 16th all-time respectively as regards PPG, and 7th and 14th respectively in relation to Win%. For good measure, Pellegrini’s side set a GPG mark (2.68) that still sits joint-third amongst 80 champions and runners-up from the three-point era.
- 2016–2017: Skipping past the momentary regression that was Leicester City in 2016, the next advance arrived with Antonio Conte, who managed something unprecedented with Chelsea in the 2016/17, namely: that team became the first ever to win 30 in a 38-game season, and only the third to do so amongst all teams including 42-game seasons, giving them the highest Win% (78.9%) and second-highest PPG (2.45) of any English league champions ever. Surely this was it, the point where the bar would rest for a while?
- 2017–date: LOL, nope. Instead, Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp arrived in English football to take up the challenge. From that point onward, it just got ridiculous:
|Position||PPG (Points Per Game)||Position||Win%|
|1||Man. City 2017/18 [2.63]||1||Man. City 2017/18 [84.2%]|
|2||Liverpool 2019/20 [2.61]||1=||Man. City 2018/19 [84.2%]|
|3||Man. City 2018/19 [2.58]||1=||Liverpool 2019/20 [84.2%]|
|4||Liverpool 2018/19 [2.55]||4||Chelsea 2016/17 [78.9%]|
|5||Chelsea 2004/05 [2.50]||4=||Liverpool 2018/19 [78.9%]|
|6||Chelsea 2016/17 [2.45]||6||Chelsea 2004/05 [76.3%]|
|7||Man. Utd 1999/00 [2.39]||6=||Chelsea 2005/06 [76.3%]|
|7=||Chelsea 2005/06 [2.39]||8||Man. Utd 1999/00 [73.9%]|
|9||Arsenal 2003/04 [2.37]||9||Man. Utd 2006/07 [73.7%]|
|9=||Man. Utd 2008/09 [2.37]||9=||Man. Utd 2008/09 [73.7%]|
|11||Man. Utd 2006/07 [2.34]||9=||Man. City 2011/12 [73.7%]|
|11=||Man. City 2011/12 [2.34]||9=||Man. Utd 2011/12 [73.7%]|
|11=||Man. Utd 2011/12 [2.34]||9=||Man. Utd 2012/13 [73.7%]|
|11=||Man. Utd 2012/13 [2.34]||14||Man. Utd 2007/08 [71.1%]|
|15||Arsenal 2001/02 [2.29]||14=||Chelsea 2009/10 [71.1%]|
|15=||Man. Utd 2007/08 [2.29]||14=||Man. Utd 2009/10 [71.1%]|
|15=||Chelsea 2014/15 [2.29]||14=||Man. City 2013/14 [71.1%]|
|18||Liverpool 2008/09 [2.26]||14=||Man. City 2020/21 [71.1%]|
|18=||Chelsea 2009/10 [2.26]||19||Arsenal 2003/04 [68.4%]|
|18=||Man. City 2013/14 [2.26]||19=||Arsenal 2001/02 [68.4%]|
|18=||Tottenham 2016/17 [2.26]||19=||Liverpool 2013/14 [68.4%]|
|18=||Man. City 2020/21 [2.26]||19=||Chelsea 2014/15 [68.4%]|
|23||Liverpool 1987/88 [2.25]||19=||Tottenham 2016/17 [68.4%]|
|24||Chelsea 2007/08 [2.24]||19=||Man. City 2019/20 [68.4%]|
|24=||Man. Utd 2009/10 [2.24]||20||Everton 1984/85 [66.7%]|
So, to summarise: 48 of the 50 sides listed above with the highest PPG and Win% in the last 105 years have come in the 22 seasons since Manchester United 1999/00, whose incredible consistency is still good enough for joint-7th on the PPG column and 8th on Win%. And even pre-1981, only a handful of teams come close on either metric. Here they are, alongside the position each would take in the table above:
|Position||PPG (Points Per Game)*||Position||Win%|
|15||Liverpool 1978/79 [2.33]||9||Tottenham 1960/61 [73.8%]|
|16||Tottenham 1960/61 [2.31]||15||Liverpool 1978/79 [71.4%]|
|20=||Everton 1969/70 [2.26]||21||Everton 1969/70 [69.0%]|
|21=||Arsenal 1970/71 [69.0%]|
Those are some legendary teams, but think about the ones who wouldn’t even make a top-25: any Bill Shankly Liverpool side, any of Don Revie’s at Leeds United, Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest side that won two European Cups in 1979 and 1980, any of Matt Busby’s Manchester United teams, Howard Kendall’s Everton and Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool sides of the 1980s, all five of Alex Ferguson’s first league title-winners at Manchester United. As recently as 2013/14, the Premier League’s top-six all had an equal or better Win% across the season than Liverpool’s 1983/84 treble-winners, Leeds United’s 1991/92 title-winners, and Manchester United’s 1996/97 vintage. Those teams included Roberto Martinez’s Everton and Tim Sherwood’s Tottenham. The mind boggles.
Remember, these teams are only being judged against the standards of their time, on the strength of their performances against their own peers. Rather than being judged against Manchester City 2021/22, for example, Leeds United 1968/69 are being judged against Liverpool 1968/69. But those standards have now soared. The graphs below show the average PPG and Win% per decade of 105 league champions going back to the 1905/06 season. Some are partial samples, either because of the length of the season (1910s, where all seasons were sub-38 games before 1905 and therefore excluded), war (1910s, 1940s), or because the decade is still ongoing (2020s). These show trends over time in terms of the consistency required to win a league title, and the headline is that both metrics have increased sharply since the turn of the century.
In terms of PPG, the needle barely moves for a century, a fluctuation of a mere 0.18 PPG per season over the first ten decades from a low of 1.91 in the 1910s and 1920s to a high of 2.08 in the 1990s (equivalent to +/– 7 points or so over a 38-game season). For the first decade of the 21st century, it suddenly jumps by 0.24 PPG in one go, or the equivalent of an additional 9 points over the course of a season, and it hasn’t stopped since. It is currently running at 2.44 for the 2020s, albeit the decade is only two seasons old, which would mean that the average number of points required to win a league title has increased by almost 14 points in a little over 20 years.
Win% is even starker. For a century, the line only fluctuates by 5.5%, from a low of 55.22% in the 1920s to a high of 60.62% in the 1980s. Then, in the first decade of the 21st century, it goes practically vertical: a jump of almost 11% in one go. From 71.08% for the 2000s, the mark then progressed to 72.3% for the 2010s and is currently running at 77.65% for a very young 2020s. Still, if anything approaching that average is maintained, we would be looking at a jump in the Win% required to win a league title of around 17.5% in just over 20 years. That’s just under an extra 7 wins per season.
In truth, it shouldn’t be a surprise if those rates continue to climb, or at least maintain their current level. Again, there will be someone out there with more time on their hands, and a better mathematical brain, than me who can create algorithms to measure something like the fluctuations in point distribution across the entirety of Premier League and old First Division teams over time, season-on-season, decade-on-decade. I would wager that a key factor identified in the rise of PPG and Win% rates would be that a greater share of the finite points on offer are being hoovered up by the richer clubs at the top end of the table in this stratified 21st century league table, and so it should come as no surprise that the consistency required to win a league title is greater. But the root cause doesn’t change the consequence: there may be fewer teams equipped to do it, but the ones that are face an ever-increasing mountain to climb, and all the more so if their major rivals have distinct financial advantages.
And the bar shows no sign of lowering any time soon. After 18 games of the 2021/22 campaign, Manchester City are on course to notch 2.44 PPG for the season, which would be good enough for 7th-best all-time, while their Win% would be good enough for 6th. For good measure, their current GAPG (0.50) would make them the 5th-stingiest defence of the 166 teams reviewed. Not that their immediate rivals are any slouches. Liverpool’s current GPG (2.78) would put them 5th on that particular list, bettered only by City’s 2017/18 title-winners in the modern era, while Chelsea, despite their current struggles, are maintaining a GAPG average (0.67) that would crack the top-20 stingiest defences out of the sample being studied. Yet both teams are struggling to live with City’s unprecedented consistency, as well as, perhaps, their good fortune in avoiding the worst of the recent Covid-19 outbreaks..
The new reality means that some of the most impressive teams of all-time statistically are suddenly ending seasons empty-handed. The obvious example is Liverpool 2018/19, which currently sits 4th and joint-4th all-time on the PPG (2.55) and Win% (78.9%) lists respectively. At least that team recovered the following season to go one better; similarly with other notable runners-up like Manchester United 2009/10 and 2011/12, whose failures were sandwiched by league titles on both occasions, and Manchester City 2019/20 (ditto).
Do spare a thought for Rafael Benítez’s 2008/09 Liverpool and Mauricio Pochettino’s 2016/17 Tottenham, which both sit joint-20th all-time in PPG but were simply up against superior forces during those campaigns (i.e. one of Ferguson’s best and Conte’s Chelsea respectively). Regrettably, the fact that they never won a league title now defines those teams. I can’t speak for Pochettino’s Tottenham, but I do know that Benítez’s first and only legitimate crack at it with Liverpool, in which his team were top scorers in the league and only lost twice in 38 games, is now damned with faint praise at best, even by many supporters of the club. It may have been different had Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard lined up together more than 14 times, but it would be a naive soul indeed who fails to understand that silverware is frequently considered the only currency that ultimately matters in the upper echelons of 21st century football.
Which brings me, finally, to the main subject of this post: Jürgen Klopp.
* * *
I miss the days of the “good away point”. Don’t you? I mean, those days are gone now, at least for clubs involved in Premier League title races, but time was when nothing gave you greater comfort as a supporter than the certainty that the two points your team just lost had were, actually, a point gained y’know. What a concept it was, this silverest of sliver linings, and what a sign of respect towards opponents up and down the league table.
Liverpool’s 2-2 draw at Tottenham last Sunday is the perfect example of what would once have been considered a “good away point”. Here you have a team, Tottenham, in charge of their own destiny as regards the top-4. Naturally games in hand have to be won to truly mean anything, but if they take care of their business then not only will Spurs be 4th but they would, mathematically, be three points off 3rd as the table currently stands. They have one of the best managers in the world in charge, some excellent players in their team, and a terrific home advantage in that new stadium of theirs, a tough place to go under any circumstances but especially when several key first-team members (Virgil Van Dijk, Thiago, Fabinho, Curtis Jones) are missing due to Covid protocols and your captain (Jordan Henderson) has been lost due to illness in the hours leading up to the game. That’s your entire starting midfield and defensive talisman gone before you even start, and a 19-year old (Tyler Morton) making his first Premier League start in midfield.
Then the game starts, and it turns out that the home side are on it today. They go 1-0 up and carve out several big chances throughout the game, your goalkeeper bailing you out on a number of occasions, and the XG will ultimately say that they deserved to win. The referee makes two horrendous calls that change the game (i.e. (1) his failure to send Harry Kane off on 20 minutes for a studs-up lunge on Andy Robertson, Klopp absolutely correct afterwards in suggesting that Kane had no idea whether the Scotland captain was about to lift his leg as he launched himself towards him and that such mitigation was therefore nonsense, and (2) his failure to award Liverpool a first-half penalty for a blatant barge into Diogo Jota’s back). And for good measure, you play the last 15–20 minutes with ten men. Under the particular circumstances of the day, 2-2 would once have felt like a fantastic point to take back to Merseyside.
Or what about Chelsea’s draw at Wolves earlier in the day? Since their return to the top division under Nuno Espírito Santo ahead of the 2018/19 campaign, Wolves have typically been a low-scoring but stingy outfit. They have taken that identity to whole other level under new coach Bruno Lage: at the time of writing, after almost half the season, only bottom club Norwich City have scored fewer, but only City and Chelsea have a better defensive record. They currently sit 8th. Not only that, but Chelsea’s squad is currently riddled with both injuries and Covid-related absences, as evidenced by their limited bench on Sunday. There was a time when a point in a place like Molineux, especially under those circumstances, would have been more than acceptable.
So why do both results now feel like crushing defeats for the respective supporters of Liverpool and Chelsea? Well, because regrettably there are no good away points at the top of the Premier League anymore, not when you might have to win 31 or 32 of 38 games to stand a chance. Liverpool drew at places like the Emirates, Goodison, Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge during 2018/19, but won 30 games besides and still they lost the title by a point. Every single one of those represented two points dropped under the circumstances, not a point gained. Even a draw on Liverpool’s trip to the Etihad next April will only be “good” if the Reds find themselves clear at the top of the league afterwards. Otherwise, with only six games remaining after that, they will have merely missed a chance to close or overcome any potential gap on their main title rivals.
The days when your Plough Lanes, your Selhurst Parks, your Reebok Stadiums or your Filbert Streets, and increasingly even your Moilineux’s or your Turf Moors to use current examples, could make a meaningful mark on a title race are now virtually consigned to the history books. The days when mid-table or lower-half sides could claim an equal stake in games during title run-ins are largely gone too as a consequence. I remember when Newcastle United’s titles hopes during the 1995/96 season were considered to have taken a fatal blow thanks to a couple of late Graham Fenton goals at Ewood Park in early-April 1996, but those hopes limped on for another few weeks, until the last day of the season in fact, long enough for Richard Keys to bait Kevin Keegan into his famous emotional outburst on live television. But by today’s standards, the 1995/96 season would have all been done and dusted back in December 1995, and Fenton’s intervention would have meant absolutely nothing to anyone besides his family.
Exciting title races have always been built on fallibility. With fallibility comes the unexpected, and the understanding that any team or player in the league can make the same mark that 7th-place Blackburn and Graham Fenton did in April 1996. Go back a season further, and it was Luděk Mikloško’s heroics on the final day for 14th-place West Ham United. 17th-place QPR’s unlikely obstinance at the Etihad on the final day of the 2011/12 campaign was the foundation upon which the greatest finish to a Premier League season ever was built. The list goes on.
By contrast, the Premier League title race has now become mechanical in nature. This was certainly true of the 2016/17, 2017/18, 2019/20 and 2020/21 seasons, with the only exception in the last half-decade being 2018/19, when Liverpool’s unpredictability relative to City at least enlivened proceedings (four of their last nine games were decided in the last ten minutes). The reality now is that the fatal blows in the 2021/22 title race, which was supposed to be the first-ever three-horse endeavour, may have been struck in December, and what’s more, they will hardly be remembered as such come May if that does indeed turn out to be the case. On that basis, I would advise Spurs and Wolves fans to remember their respective interventions this week if that floats their boat, because they will quickly be forgotten about by everyone else between now and the end of the season.
This is not only a function of Manchester City’s freakish, machine-like consistency, but the improbability of Liverpool and Chelsea (both distinctly fallible in their own ways) being able to reel off the minimum of 17 or 18 wins required in their last 20 games to keep up, especially given the players that both are going to lose to the AFCON in January (while Liverpool are losing their two main forwards and Chelsea their goalkeeper, City will be losing one of their 27 creative attackers) and the Covid situation that has already cost both challengers points.
The main relevance of Liverpool’s result at Tottenham last Sunday, and indeed Wolves vs. Chelsea, is that it reminds us yet again of the razor-thin margins that top-level managers are playing with in the Premier League as 2021 prepares to become 2022. All of this may change whenever Guardiola leaves City and a lesser man arrives to take his place, but for now, it is hard to imagine any prospective league title-winner in the history of English football with a tougher task than that which has faced Jürgen Klopp since at least the start of the 2018/19 season, an era where a draw away to Antonio Conte’s Tottenham is simply no longer good enough. For that reason, the Liverpool boss will in some ways serve as something of a test case for how we judge managerial legacies in the modern game.
Klopp’s current contract with Liverpool is due to expire in the summer of 2024, and he has previously indicated his intention not to extend it. That being the case, it means that Klopp will leave the club just shy of 9 years after his arrival in October 2015. That would make him the fifth-longest serving manager in the club’s history, behind Tom Watson (just shy of 19 years), Bill Shankly (around 14 and a half), George Kay (similar to Shankly), and Bob Paisley (whose 8 years and 10 months as Liverpool boss Klopp will come very close to matching, depending on the exact date his contract expires). That leaves the German around 70% of the way through his tenure at the time of writing.
To date, his haul of four major trophies already puts him fifth on the club’s all-time managerial roll of honour, behind the inevitable Paisley (14), Shankly and Kenny Dalglish (6), and Gérard Houllier (5), with all figures excluding Charity/Community Shields and lower-league titles. Between the remainder of the 2021/22 season, and the 2022/23 and 2023/24 campaigns, Klopp could realistically surpass all of his predecessors bar Paisley (the eleven trophies it would require for him to beat Bob would necessitate a treble and two quadruples in three seasons, so that won’t be happening). To leave Anfield as, statistically, the second most successful manager in the history of one of the world’s biggest clubs, however, would be a stunning achievement, an historic mark truly made in a place where it’s harder to make history than most.
But the trophies are only one part of it. Counting silverware, as fun as it is to do, almost entirely neglects other, more qualitative achievements. When Klopp arrived at Anfield in October 2015, he was taking over more or less the same squad that had lost 1-6 at Stoke City some four and a half months earlier, a game in which Liverpool found themselves 0-5 behind at half-time. A couple of important players had left, most notably captain Steven Gerrard and star attacker Raheem Sterling, and quite a bit of money had been spent on a mixed bag of reinforcements, from legitimate difference-makers (Roberto Firmino, James Milner) to useful first-team contributors (Nathaniel Clyne, Danny Ings), to youngsters with potential (Joe Gomez) and, finally, to the downright ineffectual (Christian Benteke, who remains the club’s 4th-most expensive signing of all-time). But the squad left behind by his predecessor, only good enough for 6th the previous season, was not a contender in any true sense of the word.
Consider this: by the time Klopp won his first trophy as Liverpool boss in May 2019, roughly three and a half years later, only Dejan Lovren (primarily a substitute by that point), captain Jordan Henderson, Milner, Firmino and Gomez remained as regular contributors. The likes of Adam Lallana, Alberto Moreno, Simon Mignolet and Daniel Sturridge also remained as bit-part performers, but by the time Liverpool finally clinched their first league title in 30 years the following May, only six remained: Henderson, Milner, Firmino, Gomez, Lovren and Lallana, with the latter two on their way at the end of the season. That represents an almost complete overhaul of the first-team squad just to get the club where it needed to be in order to win a league title.
The situation at Klopp’s main titles rivals during his time in charge, Manchester City, was different. When Pep Guardiola arrived in the summer of 2016, he was taking over a squad of players that had finished 4th, won silverware (League Cup) and been narrowly defeated (0-1 on aggregate) by the eventual winners in the Champions League semi-final the previous season, the club’s best ever performance in that competition. The squad he inherited included a core of title-winners with the club (Vincent Kompany, David Silva, Sergio Agüero, Fernandinho) and a number of expensive recent additions (Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling), and he was able to immediately spend £150m adding four key players (Leroy Sané, John Stones, İlkay Gündoğan and Gabriel Jesus).
By contrast, Klopp’s total spend during his first three windows in charge was around £78m, roughly half of what Guardiola was able to spend in one, and some 88% of that outlay was on just two players (Sadio Mané and Georginio Wijnaldum). I mean, we can talk about gross spend vs. net spend all day, and I did mention it briefly already, but the real measure of a club’s financial muscle is in terms of players, and especially in terms of how quickly it can assemble and replenish its first-team squad. Guardiola was able to take a group of players that included several league title-winners and had reached a Champions League semi-final a couple of months earlier and immediately add four excellent signings (he spent even more that summer, incidentally, but the likes of Nolito and Claudio Bravo didn’t make much of an impact). And regardless of what Pep says now, there was little evidence of City ever having to balance the books.
Klopp, meanwhile, was adding players piecemeal, one or two difference-makers each summer. Needless to say, the squad that had succumbed 1-6 at the Brittania Stadium in May 2015 needed major surgery and this approach was the equivalent of leaving a clamp on an artery until he could afford to buy stitches. It characterised his first few years in the job. Only when Virgil Van Dijk arrived in January 2018 for £75m, coincidentally or not at the same time as Philippe Coutinho was on his way to Barcelona for what turned out to be a fee close to £140m, was Klopp able to permanently close that gaping hole in the middle of his defence that had caused the patient to flatline a few times too often. Unfortunately he had to lose his best offensive playmaker to facilitate it.
In the meantime, he bolstered the big signings with free transfers here (Joël Matip) and cheap stop-gaps there (Ragnar Klavan, Loris Karius), and of course the occasional generational academy graduate (Trent Alexander-Arnold), and with the assistance of Sporting Director Michael Edwards and his scouting team hit on far more than he missed, allowing a strong squad of players to gradually coalesce. But the reality is that if someone like Matip hadn’t been out of contract at Schalke in the summer of 2016, Liverpool may not have gone for him.
It would simply fly in the face of the available evidence to deny that the pace at which Guardiola assembled, and has maintained, his machine at Manchester City was considerably faster than his rival down the road at Anfield precisely because of the respective financial resources available to each. This has, in turn, allowed him to win more trophies in a shorter period of time with the better resources at his disposal. Klopp has won four major honours at Liverpool so far, two if you discount one-game or two-game tournaments like the European Super Cup and the Club World Cup respectively (why would you discount trophies recognised as major ones by the game’s authorities, I hear you ask – well, why indeed); Guardiola, with squads more capable of absorbing all competitions, has won eight at City so far, including three league titles. Does it follow that one man has done twice to four times as good a job as the other? Of course not, no more than their respective stints at Bayern and Dortmund. In both cases, it would be simply ridiculous to ignore the role that money has played.
None of this is intended to diminish the work of Guardiola, incidentally, which has been hugely impressive. Guardiola is not the subject of this post (If he was, I might wonder why he has failed to win a Champions League in eight attempts with the kind of talent he has had at his disposal with Bayern and City). This is about Klopp, and the comparison with Guardiola is merely to try and place his work at Liverpool into some kind of context. Klopp’s team, as illustrated by the defeat to Real Madrid in the 2017/18 Champions League final, were running at least a year behind Manchester City from the start, and it truly is a testament to the work of all concerned (manager, coaches, scouts, players) that the 2018/19 title challenge emerged as quickly as it did from the ruins of May 2015.
Guardiola has said in the past that: “Each club has its own reality“. So does each manager. Some can spend as much as they want because of their owners’ wealth, while others have to abide by a different plan. That simply must be taken into account in comparing their work. Unfortunately there is no guarantee that it will, certainly not in the world in which we currently live.
* * *
The Oxford Languages Word of the Year is handed out annually to “a word or expression that has attracted a great deal of interest over the last 12 months”, one that has been judged to reflect “the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance”. The 2016 choice was “post-truth”. Oxford defined the term as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. It was a fitting epitaph for the year of Brexit in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, and it has certainly gone on to maintain its cultural significance in the intervening years. In fact, a strong case could be made for “post-truth” to have been crowned the first two-time winner of the award in 2021*.
(*Alas, the 2021 choice was “vax”, which I suppose is understandable.)
The case for: while it couldn’t boast the invention of a term like “fake news” to discredit any and all unpalatable facts, or a bus bearing the legend “We send the EU £350m a week let’s fund our NHS instead” (just two examples), this year did have a podcast host with no medical background whatsoever but a gigantic platform (described by the New York Times as “one of the most consumed media products on the planet”) convincing his acolytes, which included one of the most famous athletes in the world and the president of a multi-billion dollar MMA company, all three of whom are gods to a certain male demographic, to publicly forego Covid vaccines in favour of consuming a drug not approved by the United States Federal Drug Administration and which is ordinarily used to treat or prevent parasites in animals (and river blindness amongst humans, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa).
That’s a whole other rancid pool of “post-truth” right there. In fact, the most authentic part about the whole thing is how vividly it brought to mind the cattle wormer Ivomec for a generation of GAA fans who were kids in Ireland during the 1980s (“Joe Cooney, hurler and farmer, scores with Ivomec”).
While by no means the greatest, or gravest, example of the “post-truth” phenomenon, football has hardly been left untouched. I have written in the past on this blog, specifically in July 2020 following Liverpool’s confirmation as 2019/20 Premier League champions, of the opportunistic attempts that had been ongoing to discredit one of the most dominant title-winning seasons of all-time in the context of Covid and empty stadiums. I wrote of my relief that “the people who will ultimately tell the story and write the historical record of this achievement” had already placed it in the proper context, people like the Times’ Chief Football Writer Henry Winter who correctly called Liverpool “one of the finest teams of the modern era”.
At the same time, I also noted the absurdity inherent in the fact that the likes of Winter, the Independent’s Chief Football Writer Miguel Delaney and the New York Times’ Chief Soccer correspondent Rory Smith were having to address such nonsense in the first place, and how it illustrated “the ease with which puerile agendas can infiltrate the narrative around these things”. Left unchecked, it is easy to imagine the havoc that such rhetoric could inflict upon objective facts in football. All we need to do is look at recent political and social developments in the United States and United Kingdom, since 2016 in particular, to see how virulent and effective a post-truth approach can be when facilitated by media inaction and/or complicity.
I have regularly disagreed with the opinions of football journalists over the years, and the three mentioned above are no exception. For example, I will forever consider Winter’s bizarrely poisonous behaviour towards Rafael Benítez during the 2009/10 season (referring to him upon his departure as a “cold political animal” and claiming that “a great institution like Liverpool Football Club deserved better than this awkward Spaniard” and his “manifold defects”), and subsequently Roy Hodgson during the period immediately preceding and following his installation as the most unqualified Liverpool manager of my lifetime (by contrast, Winter laughably predicted that Hodgson’s “affable, ego-free nature will have an uplifting impact on Liverpool off the pitch just as his time-honoured ability to produce well-balanced units will help the club on it”), to have been reprehensible.
Football writers are not infallible, quite the contrary, but the aforementioned individuals are nonetheless paid sizeable sums by respected institutions to at least attempt to be serious, objective students of the game. Sometimes they fall short of that standard, sometimes like Winter they allow their own personal feelings to contaminate their work, but for the most part they at least try. In the process, like any other journalist, they are given the opportunity to bear honest witness and create an accurate historical record as events unfold in real time. To tell the truth.
But what form does the truth take in a post-truth world? Well, despite recognising the legitimacy of Liverpool’s 2019/20 Premier League title win, Smith gave us a worrying taster during his appearance on the 16th June 2020 episode of the Second Captains podcast, from which I also quoted in my previous post: “It’s all as real as we think it is…football doesn’t have any actual meaning, none of it means anything, we put meaning on it, so it’s up to the fans really, it’s up to football culture as a whole, to decide what it means, and sadly I suspect what that will mean…will be that Liverpool haven’t really won the title…because fans won’t want it to be real…”
Liverpool “haven’t really won the title”, eh? Hmmm, then I guess I must have just imagined this? Look, it’s engraved and everything:
Smith’s statement, another perfect example of how even the most respected football writers can simply be wrong sometimes, sounded an awful lot like the abdication of a critical responsibility that should be commensurate with a position like the chief correspondent of anything at the New York Times, an institution that has won more Pulitzer Prize awards (132) than any other in its 170 years of existence. Famed American journalist Walter Lippmann once defined it like this: “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil.” Far from shaming the devil, Smith’s words seemed equivalent to a forlorn shrug of the shoulders at old Beelzebub’s antics, a gravely concerning reaction in that it came from a man with the profile and platform to correct, or at least balance, the record.
He was absolutely right about one thing, though: left to their own devices, it is indeed the case that “fans won’t want it to be real”. I can think of limbs I would rather entrust to the blade of a chainsaw than leaving it up to “the fans” or “football culture as a whole” to attribute meaning to anything Liverpool Football Club does. The risible, Hillsborough-referencing “Always the Victims” chant that is still audible at stadiums up and down the country on a weekly basis is a prime example of why. If we accept Oxford’s definition of “post-truth”, particularly the part about objective facts becoming less influential than appeals to emotion and personal belief, then it is difficult to find a better example outside of the political sphere from whence the term was originally vomited.
For a number of years now, prompted both by my revulsion at much of the mainstream media coverage of Liverpool, with Winter’s narrative around Benítez and Hodgson in 2010 a prime example, and the rise of strong, insightful analysis from ordinary supporters who have, amongst other things, been at the vanguard of data analytics in football coverage, even creating their own metrics in some cases, I have been largely consuming my football writing from independent sources.
The wonderful Anfield Wrap, for example, led by the superb Neil Atkinson, or the exceptional work of Paul Tomkins and his colleagues at the Tomkins Times, both of which are now into their second decade of existence, are definitive sources of record for anything pertaining to Liverpool, at least as far as I’m concerned. But even the most laudable supporter-led analysis cannot be expected to be wholly objective. You wouldn’t necessarily go to either for an objective appraisal of, say, Pep Guardiola’s work at Manchester City or Thomas Tuchel’s at Chelsea if you were a fan of those clubs because, at best, these Liverpool-focused outlets would be much more ambivalent about such topics, and in any case they would almost certainly be far more critical about your club than you would like them to be, borne of their own inevitably different experiences of them from the opposite terrace.
Similarly, some days I accept that Alex Ferguson’s record of thirteen league titles in 21 years marks him out as, indisputably, one of the greatest that ever sat in a dugout. Then I look at his record in the European Cup over the same timeframe, namely two wins out of a possible 19 during a period where Manchester United were invariably dominating English football, and I wonder whether he can truly be deemed better than someone like Bob Paisley, who not only achieved a slightly better success rate in terms of league titles during his 9 years in charge of Liverpool (67% vs. Ferguson’s 62%) but also won three European Cups in 5 years between 1977 and 1981, making for a success rate of 49% as manager (three in seven attempts) vs. Ferguson’s paltry 11%.
Furthermore, it took until the second decade of the 21st century for anyone to match his trio of European Cups, and the likes of Guardiola and Jose Mourinho still haven’t managed it. And that was back when a manager had to win a league title before he got a crack at it; the fact of the matter is that Ferguson’s famous treble in 1999 never happens if he’s managing in Paisley’s era.
This would all naturally be anathema to a Manchester United supporter, of course, who would no doubt point to Ferguson’s greater longevity and additional near-misses along the way. Subsequently, there might ensue a debate as to whether Paisley, managing during an era where clubs like Nottingham Forest, Leeds United, Ipswich Town and Aston Villa were powerful enough to reach (and quite often win) European finals, had it harder than Ferguson, whose main title rivals in the early years of the Premier League (Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle United) were singular and fell away shortly thereafter, and who presided over Manchester United during an era of English football where the disparity between the richest clubs, of which his own was always the richest, and the rest grew to an unprecedented level. With all of that said, did Paisley ever have a rival like Wenger’s Arsenal, Mourinho’s Chelsea, or Abu Dhabi’s Manchester City?
In the end, I’m sure we would both make good points and end up agreeing that both men sit somewhere towards the top of football’s managerial pantheon, for two reasons in particular:
- I am reasonable enough to realise that my own sub-conscious bias may be at play, and
- Concessions like this are easier to make with Paisley and Ferguson, since the argument essentially comes down to comparing trophies, of which both men evidently won a boatload. After all, there is no post-truthing away a picture like this:
But I wonder how someone like Bill Shankly would figure into the conversation? The man who rebuilt Liverpool from a Second Division also-ran into the juggernaut it subsequently became in the 1970s and 1980s, whose work remains the very foundation upon which the club’s current stature is built, never won a European Cup. Furthermore, because his fifteen full seasons as Liverpool manager took place during a period of English football defined by parity (ten clubs won the First Division during those 15 years), he only claimed three league titles.
Shankly was in good company, mind: other managerial titans of the era like Don Revie (two league titles, five-times runner-up) and Brian Clough (two league titles at different clubs, albeit two European Cups to go with them) didn’t exactly hoover up silverware every season either, but the stamp they left on Liverpool, Leeds United and Nottingham Forest respectively (Derby County too, in Clough’s case) is indelible. What value do you put on that when it comes time to place managers, players and teams in their correct historical context?
Luckily for supporters of the clubs in question, despite a haul of major trophies that pales in comparison next to the likes of Paisley and Ferguson, the reputations and legacies of managers like Shankly (six in just under 15 years at Liverpool), Revie (six in just over 13 years at Leeds) and Clough (eight in just over 18 years at Forest)* are completely secure. To a large degree, I suspect there may be generational reasons for that. Certainly, I highly doubt that any of Rory Smith’s predecessors in the old First Division era would have ever made the case that “it’s up to the fans really, it’s up to football culture as a whole, to decide what it means“, about anything. The grown-ups were in charge and the historical record was calibrated accordingly.
(*All figures exclude Charity/Community Shields and lower-league titles.)
Well that’s great for those managers, but what of the modern generation? So much has changed in the intervening years, hasn’t it? For example, nine of the Premier League’s twenty current managers have been in the job for less than six months. The amount of time available to build a legacy at a football club is now frighteningly short. There is no better demonstration of this reality than the sacking of Nuno Espírito Santo by Tottenham at the end of October. Despite his pedigree at Wolves, where he guided the club out of the Championship and established his team as a highly effective Premier League outfit across three seasons, even guiding them into Europe for the first time since 1980, Nuno was given just ten league games to “succeed” at Spurs. Ten.
I put “succeed” in quotations there because Tottenham were 7th, two points off the top-four and still in the EFL Cup, when he was sacked. For a club that has won three major trophies in 37 years, none since 2008, and finished in the top-four eight times during the same timeframe, I do wonder what success means to your average Spurs supporter in 2021 and why sitting two points off 4th with just over a quarter of the season gone was so appalling a vista that the manager had to go. And make no mistake, the fans were very much a party to the his dismissal, as the following excerpt from the BBC’s match report of his final game, a 0-3 home reverse to Manchester United, illustrates:
Spurs manager Nuno has been struggling to win over supporters but the atmosphere inside this vast arena turned mutinous as they slipped tamely to defeat here.
They were already in a grim mood before Nuno made the highly-contentious decision to replace Moura with Bergwijn nine minutes after the break. The stadium was engulfed in loud boos and chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing” aimed at Nuno.
And when Rashford raced through more non-existent defending late on to add insult to injury, Levy was in the firing line as thousands of Spurs fans got up and left.
I fully appreciate that Spurs may not have been the prettiest to watch under Nuno, but ten games? For someone who had already proven his worth as a Premier League manager and had even won the Premier League Manager of the Month award as recently as August? With the club in debt to its eyeballs from stadium loans and a net spend in the summer of only £30m or so? That seems excessive, and it wasn’t even that a clear and obvious opportunity to hire a better manager was presenting itself. Yes, that is how it subsequently transpired with Conte, but all anyone knew for certain about the Italian at the time was that he had turned Spurs down in the summer, having been quoted as saying: “I like difficult challenges but if there is something with a club that does not convince me, I prefer to say: no, thank you.” So this seemed very much a case of wanting Nuno gone as an end in itself, regardless of who replaced him.
Another good example is Everton, a club that hasn’t won a major trophy since 1995, who are currently on their sixth permanent manager in roughly eight and a half years since David Moyes’ departure in May 2013. Leaving aside Carlo Ancelotti, who resigned to take the job at Real Madrid last summer, what chance were Roberto Martinez (72 points and 5th in 2013/14), Ronald Koeman (61 points and 7th in 2016/17), and Sam Allardyce (persona non-grata from the outset due to the perceived limitations of his tactics) and Marco Silva, both of whom presided over 8th-place finishes in their first seasons, ever really given to establish a legacy at a club where the boos quickly ring out around Goodison Park just as soon as results begin to dip? Interestingly, they all managed better league finishes than Ancelotti (12th and 10th), who spent more money than any of them but was the only one afforded any real patience.
Now Rafael Benítez, a European Cup and multi-time La Liga winner, is under pressure with the club six points off 8th with a game in hand at the time of writing (i.e. its average league finish over the past 19 years, including the Moyes era), despite him having spent a scarcely-believable total of just £1.8m in the summer and being hit with an injury crisis over the past few months that has robbed an already thin squad of key first-team players. I suppose his legendary status across Stanley Park might complicate matters. I just hope he remembered to put blue and white bows on his Christmas tree.
In other words, fans can’t even be trusted to know what’s best for their own club a lot of the time, much less attribute meaning to a rival’s success. And yet it has never been more possible for them to make their voices heard. The ability to do so inside the stadium is, of course, a longstanding and often vital outlet for supporters, although as discussed above, the willingness to use it has significantly grown in recent years. Shankly’s legacy may have been very different had he not been afforded the patience to survive six trophyless seasons, which included three 5th-place finishes, and leave a strong, young foundation for his successor to build on. Ditto Ferguson after a rough start to life as Manchester United boss in the late-1980s. Granted, not every manager will turn out like those two all-time greats, but nonetheless, if you find yourself in a cycle of six managers in eight years, possibly soon to be seven in nine if Rafa can’t steady the ship, or three in two years in the case of Spurs, there is a danger that you’ve been throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
As outlined with the Koeman Christmas tree incident earlier, however, the means by which supporters are heard have also drastically changed. Twitter was the avenue that saw the then-Everton boss “inundated with complaints that his baubles were in the red of arch-rivals Liverpool rather than the blue of the Toffeemen” in December 2016. Meanwhile, the phenomenon that is AFTV on Youtube has, despite its laudable claims to be “for the fans, by the fans“, resulted in a longstanding campaign against arguably the club’s greatest ever manager (Arséne Wenger) and, to a greater or lesser extent, each of his successors, one contributor telling the club captain to “f*ck yourself blud“, and rumoured disquiet amongst the dressing-room at one point because of the club’s chief goalscorer’s supposed relationship with the same individual. In other words, a circus.
And yet this isn’t even the most worrying aspect of how modern football is increasingly being consumed. In February 2017, one of the most high-profile (and, for some reason that escapes me, respected) football pundits on television, Sky Sports’ Gary Neville, sat down and had a conversation with a group of AFTV contributors, including the one who would be casually inviting Granit Xhaka to insert something into himself two and a half years later. This was clearly a mutually-beneficial publicity stunt: Neville and Sky got to prove that they were in touch with the common football supporter, and AFTV got more eyeballs on their product, as well as a whiff of legitimacy.
Speaking as a common football supporter myself, this should have never happened. I have little time for Sky or Neville, and have major problems with the esteem in which some hold the latter in particular. But whether I like it or not, Sky Sports is a legitimate media outlet. AFTV is not, and will never be, anything approaching that, not even as regards Arsenal. The aforementioned Anfield Wrap and Tomkins Times typically conduct themselves like professional operations, certainly as regards the club they cover. AFTV, clearly, does not. They are welcome to do whatever they want and good luck to them, I would be embarrassed if a Liverpool channel carried on in the same way but their antics when things aren’t going well for the Gunners (which is often the case) can be undeniably hilarious for a non-Arsenal fan. But they should never, ever be lent credibility by anyone directly connected to the game because their conduct simply doesn’t deserve it.
At least that’s the way I saw it back in 2017, when Jürgen Klopp was only just approaching the end of his first full season in charge at Anfield and the full extent of Neville’s public vendetta against Liverpool, notwithstanding his previous bizarre match-fixing accusations against the club, had yet to fully manifest. But as we approach the end of 2021, I have started to see things from a slightly different perspective, maybe only 10° from where I began but that’s enough. The sad reality, based on the evidence of my eyes and ears since at least the 2017/18 campaign, when Klopp’s team began to take massive strides in Europe by reaching that season’s Champions League final, is that the likes of Neville and his colleagues on Sky and elsewhere are just as likely to indulge in post-truth, that appeal to emotion and personal belief rather than objective facts, as Troopz, Ty or DT.
This is troubling to say the least, particularly as it pertains to how popular history will view the legacies of modern managers like Klopp at Liverpool, because no, the truth is not up to the fans to decide, or at least it shouldn’t be. As with all things in life, including the requirement for vaccines to control and eradicate diseases, from Smallpox to Polio to Covid-19, objective truth (or the nearest it is possible to get) is established by individuals who are qualified, and professional enough in their task, to arrive at a point of reason. Not Joe Rogan, not Donald Trump, not Boris Johnson and, as regards football, certainly not the likes of Gary Neville and friends.
Unfortunately, companies like Sky and BT Sport have a long reach.
* * *
The genesis of televised football punditry was never wholly about insight. That was part of it, sure, but the allure of what the individuals involved might say (e.g. Malcolm Allison suggesting that Russian and Romanian teams were “peasants”, Brian Clough labelling Polish goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski “a circus clown in gloves” before his performance at Wembley that knocked England out of the 1974 World Cup) kept the viewers tuning in, regardless of how wrong their opinions proved to be. As confirmed by long-time ITV broadcaster Brian Moore later, this was a planned feature of the company’s revolutionary coverage of football in the early 1970s rather than a glitch: “We wanted one or two extroverts”.
As for objectivity, well, given that ITV’s first serious foray into televised football panels for the 1970 World Cup comprised largely Englishmen on an English television programme talking from an English perspective about England’s attempts to retain the Jules Rimet trophy, that wasn’t exactly a priority of the role from the start either. In other words, show-business (to paraphrase another classic practitioner of the craft, Eamon Dunphy), big mouths on well-known faces spewing brash opinions, was hand-stitched into the pundit’s chair from the start. Genuine, objective insight would always be a nice addition, sure, but drama and excitement were the real goals. Otherwise, television companies would just have panels of professional football journalists analysing games. But once ITV beat BBC’s ratings, for the first and only time ever, during the 1970 World Cup, the template was set.
This premium on personality, on a kind of “color commentary”, ensured that football punditry would always veer more towards the tabloid end of the spectrum, with occasional exceptions (e.g. John Giles). Some 50 years after ITV assembled their first group of pundits for Mexico ’70, a monster has evolved, many supporters now routinely getting their “analysis” of football from sources such as Talksport, the masters of introducing a bizarre, clearly wrong opinion simply to goad people into arguing against it, and the likes of Sky Sports and BT Sport, which are both filled to the brim with ex-Manchester United players who can be seen gleefully celebrating opposition goals against Liverpool when they’re not inventing fictitious scenarios to (I guess) make themselves feel better. Or is it simply a case of playing to the gallery, namely the millions of Manchester United supporters tuning in every week?
The Neville interview linked above is especially bizarre coming from someone in his position. The assertions that Manchester United will “probably win the league before Liverpool” and that “Salah’s going to leave in the next 12 months…I can absolutely guarantee it because he will. I can feel it, you can smell it, it’s there” were pure fantasy even as he said them, and they mirror comments he made earlier this year when he said of Liverpool that “sometimes you can’t put your finger on it [but] something’s not right“. Salah, of course, is still at the club and has expressed a desire to finish his career there, the team has just become the first English side to win all six games in the Champions League group stages, is in the quarter-finals of the EFL Cup, and has lost 1 out of 18 in the league, humiliating Manchester United 5-0 at Old Trafford in the process. Nice one, Gary.
Of course, being “right” or objectively judging the available evidence to hand wasn’t Neville’s intention in either case, no more than it was Rio Ferdinand’s when he recently weighed in on a debate between Jamie Carragher and Roy Keane on Cristiano Ronaldo’s role at Manchester United by ludicrously suggesting that Carragher isn’t qualified to talk about winning league titles because he never won one himself. The goal of both men, as it has so often been in the past, was instead to give a little wink to the Manchester United supporters sitting at home, whose own team has (comparatively speaking, the comparison being to the Ferguson era) been varying degrees of shit for the best part of a decade. In the process, they are keeping their legend at the club active, although as I mentioned earlier in the year, their deafening silence on the Glazers up until the club stopped winning means that they should only be treated with derision in that regard.
Another of the same ilk is Roy Keane who, by Ferdinand’s logic, should never be able to comment on managers because he was such a dismal failure as one himself. In February, Keane gleefully labelled Liverpool “bad champions” after a 1-4 loss to Manchester City. “I think they’ve believed the hype of the last year or two. We spoke about there would be some sort of drop-off, but they are playing for a big club. It’s as if they won the league last year and they all believed the hype and got carried away. My mind-set when you won a league title was ‘can we do it again?’. I never got the impression from this group last year that they were asking what’s the next step for Liverpool. I never heard any of the players saying ‘we want to do it again’. That’s the key.”
Part of me wants to believe that this was simply Keane’s usual simplistic, outdated guff, from his professed belief that a player saying publicly that he wants to do something is somehow important (talk is cheap, at least outside of the Sky studio), to the cliched idea that believing the “hype” of successive seasons where they won 61 games out of a possible 76 was the problem for Liverpool during 2020/21. If so, I would simply ask him to point to any of his seven title wins at Manchester United where centre-back #1 (e.g. Steve Bruce, Jaap Stam, Rio Ferdinand) was gone for the season after Week 5, centre-back #2 (e.g. Gary Pallister, Ronny Johnsen, Mikaël Silvestre) was gone for the season after Week 5, and centre-back #3 (e.g. David May, Henning Berg, John O’Shea) was gone for the season after Week 20, and where the team subsequently rallied to have a good season. He couldn’t because it never happened. Instead, Keane as a player was typically lucky enough to enjoy campaigns like 1993/94, where starting centre-backs Bruce and Pallister each started 41 games out of a possible 42 in the league.
Nor did Keane ever have to worry about setting the kind of exacting standards for consistency that Klopp’s Liverpool did in 2018/19 and 2019/20. Far from falling for their own “hype”, and leaving aside the injuries that saw Liverpool cycle through twenty different centre-back partnerships across the season, surely it was far more likely that mental and physical fatigue was being brought to bear after a period where the club had also gone to the final of the Champions League twice? The reality is that of all the regular or semi-regular pundits that Sky have trotted out over the past number of years, only Vincent Kompany could provide any real insight into how difficult that standard is to maintain over a period of years because he did it himself (64 wins out of 76 between 2017/18 and 2018/19). Incidentally, even that City team dropped its level by 16 points the following season with fewer injuries than Liverpool suffered in 2020/21.
Not that Keane would ever admit to anything like that, because if he did then he might have to recognise the wildly differing standards to which his own title-winning teams were subject. It was nothing for those sides to drop the bones of 40 points in a season and still win the league title. The average across those seven title wins was 32.5 points dropped per season, but that average is improved significantly by the statistical outlier that was the 1999/00 campaign. In 1996/97, they dropped a staggering 39 points, lost 0-5 and 3-6 back-to-back away to Newcastle and Southampton respectively at one point, and still coasted to the title by 7 points.
That’s the level of opposition that some of Keane’s league medals were won against, and so, again using the logic of his erstwhile former teammate (but correctly, unlike Rio), I might wonder what the former United captain would know about how a team should react after back-to-back 97- and 99-point seasons. How would he know the pressure that comes from having to win 30 games in a season just to get a sniff, and the toll that said pressure might take in subsequent seasons? How would he know anything about that, when Leicester City in 2016 managed more points than Manchester United’s treble-winners in 1999?
All of which is thoroughly moot, because Keane quickly revealed the actual motives behind his “analysis” and it had nothing to do with his usual cliche-ridden stuff about closing down, putting in the effort, kicking someone, playing for the shirt, and so on. “People keep telling me Liverpool are a huge club. If they are a huge club then they will deal with setbacks. Is that not part of the game?” First of all, I doubt people keep telling you that, Roy. But secondly, is there any doubt that Liverpool is a huge club? In all seriousness? Is that an actual discussion that’s happening somewhere? In 2021? That isn’t inside an asylum for the criminally insane?
In fact, Roy Keane isn’t crazy you’ll be glad to know (well, not because of this in any case). No, his comments after the game earlier in the year were perfectly rational give his agenda. You see, they were primarily geared towards having a dig at Liverpool and, in the process, currying favour with the watching Manchester United fans, much like the contents of Neville’s mind-palace as outlined earlier, much like Ferdinand’s quip at Carragher’s expense, and much like Paul Scholes a couple of years back when he said a badminton trophy he won at his local club meant more to him than the Club World Cup, and wouldn’t you know who had just won said Club World Cup! Oh you absolute legends, the lot of you!
Well, fair enough, I say. Everything outlined above, plus the brazen discomfort that Neville audibly feels every time something is going well for Liverpool in a match on which he is commentating, together with the related implications for his objectivity in terms of Liverpool players (e.g. the question of Mo Salah’s virtue, or otherwise), I will take all of it in exchange for the manner in which Neville and Ferdinand in particular, but also the likes of Keane and Patrice Evra, kept their mate Ole Gunnar Solskjær in a job for which he was clearly unqualified for almost three years. That’s the double-edged sword of having your “legends” in the media and, together with their long-time silence over the Glazers, while it has not necessarily inflicted direct damage on the club they all profess to love, it does represent a level of inaction ill-fitting of their legendary status that has contributed to Manchester United’s decline, and as a Liverpool supporter I love them for that and hope that Rio gets his wish and becomes Sporting Director some day.
It is rather more sobering, however, to consider the prospect of these same individuals assessing Jürgen Klopp’s achievements at Liverpool in around two and a half years’ time, because that’s exactly what they’ll be doing on Sky Sports and BT Sport, the two main broadcasters of the Premier League in the UK. We don’t have to speculate regarding their lack of objectivity on all things Liverpool because they have proven it time and time again over the years. In an era where a point away to Antonio Conte’s Tottenham is an objectively bad result given Manchester City’s relentless excellence and 41 points from a possible 54 to start the season sees your team three points off the pace at Christmas, there is a fair likelihood that Klopp leaves Liverpool with no more than the single league title that he has won so far. And that being the case, I have no doubt that the individuals in question will not be able to resist the urge to loudly declare his inferiority to the likes of Ferguson (13) and Guardiola (3 for now, probably more by then), just to stick it to Liverpool once again.
And lest anyone be tempted to argue that the ex-Liverpool brigade (chiefly, Jamie Carragher and Graeme Souness on Sky, Michael Owen on BT Sport) would balance out such nonsense, think again. If Steven Gerrard and Robbie Fowler were still regular contributors then that might be the case, but you can generally consider ex-Liverpool players in the media like the Democrats in the US political system or the Labour party in the UK, the lesser of two evils that typically offers only the most ineffectual of responses to the worst excesses of its opponents. And lest any Manchester United supporter take exception to being compared to the Republicans or the Conservatives, just show me any instance where a former Liverpool player-turned-pundit ever engaged in similar behaviour to Gary Neville or Rio Ferdinand. It has never happened. You will occasionally hear one of them express delight at something positive happening for their former club (e.g. “Mo Salah, you little dancer!”), but such displays are rare and fleeting.
You have never seen long, pained examinations of what is going wrong at Anfield; even when Liverpool were on the verge of bankruptcy in the autumn of 2010, all you could find was Alan Hansen on BBC blaming the players. And they rarely throw digs like the ones Neville, Ferdinand, Keane and Scholes have thrown over the years. No problem, like I said, it’s a double-edged sword to have high-profile ex-players cheerleading for your club like that, but I have more chance of making my debut for Liverpool at 42 with a couple of knackered knees, a bad back and no footballing talent to speak of than there is of Michael Owen or Jamie Carragher delivering a stern rebuke to any colleague who reduces Klopp’s work at Liverpool to a trophy count. They would be far more likely to “reluctantly” agree, purely out of a sense of fairness, you understand, one that would never be returned the other way. I should also point out that Michael Owen also played for Manchester United, so…yeah.
But who cares, I hear you ask. Who cares what they think or say, the games they play, the nonsense they spout. Fuck them. Well, sure, I agree. I’m just saying: expect it. Don’t get taken in by the suits and the ties, or by the rhetoric that is as much a part of a pundit’s job description as a politician’s. The likes of Gary Neville and Rio Ferdinand are really just refined versions of DT, Troopz and Ty. My mistake back in 2017 was in assuming that Neville was lowering himself to talk to AFTV, but in reality it was like a circus animal being returned to the wild. Perhaps the real nugget of truth buried in Rory Smith’s assertion that “it’s up to the fans really, it’s up to football culture as a whole, to decide what it means” about Liverpool’s title win in 2019/20 was the tacit acknowledgement that the inmates have now taken over the asylum. The fans are in the studios, and they’re just as tribal and unreasonable as you are. Meanwhile, legitimate journalistic sources are washing their hands of the whole thing. That’s post-truth in a nutshell.
So what do we do? Well, we believe the evidence of our eyes for a start. We don’t get lost in desperation, whether to see our club collect more trophies or to win “the banter” against supporters of others. We listen to outlets like the Anfield Wrap, the Tomkins Times, Craque Stats and others, comprising individuals who care enough about Liverpool to fully recognise the achievements of Klopp and his team while also being smart enough to place an accurate value on them. We look at history and where this Liverpool team resides within it, both statistically and otherwise, and we remember how it all felt, from Dortmund to Madrid, from Rome to Manchester, and so many on Merseyside. And if we do all of that, in the full knowledge that the next two and a half years may bring nothing or they may bring everything, then I am confident that in the summer of 2024 we will arrive at the same conclusion as the one I came to a few weeks ago following Divock Origi’s 94th-minute winner away to Wolves:
This is the greatest Liverpool team we’ll ever see in our lives from this point forward. And don’t ever let anyone tell you different.
* * *
Update: 22nd May 2022
Ok, let’s see how we’re doing at the end of the 2021/22 season…
|Position||PPG (Points Per Game)||Position||Win%|
|1||Man. City 2017/18 [2.63]||1||Man. City 2017/18 [84.2%]|
|2||Liverpool 2019/20 [2.61]||1=||Man. City 2018/19 [84.2%]|
|3||Man. City 2018/19 [2.58]||1=||Liverpool 2019/20 [84.2%]|
|4||Liverpool 2018/19 [2.55]||4||Chelsea 2016/17 [78.9%]|
|5||Chelsea 2004/05 [2.50]||4=||Liverpool 2018/19 [78.9%]|
|6||Chelsea 2016/17 [2.45]||6||Chelsea 2004/05 [76.3%]|
|6=||Man. City 2021/22 [2.45]||6=||Chelsea 2005/06 [76.3%]|
|8||Liverpool 2021/22 [2.42]||6=||Man. City 2021/22 [76.3%]|
|9||Man. Utd 1999/00 [2.39]||9||Man. Utd 1999/00 [73.9%]|
|9=||Chelsea 2005/06 [2.39]||10||Tottenham 1960/61 [73.8%]|
|11||Arsenal 2003/04 [2.37]||11||Man. Utd 2006/07 [73.7%]|
|11=||Man. Utd 2008/09 [2.37]||11=||Man. Utd 2008/09 [73.7%]|
|13||Man. Utd 2006/07 [2.34]||11=||Man. City 2011/12 [73.7%]|
|13=||Man. City 2011/12 [2.34]||11=||Man. Utd 2011/12 [73.7%]|
|13=||Man. Utd 2011/12 [2.34]||11=||Man. Utd 2012/13 [73.7%]|
|13=||Man. Utd 2012/13 [2.34]||11=||Liverpool 2021/22 [73.7%]|
|17||Liverpool 1978/79 [2.33*]||17||Liverpool 1978/79 [71.4%]|
|18||Tottenham 1960/61 [2.31*]||18||Man. Utd 2007/08 [71.1%]|
|19||Arsenal 2001/02 [2.29]||18=||Chelsea 2009/10 [71.1%]|
|19=||Man. Utd 2007/08 [2.29]||18=||Man. Utd 2009/10 [71.1%]|
|19=||Chelsea 2014/15 [2.29]||18=||Man. City 2013/14 [71.1%]|
|22||Everton 1969/70 [2.26*]||18=||Man. City 2020/21 [71.1%]|
|22=||Liverpool 2008/09 [2.26]||23||Everton 1969/70 [69.0%]|
|24||Chelsea 2009/10 [2.26]||23=||Arsenal 1970/71 [69.0%]|
|24=||Man. City 2013/14 [2.26]||25||Arsenal 2003/04 [68.4%]|
|24=||Tottenham 2016/17 [2.26]||25=||Arsenal 2001/02 [68.4%]|
|24=||Man. City 2020/21 [2.26]||25=||Liverpool 2013/14 [68.4%]|
|28||Liverpool 1987/88 [2.25]||25=||Chelsea 2014/15 [68.4%]|
|29||Chelsea 2007/08 [2.24]||25=||Tottenham 2016/17 [68.4%]|
|29=||Man. Utd 2009/10 [2.24]||25=||Man. City 2019/20 [68.4%]|
Well…fuck. It looks like Liverpool have just set the 8th-highest PPG ever in English football’s top flight (minimum 38 games), as well as the joint 11th-highest Win% for good measure, marks that are only bettered amongst runners-up by…their 2018/19 selves. To reiterate: fuck. They’ve been beaten to the prize, again, by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, whose 2021/22 vintage, irrespective of their club’s ongoing European drought that stands at 52 years and counting, now finds itself in the top-6 for both metrics across the 106 seasons under review. What a time to be alive, eh?
What a time indeed. And given the wretched times through which we are currently obliged to wade, the thoughts of some will now inevitably turn (as if they haven’t already, just as soon as Son Heung-min hit the back of the Anfield Road net a couple of weeks back) to where the title was lost, which points dropped were the most damaging, which selections left the most to be desired and, most importantly, who is to blame (my money is on Jordan Henderson, but only because I’ve spent far more time on social media than any human being ever should).
For a truly lamentable number of Liverpool supporters, a minority to be sure but a notable one nonetheless, a 92-point season will be dismissed as just another failure. In that endeavour, they will be gleefully joined by the multitude of anonymous online banter merchants thriving like rats in the third decade of the 21st century, as well as the majority of television pundits who, contrary to Guardiola’s professed belief recently, very much tend not to relish Liverpool winning things. In fact, as noted above, they tend to wear that disdain as a badge of honour, one that could only be missed if you were trying. Come back to us Pep when one high profile pundit smugly cracks open a bottle of wine on his Twitter feed as City are 0-2 behind in a Champions League semi-final, or compares a trophy you’ve just lifted to one he won at his local badminton club (oh man, I swear, if I could convert Liverpool’s historic 9-0 aggregate destruction of Manchester United this season into a powder, I would gladly snort myself to eye-rolling, toe-curling oblivion).
The inherent motives of these disparate groups will be different, of course. In the case of those wearing Liverpool colours, they will be borne of a desperate entitlement for things to go their way and an instinctive, juvenile response to the ultimate refusal of that entitlement. Instead of accepting that sport, much like life itself, will frequently be defined by margins so narrow that you can easily find yourself on the losing side through no fault of your own, they will instead lash out at those they feel have let them down, no doubt goaded towards the execution of this dubious enterprise by the brainless mockery of opposition supporters. Ironically, the ones at which they will inevitably lash out are the same ones who brought them so close to realising their wildest dreams in the first place and who can still claim three major trophies this season, a feat that has only been achieved three times before in the club’s illustrious history, in 1983/84, 2000/01 and 2019/20.
Speaking of rare feats: they will do this despite the fact that Liverpool have become only the 9th top-flight team in the 41 years since the introduction of three points for a win in 1981/82 that has managed to hit 92 points in a season. Widen the scope to include the full 106 campaigns that have comprised a minimum of 38 games, and that achievement becomes even more staggering. Converting to three points for a win across all seasons, a mere 17 teams have managed it in over a century, and nine of those were across 42 games, a schedule that would have surely seen Liverpool eclipse 100 points with ease this season. Consider some of the names who guided those teams (Herbert Chapman, Matt Busby, Stan Cullis, Bill Nicholson, Don Revie, Bob Paisley, Alex Ferguson, José Mourinho), and it’s clear that Jürgen Klopp is breathing some rarefied air. Alongside Guardiola, he is also one of only two men to do it more than once (three apiece and counting).
In a familiar tale, he is also the only manager to have failed to win the title in a season where his team hit that 92-point mark; in fact, he has now done it twice. This is an achievement that was once so rare that just under half of the teams who have done it won the league in that season by double figures, and the average margin of victory across the 15 title-winners was 9 points. Of the three close title-races in that sample, two were fashioned by Klopp himself (2018/19 and 2021/22) and the other was the fight to the wire in 1970/71 between Arsenal’s first double-winners and Revie’s legendary Leeds United:
|Team||Games||Points||Margin of Title Victory|
|Man. City 2021/22||38||93||1 point|
|Liverpool 2019/20||38||99||18 points|
|Man. City 2018/19||38||98||1 point|
|Man. City 2017/18||38||100||18 points|
|Chelsea 2016/17||38||93||7 points|
|Chelsea 2004/05||38||95||12 points|
|Man. Utd 1993/94||42||92||8 points|
|Liverpool 1978/79||42||98*||17 points*|
|Arsenal 1970/71||42||94*||3 points*|
|Everton 1969/70||42||95*||17 points*|
|Leeds United 1968/69||42||94*||8 points*|
|Tottenham 1960/61||42||97*||16 points*|
|Wolves 1957/58||42||92*||7 points*|
|Man. Utd 1956/57||42||92*||14 points*|
|Arsenal 1930/31||42||94*||10 points*|
Out of the 106 seasons under review, in fact, this season’s performance would have been good enough to win Liverpool the league title in 94 of them, or 89% of the time. Of the 12 exceptions (i.e. the list above minus the 1956/57, 1957/58 and 1993/94 title-winners, who Liverpool would have beaten on goal difference, as well as their own runners-up in 2018/19 and 2021/22), seven are from the 100 seasons spanning 1905/06 to 2015/16 inclusive. The remaining five are from the last 6 years, fatefully coinciding with the Klopp era at Anfield.
Overall, 41% of the 17 teams that have broken the 92-point barrier since 1905 (or achieved the equivalent during the two-point era) have done so since 2016. The bar is now set to an unprecedentedly high level, namely 2.44 PPG and a 77.2% Win% based on the first three seasons of the 2020s. That equates to approx. 93 points and 29 wins a season respectively, and those averages are skewed somewhat by Manchester City’s procession to the title in 2020/21. And that’s just to get a sniff: Liverpool eclipsed both marks in 2018/19 and finished second, came within a whisker of both this season and finished second again. The days of Manchester United being able to win league titles on 75 or 79 points are long gone.
This reality, this staggering new standard required to compete, has been over two decades in the making, commencing with Alex Ferguson at the dawn of the new millennium, continuing with Arséne Wenger and José Mourinho, then back to Ferguson, briefly to Carlo Ancelotti and the likes of Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini at City, and then to Antonio Conte, all of whom raised the bar increasingly higher so that the advances achieved by Guardiola and Klopp in recent years have necessarily seen it disappear into the stratosphere. And with the German now officially contracted until 2026 and the Spaniard reportedly in talks to stay until 2025, that standard is unlikely to drop any time soon.
It’s an impossible ask of someone like new Manchester United boss Erik ten Haag, for example, to hit those sorts of heights in the short- to medium-term, and perhaps even in the long-term. Everything will need to go right for him in order to meaningfully compete with City and Liverpool as things stand, and it remains to be seen how plentiful the patience of the Old Trafford faithful will be in the (likely) event that the club enters into a second decade without a realistic title challenge. Chelsea, meanwhile, are losing their best defender (Antonio Rüdiger) and, as explored elsewhere, are likely about to undergo a sea-change in how the club is run under new ownership. Tottenham and Arsenal, still in the early stages of rebuilding, are light years away from the pace being set at the top of the table.
Under the circumstances, picking the bones out of individual results or moments, especially given the many disruptions to Liverpool’s squad this season (e.g. numerous Covid-related absentees in the winter, losing their two best attacking threats to the AFCON for over a month in January and February, and adding an additional 24 cup matches to their schedule, not including next Saturday’s final), seems like nitpicking. That’s because it is nitpicking. When a team’s performance is good enough to win a league title 89% of the time, it is fairly safe to say that there is little more they could have done.
Somehow, in an era where Klopp’s Liverpool have regularly been labelled lucky, often confusingly so (e.g. those who felt that Liverpool would be “found out” by VAR quickly changed their tune once it was introduced), the German and his players have in fact suffered the monstrously ugly fortune to have plied their trade alongside three of the finest single-season performances ever, namely Manchester City’s 2017/18, 2018/19 and 2021/22 campaigns, all of which were master-minded by one of the greatest coaches of all-time and bankrolled by a nation state. I am reminded of an article by The Athletic’s Oliver Kay last month, where he noted that across 144 league games since August 2018, only a single point separated the two teams:
The figures noted by Kay can now be updated with four full seasons of data. It shows how desperately fine the margins have been: City have claimed three of the four league titles available in that time, but it could so easily have gone the other way. Nobody else has come close to this level, with next-best Chelsea sitting 79 points back:
A solitary point across four seasons and 152 games (total points on offer: 456) represents the difference between three league titles and one. Coming hot on the heels of being outspent and out-muscled by Bayern Munich during his 7 years as manager of Borussia Dortmund, Klopp could perhaps be forgiven for feeling a little like Sisyphus at times like this. Maybe he’s just a Glatten for punishment…you know, because Glatten is where he grew up?
All joking aside, Jürgen Klopp is no Sisyphus, a figure in Greek mythology who is cursed to eternally push a boulder uphill only to see it roll back down every time he gets to the top. In six days he will lead a team into a European Cup final for the fourth time in his managerial career, more than both Guardiola (three) and Mourinho (two) and equal with Ferguson’s career total but in less than half the attempts (nine to Ferguson’s twenty-two, including his time at Aberdeen, or a hit-rate of 44% vs. 18%). A few of his notable contemporaries are included below for comparison:
|Finals reached as|
% of attempts
|Competition Wins||Career League|
[**Tuchel managed two different teams in the competition during the 2020/21 season, included as one whole campaign]
[***Mourinho was sacked as Chelsea manager one CL game into the 2007/08 season, this has not been included]
[****Wenger out, blud!]
I’ve added the final column there as something of a counterpoint to Pep Guardiola’s recent claim that the Premier League is harder to win than the Champions League: the numbers above (a collective 53 career league titles amongst some of the best managers of the last half-century vs. 11 European Cups) tell a different story. Even Bob Paisley, with a 43% win rate in Europe’s premier club competition, claimed twice as many league titles as European Cups (6 vs. 3). There are exceptions (off the top of my head, Zinedine Zidane), but the vast majority of top-flight managers will win multiples more league titles than European Cups in their careers, and some of the best ever at club level (again off the top of my head, Bill Shankly, Don Revie, Wenger) never won one. A different challenge? Yes. Easier? Hardly. This kind of talk is especially galling coming from a man who has benefitted from virtually guaranteed qualification in every country where he has managed, yet has only won 2 out of 13. But I digress…
Of course, there could be argued to be something of a symbiotic relationship between Klopp and Guardiola here, in that the Spaniard is perhaps entitled to feel just as aggrieved that his time in charge of the cheat code that is Manchester City has coincided with the resurrection and renewed prosperity of a snoozing giant that had claimed just one major trophy in 12 years prior to 2018/19. Credit for that goes far beyond the manager, of course, but not only would Pep be claiming a fifth league title in succession had it not been for Klopp’s Liverpool, he may also feel that a Champions League or two might have found their way to the Etihad by now if not for the stifling pressure exerted by the Reds domestically in 2018/19 and 2021/22, as well as the 5-1 aggregate beating handed out directly in the 2017/18 quarter final.
Would Pep have rested Kevin De Bruyne in the first leg of the quarter-final against Spurs in 2019 had Liverpool not been pushing them so hard in the league? Would the same player have been quite so fatigued that his manager felt obliged to substitute him against Real Madrid in the second leg of the semi-final in 2022? We’ll never know for sure but, coincidentally or not, and leaving aside the abridged one-legged knockout stages held at a neutral ground due to Covid in 2019/20, City reached the Champions League final on the only occasion that Liverpool were not a factor domestically during the past five seasons (2020/21). Following their 4-1 win over Wolves on 2nd March 2021 during that campaign, City were able to coast the rest of the way, losing 4 of their last 11 and coughing up 3 goals to both Newcastle United and Brighton while still easing to the title by 12 points. On the day they beat Wolves, Liverpool were 22 points off the pace. That almost certainly helped City in Europe.
In any case, let’s finish on Klopp. Excluding lower division titles and trophies awarded for pre-season friendlies, which is the way we do things around here (so no Charity/Community Shields), his team’s recent FA Cup final victory over Chelsea saw Klopp surpass Gérard Houllier outright to move level with Bill Shankly and Kenny Dalglish on six major trophies apiece. One more against Real Madrid in Paris next Saturday night and he officially becomes the second-most successful manager in the history of a club that boasts a half-century of major honours to its name (by contrast, Guardiola has already ascended to the top of the pile at a club that had won 14 in 122 years before his arrival). And although he would still need seven more to catch Paisley, this is a man who has come closer to winning the quadruple than any manager in the history of the English game, including Bob, while also finding time to commit his future to the club for another four years. Would you honestly put it past him?
I began this post last December by noting that “[i]n the era of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, trophies alone may not be sufficient to measure the ultimate greatness of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool.” On a day that sees a 92-point season officially fall short of the league title and where Klopp has effectively doubled down on being the only manager in English football’s top flight to reach that total and leave empty-handed, it would be foolish to argue otherwise. But delivering a treble of silverware for only the fourth time in the club’s glittering 129-year history would go some way to burnishing a legacy that could very well be bulletproof by the time he finally hangs up that famous baseball cap, if it isn’t already.
Until then, I urge any Red reading this to continue following these two simple steps: (1) retain a pair of functioning eyeballs and the courage to believe them, and (2) enjoy the continuing exploits of the best Liverpool team you will ever see.