Liverpool took their first tentative steps towards restarting their campaign when small groups of players took part in non-contact training at Melwood yesterday, Wednesday.
What was noticeable among the players was that the usually impeccably coiffured hair of some of the squad’s members — the Brazilian duo of Alisson and Firmino, particularly — had grown untamed without access to barbers during lockdown.
Now, trying to garner any information about a person’s personality based off how they keep their hair is an empty pursuit — the opprobrium aimed at Manchester United’s Paul Pogba for keeping his hairstylist busy is an example of this — but the Reds’ — who have returned no positive COVID tests to date — players have clearly followed social distancing instruction and etiquette to the nth degree.
The ability to follow advice — be it medical or tactical — and best practice verbatim is a strength of the Liverpool squad and is a big factor — aside from their obvious footballing quality — in their recent successes, despite going toe to toe with financial heavyweights such as Barcelona and Manchester City.
After signing a player, managers will always talk about how their character and personalities were determining elements in pursuing the player’s signature. This party line is repeated to the extent that it feels cliched and hollow. After all, several of the world’s best footballers could be — being generous — described as being egotistical and self centred.
However, in the case of Jurgen Klopp and his Reds, a player’s personality is clearly foremost among their thoughts when weighing up whether to sign them or to turn their attention elsewhere.
From a tactical perspective, Liverpool’s system would fall apart if it wasn’t for the massive buy-in of the players. The intricacies of gegenpressing demands a level of selfless, hard running work — such as shepherding the opposition into pressing traps — the subtleties of which won’t bring them massive individual acclaim outside of their own fanbase or dressing room. Often derided by social media fans, Firmino is the system incarnate — and as often as his goal return may be scoffed at — the former Hoffenheim forward, whose intelligent and subtle movements manipulates space and opponents, is a key cog in arguably the best calibrated footballing machine in Europe.
A cursory glance of the career trajectories of the squad assembled by Klopp and his sporting director, Michael Edwards, reveals a common thread among the roster of players: none were, apart from academy alumnus Trent Alexander Arnold, born with the footballing silver spoon in their mouths. Instead, they had to work their way up through lower divisions, smaller clubs, or in league’s where the spotlight of the big clubs scouting networks rarely shone.
In order to work their way up to a club of Liverpool’s stature, most of the club’s current matchday squad had to show the traits that Klopp admires most; humbleness, tenacity and, above all, hard work.
Take Alisson, for example. The Brazilian shot-stopper had to bide his time behind Wojciech Szczęsny in the Roma pecking order before the Pole swapped Rome for Turin and signed for Juventus. From there, Alisson took both European and Italian football by storm playing to a level that sealed his €72 million switch to Anfield and helped him nail down the Brazilian #1 jersey.
There’s a similar story among the defence — apart from, as mentioned earlier, Alexander Arnold who is blessed with a world-class degree of talent and happened to come through the youth regime at a massive club — where Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip, Joe Gomez and Andrew Robertson all had to work their way through strife to earn their chances at the Reds.
Failing to make the grade at his first club, Willem II, van Dijk — who worked as a dishwasher to supplement his meager income — was scouted by the brother of Dutch legend Ronald Koeman and agreed to sign for Groningen, the former Dutch stomping ground of Luis Suarez. The towering centre half impressed at the Euroborg Stadium and earned a £2.6 million transfer to Celtic in the summer of 2013.
Van Dijk’s upward trajectory continued in Glasgow, where he won league titles in 2013/2014 and 2014/2015 and stood out in the Champions League, and he was soon on the move again; this time to join Southampton for £13M in 2015. The physically imposing Dutchman settled into life on England’s south coast immediately and — in 2017 — was named club captain after Jose Fonte left the club.
Despite wearing the Saints’ armband and signing a six-year deal with the club in 2016, speculation was rife that the Netherlands international would join Liverpool. Finally, after months of heavy speculation, van Dijk — in perhaps the most convoluted transfer in the Reds’ recent history, which included Liverpool publicly apologizing to Southampton — van Dijk joined the Anfield side for a club-record fee of £75M in January 2018.
The rest, as they say, is history, and the graceful athleticism, technical prowess, and an almost forensic level of positional and tactical awareness has seen the 28-year-old establish himself as the world’s finest centre-half at Liverpool.
His partner in the certain of the Reds defence for the majority of the clubs 2019 Champions League success, Matip, took a similarly circuitous and unglamorous route to Anfield. An often inconsistent performer at Schalke, the Cameroonian international joined Liverpool on a free transfer in the summer of 2016 to little fanfare.
The longlegged defender failed to consistently impress during his first season and a half at Anfield — his pairing with Dejan Lovren was leaky to the extent that Klopp saw fit to pay a then world-record fee for a defender and sign van Dijk — but Matip knuckled down and, when Gomez — who so thoroughly impressed in the opening months of the 2018/2019 season — was injured, he stepped into the void and played the best football of his career.
Perhaps none of the squad are as acquainted with adversity like Robertson is. Released from his boyhood club, Celtic, the Scottish left-back played amateur football with Queens Park — while working in, among other places, Hampden Park and on the Marks and Spencers checkout in order to earn money — before winning a transfer to Dundee United in the Scottish Premiership.
His form at Tannadice saw Robertson switch from the top division in Scotland to the top division in England, and the Scotland international joined Hull City in the summer of 2014. Robertson impressed at the KCOM Stadium, but couldn’t prevent the Tigers’ relegation to the Championship. Showing loyalty, though, the Glaswegian stayed with Hull and helped them secure promotion back to the Premier League via the playoffs.
A second relegation with the Yorkshire team would follow, but Robertson — with tenacity, crossing ability, pace and defensive solidity the hallmarks of his game — impressed to the extent that Liverpool paid £8M for his services in the summer of 2017.
Initially, the Scotsman was behind Alberto Moreno in the Anfield left-back pecking order but when the Spaniard was injured in late 2017, Robertson took his opportunity with both hands and has never relinquished his role as the club’s main left-sided full-back. The now Scotland captains improvement under the tutelage of Klopp has been meteoric and you’d be hard-pressed to find a finer left-back in world football.
Gomez, who arrived from Charlton in the summer of 2015, has brushed off two major injuries — an ACL tear and an ankle injury, the combined length of which kept the Englishman out of action for over a year — in his Liverpool career and came back each time — exhibiting a brilliant attitude — to play better football than the time before.
Composed, polished on the ball, and with turbo-charged recovery pace the 22-year-old is an exceptionally well-rounded defender for his age and — at his current rate of exponential growth and improvement — could well be considered world-class in years to come.
The midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, and Georginio Wijnaldum have had their brushes with hard times, too, and have come out the other side thanks — in part to — their hunger and determination. Henderson was offered up at bait to Fulham to sign Clint Dempsey in the summer of 2012, but, not wanting to let the opportunity at a club like Liverpool slip, the former Sunderland midfielder rejected the move. His application and professionalism saw him back into the good graces of then-manager Brendan Rodgers, who named him captain in 2015.
Klopp, the Antrim man’s replacement, is similarly enamored with Henderson, consistently picking the 29 and constantly championing his captain’s personal qualities.
Wijnaldum went through the ignominy of relegation with Newcastle in 2016, joining the Reds later that summer for £25M. Arriving as a goalscoring midfielder, the Dutchman — showing his team ethic — sacrificed many of his attacking tendencies and developed into a midfield linchpin. Wijnaldum’s spatial coverage and tactical acumen is a huge factor behind Alexander Arnold and Robertson being allowed to bomb forward so often, without the team being picked off on the counter-attack.
After failing to make the grade at Real Madrid, Fabinho — who played extensively for the Los Blancos second team, Castilla — joined Monaco on loan in 2013. The Brazilian immediately settled in the Principality and, after converting from right-back, was the midfield enforcer as an exciting, young Les Monégasques side won the 2016/2017 Ligue 1 title.
Fabinho waited another season in the South of France, before joining Liverpool in the summer of 2018 for a reported fee of £39M. The months after signing for the European finalists wasn’t a walk in the park, however, with the Brazilian often failing to make the match-day squad in the opening weeks of the season.
Remaining patient, the Brazilian never balked at his challenge and absorbed all of his Klopp’s training ground instructions — which, by all accounts, implored him to play further up the pitch and to help the team retain their compact shape — before establishing himself as the teams go to defensive midfielder, putting in consistently brilliant performances between November 2018 and June 2019.
The famed front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, and Mohamed Salah all worked their way through lesser-regarded leagues — Austria and Switzerland — or more obscure clubs, such as Hoffenheim in Firmino’s case, to make their way to the top of the club football world.
Salah was derided as a flop after his move from Basel to Chelsea didn’t work out — although the context is that Jose Mourinho, in typical fashion, didn’t give the young Egyptian the requisite chances — but after moving to the Serie A, first with Fiorentina and then Roma, the forward enhanced his reputation.
Scoring 15 goals and laying on 13 assists in his final season at the Stadio Olimpico, Salah joined Liverpool for £36.9M in the summer of 2017. With a chip on his shoulder and a point to prove, the Egyptian broke the Premier League record for goals scored in a 38 game season in 2017/2018, netting 32 times in the league.
Salah — along with Mane and Arsenal’s Pierre Emerick Aubameyang — shared the golden boot the next season and scored crucial goals to help the Reds seal their 6th European Cup victory over Tottenham in Madrid.
Mane, the Senegalese international, joined Liverpool from Southampton for £34M in the summer of 2016 with many mocking the fee the Reds paid for the former RB Salzburg winger.
Lighting quick, equally strong off either foot and with an insatiable work ethic, Mane was an instant hit at Anfield, making fools of those who doubted him. Offering the directness, pace, power, and technical qualities not seen on the Reds’ flank since, arguably, Steve McManaman or John Barnes, the Senegal star has written himself into the club’s history books.
Firmino joined Liverpool from Hoffenheim for £29M in 2015 and his start at Anfield wasn’t ideal, to say the least. Misused by Rodgers — who never wanted to sign the Brazilian — the forward, who once filled in as a left wing-back, struggled to make a mark in the dumpster fire that was the early months of the 2015/2016 season.
Klopp soon replaced Rodgers, however, and set about converting Firmino from an attacking midfielder to a centre forward — or to use the footballing nomenclature, a false 9 — a move that brought spectacular success.
The former Hoffenheim schemer offered the intelligence and selflessness to press from the front and the game intelligence to make the space to give Mane and Salah the platform to thrive. And, when opportunities presented themselves, Bobby — as he’s affectionately known — showed himself to be well capable in front of goal.
Success has come but Klopp and his humble, hard-working squad have shown that the no d*ckhead policy can bare fruit.