Two nights ago, France Football revealed its 30-man Ballon d’Or nominee list for 2019, and what was talked about the most was a club-high seven nominations for Liverpool FC. Normally, the omission of players like Neymar and Jan Oblak would be given more airtime. However, the fact that Liverpool’s domination of the list is the talk of the town means it is genuinely a big statement. A whopping 23% of the entire list of supposedly the best footballers on the planet comprises of Liverpool FC players.
I say “supposedly” for a reason. The merits of these individual awards are still widely disputed and unclear. The inconsistency in selections and lack of defined criteria means that players and managers largely do not consider them as the “be-all-and-end-all” in football (Jurgen Klopp was not too fussed about these nominations either). The fact that Hugo Lloris was included over Jan Oblak points towards a huge preference for team trophies rather than individual ability, but then Kevin de Bruyne’s inclusion leaves you scratching your head completely. De Bruyne is one of the best players in the world, yes, but he was mostly out injured for the entirety of last season.
Not being on the nomination list isn’t necessarily a strong indication of a player not being up to a certain standard. However, being on the list certainly means said player has performed excellently, albeit maybe only in one competition that reallymatters for those who pick and vote.
And it is in this one competition that Liverpool blew everyone away last season. After the Champions League group stages, Liverpool were put up against the best teams in Portugal, Germany and Spain. They comprehensively beat all of them over two legs, including that surreal match against FC Barcelona at Anfield.
Therefore, seven nominations is by no means flattering them. In fact, Klopp’s response to the news was quite fitting when he said, “who did not get nominated?” A case could very easily be made for the inclusion of Andrew Robertson, who at times has controlled the entire left side on his own with Sadio Mane drifting inside.
All of this is simply a testament to where Liverpool are at now as a team. Their levels of consistency and excellence are frankly astonishing. Jurgen Klopp has not lost a single two-legged tie in Europe (that includes both the Europa League and the Champions League) as Liverpool manager. He has created the perfect mix of quality, explosiveness, willpower and footballing maturity. Each part is so impressive in itself and yet Klopp has gone an extra step and managed to make the whole even greater than the sum of those parts. They don’t always dominate games as overtly and obviously as Manchester City do, but they still dominate them nonetheless.
What do Rodrigo, Neil Warnock, Steve Bruce, Guardiola and Farke have in common? A liking for possession-based attacking football? No (surprise surprise), the commonality between them all is how much they have gone out of their way to praise this Liverpool side. Farke went as far as to call them the best team in the world when the sides met each other in August. Many players and managers who play against Klopp’s Liverpool have high praise for them in one way or the other.
The fact, then, that people continue to write them off and still underrate and underestimate key players (like Wijnaldum, Henderson and Matip) in a Champions League winning team that has been to two successive finals is baffling. A popular opinion at the start of this season was that Liverpool would drop off and would not get close to Man City like they did last season. We’re only nine games into the league season, and Liverpool already have a six-point lead at the top with a far harder fixture list so far than their title rivals.
If getting 97 points in the league and winning a Champions League trophy are not impressive enough in themselves for some people, then it is important they remember where Liverpool were not so long ago.
It was less than five years ago that Liverpool got absolutely thrashed 6-1 by Stoke City. Even the fact that it was Steven Gerrard’s last match for the club couldn’t elicit a better performance from that team. Just over four years ago, Liverpool scraped past Carlisle at home in the third round of the League Cup only on penalties despite the fact that starters like James Milner, Phillipe Coutinho and Dejan Lovren were all playing. In Klopp’s first match as Liverpool manager, away to Tottenham on 17thOctober 2015, the matchday squad consisted of players that most Liverpool fans have willingly forgotten about. If the first XI looks bad enough then the bench makes for even grimmer viewing. The substitutes on the day were Adam Bogdan, Kolo Toure, Connor Randall, Jao Carlos Teixeira, Jerome Sinclair, Jordan Ibe and Joe Allen.
Of the XI that started that day, only Divock Origi, Adam Lallana and James Milner are still at the club, and none of them are regular starters. In fact, of the entire matchday squad of 18 players, only the three players I’ve mentioned still remain.
The club that Klopp took over was disjointed and haphazard both on and off the pitch. There was no unity between the fans and the players, no mutual energy between them that drove each other on. I would go as far as to say that there was total hopelessness. There was no belief whatsoever that these players would make a comeback from a losing position to win (imagine that now, and all the comebacks that the team has made during Klopp’s reign). Liverpool fans were very much “doubters” at the time. A watershed moment of Klopp’s first season was when Liverpool were losing 2-1 to Crystal Palace at home and the fans started leaving the stadium well before full-time. It was then that Klopp said he felt “alone” and realised just how bad the hopelessness and lack of unity were. The fans did not think that the team would even equalise, let alone win the game.
And now, well, Liverpool is the place where miraculous comebacks happen. It is the place where you come out of the ground saying “f***ing hell how did that happen?!” Simply put, Liverpool is now the destination and not just a stepping stone.
Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho and Alisson are all examples of three world class players (arguably the best in their positions currently) who turned down clubs like Manchester City and Manchester United to come work with Klopp. Klopp is one of the two managers (the other is Guardiola) in world football that almost every player wants to work with. Although this is obviously down to the fact that Klopp improves players so much and gets the best out of them, it is also because of how he is as a person. Charismatic, honest, cheerful and generally just a very nice person.
It is down to the excellent way in which Klopp and FSG have run the club in the past few years that there is now no constant fear and anxiety for Liverpool fans of waking up one day and finding out that, say, Salah wants to leave. The reasons are twofold. Firstly, the way Liverpool operate right now on and off the pitch means that something like this will not happen out of the blue. Salah will not just randomly announce that he wants to leave and shock everyone at Melwood. Even if somewhere down the road Salah wants to leave, there isn’t a feeling like in previous years that a star player leaving will jeopardise the team’s progress and cause everything to implode. It is exactly what happened when Torres, Alonso and Suarez left, and it is exactly what didn’t happen when Phillipe Coutinho went to Barcelona in the middle of the 2017/2018 season.
Then there is also the additional question: where else would you want to go? Sure, Barcelona and Real Madrid are the ultimate destination if you’re South American but other than that, where else? The only team arguably better than Liverpool in world football right now is Manchester City.
With the way things are going, Jurgen Klopp is changing the status quo in more ways than one. The Real Madrid-Barcelona hegemony is being broken up in more ways than one. No player from any other club apart from the two Spanish giants has won the Ballon d’Or since Kaka in 2007. This year van Dijk is odds on by the bookies to put an end to that.
The pull of Real Madrid and Barcelona is still there, but Liverpool are back on their perch and have the history and status to back it up. 18 league titles and six European Cups (that’s more than every other English club combined, and also more than Barcelona) should not be smirked at. They are very much a European powerhouse again in every sense of the word.
Virgil van Dijk winning the Ballon d’Or might be the icing on the cake, but Liverpool’s 7 nominations are an indication that the north west of England is where the glory and sunshine are at (well, obviously, not literally). For the time being at least.