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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Liverpool broke own mould to ensure Premier League domination, and now rivals will replicate

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There are plenty of lessons that clubs across Europe the Premier League can take from Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. One key one: figure out your timeline. And once you think the foundations are built, enter win-now mode asa-and-p. When you think you can make the leap, don’t continue with incremental growth.

Liverpool’s rebuild was careful and methodical. It was “long-term” by modern standards. Bargains were found. Cornerstones — Sadio Mané, Mo Salah — were brought in in successive windows. But once Klopp and co. had laid the foundation, they immediately jumped into win-now mode, shelling out big money on the likes of Alisson, Virgil van Dijk, and Naby Keita.

The culture and overall structure Klopp wanted was there. What he didn’t have to execute it fully was the talent. The team had defensive issues, and so he invested in a pair of best-in-class players. Issues solved.

The team hit lift-off. From fun upstarts to champions just like that. Champions of Europe, Champions of the World, Premier League Champions-elect.

It used to be that the transfer splurge was maligned. That when a club would shuffle its budget forward a couple of years and spend in one big chunk it was considered rash and irresponsible rather than calculated and creative. But it worked for Liverpool. After adding Van Dijk, Alisson, Keita, and Fabinho Liverpool went quite in the top-end of the transfer market. Once the puzzle was complete, and the coffers (whether you believe the club or not) were drained, it all became about internal development, about keeping this special group together and growing as a collective rather than star chasing.

Others can follow suit. The most obvious candidates are Manchester United and Chelsea. Neither are as far away as their detractors think nor as close as their fans believe. But each has built the foundation of its long-term vision. Whether you agree with their individual strategies or not (I would side with Chelsea’s model over United’s) the makings of what each club wants to be are there: both young and fast; United more lethal in transition with a focus on British players; Chelsea more possession-oriented. Both have players who have just entered their prime or will soon be on their way.

Now that that base is there, it is time to enter win-now mode, particularly with Tottenham going through a rebuild and Man City being forced into an on-the-fly retooling while the Financial Fair Play issues still linger over their head.

In fairness, United have never really left the win-now, splurge-stage. Each successive manager swap in the post-Ferguson era has seen a different philosophy ushered into the club, and with it different players who would fit that mould. They are still paying for Ed Woodward’s lack of joined-up thinking and are only 12-months removed from the start of Solskjaer’s initial clear-out. But it’s clear what the blueprint is now: quick, incisive football in transition. The back-bone of the team is set: David de Gea, Aaron Wan Bissaka, Harry Maguire, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial. The rest is filler or players whose long-term status is up in the air. And while it doesn’t look like the spine of league title-winning side right now, it’s not awful.

Chelsea might be even closer, though I remain skeptical of Frank Lampard’s managerial skills. They were forced into a period of stasis by dent of their transfer ban, but it’s opened up a real opportunity. They’ve been able to give game time to youngsters, to figure out who fits Lampard’s model and who doesn’t. Bringing through a couple of homegrown youngsters, even if they’re just excellent squad players, is an absolute game-changer.

Chelsea can get really, really specific in the transfer market now, as Klopp did when he turned Liverpool from a contender into a juggernaut. Chelsea’s issues and targets are obvious, as were Klopp’s. Bringing in Ben Chilwell from Leicester at left-back seems like a virtual certainty. Finding a goalkeeper Lampard trusts is the next step. And then, who knows?

Chelsea’s underlying numbers peg them closer to the top-two than I’ve given them credit for this season. Based on expected points, a crude but noteworthy figure that measures their match to match xG vs. xGA, they should be sitting comfortably third in the table, not far behind Liverpool and Man City.

Their major flaw: A strained defence and untrustworthy goalkeeper. Remind you of anyone?

Both Chelsea and United should have cash to throw in the transfer market this summer, even if the finances of the game are a complete mystery right now. It might even become a buyers market, as cynical as that sounds. The key is spending it wisely (duh), not spreading across positions, but honing in on one or two crucial targets who are truly world-class, that can push them from interesting to contender status.

Incremental, internal growth is fun. Fans like the idea of a project and a vision. But at some point, that vision needs to coalesce. Building that title-contender culture can take time, but it also requires a big-ass catalyst. For Liverpool, that was the signing of Van Dijk, which was shortly followed up by the addition of Alisson.

The scattergun approach of United over the last decade makes it hard to envision this group of decision-makers getting that selection process right — indeed they would likely argue that Fernandes already is that catalyst.

But Chelsea is lurking. The backbone of the squad is set. Sprinkle a Jadon Sancho here and a Chilwell there (what about pipping Liverpool to a deal for Timo Werner?) and suddenly you’re looking at a near-complete side which will have done as good a job as any of recreating the Liverpool model.

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