Before Liverpool’s game against Wolves on Sunday, the eye was drawn to a new item of clothing being offered by the merchandise sellers around Anfield. It was a black T-shirt with the words ‘Never Give Up’ written in large letters across the front, replicas of the one Mohamed Salah had worn during the on-pitch celebrations which followed that Champions League win against Barcelona a few days earlier. The message has come to define Liverpool’s run to the final in Madrid and, on a broader level, is one Jürgen Klopp will need to instil in his players once their attention returns to domestic duties.
For all the happiness and pride that marked Liverpool’s 2018-19 Premier League campaign there is no escaping the feeling that there will be some lasting scars. Ninety-seven points, a single defeat, the best defence, the second-best attack, league leaders for 141 days and still no title. How do Liverpool’s players not feel absolutely gutted after that? How does it not have an effect on them if, say, they win their opening five games of next season but so, too, do Manchester City? Will their shoulders not sag, their heads not drop? Will they not feel that, yet again, they are coming up against a relentless machine that cannot be halted?
These are the questions Klopp will need to address during the summer, while for the club in general there is a particularly poor trend to be wary of – namely how Liverpool have performed in the seasons following the four other occasions they have finished second since last winning the title in 1990. Each time what should have been a springboard to championship success ended up proving to be a middling failure.
In 1992 Liverpool finished sixth having been runners-up to Arsenal the previous campaign. Eleven years later they finished fifth having again been runners-up to Arsenal 12 months earlier. In 2010 Liverpool finished seventh having just lost out to United in the race for the title a season earlier, and then came 2015, when a side managed by Brendan Rodgers finished sixth on the back of a 6-1 defeat by Stoke on the final day of the season having the year previously come within a Steven Gerrard slip of becoming champions.
“Second is nowhere” Bill Shankly once said but for modern Liverpool it also appears to be a curse, and supporters could be forgiven for fearing it will strike for a fifth time. After all, Liverpool go into the new season knowing there is little or no chance of them getting 97 points again – they can only do worse. It hardly makes for ideal preparations.
Not that John Barnes sees it that way. He finished second on two occasions with Liverpool – in 1991 and also two years earlier in the most dramatic ever finale to an English season. Arsenal needed to win at Anfield by two clear goals to become champions and did so thanks to Michael Thomas’s late charge through the midfield. It was a blow for a Liverpool side already reeling from the trauma of Hillsborough yet they recovered to land the title 12 months later. As far as Barnes is concerned, the current side has what it takes to do similar.
“Champions don’t wallow in despair,” he said. “They treat triumph and disaster the same because that’s the only way as a team you can maintain the focus required to perform at a consistently high level. That’s what Liverpool did this season – perform with incredible consistency. Finishing second wasn’t a failure and I’m sure everyone inside the club recognises that and is ready to go again. And yes, they may not get 97 points again, but they will push for the title. I’m sure of that.”
In regards to those previous second-place finishes, there are obvious differences. A completely different manager and set of players for starters, but also no sense that Liverpool are in line for a summer’s worth of terrible transfer activity. That was certainly the case in 1991 when Graeme Souness, ahead of his first full season in charge, sold a number of established players in order to revitalise the squad, a decision he later admitted was a mistake, and which at the time appeared foolish given one of those he got rid of was Peter Beardsley, who still had plenty to offer, as he proved at Everton after joining them that August.
In 2002 Gérard Houllier went on a spending spree that saw the frankly awful El Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou arrive at Anfield. In 2009, with Rafael Benítez in charge, Liverpool lost a key part of the team that had pushed United hard for the title in Xabi Alonso while in 2014 an even more important championship-chasing figure was lost in Luis Suárez, with the £75m Liverpool got for the Uruguayan largely wasted.
This time around Liverpool should not only hold on to their best players but can also be trusted to make shrewd investment in new recruits given that is largely how the club has operated during Klopp’s time in charge, with the German forming an excellent working relationship with the sporting director, Michael Edwards, a little-known figure who has played a big role in bringing Salah and Virgil van Dijk to the club.
Such has been Liverpool’s success in the transfer market over recent years that it is hard to see exactly how they strengthen. Perhaps they could move for Ajax’s Matthijs de Ligt on the back of the impressive defensive partnership he has formed with Van Dijk at international level. Or maybe for Wilfried Zaha as cover for Salah and Sadio Mané in those crucial wide-forward areas. One other train of thought is that it may be time to move Roberto Firmino into a creative midfield/No 10 role and deploy a more orthodox striker in the front three in order to boost the team’s scoring power to a potentially decisive level. Daniel Sturridge is no longer up to the task, nor clearly is Divock Origi, despite those goals against Everton, Newcastle and Barcelona. A new striker would be required, with RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner, who has long been linked with a move to Anfield, a potential candidate.
Whoever joins Liverpool this summer, Klopp’s main task will be one he has already proven himself to be a master of: motivation. The man with the huge grins and warm hugs needs to convince his players that they can once again push City all the way and, with a little more effort and a little more luck, out-do them. Ignore the second-place curse, believe, and, as the T-shirt says, never give up.