It is May 2015, and Liverpool have become a laughingstock. They are losing 6-1 at Stoke City on the final day of the season, the home supporters are tormenting manager Brendan Rodgers with chants of "You're getting sacked in the morning" and midfielder Steven Gerrard is ending his 710-game career at the club in humiliation.
Liverpool aren't wearing their traditional red kit; instead, they're wearing black -- black shirt, black shorts and black socks. Never has a playing strip been more appropriate.
"We were 5-0 up at half-time and when we went back to the dressing room, nobody said a word," Stoke defender Ryan Shawcross said at the time. "I've never known anything like it. The [then-Stoke] manager, Mark Hughes, walked in and didn't know what to say. We just burst out laughing."
Five years later, nobody is laughing at Liverpool. Under manager Jurgen Klopp, the club are champions of England for the first time since 1990. A year ago, they won the Champions League, adding the FIFA Club World Cup to their honours list last December. Until the coronavirus shutdown of the Premier League in March, Liverpool were two wins from clinching a first league title since 1990, by virtue of an unprecedented 25-point lead atop the table.
Quite simply, Liverpool are now one of the best teams in the world, if not
Indeed, over the past 30 years "bread and butter" seemed as realistic as caviar and champagne. While Liverpool fell into decline, bitter rivals Manchester United built their own empire under Sir Alex Ferguson. Liverpool almost went bust in 2010 under previous owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr., and when they finally came close to winning the title in 2014, a slip by Gerrard against Chelsea sparked a late-season collapse.
It was surreal: He lost possession, allowing Demba Ba to put Jose Mourinho's team on course for a 2-0 win at Anfield. Liverpool had started the day five points clear of Chelsea and six ahead of Manchester City, with three games to play. A win would have left them needing just four points from two games to clinch the title, but losing to Chelsea opened the door for City to win their four remaining fixtures and leave Liverpool to finish as runners-up to Manchester City.
Liverpool were stuck in a recurring nightmare.
So how did they turn things around? A combination of bold recruitment, smart thinking behind the scenes and the appointment of a manager with the ability to bring it all together on the pitch has led to Liverpool reclaiming their place at the summit of the game.
In 2015, Liverpool were stuck in a cycle of failure. Their American owner, Fenway Sports Group (FSG), had rescued the club in October 2010 from the threat of liquidation under the previous regime. These were bleak times. Hicks and Gillett had saddled Liverpool with £237 million in debt and the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) was due to call in the loans in mid-October. Rather than chasing trophies, Liverpool were chasing a bailout to avoid liquidation.
The club's future played out in the High Court in London after a boardroom split saw Hicks and Gillett forced into the £300m sale of Liverpool to FSG. Hicks, who valued Liverpool at between £600m and £1 billion, described the sale as an "epic swindle."
On Oct. 15, the day of the sale, Liverpool were in the Premier League relegation zone, third from bottom, one point ahead of West Ham, who were anchored to the foot of the table.
"I think the club had lost belief," Jamie Carragher, who made 737 appearances for Liverpool during a 16-year career at Anfield, told ESPN. "Towards the end of my time there, I began to wonder how we could compete with the likes of Man City, United and Chelsea. We had become a Europa League team. For four or five years, we weren't even in the Champions League."
Under Rodgers, Liverpool could not build on their near miss with Gerrard & Co. in 2014. They went the other way, into a tailspin that ended with them finishing sixth after the embarrassment at Stoke. "On our day, we were brilliant," Stoke midfielder and former Liverpool player Charlie Adam told ESPN. "Liverpool had an off-day. Their lads weren't arguing between themselves or anything like that, but we didn't see them after the game. They didn't hang around."
The lack of players squabbling and holding each other to account was a telltale sign of the rot at Anfield. With the exception of the aging Gerrard, this was a team lacking in quality and leaders. Jordan Henderson was still struggling to make his mark, while the likes of Alberto Moreno, Martin Skrtel, Joe Allen, Rickie Lambert and Lucas Leiva simply weren't good enough for a team of Liverpool's stature.
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Liverpool collapsed at Stoke because they had become rudderless. There was also unrest among the supporters, who singled out Raheem Sterling for abuse because of the winger's pursuit of a move to Manchester City, which would follow weeks later.
"That day [at Stoke] was the end of Brendan [Rodgers]," a Liverpool source told ESPN. "He remained in charge until October, but there was no way back after that. Stoke was the culmination of everything falling apart after almost winning the league in 2014. Luis Suarez had been sold [to Barcelona], and Brendan replaced him with Mario Balotelli, which is when the alarm bells started ringing."
Liverpool's summer transfer dealings revealed a disconnect between Rodgers and the Anfield hierarchy, who wanted to unearth, and polish, hidden gems in the market. The same approach had worked for FSG with the Boston Red Sox, its baseball team, and Liverpool would fall in line, operating by the same philosophy of smart, prudent recruitment. While rivals United continued to spend heavily on big names like Angel di Maria, or sanction huge wages for faded stars like Radamel Falcao and Bastian Schweinsteiger, Liverpool pursued a policy of finding the next big thing by backing the judgment of their scouts and analysts on lesser-known players.
Dave Fallows, Liverpool's head of recruitment, had spent months analysing Roberto Firmino at Hoffenheim, believing the Brazilian forward would offer long-term value and develop into a highly effective player at Anfield, but Rodgers instead pushed for Aston Villa's Christian Benteke. A compromise was reached: Liverpool signed both players, paying £29m for Firmino and £32m for Benteke, but even Villa manager Tim Sherwood was bemused by the move for Benteke.
"We cross more balls into the box than any other club in the league and Christian has said that he feeds off crosses," Sherwood said at the time. "There's no point going to a club where they don't cross the ball."
Over the next year, Liverpool fired Rodgers and hired Klopp, Gerrard left for the LA Galaxy and the underperforming Benteke (10 goals in 42 games) was transferred to Crystal Palace on a four-year deal. Firmino, meanwhile, has become a crucial component to Liverpool's dominance, a testament to a new era of success.
Twenty-four hours before that Liverpool defeat at Stoke, Klopp was waving his farewells to Borussia Dortmund's "Yellow Wall" of fans at Signal Iduna Park. A 3-2 win against Werder Bremen secured a Europa League spot for Dortmund, but Klopp was done. After seven years in charge, which included two Bundesliga titles, two German Cups and a Champions League final defeat against Bayern Munich, Klopp announced he was taking a sabbatical.
A year earlier, Manchester United executive vice chairman Ed Woodward had attempted to persuade Klopp to move to Old Trafford to replace David Moyes, telling the German that the club was like "an adult version of Disneyland," but the sales pitch failed. United's loss would prove to be Liverpool's gain, and spectacularly so.
Both Klopp and Carlo Ancelotti, now in charge of Everton, met Liverpool's owners at the offices of New York law firm Shearman & Sterling on Lexington Avenue to discuss the manager's job at Anfield. Klopp, who had already impressed FSG president Mike Gordon in a telephone interview, had been identified as the man Liverpool wanted, three years after declining the opportunity to succeed Kenny Dalglish. (The role had gone to Rodgers.)
On Oct. 8, 2015, Klopp checked into Liverpool's Hope Street Hotel and got to work, promising at his media conference the following day that his team would deliver "at least one trophy in the next four years."
The most important person in Liverpool's turnaround on player recruitment is Michael Edwards.
"Everyone at Liverpool, including [principal owner] John W. Henry, would regard losing Michael Edwards as being on a par with losing [forward] Mo Salah," a Liverpool source told ESPN.
The 40-year-old Edwards, who graduated from the University of Sheffield with a degree in informatics (the application of the principles of information science to solve problems using data), has worked in football since starting out as a £25,000-a-year performance analyst in Harry Redknapp's backroom team at Portsmouth. After six years at Fratton Park, he undertook the same role at Tottenham -- again under Redknapp -- before joining Liverpool under then-director of football Damien Comolli in 2011.
Edwards' promotion to the role of technical director in August 2015 (he is now the club's sporting director) enabled him to take the lead on Liverpool's transfer committee. He did not take charge in time to save Rodgers, but for Klopp, he has been as important as any of the stars on the pitch.
Edwards is not the first data analyst to be dismissed as a "geek" by a football dressing room, an environment that is innately suspicious of outsiders, but in almost nine years at Liverpool, he has firmly dispelled the notion that those in the analytics department are nothing more than nerdy, undervalued office drones.
"He was the computer geek at Portsmouth, the video data analyst," former Liverpool and Portsmouth midfielder David Thompson told ESPN about Edwards. "He had this messy haircut and wouldn't have looked out of place if he turned up for work on a skateboard. He was a good guy, though, somebody the players liked and respected."
Edwards is the driving force behind Liverpool's transfer committee, the group of analysts and scouts who, in tandem with Klopp, have transformed the club's recruitment. It has evolved from the manager-led approach that resulted in the signings of Balotelli and Benteke to the current model, the envy of rivals across Europe, that has seen the likes of Salah, Firmino, Sadio Mane and Andy Robertson arrive for bargain fees and become world-beaters.
"It works because you have a manager and sporting director who are on the same level, each with huge respect for the other," a Liverpool source told ESPN. "They both know what the other guy wants and expects."
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Under Edwards, Liverpool have built a formidable player scouting team, including Fallows (recruitment), Barry Hunter (chief scout), Ian Graham (research), Alex Inglethorpe (academy) and Julian Ward (loan and pathway manager). Mike Forde, executive chairman of Sportsology, the New York-based elite sport advisory business, has advised ownership groups in the NBA, NFL and Premier League, and he believes Liverpool, with Edwards, have the world leader in his field.
"Ninety-nine percent of recruitment is who you
In the five years between the start of the 2015-16 season and the 2019-20 campaign, which covers all but two months of Klopp's time in charge, Liverpool's net spend on transfers amounts to £107.77m, ranking them in 29th place globally, according to transfermarkt.co.uk, between Beijing Sinobo Guoan and Tottenham Hotspur. For comparison, Manchester City (£600.63m) and Manchester United (£484.88m) occupy the top two positions.
Under Edwards, who reports to FSG president Gordon, Liverpool's off-field prowess matches the success of the team on the pitch. Oxford and Harvard graduates have been recruited to their analytical team, which focuses on every aspect of a player's ability, from the basics of appearances, goals and assists to how they dominate their area of the pitch and which specific contribution they can make to Klopp's team.
Benteke, the striker who thrived on crosses, would no longer get past the first stage of consideration, never mind complete a multimillion-pound transfer, with Edwards now driving the policy of recruiting players who are compatible with the team's system. When Liverpool signed Salah from AS Roma in 2017, aside from watching him play, they also scouted his training sessions and assessed the Egyptian's character -- how he acted around teammates, how he trained, his off-field lifestyle -- before completing a £36.9m transfer.
A source close to Edwards told ESPN: "Michael believes it's all about staying strong on principles based on the work you have done. Not signing a player can sometimes be harder than signing one because agents or the media can make it really hard to say no."
Missing out on RB Leipzig and Germany forward Timo Werner, who completed a move to Chelsea this summer, is an example of Liverpool's readiness to say no when the numbers don't add up.
But there is a flip side to knowing when to walk away and picking the right moment to sell. When Philippe Coutinho was sold to Barcelona for £142m in January 2018, what appeared from the outside to be the loss of Liverpool's best player turned out to be an opportunity that Edwards' team would exploit by reinvesting the proceeds on Virgil van Dijk (£75m) and Alisson Becker (£67m). The signings of Van Dijk and Alisson help to dispel the perception that FSG and Edwards would not compete with the likes of United and City at the top end of the market. Van Dijk became the world's most expensive defender when arriving from Southampton in January 2018, and Alisson briefly was the world's costliest goalkeeper after signing from Roma six months later.
For Liverpool, it is about value. Van Dijk and Alisson, not to mention Salah, Firmino and Sadio Mane (£34m from Southampton in June 2016), are now all worth considerably more than their price tags on arrival at Anfield. Financially, at least, the value of Liverpool's squad under Klopp is substantially greater than the sum of its parts, and it is by no means insignificant that many clubs, including United, are attempting to follow the Anfield model.
"You can look at it as a manager and say, 'We could have done this or that better,'" Klopp said after Liverpool defeated Manchester City 4-3 at Anfield in January 2018. "Or you can look at it as a football fan and say, 'What the f--- was that then? Unbelievable!'"
Every successful team has a seminal moment, a result or performance that turns out to be the bridge from under-achievement to glory. For Klopp's Liverpool, that moment came against City at Anfield on Jan. 14, 2018.
Pep Guardiola's City, runaway leaders at the top of the Premier League, were unbeaten in the league and on course to emulate Arsenal's 2003-04 Invincibles by going through a 38-match season without suffering a defeat. But Liverpool tore City apart with the relentless high-energy pressing game that has since become their trademark. The addition of new signings -- Salah, Mane, Robertson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Van Dijk, Alisson -- gave Klopp the tools with which to do the job his way and adhere to his one-for-all philosophy.
"When people work together and back each other and respect each other in a special way, everything carries more worth," he said. "It's better."
Klopp instilled the same principles at Liverpool that worked for Dortmund -- fitness, tactical discipline, high work rate and energy, an approach Klopp has described as "heavy metal football" -- and the win against City was the day it all clicked.
"The performance against City was bigger than the result," a Liverpool source told ESPN. "It cemented the belief of everyone in the dressing room, from Klopp to the players, but it also made City realise that they weren't going to have everything their own way.
"From that point on, there have been two Champions League finals, finishing second with 97 points [97 points would have won the title in every other season bar one] and now this season, which has been incredible in every sense."
Klopp's demand for a team ethic is borne out not by Anfield's biggest stars, but by the players who have had to fight to prove their worth. Henderson, Robertson, Georginio Wijnaldum and Divock Origi have all had their difficulties as Liverpool players, but each of them played crucial roles in the run to Champions League glory in 2019 and this season's record-breaking surge toward the title. And Carragher believes that, while Liverpool's astute owners and cutting-edge recruitment team have played a huge role, nobody has been more important to the club's revival than Klopp.
"It isn't just about recruitment," Carragher told ESPN. "You can sign the best players in the world, but you still need a coach or manager to mould them all together and make them a winning team.
"Klopp has done that and more. Don't forget, he is the first Liverpool manager for 20 years who has had to win without Steven Gerrard, so his task at the outset was even tougher.
"When he came into the club, Liverpool were where Arsenal are now. A big club, struggling to keep up with their rivals and with no obvious way forward. Arsenal also have the advantage of being based in London, which makes it easier for them to attract and keep the best players, so you can't overstate the job that Jurgen has done."
Sir Alex Ferguson once claimed that his primary objective as Manchester United manager was to "knock Liverpool off their f---ing perch!" He did that, but Klopp, with FSG, Edwards and Fallows, have put Liverpool firmly back on it.