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Virgil van Dijk: I want to continue improving

LiverpoolFC TV - Sat, 06/04/2022 - 09:41
Virgil van Dijk is targeting further improvement after a 2021-22 season ‘full of happy moments’.
Categories: LFC NEWS

Inside Klopp’s Liverpool – a season that flirted with immortality and ended in heartbreak

the Athletic - Sat, 06/04/2022 - 07:00

“Champions don’t complain, they are too busy getting better.”

That was the motivational message, written in large letters, that greeted Jurgen Klopp’s squad when they assembled in the western Austrian state of Tyrol after a two-hour drive from Salzburg.

It was late last July and the Liverpool squad were at the midway point of an unprecedented four-week European training camp. Limbs were weary but spirits were high.

With the ongoing effects of the pandemic again ruling out the possibility of a lucrative pre-season tour to either America or Asia, Klopp and assistant Pep Lijnders had free reign to create what they regarded as “the perfect base” for the challenges ahead.

No long-haul travel, no commercial appearances, no unwanted distractions. They kept things fresh by dividing that precious month away between Salzburg, Tyrol and the French spa town of Evian. Both on and off the field, every box was ticked.

The contrast to the previous summer, when a spate of positive COVID-19 tests led to players isolating in their Austrian hotel rooms and training was hampered by monsoon conditions, could hardly have been more stark.

A rare and long holiday proved restorative for Jurgen Klopp, and a four-week training camp did the same for his squad (Photo: Getty Images)

Liverpool had been running on empty by the end of the 2020-21 season. Their defence of the Premier League title had been derailed by a series of devastating injuries. The players hated the soulless environment of behind closed doors football and the strict protocols which meant they couldn’t even eat meals together.

After a gutsy resurgence on the run-in salvaged Champions League qualification, Klopp’s men had nothing left to give. But when they were reunited in Salzburg two months later the mood was very different.

Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane had enjoyed the rare luxury of an extended summer break and the benefits were there for all to see. Trent Alexander-Arnold was similarly revitalised after a thigh injury in a pre-tournament warm-up game forced him to sit out the European Championship. England’s loss proved to be Liverpool’s gain.

The feel-good factor was fuelled by the return to the fold of centre-backs Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez after lengthy injury rehabilitation programmes. The spine and structure of the team were being restored.

Groundstaff team manager Warren Scott was there too, at Klopp’s request, to ensure the training pitches were prepared exactly how the manager wanted them.

Klopp knew that being away from home for so long was a big ask for the players but he passionately explained to them how they would all benefit over the course of the season.

There were punishing double sessions.

“We’re not going to kill you on the first day… I thought we’d do that on the second day,” roared Klopp.

Players had to complete six 1km runs, with just a minute’s rest in between. James Milner once again proved himself to be the king of endurance as he showed others a clean pair of heels.

There was a big emphasis on training drills designed to increase the intensity of Liverpool’s counter-pressing as well as the fluency and potency of their counter-attacks. Lijnders, who puts together the training programme, spoke about the need to fine-tune the ability to hit opponents with “organised chaos”. There was a competitive element to every exercise with forfeits such as 30 push-ups for the losers.

“The better you play, the more you play. The better you finish, the less you run. The worse you play, the more you run. Natural pressure,” explained Lijnders.

Three months later, he would liken Liverpool’s ravenous front line to “the raptors from Jurassic Park” after Manchester United had been humiliated 5-0 at Old Trafford.

Away from the turf, the spirit and camaraderie in the squad were enhanced by quizzes, table-tennis competitions, bike rides and karaoke nights.

Towards the end of the Austrian leg of the trip, Klopp organised a party for the 40 or so staff members who had supported the players across the previous weeks. The manager wanted to say thank you for everyone’s commitment throughout a gruelling period during which many of them had spent a considerable amount of time away from their families. The pandemic meant the creation of two bubbles throughout July, with one set of employees being replaced by another halfway through the camp.

The venue was a mountain cabin set away from the team hotel in a secluded wooded area, high above the alpine town of Seefeld. There was a buffet of smoked meats and cheeses. Attendees could order whatever they wanted from a free bar.

Klopp did not give a speech but ensured he made his way around the room, starting conversations with each person.

It became clear during the course of the evening how highly he valued Harvey Elliott. In one of the UK’s national newspapers, there was a story linking Liverpool to Saul Niguez, the Atletico Madrid midfielder who eventually signed for Chelsea. Klopp suggested the story was not true — why would it be when Elliott, a teenager recently returned from a successful loan at Championship Blackburn, had trained so fantastically in Austria?

When Liverpool moved on to Evian, Klopp invited TV presenter, author and adventurer Ben Fogle to talk to the players about pushing yourself to the limit both physically and mentally. Fogle drew upon his experiences of rowing across the Atlantic Ocean, running 160 miles through the Sahara Desert and climbing Mount Everest. It went down well with his audience.

“I helped them with their mind control and mental agility under pressure through the context of my own expeditions,” Fogle said. “Already great footballers, the challenge was how to keep on top of their game when it is not one single mountain, but a whole mountain range that you have to climb each season — consistency in the face of expectation and pressure.

“Attitude comes from the top. A positive mindset is key to success. Jurgen glows with optimism. His smile is infectious.”

When the transfer window closed at the end of August, there was a debate raging over whether Liverpool had been active enough in the market to be regarded as serious contenders for the biggest prizes, and a section of the fanbase was restless.

Georginio Wijnaldum hadn’t been replaced following his Bosman move to Paris Saint-Germain. The sole recruit was young centre-back Ibrahima Konate, a £35 million signing who had not been a first-choice pick at RB Leipzig, a team a struggling Liverpool had beaten convincingly, 2-0 home and away, in the 2020-21 Champions League last-16. Konate was an unused substitute in both games. It was hardly a booming statement of intent.

When the Kop started singing “the Reds have got no money but we’ll still win the league,” it was belted out more in hope than expectation.

In contrast, Manchester City had spent £100 million on Jack Grealish and Chelsea £97.5 million on Romelu Lukaku. Manchester United had brought in Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo.

“We can’t spend money we don’t have,” insisted Klopp. “You cannot compare to the other clubs. They obviously don’t have any limits, but we have limits.

“I am more than happy with the squad I have. We have so many things that you cannot sign. You cannot sign counter-pressing, you cannot sign the atmosphere that we create in the stadium, you cannot sign togetherness, you cannot sign Anfield, you cannot sign our anthem. That’s what we have to use.”

Klopp was equally bullish behind the scenes as he repeatedly talked up the talent in front of him during team meetings. Being written off suited the manager perfectly in his mission to create an “us versus the world” mentality.

It had been a summer when Liverpool had prioritised retention. Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho, Alisson, Van Dijk, Andrew Robertson and Jordan Henderson all signed new long-term contracts. As well as key senior players returning from injuries, youthful exuberance had been added to the mix in the forms of teenagers Elliott and Kaide Gordon.

Elliott impressed early in the season after stepping up to the first team (Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Liverpool would have to evolve with Wijnaldum gone but Klopp felt it would also enable them to be more unpredictable.

There were brainstorming sessions with his staff in Austria. They came up with a plan designed to get more out of Alexander-Arnold by having him operate in pockets of space more centrally, where his range of passing could do more damage. Salah’s presence throughout pre-season meant the tactical tweaks on Liverpool’s right side could be worked on day after day.

Circumstances meant Klopp had rarely been able to field a midfield three of Fabinho, Thiago and Henderson previously. Much more was expected from Thiago in his second season with Liverpool, Henderson had fully recovered from groin surgery in the February and the ease with which Elliott adjusted to a new midfield role also gave them another option in that department.

It would prove to be Wijnaldum, who was in and out of the PSG side all season and started only 18 of their 38 league games and three of eight in the Champions League, rather than Liverpool who had regrets over their parting of ways.

The priority was always to bolster the squad defensively and they landed their top target in Konate. Villarreal’s Pau Torres, Benoit Badiashile of Monaco and Sevilla’s Jules Kounde had also been on the shortlist.

Konate was the preferred option because they felt his pace and physicality were ideally suited to playing in Klopp’s high line. The character references as well as the scouting reports had been glowing. Chelsea, Manchester United and Real Madrid were also interested, but the player’s heart was set on Anfield after a video call with Klopp.

“I saw sincerity on his face,” Konate said. “Which players don’t want to come here? I know if I have a problem in my life, Klopp will help.”

Konate grew in stature over the course of his debut season, from being a back-up to starting both the FA Cup and Champions League finals. His aerial prowess proved to be a huge asset at both ends of the field.  

Whereas Konate needed a period of adaptation before really coming to the fore, a surprise addition to the squad at the end of the January window got off to a flyer and never looked back.

Liverpool had intended to pursue a deal for Porto attacker Luis Diaz this summer but those plans were urgently brought forward when it emerged that Tottenham were close to securing his signature. By then, Liverpool sporting director Michael Edwards, whose decision to stand down at the end of the season had been revealed by The Athletic in November, was in the process of gradually handing over responsibilities to his successor Julian Ward.

It was Ward who led the negotiations with Porto and managed to out-flank Spurs. An initial fee of £35 million, potentially rising to £50 million, was agreed. A key element for the cash-strapped Portuguese club was Liverpool’s willingness to transfer £7 million instantly so they could pay debts and stave off the threat of being banned from European competition by UEFA.

Luis Diaz, Liverpool January signing Luis Diaz’s impact has been immediate (Photo: Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

Klopp said the signing of Diaz was made with one eye on “tomorrow” but the Colombia international was a man in a hurry. He lit up Anfield on his debut off the bench against Cardiff City in the FA Cup and quickly established himself on the left side of Liverpool’s front line.

His impact was such that Klopp opted to utilise Mane as his No 9, and that switch worked a treat.

With Diaz on board, Liverpool had a new dimension. Bringing in someone of such calibre gave everyone in the dressing room a lift.

After Liverpool scraped into the Champions League by winning their final game of the season against Crystal Palace at Anfield, Klopp went on holiday for nearly eight weeks.

It was his longest summer break since becoming Liverpool manager in October 2015. For the first seven days, he left his phone in his suitcase and did not even look at it. The separation afforded him a period of reflection.

He had hated pandemic football. It seemed like a different sport.

Klopp is an emotional coach. Liverpool are an emotional club. Performing in empty stadiums felt like his wings had been cut in half. “You try to fly but it is pretty difficult,” he later concluded.

Matches were usually the reward for hard weeks’ work. The atmosphere in the stadium would energise the players. Now, playing felt like an extension of everyone’s toil.

Training also suffered. Klopp was not allowed to drive to work with a colleague on the coaching staff, as he sometimes does. He was not allowed to eat his breakfast at the same table as someone else. The players got changed separately and, during COVID-19 outbreaks, were encouraged to keep their distance from one another even while outside in the fresh air.

The pandemic world did not afford the closeness that he craves and needs to have an impact. Liverpool’s 2020-21 season nearly collapsed for all sorts of reasons. The conditions did not favour them and the injuries stacked up. Klopp felt he was able to deal with the death of his mother in Germany despite not being allowed to fly home for the funeral. Yet the circumstances of his job meant he was under immense pressure all of the time.

He felt support from Liverpool’s owners, particularly Mike Gordon. His relationship with Fenway Sports Group’s president, it is said, will outlast his tenure at the club. There is a brotherly instinct between the two men — a rare respect, the sort that is difficult to find in football. FSG’s involvement in the European Super League project did not rock that, even though Klopp privately and publicly was firmly against the idea.

Klopp felt as though Gordon had been compassionate throughout Liverpool’s struggles. He also felt guilty about not reciprocating such kindness because he had been so down about his performance as a coach.

He was obsessed with solving Liverpool’s problems that between January and May last year, Klopp barely took a day off. He had never thought more about football. How could he make it work? Was he missing something obvious?

He hated hearing it when Liverpool were described as the Premier League’s worst-ever defending champions but he came to realise he possessed the ability to be calmer than he thought when the going got really tough.

Klopp’s new contract was announced in April (Photo: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

During this period, Liverpool lost six consecutive home matches — a club record.

Explaining defeats was a lot more difficult than detailing victories. Sometimes, it was impossible for Klopp to say what he really believed because there was always another match just around the corner in a compressed season that began later than usual after 2019-20’s three-month hiatus and had to finish in time for the postponed-by-a-year Euros. It added to the feeling that he was living in a cage.

He would go home to Formby, considering what had gone wrong again: individual and collective performances, injuries, the weather and decisions from the match officials had all gone against Liverpool. He felt guilty about earning so much money but not being able to come up with any solutions.

Liverpool went into the final day only joint-fourth, ahead of Leicester on goal difference, but secured a third-placed finish. Klopp considers it one of his greatest achievements.

Yet by the end of May, after that last win over Palace, the pursuit had drained him — more than he’d ever been. He did not care about what came next. The pursuit of trying to sign this player and sell that one could wait. For a while, he was “done”. It had been “the hardest time of our football lives”.

By the middle of the July, however, Klopp was ready to go again.

Liverpool’s long pre-season camp made him feel confident about the team’s prospects. There were big early wins, over Atletico Madrid away in the Champions League and then battering Manchester United on their own pitch five days later. That Sunday at Old Trafford, his wife Ulla was in the away end. She was in with the travelling fans again six months later when Liverpool returned to Manchester to face their title rivals at the Etihad. Though Liverpool could not beat City that day, Ulla returned home telling her husband about how much Liverpool’s fans loved him.

Whereas Liverpool had stumbled from game to game in the previous season, the rhythm was now back. Klopp, who leaves most of the coaching to Ljinders during any week, could see his players were responding to his words when he stepped into the routine the day before a match.

The quadruple was not a realistic target for him, but the possibility of it made him think again about his future at Liverpool.

The club, he concluded, had not even felt the positive impact of the new training ground in Kirkby yet because of COVID-19 restrictions. He was building a second great team at Liverpool — something he had not really been able to do in any of his previous jobs. Could he just hand over everything he’d built to someone else?

He and Ulla were in their kitchen when Klopp started the conversation about extending his contract, which was due to expire in two years’ time. It became clear Ulla was just as happy living in Formby as her husband. Klopp called his agent, Marc Kosicke, who then contacted FSG’s principal owner John W Henry. Klopp was not seeking a pay rise, just an extension. FSG had been keen to open negotiations but did not want Klopp to feel pressurised.

The other key element for Klopp was the future of his staff. He only wanted to be with them. Had some decided to move on, maybe he’d have thought differently about extending. Instead, an agreement was reached with a month of the season remaining. The news he was staying until 2026 came just at the right time, sharpening excitement among the fanbase.

Two days later, Liverpool won at Newcastle in the league to maintain their pursuit of the title; three days after that, they secured their third appearance in the Champions League final in five years.

“These are the days,” read a banner in the away end at the semi-final second leg away to Villarreal.

They certainly were.

Klopp gathered his players together in the meeting room at the AXA Training Centre and delivered a passionate speech about what needed to change. Those present in January described it as “a crucial reset”.

The first month of the calendar year has traditionally been a time when Liverpool’s fortunes have dipped during Klopp’s reign and there were fears that history was about to repeat itself.

Liverpool had kicked off 2022 by letting a two-goal lead slip in a 2-2 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Klopp had been forced to watch those events unfold at home after testing positive for COVID-19. Alisson, Joel Matip and Roberto Firmino were absent for the same reason.

Salah, Mane and Naby Keita flew straight from London to Cameroon to play in the Africa Cup of Nations.

By the time Liverpool’s next Premier League game, at home to Brentford, came around two weeks later, the gap to City had grown to 14 points. Although Klopp’s men had two games in hand, talk of trying to catch Pep Guardiola’s defending champions appeared fanciful.

Liverpool had taken just two of the previous nine points available. There had been mitigating circumstances, not least away to Tottenham, where Klopp had been forced to hand a first top-flight start to 19-year-old midfielder Tyler Morton with Fabinho, Thiago and Henderson all out.

mohamed-salah Salah’s goals in the early parts of the season especially were key (Photo: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

Klopp had raged at referee Paul Tierney after the 2-2 draw that followed for his failure to award a penalty when Diogo Jota was barged over by Emerson Royal and the decision not to send Harry Kane off for a wild lunge at Robertson, who was later dismissed himself.

“I have no problems with any referees, only you,” he told Tierney.

Liverpool then ended the calendar year with a dismal 1-0 defeat in Leicester three days after Christmas.

Klopp felt the balance of the team wasn’t right. There were too many gaps to be exploited and game management was letting them down. The protection had to be better. They needed to tighten up collectively. He wanted them to be more aggressive out of possession.

Before those draws with Spurs and Chelsea, Liverpool had also relinquished winning positions away to promoted Brentford and at home to Brighton. November’s defeat at West Ham had also exposed a lack of solidity.

Klopp struck a defiant tone in that meeting room in January about what could still be achieved if “you commit with all you have”. He told his players this was the deepest, most gifted squad he’d ever worked with and that everyone would have a part to play. “Let’s go on an unbeaten run, give it our best and see where it takes us,” he said.

“We had to readjust, to be honest,” Klopp later admitted. “We had to agree on defence first, because otherwise you’re like any team.” Hard-fought, gritty 1-0 wins over Burnley and West Ham underlined that his message had got through. It helped that Van Dijk was back to his imperious best after the ruptured ACL that rocked his world early the previous season and his defensive partner Matip produced the best form of his career.

During AFCON, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Curtis Jones, Takumi Minamino and Jota all stepped up and made pivotal contributions. When Salah, Mane and Keita returned, the landscape looked considerably brighter. Thiago had also recovered from a hip problem and momentum was growing. The Spaniard’s influence on the team grew as his midfield double act with Fabinho gave Klopp the perfect combination of silk and steel.

The dressing room has evolved in recent years following the exits of Adam Lallana and Wijnaldum. New leaders have emerged. Alexander-Arnold, Robertson and Alisson were voted on to the expanded captains’ group last summer.

Klopp listens to his senior players and takes feedback on board — like allowing recovery sessions to take place at home. One change that went down well with the squad in the second half of this season was the decision to train earlier in the day, with most sessions starting at noon.

Previously, training times had fluctuated significantly depending on the kick-off of the next match. Now, only the session the day before a game tends to be at 4pm, usually to fit in with travel and hotel arrangements. Players felt training earlier meant they had more energy in the sessions and had a positive impact on their personal lives.

The Carabao Cup final triumph over Chelsea in late February helped propel Liverpool forward. “You have a taste of it and then you want more,” says goalkeeping coach John Achterberg.

Klopp’s faith in second-choice keeper Caoimhin Kelleher was richly rewarded as the Irishman, who pulled off some smart saves during a goalless 120 minutes, then scored from the spot as a shootout went to sudden death, before opposite number Kepa Arrizabalaga blazed the final penalty over.

Henderson, who sets the tone for Klopp on a daily basis with his professionalism, thrust the trophy into Kelleher’s hands and ushered him towards the army of pitchside photographers before standing back to applaud him.

As Liverpool ate into City’s lead at the Premier League summit with a run of 10 straight wins from January to April, while also advancing in both the Champions League and the FA Cup, talk of pulling off an unprecedented quadruple intensified.

Publicly, Klopp dismissed the idea as “crazy…. no British team has ever done it because it’s so difficult.”

Behind the scenes, he urged his players to just embrace the situation. “This is opportunity, not pressure. Let’s enjoy the journey,” he told them.

Salah had provided the inspiration in the first half of the season. He scored 23 of his 31 goals before AFCON.

At times, it felt like he was having a goal of the season competition with himself. There were breathtaking individual efforts against City and Watford, a hat-trick in that Old Trafford drubbing of United and a double in the 4-1 rout of Everton at Goodison Park.

Alisson has been imperious (Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)

However, Salah was stung by the punishing setbacks of losing both February’s final of AFCON and a World Cup play-off the following month to Mane’s Senegal.

As the Egyptian’s contribution in the final third dropped off, an energised Mane went to the next level as the tactical switch of playing him through the centre to accommodate the outstanding Diaz on the left reaped rich rewards. Thirteen of Mane’s 23 goals arrived after his AFCON triumph.

“We need to be as close to perfection as possible. It’s insane, but that’s the only way to beat this team,” said Klopp after Mane’s equaliser in early April’s 2-2 draw at the Etihad meant City retained a one-point lead with seven games to go. The same player then lit up Wembley a week later as Liverpool beat City 3-2 to secure an FA Cup final place.

Klopp’s ”mentality monsters” kept on delivering — surviving a major scare in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final against Villarreal. They kept on finding a way, including another Wembley shootout triumph over Chelsea to complete a domestic cup double.

By then, an angst-ridden 1-1 draw at home to Tottenham appeared to have ended their title charge but a spiky Klopp refused to throw in the towel. City’s failure to beat West Ham in their penultimate game — coupled with a gutsy Liverpool victory over Southampton with a much-changed line-up in theirs 48 hours later — took it to the final day.

No wonder Guardiola described Klopp’s men as “a pain in the ass”.

Klopp’s thirst for innovation also helped to propel Liverpool forward.

From employing specialist throw-in coach Thomas Gronnemark to enlisting the services of German surfer Sebastian Steudtner to work on breathing exercises with his players, Klopp has long since tried to find an extra edge.

When he first met neuroscientist Dr Niklas Hausler and Patrick Hantschke, the co-founders of German company Neuro11, at the club’s then-training ground Melwood in October 2019, he liked what he heard. Hantschke’s former coach at Energie Cottbus, Ulrich Nikolinski, had helped to arrange an introduction.

They explained how they could improve Liverpool’s output from free-kicks, corners and penalties through brain training. They had previously worked with golfers and basketball players.

The link-up was delayed by the pandemic but, in Evian last August, Hausler and Hantschke belatedly got to work.

Players were fitted with headsets that recorded their brain activity while on the training pitch to calculate each individual’s unique “neural activity index”. Hausler explained how it was about training your brain to be “in flow” — a subconscious state of mind where your focus is razor-sharp and actions feel automatic, potentially boosting precision and accuracy.

Salah, Alexander-Arnold and Milner were among those to embrace their input. Their remit was expanded throughout the campaign, with Hausler and Hantschke spending time at Kirkby to fine-tune bespoke programmes for each player when it came to taking penalties.

When Liverpool beat Inter Milan 2-0 in the first leg of a Champions League last-16 tie in San Siro in mid-February, it was the fifth successive game in all competitions in which they had broken the deadlock courtesy of a set piece. In total, they scored 18 goals from set pieces in the Premier League and a further eight in the Champions League — 13 more across the two competitions than in 2020-21.

Klopp believed shelving the away goals rule in European competition would lead to more penalty shootouts. However, it was in the finals of the domestic cups when Neuro11’s work really came to the fore.

Alexander-Arnold is hooked up to the sensors before the Champions League final (Getty Images)

“This trophy is for them. Just like the Carabao Cup was,” beamed Klopp after witnessing Liverpool beat Chelsea 6-5 on spot-kicks in the FA Cup final following a goalless 120 minutes.

Fans had waited 16 years to see Liverpool lift the FA Cup again. They hadn’t completed a domestic cup double since 2001. Across the two shootouts, Liverpool converted all but one of their 18 penalties.

If Neuro11 helped in developing greater mental fortitude, it was a new partnership with a California-based artificial intelligence company which assisted the backroom staff in their mission to keep players fit and available.

Zone7 analyse in-game and training data, as well as biometric, strength, sleep and stress levels, to create injury-risk signals. Their co-founder Tal Brown has described Liverpool as “a true pioneer in data science adoption”. This platform has proved to be a valuable resource for Klopp when decisions have been taken regarding rotation and trying to avoid over-burdening players during a gruelling schedule.

Liverpool’s number of days lost to injury has been reduced by around a third this season — from more than 1,500 in 2020-21 to around 1,000. It’s no wonder they have extended their deal with Zone7 for a further two years and extended it to cover their women’s team and under-23 side.

Another key factor for Klopp has been the expertise of Dr Andreas Schlumberger, the club’s head of recovery and performance. His vastly-experienced fellow German was brought in from Bundesliga side Schalke midway through last season when injuries were cutting deep. The frustration was that players were returning from the casualty list and then breaking down again soon after.

Schlumberger, who is under contract until 2023, works with those who are no longer receiving treatment but need to build fitness again before being available for selection. He played a pivotal role in Van Dijk’s gradual return to the fold last summer. The Dutchman would go on to miss just one top-flight game due to injury all season.

It was also Schlumberger who helped mastermind Elliott’s comeback after the sickening fracture-dislocation of his left ankle against Leeds in September. Matip, who has relaunched his Liverpool career in style this season, has been another big success story, given he played just 691 minutes of top-flight football from a possible 3,420 in the last one.

In 21 of the 38 league fixtures, Liverpool and City kept clean sheets. Alisson finished level with City counterpart Ederson in the race for the Golden Glove with 20 each.

This, however, is not just a defence that knows how to stop goals. It creates them as well. While right-back Alexander-Arnold had 18 assists in all competitions, left-back Robertson had 15.

Further up the pitch, Salah was the joint winner of the Premier League’s Golden Boot with Son Heung-min of Spurs and for the first time in 34 years, Liverpool’s top three scorers each netted at least 15 league goals (Salah with 23, Mane on 16 and Jota, 15). For only the eleventh time in club history, five different players scored at least 10 goals in all competitions.

Like in 2000-01, which ended with a cup treble including the old UEFA Cup, Liverpool have played in every game possible. This has helped them score more goals than ever in a campaign — 147 across 63 games in all competitions.

All but one of the players involved in the last fixture of Liverpool’s 2018-19 season would have been available for Klopp to select, had it not been for short-term injury, in their final fixture against the same opponents, Wolves. The bulk of that group was already in place at the club 18 months earlier.

Klopp’s team, therefore, is a well-oiled machine with each part understanding its role. This has been possible to achieve because of the availability of the players, along with practices in training.

Elements of the games during these sessions might change, whether that be the size of the pitch or the number of players involved. What does not change is the player’s position.

Salah, for example, will play as a right-winger, even in a five-a-side match. This approach, it is believed, has helped developed each unit of the team’s rhythm — also making it possible to keep players fitter for longer periods of time. Put simply, Salah’s body is now well-tuned to the physical demands of that position, which means the chances of him getting injured have diminished.

By the same logic, one of the reasons why Alexander-Arnold and Robertson have become so brilliant at supplying Liverpool’s attacking players with chances is because they do it so often in training.

In the earliest days of Klopp’s reign, some senior players were surprised by the emphasis on repetition — with one or two believing his methods to be less sophisticated than those of predecessor Brendan Rodgers. They realise now, however, that the intensity of Klopp’s sessions, coupled with the theme of repetition, has made it easier for them on match days.

Alisson’s stunning save denied Martin Odegaard of Arsenal in a season in which he shared the Golden Glove award (Photo: Getty Images)

One of the most significant clean sheets was at Arsenal, where Liverpool won 2-0 in March.

It was one made possible only by the speed and strength of Alisson, who somehow saved a Martin Odegaard shot when it seemed as though Liverpool would fall behind.

Like Klopp, Alisson had suffered more than just a sense of sporting loss in the previous campaign, following the death of his father in Brazil in a tragic accident. His headed goal in the final seconds at West Bromwich Albion in the third-last game when Champions League football was on the line was arguably the moment of Liverpool’s entire 2020-21 season.

Though he arrived at Anfield in the summer of 2018 with a reputation as a goalkeeper with excellent distribution, Alisson’s ability to deal with one-on-ones was crucial in Liverpool’s quest for the quadruple.

Part-way through the campaign, the club added legendary Brazilian goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel to the coaching staff, a move helped by Alisson having worked with him with their national team.

The decision had the blessing of Achterberg, who extended his own stay as head of the goalkeeping coaching department to 2024. After seeing him save the team against Arsenal, Achterberg explained that Alisson’s raw physical stature makes him an outstanding footballer.

“He is a gym user, but he is not a gym obsessive. If he misjudges a moment, he can accelerate to get in the right place; but if the ball arrives quickly, he can react very quickly,” Achterberg said. “I haven’t come across many goalies who have those qualities. I think (Bayern Munich’s Manuel) Neuer has them as well.”

By the end of the season, on average, Alisson had kept clean sheets in more games for Liverpool than any of the great Premier League goalkeepers of the past, including Peter Schmeichel, Petr Cech and David Seaman.

“This will make us even more motivated for Paris,” vowed Klopp after the heartache of a dramatic final day of the Premier League season at Anfield.

City’s late rally from 2-0 down to beat visitors Aston Villa ensured that Liverpool’s hard-fought win over Wolves was in vain. For the second time in four seasons, City had pipped them to the title by a solitary point.

There had been a party planned for players, staff and their families in one of the plush executive lounges at Anfield if Liverpool had finished top but after the post-match, last-home-game lap of appreciation, they all went their separate ways.

Despite the Champions League final being just six days away, Klopp gave them Monday and Tuesday off. He felt it was vital for them to be able to clear their heads as well as rest.

When they reconvened at Kirkby, the mood was buoyant. Fabinho’s return to the fold was a huge boost and 24 hours later Thiago was given the green light to train fully too. Klopp would be able to field his strongest line-up in Paris.

On the flight to France, staff reflected on the journey to the final. Klopp had burst out laughing watching August’s Champions League draw when Liverpool were placed in the same group as Spanish champions Atletico Madrid, Serie A runners-up AC Milan and Porto, who had reached the quarter-finals the previous season. He felt that it couldn’t have been tougher. Yet Liverpool sailed through in top spot — becoming the first English team to win all six group games.

Impressive away first-leg victories over Inter and Benfica in the first two knockout rounds enabled him to juggle his resources for the home legs and still progress. It was telling that at half-time in the second leg of the semi-final against Villarreal, having seen Liverpool’s two-goal lead from Anfield wiped out, Klopp remained calm and composed. He backed his “mentality monsters” to regroup and get the job done. And they did.

“We have a score to settle,” declared Salah after Real Madrid secured their passage to Paris with a stunning late flurry to stun Manchester City. It was a re-run of the 2018 final in Kyiv.

Yet what should have been an occasion to cherish turned sour for Liverpool — both on and off the field. They were thwarted by the heroics of Thibaut Courtois as they failed to make their spells of dominance count. After Vinicius Junior fired Real in front in the second half, Klopp’s men ran out of both ideas and energy. They looked like a team playing their 63rd game of the season.

For so many of the travelling Kop the night had been ruined long before the delayed kick-off by the chaos Stade de France caused by the organisational failings of UEFA and the French police. “A shambles,” was Robertson’s verdict.

A season which saw Liverpool flirt with immortality ultimately ended in heartbreak. “We will go again,” vowed Klopp. “Where’s next year’s final? Istanbul. Book the hotel.”

Despite the agony of defeat in Paris, Liverpool were already committed to taking part in an open-top bus parade around the city the following afternoon. The players were uncertain about what kind of scenes would greet them on their return from the French capital given the fact that in the space of a week they had missed out on the two biggest prizes by the most narrow of margins. Would anyone really feel like celebrating?

Liverpool supporters flocked to the end-of-season parade (Photo: Tim Goode/PA Images via Getty Images)

The answer was emphatic. Half a million people lined the streets to show their appreciation. “I didn’t think it would have been possible after last night but today was one of the best days of my life. Thank you Reds,” said Henderson.

Some 320 days after they had assembled in Austria for the start of pre-season, it was over. It had been some journey.

(Photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)

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Bewildering refereeing decisions are part of what makes football so addictive… not that Huddersfield will agree

the Athletic - Sat, 06/04/2022 - 05:13

It has been 31 years and I still don’t think I am over Roger Milford. Nor do I expect that position to change any time soon.

Milford was the referee who took charge of the 1991 FA Cup final that haunted my upbringing as a Nottingham Forest supporter. It was Forest against Tottenham Hotspur and probably the kindest thing that can be said about a pumped-up Paul Gascoigne is that he was desperate, absolutely desperate, for his team to win.

His first challenge involved embedding his studs into Garry Parker’s rib cage. Soon afterwards, he scythed into Gary Charles with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It was so reckless that Gascoigne injured himself in the process and Milford decided it would be pretty miserable, cruel even, to show him a red card. Spurs were saved from playing 75 minutes with 10 men. They won 2-1 and Milford has never seemed to understand that his refereeing might have been part of it.

I know this because, a while back, curiosity got the better of me and I asked Milford if he would be interviewed for a piece to mark the 30th anniversary. I wanted to know if it was true that he spared Gascoigne a red card out of pity and, as was always the rumour, because he had a soft spot for him off the pitch.

“You referee with your heart,” he said. “A few years before, the referee (Peter Willis) sent off a Manchester United player, Kevin Moran, in the cup final. It was in the papers that ‘the referee ruined the cup final’. I hadn’t forgotten that. And I was thinking, ‘Blimey. It’s the cup final, somebody was sent off a few years ago and it ruined the cup final’.”

He felt sorry for Gascoigne, he explained. He mentioned another Spurs player had told him afterwards that, mentally, Gazza was “gone, absolutely gone” even before kick-off. He talked about his own performance in glowing terms and it was unmistakable pride in his voice. But did he regret not applying the rules? Not one bit, he said. “Me and Gazza, honestly, we used to have a laugh. He was a nice kid. Everybody got on with Gazza.”

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I know what it is like to let a grievance fester over many years. It is part of being a football fan. It is unshakeable and, if you devote yourself to a team, you come to learn there will be a certain number of these moments over your lifetime. These are grievances that can last decades.

Milford didn’t send off Gascoigne for a reckless challenge on Gary Charles (Photo: Getty Images)

How I feel about 1991 is roughly on a par, I imagine, with how Chesterfield’s fans remember David Elleray for not realising Jonathan Howard’s shot had crashed off the underside of the crossbar and landed behind the goalline when the third-division club were trying to make FA Cup history in an infamous 1997 semi-final against Middlesbrough.

Liverpool’s supporters of a certain generation will remember Pat Partridge awarding a penalty for Phil Thompson’s trip on Forest’s John O’Hare in the 1978 League Cup final when the offence was a couple of feet outside the area (“With a surname like mine,” the referee acknowledged, “I’m there to be shot at”).

For the grudge-bearers of Leeds United, it is the name of Ray Tinkler that can whip them into a froth of moral indignation. Tinkler was the referee when title-chasing Leeds played West Bromwich Albion late in the 1970-71 season and a goal prompted the BBC commentator, Barry Davies, to declare: “Leeds will go mad. And they have every right to go mad.”

The referee had allowed Tony Brown to set up Jeff Astle even though the linesman was flagging for offside. Leeds lost the league to Arsenal by a single point and Elland Road was closed for four games at the start of the following season because of the reaction of the players and fans.

“There are people who still bear a grudge,” Tinkler, now in his 90s, recalled in a 2009 interview. “I was a farmer and used to sell potatoes in the Barnsley, Leeds and Rotherham area. There was one man who’d come to me and say, ‘I’ll have some of that bastard referee’s potatoes’. I used to charge him a fiver-a-ton extra for calling me a bastard.”

Jon Moss will recognise that feeling, presumably, now he has suddenly attained bete noire status among Huddersfield Town’s supporters following the Championship play-off final last weekend.

Moss was refereeing for the final time in a 34-year career and, in the process, he turned down what looked suspiciously like two penalties committed by Forest players. Huddersfield have asked for an explanation from the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), the organisation in charge of the referees, and it is probably no coincidence that Moss’ record shop in Leeds has suddenly received a load of one-star reviews online. Football fans can be a vengeful lot when they feel wronged. Depressingly, Moss has had to call in the police because of threats to his safety.

Do Huddersfield have a legitimate grievance? Well, yes, of course they do. Promotion to the Premier League is said to be worth about £200 million. But what price the prestige and glory? Of course they are entitled to be aggrieved. Of course they want to rage.

At which point you might have to forgive me for saying that I know from experience it hurts like hell but, ultimately, it would be disingenuous for me — with apologies to my friends in Yorkshire — to say I wish it had been any different. Every Forest fan I know has spent the last week drunk on euphoria. Does it make it any less wonderful that it involved a bit of controversy and a hefty dollop of good fortune? I would be lying if I said it did. Some might argue, in fact, that it makes it even better.

That, I appreciate, is not the noblest approach and nor is it what Huddersfield’s fans probably want to hear. But this is the thing about football fans: deep down, we all have elastic principles when it comes to referees, VAR and moments of controversy. If the luck is on your side, you gratefully take what you are given. You are glad that it is not your turn to suffer. Because you know that next time it might be — and that it is no fun whatsoever to be in that position.

If anything, it has been strange to see how everything has escalated this week when, at the time, it didn’t feel like there was any great controversy attached to Forest’s victory.

Moss waved away strong penalty appeals from Harry Toffolo (above) and Lewis O’Brien (Photo: Getty Images)

That was largely because, inside the stadium, we were not shown the VAR replays that were beamed to an audience of millions watching from home (just think about that for a second: what other sport would deliberately keep it away from the paying spectators?). Everything happened very quickly and there did not seem to be any real outrage when the screen flashed up that it was not a penalty. The game moved on. Forest held on to their 1-0 lead and it was only afterwards that it became apparent we were going to hear a lot more about Jack Colback’s challenge on Harry Toffolo and, later, Max Lowe on Lewis O’Brien.

Maybe you have seen those video clips of Joe Worrall, Brennan Johnson and Joe Lolley in the beer garden of a Nottingham pub, enthusiastically joining in with a chant of, “It was a pen, we’re in the Prem.”

Perhaps you heard Steve Cook’s victory speech from the balcony of Nottingham Council House when Forest’s centre-half stared down at a sea of red and it became increasingly clear that the winning players knew they had got lucky.

“We’ll thank Jon Moss today,” he said, microphone in hand, to loud cheers. “What a fucking guy! We love VAR! We love it!”

The indignities have stacked up for Huddersfield and, plainly, attitudes have hardened. Let’s be honest, they are entitled to think they have had their noses rubbed in it.

All the same, it isn’t easy to know what they hope to achieve by lodging a complaint about Moss and Paul Tierney, who was watching from VAR headquarters.

We already know, after all, the difficult truth: that some referees are better than others and, though the PGMOL will never admit this, that there is evidence to suggest Moss was perhaps too accident-prone to be put in charge of a play-off final. But where do you take it? Where does it go?

Huddersfield, it is said, are keeping all options open, which sounds vaguely like they might be considering legal action. But, come on, referees and their assistants have been making mistakes since football was invented, the same as managers, players and everybody else associated with the sport. It doesn’t wash that this could go any further. Far more likely, this is just the losing team, angry and exasperated, wanting to make their point and let off a bit of steam.

Something similar happened a few weeks ago, incidentally, when Forest went to Bournemouth, in the final week of the Championship season, for what was described as their biggest match of the 21st century. Both teams were fighting for automatic promotion and, at 0-0, Forest were denied a clear penalty. Bournemouth won with a late goal and the referee, Stuart Atwell, apologised afterwards to Steve Cooper, the losing manager.

It’s sport. This is what can happen sometimes. And, yes, it can wake you in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.

“Roger Milford,” Nigel Clough replied, with barely disguised anger, when I asked him a few years back for his memories of playing in the 1991 FA Cup final. “I’m still absolutely flabbergasted.”

Clough always held a grudge. So, presumably, did his father, Brian, bearing in mind it was the one trophy that always eluded him. And so did every Forest fan I know who remembers the experience. “We always get shit refs,” goes the song. But it is actually the same for everyone, and there are some extremely good referees, too. It is a wild graph of exhilarating highs and excruciating lows and, in a strange way, it is part of what makes this maddening sport so addictive. I just don’t expect any Huddersfield fans to agree.

(Top photo: James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

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Liverpool can sign 12-goal Takumi Minamino successor for free but FSG must act quickly

Liverpool.com - Sat, 06/04/2022 - 03:00

We’ve reached June, but there are still plenty of high-profile free agents on the market for Liverpool to consider. In the coming days and weeks, they’ll weigh up their offers and decide their next move.

The Reds are reportedly in the frame for Ousmane Dembélé, but there are plenty of other stars available on Bosman deals too. Paulo Dybala, Paul Pogba, Alexandre Lacazette, Corentin Tolisso and Ángel Di María will have plenty of suitors.

Liverpool will have to assess whether any of the out-of-contract players can address areas of need in their squad. They need a right-back to provide cover for Trent Alexander-Arnold, a new midfielder, a replacement for the seemingly exit-bound Sadio Mané and potentially another attacker too. Divock Origi is headed for AC Milan, Takumi Minamino may leave and it’s unclear as yet where Jürgen Klopp tends to use the incoming Fabio Carvalho.

So, as they look to ensure they have adequate cover for their frontline, could Juventus’ Federico Bernadeschi be a viable option?

READ MORE:How Liverpool could look after ideal summer transfer window as contract priorities must be clear

READ MORE: Liverpool can sign £45m forward 'better than Cristiano Ronaldo' as Man City tipped to go 'crazy'

Fabrizio Romano ‘confirmed’ in May that Bernadeschi was to leave Juventus following the expiry of his deal. Interested clubs in England will have to act quickly, with Napoli chairman Aurelio De Laurentiis revealing that he’s been in talks with the player’s agent ‘for a couple of weeks’.

Bernadeschi is 28 years old, and so he may be a candidate if Liverpool’s priority is merely adding cover as opposed to recruiting a long-term starting candidate. The 39-cap Italy international, who scored penalties in the shoot-outs against Spain and England at last summer’s European Championships, is strikingly versatile. A left-footer, he’s listed as a right winger but he also has plenty of experience on the opposite flank and he’s played 28 games as a second striker during his career too.

At Juventus, he admittedly hasn’t tended to put up big headline numbers. He made 23 starts and 36 appearances in all competitions last season, scoring two goals and providing six assists.

His overall record for the Bianconeri is a decidedly underwhelming — 12 goals and 24 assists in 183 matches. If you narrow the focus to the two ‘major’ competitions — Serie A and the Champions League — it does read a little better: 79 starts, 32 direct goal involvements (10G, 22A).

But what kind of winger is Bernadeschi? Unlike Mané or Mohamed Salah, he doesn’t take a particularly high volume of shots per 90 minutes (2.09 places him in the 51st percentile) and he’s probably better characterised as a supplier. Indeed, he ranks in the 70th percentile for passes into the penalty area and the 77th for crosses into the box.

The former Fiorentina man is also keen to run with the ball, slotting into the 82nd percentile for total carry distance and the 76th for carries into the final third. In terms of his work off the ball, meanwhile, he doesn’t press all that often, but his 31 per cent success rate does stand out (85th percentile).

For reference, he’s closely matched in profile with two Premier League-based wingers: Tottenham Hotspur’s Lucas Moura and Everton’s Demarai Gray.

If Liverpool want to replace Origi and perhaps Minamino with an attacker that can play multiple roles, then it may be worth at least considering a late counter-offer for Bernadeschi. He may not provide the same firepower as the 16-goal duo, but most would agree that he’s a step up in quality. If Klopp was keen, then the challenge, of course, would be persuading him to forego greater game time at Napoli for a predominant reserve role at Anfield.

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Liverpool can respond to Man City and end four-year wait with next mega FSG transfer statement

Liverpool.com - Sat, 06/04/2022 - 01:00

Ibrahima Konaté, Fabinho, Mohamed Salah, Diogo Jota, Sadio Mané, Luis Díaz — what do these Liverpool players have in common? They all sat in the same price bracket.

There’s only a small difference between the cheapest player on the list — £36m man Konaté — and the most expensive — £43m addition Salah. You could label these deals ‘mid-range’.

Many of these players have quickly come to look like bargains. Of all the elite teams in the world, Liverpool are perhaps the best at finding value.

READ MORE:How Liverpool could look after ideal summer transfer window as contract priorities must be clear

READ MORE: Liverpool can sign £45m forward 'better than Cristiano Ronaldo' as Man City tipped to go 'crazy'

But on a couple occasions, Fenway Sports Group have been prepared to break records. Liverpool’s owners shelled out £66m on Alisson Becker and £75m on Virgil van Dijk. At the time, they became the most expensive goalkeeper and the most expensive defender in history.

These were the pieces required to take Liverpool to the next level — competing not just for a top-four finish but for Premier League and Champions League glory. Liverpool’s backline had been feeble for years before Van Dijk arrived and brought not only individual class but also sorely-needed composure and leadership.

Likewise, the Reds were forced to accept after the 2018 Champions League final that they could not fulfil their ambitions without a truly world-class goalkeeper. Together with Fabinho, Alisson and Van Dijk formed a spine as good as any in the game.

Since that six-month period, Liverpool have reverted to type with mid-range moves to improve the depth of their squad. But the next blockbuster deal could now be coming.

This time, it’s different. There are no longer any outstanding weaknesses in the Liverpool squad like there were in 2018. Now it’s more a matter of luxury, and of building from a position of strength, than it is a necessity.

Where might Liverpool direct their next record-breaking investment? There will be those who call for wantaway forward Mané to be replaced with someone of similar status, and that could require an almighty outlay. But the Reds may go a different way, instead reinvesting the £42.5m they hope to receive in another mid-range option with explosive potential. Mané, of course, arrived from a Southampton side that finished sixth and proved to be an instant hit.

It seems more likely that the next blockbuster signing could be a midfielder. Consider the players with whom Liverpool have been linked. Any club would do well to sign Jude Bellingham from Borussia Dortmund for less than £80m and Liverpool held a very real interest in Real Madrid-bound Aurélien Tchouaméni, despite the fact that Monaco have demanded £70m plus add-ons.

Liverpool are a club that very much keep their cards close to their chest when it comes to their available budget. For the most part, they’ve been frugal, but it’s feasible that they’ve been reserving funds for a midfield mega-deal.

Their interest in Bellingham and Tchouaméni suggests that they intend to sign a superstar-in-the-making; a man that the midfield can be built around for a decade and then some, more than repaying their lofty investment. Liverpool know that once-in-a-generation talents are on the market, and they feel compelled to compete for their signature.

Manchester City have already signed Erling Haaland in an ominous development for their rivals. While that’s unlikely to have shaped the Reds’ transfer policy, they can symbolically respond by winning the race for Bellingham, whether that’s this summer or next.

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How Liverpool could look after ideal summer transfer window as contract priorities must be clear

Liverpool.com - Fri, 06/03/2022 - 22:00

In an ideal world, Liverpool will not be that busy this summer in terms of incoming transfers. Fábio Carvalho has already been signed while others are set to follow, but the areas of need will depend on a variety of factors.

Sadio Mané is likely to be heading towards the exit door, while Mohamed Salah's contract situation is almost certain to dominate conversations for the next few weeks and months.

A Mané replacement, assuming the Senegal forward leaves, will be required, for example, but signing another midfielder could depend on what happens with James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

READ MORE:Liverpool can sign £45m forward 'better than Cristiano Ronaldo' as Man City tipped to go 'crazy'

READ MORE:Liverpool could soon unleash a new goalscoring weapon that Andy Robertson has helped develop

This is what (in an ideal world) Liverpool would get done this summer in terms of contracts and transfers, with Julian Ward having plenty of different elements to think about.

Contracts

Salah has to be priority number one in terms of new deals, but there has been limited progress with that up to this point. More pressure was placed on Liverpool this week as it emerged Salah would be 'prepared' to sign for another English team on a free, but neither side has shown signs of budging yet.

Mané is also out of contract in 2023, but it appears that he will move on this summer, with Bayern Munich keen to tie up a transfer (once Liverpool have found, and secured, a replacement).

Meanwhile, Naby Keïta, Roberto Firmino and Oxlade-Chamberlain are the others whose futures need to be determined. Keïta seems likeliest to earn a new contract.

Firmino had an injury-hit campaign last year but will hope to improve next season. He will still be at the club having already confirmed his desire to stay put, though whether he gets another contract remains to be seen. For now, there seems little need to extend his stay, though that stance could change in the coming months or even well into next season.

Oxlade-Chamberlain is available at the right price this summer and it would be best for his career if he was to move on in search of regular minutes. His last Liverpool appearance was in the FA Cup quarter-final at Nottingham Forest.

In 2024, there are more key contracts coming to an end. Joe Gomez is a priority to tie down this summer and Liverpool want to keep him. Thiago Alcântara and Joël Matip also have contracts until 2024, but decisions on those two are likely to be after this summer rather than during it.

Transfers

When it comes to the players that Liverpool target in the transfer market, much will depend on outgoings outside of the players expected to leave like Nat Phillips and Neco Williams.

A Mané replacement is the most obvious 'must' but they will also need to think about how to compensate for the lack of the Divock Origi wildcard off the bench.

The club are expecting interest in Japanese forward Takumi Minamino after his double-figures season in terms of goals. The former Red Bull Salzburg man might want more game time. If Minamino, Origi and Mané all left, then two attackers would probably be required (though Carvalho might be one of them and both Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones can play further forward if needed).

A new midfielder is a priority for when the right deal comes available, though that is not necessarily this summer. If James Milner stays put, then that solves an issue in terms of numbers, while Aurélien Tchouaméni appears to be heading to Real Madrid and Jude Bellingham will not move until 2023.

As much as cover in the number six area would be perfect, Jordan Henderson can play there and has done admirably. If the right player is available only next summer and not this, it is better to wait until then.

A back-up right-back replacement for Neco Williams could be useful (Calvin Ramsay) while a centre-back will only be needed if Gomez moves on, but ideally, of course, that will not happen.

Essentially, in terms of transfers: if players leave, they will need replacing. But if players stay, the squad will look fairly settled. The signing of Luis Díaz, of course, was fast-tracked ahead of the summer and he will be expected to kick on again.

Other than swapping Mané with his replacement, the starting XI is going to look fairly similar next season for Liverpool in an ideal world — while the squad as a whole can be trimmed down slightly, with some younger, homegrown additions freshening things up.

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Mane: Senegalese want me to leave Liverpool? I'll do what they want

Liverpool FC on Sky Sports - Fri, 06/03/2022 - 21:16

Sadio Mane has said he 'will do what the Senegalese people want' when deciding his future.

Mane has 12 months left on his current deal and has emerged as a summer transfer target for Bayern Munich, with the Bundesliga champions readying a bid and a three-year contract for the Liverpool forward.

Mane told Sky Sports News before last week's Champions League final that he would decide his future after the defeat to Real Madrid. And the 28-year-old has now broken his silence at a press conference ahead of Senegal's African Cup of Nations qualifier against Benin.

Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane Image: Mohamed Salah and Mane both have 12 months on their contracts

Mane was asked for his response to a poll about his future and said: "Like everyone else, I'm on social media and I see the comments. Isn't it between 60 to 70 per cent of Senegalese that want me to leave Liverpool?

"I will do what they want. We will see soon! Don't be in a hurry because we'll see this together."

Manager Jurgen Klopp was asked about the Bayern rumours at his pre-match press conference in Paris and his answer was non-committal.

"Wherever Sadio will play next year, he will be a big player," said the Reds boss.

Sky Germany are reporting that Bayern will offer Liverpool €30m plus between €5m and €10m in bonus payments and give Mane a contract until the summer of 2025.

Liverpool, however, would want more than the €30m to contemplate doing a deal.

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Vinny O'Connor said Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was 'relaxed' while answering questions about Sadio Mane's future at the club ahead of the Champions League final

Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic has made Mane the top priority on his transfer list and met his representatives this month to formalise the interest.

Paris Saint-Germain were also linked with Mane, but Kylian Mbappe's contract extension and Leonardo's possible exit as sporting director means the club are unlikely to have the financial leeway to strike a deal.

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Mohamed Salah revealed his plans for next season, as the Egyptian prepared for Saturday's Champions League final against Real Madrid.

Mane is not the only contract issue Liverpool have to resolve this summer as fellow forwards Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino - who make up the rest of the famed front three - are also entering their final 12 months.

However, ahead of the Champions League final, Salah confirmed that he will be at Liverpool next season. The Premier League Golden Boot joint-winner has repeatedly said publicly he would like to remain at Anfield beyond his current deal.

Salah said in a press conference: "In my mind, I don't focus on the contract. I don't want to be selfish at all. I said two months ago it's about the team. It's an important week for us... I don't want to talk about the contract now, I'm staying next season for sure, that's clear."

Liverpool transfers Liverpool's summer transfer plans analysed

Which positions are Liverpool targeting in the summer transfer window? What has Jurgen Klopp said? And what do the stats say?

Follow the summer transfer window with Sky Sports

Who will be on the move this summer when the transfer window opens on June 10 and closes at 11pm on September 1

Keep up-to-date with all the latest transfer news and rumours in our dedicated Transfer Centre blog on Sky Sports' digital platforms. You can also catch up with the ins, outs and analysis on Sky Sports News.

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UEFA issue “sincere apology to fans” after Champions League final

ThisIsAnfield.com - Fri, 06/03/2022 - 17:59

It took six days, but UEFA have offered a “sincere apology to fans for distressing events at Champions League final.”

The apology, released late on Friday afternoon arrives on the same day that Real Madrid issued a statement demanding answers from Europe’s governing body.

Real’s statement was much-needed in order to dispel the myth that only Liverpool supporters had issues at the Stade de France both before and after the Champions League final in Paris.

UEFA have also issued more details of their ‘independent review’, saying “No football fan should be put in that situation, and it must not happen again.”

Full UEFA Statement:

UEFA wishes to sincerely apologise to all spectators who had to experience or witness frightening and distressing events in the build-up to the UEFA Champions League final at the Stade de France on 28 May 2022 in Paris, on a night which should have been a celebration of European club football. No football fan should be put in that situation, and it must not happen again.

To that end, immediately after the events, UEFA commissioned an Independent Review to identify shortcomings and responsibilities of all entities involved in the organisation of the final, and has today published the Terms of Reference for this review.

The Independent Review, which will be led by Dr Tiago Brandão Rodrigues from Portugal, aims at understanding what happened in the build-up to the final, and determining what lessons should be learned to ensure there is no repeat of the actions and events of that day.

The Review will seek to establish a full picture and timeline of what occurred during the day, both within the stadium and the surrounding areas, including examining spectator flows to the stadium via the various access points.

It will also examine all relevant operational plans related to security, mobility, ticketing, as well as others at the discretion of the chairman of the Review, and will examine the planning and preparedness of the involved entities for the staging of the final, including at additional sites such as the Liverpool FC and Real Madrid CF fan meeting points.

The Independent Review aims to identify any issues or gaps in the implementation and running of operations and assess the roles and responsibilities of all the entities involved and the adequacy of their response to events, in order to make recommendations on best practices for the future for UEFA and the relevant stakeholders.

The Review will engage with UEFA and all relevant stakeholders, including, but not limited to, fan groups including Football Supporters Europe as well as those of the two finalist clubs; the finalist clubs themselves; general spectators; the French Football Federation; the Police and other public national and local authorities, and the stadium operator.

Further information on how relevant parties can submit their testimonies (via a dedicated email address or an online questionnaire) will be communicated shortly.

The findings of the Review, conclusions, and recommendations will be set out in detail in the Report and will be those of Dr. Tiago Brandão Rodrigues and the experts who will support him. The Review will start immediately and should be concluded within the shortest possible time-frame needed to produce a comprehensive review of the events.

Once completed, the Report will be published by UEFA on www.uefa.com in the interests of transparency.

First-hand accounts of the events in Paris:

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The tale of Virgil van Dijk’s return, revival and remarkable season

ThisIsAnfield.com - Fri, 06/03/2022 - 17:58
The man-mountain returned after surgery this season, more quickly than might have been expected – and Virgil van Dijk was again one of Liverpool’s, the league’s and the world’s standout central defenders.

Liverpool’s 2020/21 campaign was wrecked by defensive injuries, but none hit harder than that of Virgil van Dijk.

The worry was not just that it would see him miss a trophy push, a top-four chase and even the Euros, but that a serious knee injury could feasibly see him suffer for seasons to come – or not reach his absolute peak again.

We can now box off those fears as unfounded.

He has been enormous, outstanding, often quietly good at times as forwards simply give up the chase when they go up against him.

Van Dijk is back, in a big, big way.

Virgil van Dijk, 2021/22

 Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk (L) and Chelsea's Christian Pulisic during the FA Cup Final between Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC at Wembley Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

 Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk (L) and Chelsea's Christian Pulisic during the FA Cup Final between Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC at Wembley Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Started: 51 (All competitions)
On as a substitute: 0
Unused sub: 4
Goals: 3
Assists: 5

Overall Season Rating: 9.12

Finding his feet

 Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk looks dejected after the FA Premier League match between Brentford FC and Liverpool FC at the Brentford Community Stadium. The game ended in a 3-3 draw. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

 Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk looks dejected after the FA Premier League match between Brentford FC and Liverpool FC at the Brentford Community Stadium. The game ended in a 3-3 draw. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Magical overall he might have been, but it wasn’t plain sailing even for him.

Van Dijk returned, it should be remembered, for the very first game of the season and on the back of comparatively little pre-season action.

He was eased in a little, given the odd break from matches as then-new-arrival Ibou Konate got his first taste of action too, and the expected rustiness was evident.

In a few early matches there were patterns to where Van Dijk had to get back up to speed: passes in behind him, his need to turn around the long way, pushing off on his stronger leg first – a natural and protective reaction to overcome – and not quite having the blistering acceleration of previously.

But it’s testament to both the work he has clearly put in and the excellent medical team on hand at Liverpool that none of this was particularly long-lasting.

 Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

 Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Van Dijk was still one of the best defenders in the league even when clearly below his own best, and only improved from there.

This is a good time to address another issue: after a couple of goals went in in similar fashion, there was talk of Van Dijk not closing down players quickly enough.

But as the campaign went on and it happened more, and to other players, it looks quite clear that this is a more deliberate aspect of play from Liverpool’s defence now.

There is trust in both Alisson and the low probability that opponents score from miles out, or on the run, versus the unpredictable outcome of a ricochet or deflection.

Standout showings

 Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk with the UEFA Player of the Match Award after the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 1st Leg game between FC Internazionale Milano and Liverpool FC at the Stadio San Siro. (Handout photo by UEFA)

 Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk with the UEFA Player of the Match Award after the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 1st Leg game between FC Internazionale Milano and Liverpool FC at the Stadio San Siro. (Handout photo by UEFA)

Between December 29 and May 27, Liverpool lost one game.

Amid the end-of-season disappointment of just missing out on two enormous trophies, that run of form and incredible consistency must never be overlooked or underappreciated.

At the heart of much of it, of course, was the spectacular form of Liverpool’s third captain.

Van Dijk’s mere presence was at times enough to ensure that even the sniff of a chance went begging for forwards.

One of the more memorable non-goal moments of our Champions League run was the sight of Lautaro Martinez visibly wilting when offered a chance to run one-on-one with Van Dijk, on a night at the San Siro when the Dutchman excelled.

It was one of several immense showings in a run of wins and a long unbeaten streak when his form was key to helping Alisson claim a share of the Premier League‘s Golden Glove award.

Two clean sheets in two cup finals domestically only adds to Van Dijk’s stellar season after his comeback from injury.

The dual role of Van Dijk

 Liverpool’s captain Virgil van Dijk signals to team mates during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Leicester City FC at Anfield. (Pic by Lindsey Parneby/Propaganda)

 Liverpool’s captain Virgil van Dijk signals to team mates during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Leicester City FC at Anfield. (Pic by Lindsey Parneby/Propaganda)

As good as he is to watch defending, it’s also important to acknowledge Van Dijk’s role isn’t just about performances, but an ability to impose his influence onto whoever he is playing with.

He has had several regular partners at Anfield, at times changing more than once a season due to injuries elsewhere, and yet it’s always the case that they gel seamlessly, complement each other perfectly and produce very strong showings.

It isn’t a coincidence, it isn’t a secret: Van Dijk’s role in the team is not just about big performances from a technical defensive sense, but also as a leader, an organiser and a director.

You can sense it even on TV – if he’s not on the teamsheet, there’s a sudden uplift in a hopeful voice from the pundits: might this be the day Liverpool drop two or three points?

Usually, it isn’t; with him, there’s almost no chance.

 Liverpool's (L-R) Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip celebrates with the trophy after the FA Cup Final between Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC at Wembley Stadium. The game ended in a goal-less draw, Liverpool won 6-5 on penalties. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

 Liverpool's (L-R) Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip celebrates with the trophy after the FA Cup Final between Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC at Wembley Stadium. The game ended in a goal-less draw, Liverpool won 6-5 on penalties. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

He helps Gomez, Matip and Konate immensely, he instructs passing through midfield when necessary and he celebrates goals with his arms lofted even before the shot has been taken.

What more could you want from the man?

Best moment: Probably the League Cup final where he was utterly monstrous and unruffled against a rotating cast of the Chelsea attack.

Worst moment: Oddly enough, a game he scored in and the Reds won: Van Dijk struggled at times in the 3-1 win at Crystal Palace in January. Not too bad when your worst game is a win, though.

Role next season: Key starter every time he’s fit and available. The world’s best defender, again.

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Categories: LFC NEWS

UEFA apologises for Champions League final fiasco

Liverpool FC on Sky Sports - Fri, 06/03/2022 - 17:58

UEFA has apologised to supporters for the distressing events that marred the build-up to the Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid in Paris.

European football's governing body announced on Tuesday that it had launched an independent review into the access issues that led to fans being crushed and tear-gassed outside the Stade de France in Paris before Real Madrid's 1-0 win against Liverpool.

The match was delayed by more than 30 minutes after officers forcefully held back people trying to enter the Stade de France while riot police also sprayed tear gas on fans, including women and children.

UEFA has now released a further statement apologising for the distress caused to supporters, reading: "UEFA wishes to sincerely apologise to all spectators who had to experience or witness frightening and distressing events in the build-up to the UEFA Champions League final at the Stade de France on May 28, 2022 in Paris, on a night which should have been a celebration of European club football.

"No football fan should be put in that situation, and it must not happen again.

"To that end, immediately after the events, UEFA commissioned an Independent Review to identify shortcomings and responsibilities of all entities involved in the organisation of the final, and has today published the Terms of Reference for this review.

UEFA apology

"The Independent Review, which will be led by Dr Tiago Brandao Rodrigues from Portugal, aims at understanding what happened in the build-up to the final, and determining what lessons should be learned to ensure there is no repeat of the actions and events of that day."

Real Madrid: Why were our fans left helpless and defenseless?

Real Madrid, meanwhile, have called on authorities to explain why supporters were left "helpless and defenceless" at the Champions League final in Paris' Stade de France.

Real - who won the Champions League for a record 14th time - say they also want to know why the stadium was chosen as the venue for the match, which was moved from St Petersburg in February after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The Spanish side said their supporters were "victims" of the "unfortunate events" that took place at the Stade de France, adding that the scenes had caused "deep outrage around the world".

Real's statement said "many of the fans were violently assaulted, harassed and robbed" and "some of them even had to spend the night in hospital".

Real Madrid

Their complaints echo those of Liverpool, with Billy Hogan, the Premier League club's chief executive, saying this week he has been "horrified" by accounts from fans after receiving more than 6,000 pieces of feedback about issues surrounding last week's game.

UEFA initially blamed the delayed kick-off on Liverpool fans arriving late to the stadium, while Gerald Darmanin, the French interior minister, blamed "fraud at an industrial level" for the chaos at the Champions League final, saying 70 per cent of the tickets used to attempt entry into the Stade de France were fake.

Amelie Oudea-Castera, the French sports minister, added that up to 40,000 people either had fake tickets or no ticket at all and that "everyone wants to ensure this will never happen again". She has commissioned a report on the troubles.

Hogan said his response to the sports minister's claims was "disbelief", and added that he had spoken to his counterpart at Real Madrid, "who made it clear that their fans also had issues".

Hogan added: "They had major concerns with the matchday operation, including the policing operation around the match. I know they're equally concerned about making sure this, again, is an independent and open investigation."

The Liverpool chief executive added that the club wrote to UEFA again on Thursday with 13 questions that they want answering around details of the investigation into events at the final.

'UEFA statement is too little too late for fans'

Sky Sports News' chief reporter Kaveh Solhekol, who was at the final:

UEFA have taken almost a week to finally apologise and for many it is too little too late.

They still have not apologised for their initial 22-word statement which mistakenly blamed Liverpool fans for the kick-off being delayed.

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Kaveh Solhekol says that he and members of his Sky Sports production crew have been tear-gassed by French police outside the Stade de France

The message which was on screens inside the stadium said: "Due to the late arrival of fans at the stadium, the match has been delayed. Further information will follow in 15 minutes".

It is clear that the delays were not the fault of Liverpool fans but French policing.

And UEFA have not made it clear whether they will look into all the problems that occurred after the game - attacks on fans leaving, muggings and more tear gas. Why are they not investigating that?

Also how strange that this new UEFA statement came just hours after Real Madrid issued their own statement demanding answers about the treatment of their fans. Coincidence?

We should also be careful about calling the UEFA review "independent" - which is what UEFA want us to believe.

But the review is being chaired by Portuguese politician Dr Tiago Brandao Rodrigues. He has worked in the past with the former chief executive of the Portuguese Football Federation Tiago Craveiro. Craveiro is now an adviser to UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin.

Liverpool have written to UEFA with 13 questions about the review, one of the questions is about the suitability of Dr Rodrigues. So clearly, there is a concern about how "independent" this review will actually be?

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Categories: LFC NEWS

1 deal close & Real add to UEFA pressure – Liverpool FC Roundup

ThisIsAnfield.com - Fri, 06/03/2022 - 17:56

Liverpool are not alone in carrying the fight to UEFA and beyond over the outrageous lies being told in France, as Real Madrid join the calls for answers.

Real Madrid demand answers from UEFA

French football, police and politicians have some serious explaining to do, not least of all those who continue to propagate the lies of unruly supporters and the problems around the Champions League final.

Liverpool have already asked UEFA for an investigation, not just a report, and chief exec Billy Hogan has reiterated that stance after being “disturbed” by thousands of fan accounts of the dismal organisation which could have had far worse consequences in Paris.

Now Real Madrid have also pushed the case from their end, reporting their fans were also “victims” of events and demanding answers to a series of points including explanations of who exactly was responsible for leaving fans “helpless”.

This is not going to be allowed to go away. The truth will continue to be told.

UPDATE: UEFA have issued a “sincere apology” to fans

3 things today: Transfer rumours and contracts ending

 FC Bayern Munich's Serge Gnabry scores the first equalising goal during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg match between FC Bayern München and Liverpool FC at the Allianz Arena. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

  • Serge Gnabry is the intriguing yet probably not realistic name now linked as “interesting” the Reds as a Sadio Mane replacement – he has one year left on his Bayern deal, which probably yields the rumour in truth given their interest in our No10
Latest Liverpool FC news

 Liverpool's captain Jordan Henderson looks dejected after the UEFA Champions League Final game between Liverpool FC and Real Madrid CF at the Stade de France. Real Madrid won 1-0. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

  • And LFC is 130 years old today! The club was founded on this day in 1892 and it has been quite the journey since then!
Latest Premier League chat

 Chelsea's Romelu Lukaku during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

  • Alex Lacazette is going back to the future after leaving Arsenal on a free transfer and is likely to go return to Lyon
  • Romelu Lukaku is linked with Barcelona in quite possibly the weirdest fit yet of club style and player style for the summer transfer window
  • And Nathan Ake was such a vital player for Pep to sign a little while back that he has been told he can leave for a different kettle of oil entirely and sign for Newcastle instead
Tweet of the day and match of the night

The more high-profile and club-neutral individuals who keep pushing the truth, the better.

“This is not an age in which anything can happen and be covered up”. My words at teams out. Let’s make sure. Keep at it ?@LFC? ?@TheAnfieldWrap? Phil Scraton et al pic.twitter.com/q7Rceiif9G

— Clive Tyldesley (@CliveTyldesley) June 3, 2022

Tonight there’s more Nations League action – why not go for Belgium vs Netherlands?! Sounds better than Belarus vs Slovakia to be honest.

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Categories: LFC NEWS

Liverpool FC City Parade 2022

LFC on YouTube - Sun, 05/29/2022 - 19:57
Categories: LFC NEWS, Video

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