Liverpool were crowned champions of England yesterday. It was the first time the Reds (as some call them, although their famous rivals, Manchester United also lay claim to the same term) had won the trophy since 1990. And they did it with some style, leading almost throughout the year, with hardly any wobbles. The 2020 title victory was the culmination of a campaign of change at Liverpool that started in late 2015.
And it actually all started with a very awkward hug.
A lot of credit for the win has been given to the team’s iconic manager, Jurgen Klopp. Klopp is known for his “pressing” style of football where his team try to win the ball back even when it is in the opponent’s territory – so instead of defenders tackling forwards in Liverpool’s penalty area, you often see Liverpool forwards tackling defenders in the opposing penalty area. The idea is simple – to win the ball back as soon as possible and as close to the opponent’s goal as possible. It is an incredibly hectic style of play and requires very high energy and fitness levels. In fact, Klopp’s method of pressing is even more aggressive than most other coaches – it has been called gegenpressing!
Such a strategy is very difficult to implement as it requires all players to be ready to run and fight for the ball at all times. And well, not all players like to do so. When Jurgen Klopp arrived at Liverpool, the feeling was that the German would have his work cut out trying to convince his players to run their socks off. And one of the players many felt he would have a problem with was Adam Lallana. A midfielder with an ability to attack, Lallana was seen as being energetic and creative but with definite stamina and fitness issues, and was not the greatest tackler. The kind of player who would find it very difficult to fit into Klopp’s “run, run, run” scheme of things. There was even a line of thought that felt that Klopp would “unload” him and sell him to another club.
So some were surprised when Lallana was named in Klopp’s team for his first match on 17 October, 2015. It was against Tottenham Hotspur, a club that was considered one of the rising powers of English football. It was a tough opening fixture for the new manager and many felt he would go with a slightly more conservative team. Lallana’s inclusion was a big surprise.
— Liverpool FC (Premier League Champions 🏆) (@LFC) July 23, 2020
But if his inclusion was a surprise, the way in which he played was a revelation. The man who many felt tended to drift out of games when he did not have the ball, now ran tirelessly, hassling and harrying the opposition for the ball, like a cocker spaniel after an erratic stick. Some felt it was a stunt to impress the new manager and that he would run out of steam – after all, he was supposed to have stamina issues. But as the match continued, it was clear that Adam Lallana had been reborn. The man ran himself into the ground, winning tackles, making passes and always fighting for the ball. Gegenpressing had arrived at Liverpool. And one of its converts was the man who many had felt was least suited for it.
With ten minutes to go, Klopp took off Lallana, and brought on Allen. And as he trudged off the pitch, Lallana gave the world the first sign of a new Liverpool.
A substitution is normally a cut and dried thing in football. A player goes off and generally shakes the hand of the player replacing him as they cross each other’s paths. The manager normally gives instructions to the player going in and at the most, gives the player coming off a pat on the head.
As Lallana walked off the pitch, Jurgen Klopp walked towards him and as the world watched in astonishment, enveloped him in a massive embrace. An embrace into which the exhausted Englishman collapsed – the first sign he had shown of exhaustion. It was like a father hugging a child who had done well.
It was an awkward hug. Lallana would later confess he had no idea that the new manager would react in this way (read Lallana’s take on Klopp’s early days at Liverpool here: Juergen Klopp’s vibe, passion behind Liverpool rise, says Adam Lallana). And many laughed at the notion and called it showing off – football is a macho sport, and such displays of affection do not fit easily into its culture. But it made headlines. It also underlined something about Liverpool and its new manager. Klopp was not just going to make his players run like hell, but he was going to make sure they loved doing it. And was not afraid to show his own love for the side he was building and the players who responded!
On October 17, 2015, Adam Lallana symbolised the emergence of a new Liverpool. A Liverpool that would run until legs fell off. For its new gaffer. And so it did! Lallana was a key figure in Liverpool’s early days under Klopp and the manager’s hugs became legendary. With time, the wins increased and the trophy cabinet began filling up. But the style was always the same. And rare was the Liverpool player who did not run into the arms of Klopp when the match ended or after being taken off. Bromance in football became a thing!
When Jordan Henderson lifted the Premiership trophy yesterday, it was the culmination of a journey. A journey that began with an awkward hug between two of the most unlikeliest people you could find – an exhausted Englishman and an emotional German.