Anfield’s long wait is over. A new phase begins. What comes next for Liverpool after their first title in three decades?
On the face of it, everything looks set for an era of glory. The Premier League is not particularly strong. Manchester City are the most obvious challengers and appear to be the only team that could hope to unseat the champions next season. City, however, could be seriously undermined if Uefa’s two-year Champions League ban is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The verdict will be delivered in July. Any European exile would cause upheaval at the Etihad and missing out for two campaigns would be a serious blow.
The rest of the division remain a long way adrift. Reports of Manchester United’s resurgence still feel premature and while Chelsea seem to be on the right track it would take a fairly sizeable leap of faith to see them as title contenders just yet. The best Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal can hope for is re-establishing themselves in the top four.
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There are potential problems lurking for Liverpool, however. Already there has been chatter within the game that the club might find it hard to keep the squad together. This group have won the Champions League and the title. It would be easy for a player to say that he has fulfilled his ambitions at Anfield and this is the right time to move on.
The core of Klopp’s team would be welcomed with open arms by Spain’s big two. They could probably double their wages and although Merseyside has a lot going for it, living in Madrid or Barcelona is a very attractive proposition for any professional.
The demand for these Liverpool players may never be higher, which presents a conundrum of its own for Fenway Sports Group, the owners. Virgil van Dijk is a good example of the difficulties the situation could throw up. The Dutchman has been one of the cornerstones of the team’s resurgence. The centre back is at the peak of his physical powers but is 29 next week. He may feel he has one big move left in his career, not necessarily now, but in a year or two.
Equally, Liverpool’s analytics experts will be watching carefully for any signs of wear, tear and decline. Juggling the different, sometimes conflicting, motivations of player and club is one of the keys to sustained success. Van Dijk is committed to Anfield for three more years but the contractual chess moves on both sides of the deal will start long before 2023.
Liverpool have benefited from the age of the ‘Superclub’ but there is an unpalatable underside to this new era. Barcelona and Real Madrid have become the ultimate ‘destination’ clubs, the teams that almost every player aspires to join. It would be nice to think that after winning the Champions League and Premier League Anfield could shed its reputation as being a staging post, the sort of stepping stone Luis Suarez used to get to the Nou Camp. Despite the restocking of the trophy room under Klopp, little has changed in the six years since the Uruguayan scuttled off to Catalonia with unseemly haste.
The coronavirus pandemic will have a significant impact on finances across European football too. The richest and most powerful clubs will have to proceed with caution. Nevertheless, Zinedine Zidane remains a huge admirer of Sadio Mane and would welcome the winger at the Bernabeu. Mohamed Salah has a number of suitors waiting for the slightest indication that he is unsettled on Merseyside. Demand for Trent Alexander-Arnold – the one man with a real emotional attachment to Anfield – is only likely to grow as the 21-year-old develops.
Some of the gossip around the game is driven by envy. Football is a malicious business and rivals will use any tactic to cause their competitors angst. But when you are the best, predators tend to circle around waving paycheques.
The bigger salaries, more glamorous locations and almost guaranteed glory that come with moves to Barca or Real can be very seductive. Klopp has a readily available antidote at hand, though. He can put Philippe Coutinho’s photograph on the dressing room notice board as a warning from history. Heads can be turned quickly but so can careers. No one wants to be rerouted in the wrong direction.