Why Real Madrid’s overconfidence has seen them dismiss Liverpool’s reputation-less stars as weak opponents
Around the Liverpool squad, there is little doubt that the lavish signing of Virgil van Dijk has made the big difference in their run to this Champions League final, but he also represents a big difference within that squad. The assured Dutch centre-half is one of very few players - perhaps the only player - who has been bought on big money and has not faced big doubts about his quality at a very recent point in his career.
This perhaps reflects Jürgen Klopp’s real elite quality, and why his side have reached this most elite of occasions - and why this has been a work of near-genius.
He has made them far more than the sum of their parts, and that’s all the more impressive when you consider how many were recently little more than bit-part players.
Sure, many might scoff at the idea of a big-budget, big-six club like Liverpool being spoken of in such a way, but all performance is relative. Klopp is not competing against the rest of the Premier League here. He is competing against the absolute top end of the Champions League. This is also about much more than mere financial figures, too. It’s about profile, and where the players were.
A proper review of his squad before Klopp got to them reveals perhaps the most makeshift group to reach the final of the competition in the modern era, certainly one ragged enough to match anything put out by Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid.
The word from Real Madrid is that key figures at the Bernabeu think along those lines. They think they’ll win easily, because they have not come up against a squad as limited as this in one of this era’s finals. Former manager Vicente Del Bosque’s prediction of a 4-1 victory gave this away. The feeling at Real is that you probably have to go back to Del Bosque’s last final, the 2-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen in 2002, for an opposition squad as unimpressive as this. That was when the concept of a super-club didn’t quite exist, though, so similar opportunities for victory like Real think they have now should not exist in the final any more.
And how could they not think along those lines, if they have indeed done that proper review of the Liverpool squad?
These are just not the star signings, or polished academy players, that the super-clubs have made the source of so many latter-stage appearances.
Andy Robertson’s story has attracted the most attention, but that’s partly because it brings together the most strands that are distinctive to this squad, and display the relatively improvisational way it has been put together in super-club terms.
To begin at the bottom, literally, Robertson is one of two regular starters along with Georginio Wijnaldum to be bought immediately after suffering relegation. These just aren’t the waters that Real Madrid or Barcelona or Bayern Munich fish in.
Robertson is also one of five players regularly used who were either signed for a meagre fee, or just on a free, including Loris Karius, Ragnar Klavan, James Milner and Alberto Moreno.
There are then at least two of the more expensive players who initially had people at their former clubs both privately and publicly commenting that Liverpool had paid too much. This was the case with Roberto Firmino and - yes - Mohamed Salah, while similar arguments were made elsewhere about Sadio Mane, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and even Van Dijk.
Most impressively, the now universally admired Salah is far from unique in this squad as a player who had to overcome doubts, who has faced deep criticism and set-backs, who was either considered not good enough for the level or just past it altogether. That also applies to Karius, Lovren, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Moreno, Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Milner. Even Jordan Henderson. This is perhaps the most special part of the feat.
More specifically from a coaching perspective, there were then those players who just represented a puzzle as to where to actually play them, like Firmino, Milner and Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Klopp gradually figured out exactly where to play them, but he also had the inherent ability to get them to really play.
One of the manager’s great qualities is how he can connect with his players, and a deeper positive to this is that their backgrounds and consequent performances have brought a deeper connection with the support, further firing both. It could be seen in the joyous scenes at the final whistle in Rome, as could the truth of the words of the man who gave Klopp his own big break.
ZDF editor Jan Doehling felt in 2006 that the little-known second-tier Mainz coach would be ideal for German TV audiences looking to re-establish their own connection to the game ahead of that summer’s World Cup, because of the down-to-earth Klopp spoke.
“We realised that this guy knew how to put his point across and to mesmerise people,” Doehling told Raphael Honigstein for the book ‘Das Reboot’. “If he had started a political party, they would have voted him into government immediately.”
Klopp has helped create a party atmosphere for Liverpool supporters, having so quickly got them back into European football’s most prestigious stage. Part of that also came from a much lower moment, after the 2016 Europa League final defeat to Sevilla, as Henderson this week explained.
“He had this sort of vision that makes me think in the future we’d get to another final. He was confident and he wanted to use the experience of that final to keep us together and use it as a positive.”
That is a hugely powerful mindset, especially when combined with hugely potent and clear tactics. Klopp does not just know how to get such players to run, and far and hard, but also running for the right reasons and in the right directions.
There is a wider argument over whether his approach would be suited to the real star players at the real big super-clubs, but that is not important right now. What is important is that Klopp has given his current players the chance to beat those star players and this biggest of super-clubs on the biggest occasions.
In that regard, it doesn’t matter what Real Madrid think of them. Klopp has already helped these players defy what so many others thought of them.
Independent News Service