Liver­pool not alone in slow­ing down dur­ing ti­tle pro­ces­sion

With two de­feats since they be­came cham­pi­ons, Klopp’s play­ers are learn­ing that a lack of pres­sure blunts your edge

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Premier League - Chris Bas­combe

Hav­ing gone 30 years with­out a Liver­pool ti­tle, the wait for Jur­gen Klopp and his play­ers to fi­nally get their hands on the tro­phy is start­ing to feel sim­i­larly ex­cru­ci­at­ing.

The new cham­pi­ons suf­fered an­other stum­ble dur­ing the long­est lap of hon­our in Pre­mier League his­tory with Wed­nes­day’s de­feat at Arse­nal. Klopp and Vir­gil van Dijk ad­mit­ted next week’s pre­sen­ta­tion cer­e­mony can­not come soon enough. The de­lay is akin to clap­ping a marathon run­ner across the line be­fore telling them that they must carry on for a few more miles un­til ev­ery­one else has fin­ished. For four weeks.

With bonus tar­gets such as a 100per-cent home run and 100 points now off the agenda, you could sense Van Dijk’s re­lief that the ex­tended ti­tle pro­ces­sion will soon be over.

Klopp and his play­ers will ar­gue there has been thin ev­i­dence of an in­ten­sity deficit, the sight of Mo­hamed Salah curs­ing miss­ing out on a hat-trick at Brighton, Andy Robert­son re­mon­strat­ing with match of­fi­cials af­ter the draw with Burn­ley and Van Dijk chastis­ing him­self af­ter his er­ror at the Emi­rates a sign of how much rewrit­ing the record books would have meant. But a gen­eral fall was in­evitable once the prime tar­get was reached. Hav­ing dropped only seven from a pos­si­ble 93 points be­fore con­firm­ing the cham­pi­onship, Liver­pool have sac­ri­ficed eight from 15 since.

Ac­cord­ing to Opta, Liver­pool have av­er­aged fewer tack­les, their play­ers have won sig­nif­i­cantly fewer du­els, they have made fewer in­ter­cep­tions and – in a sign of be­ing off the pace – com­mit­ted more fouls when com­par­ing the five matches since and pre­ced­ing the ti­tle. A symp­tom of post-cham­pi­onship re­lax­ation, or a con­se­quence of the lack of sup­port­ers driv­ing the side on? Prob­a­bly both.

Liver­pool have still won two of those five fix­tures and some statis­tics were sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved against Burn­ley and Arse­nal, the cham­pi­ons’ av­er­age shots and shots-on-tar­get ra­tio sur­pass­ing pre-lock­down fig­ures.

The psy­cho­log­i­cal chal­lenge of find­ing mo­ti­va­tion when a ca­reer am­bi­tion has been sat­is­fied is nei­ther novel nor sur­pris­ing. The amaz­ing Manch­ester City side of 2018 bucked a trend when win­ning four of their five re­main­ing games af­ter their ti­tle cel­e­bra­tions.

The ear­li­est a team was con­firmed cham­pi­ons be­fore that was Manch­ester United in 2001. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side won only one of their last five games, los­ing their fi­nal three. United had lost three of their pre­vi­ous 35.

“It is very dif­fi­cult to keep that hunger when the ti­tle is won,” says Nigel Win­ter­burn, three times a ti­tle win­ner with Arse­nal.

“There is pro­fes­sional pride, but when you are striv­ing so hard to win some­thing and then you achieve that goal, there is go­ing to be a drop.

“The edge is taken off. It is not de­lib­er­ate. It just takes some­thing away, that re­lease of pres­sure.

“In 1998 we won it with only a few games to go. We then lost to Liver­pool and As­ton Villa. Twen­tytwo years on, peo­ple re­mem­ber Arse­nal won the Dou­ble in 1998. They do not re­mem­ber those last two games.”

When Everton won the ti­tle with a five games to spare in 1985, they also lost three of their re­main­ing games, in­clud­ing a 4-1 de­feat by a Coven­try side whose vic­tory helped them to avoid rel­e­ga­tion. Graeme Sharp says the freak re­sult was more to do with the ridicu­lous sched­ule than pro­longed ti­tle cel­e­bra­tions, it be­ing Everton’s 63rd game of the sea­son. In­clud­ing the Euro­pean Cup Win­ners’ Cup fi­nal and FA Cup fi­nal, Everton ended the cam­paign play­ing six games in 17 days, the last three in five days.

“I was with the Scot­land squad pre­par­ing to play Eng­land and then a World Cup qual­i­fier when I was called back and told I had to play against Coven­try,” Sharp says.

“The other clubs were com­plain­ing we were go­ing to play our re­serves, so the FA made me go back. There is no way that Everton side would have lost three out of five in usual cir­cum­stances.

“But look, you def­i­nitely take your foot off the pedal. Even the best play­ers in the world know the hard job is done. So while a de­feat will hurt, you have a dif­fer­ent out­look.

“You have to take the lack of fans into ac­count. If you are play­ing in front of no­body, I don’t care who you are, it is harder to get your­self up for it.”

Of the 15 games Liver­pool played hav­ing al­ready be­come cham­pi­ons in 10 sea­sons be­tween 1975 and 1990, they won just five.

“Our view then was it is our job to win the league, and once you have done it you can en­joy your­self,” says Ian Rush, who won five of those ti­tles. “There was the game at Mid­dles­brough in 1982 when we had al­ready won the league, so Graeme Souness asked Bob Pais­ley if it was all right for us to go to lunch be­fore the match. Bob said no, but Souey or­gan­ised it any­way.

“Me and Ron­nie Whe­lan were young lads and he took us to a pub he knew from be­ing a for­mer Mid­dles­brough player. I was pan­ick­ing and drink­ing shandy, hop­ing to get back be­fore Ron­nie Mo­ran found out. We still drew 0-0!”

All those who know the ela­tion of be­ing a ti­tle win­ner are agreed on one fact.

“These lads need a bit of time to chill out now,” Rush says. “They have not even been handed the Pre­mier League tro­phy yet and all they have heard about is what they are go­ing to do next.”

Stum­ble: Jur­gen Klopp is left per­plexed (be­low) as Liver­pool slip up again on Wed­nes­day, this time against Arse­nal, de­spite his at­tempts to rally his ti­tle win­ners (left)

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