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
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)