We Choose To Go To the Moon
Chapter from This Red Planet
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
John F Kennedy, 1962
“I choose to stay in my bedroom.”
Edited-down chapter from:
[Note: this chapter is about the difficulties in challenging a club like Manchester City last season, and beyond, whilst being self-sustaining and not “financially doped”. It seemed appropriate after the game yesterday, where once again Liverpool had to overcome the odds of facing a far costlier team, yet carrying similar expectations. Full version may not appear in email newsletter due to size limits.]
Liverpool never set out to win the quadruple. No one does. Just as no one sets out to win all 38 league games, or run around the world non-stop, without refreshments. Some things have never been done, and for good reason. A team just tries to win each game at a time, as managers will say; even if they have to plan further ahead (maybe two or three games, maybe more in a less direct way), and manage a busy schedule and which players will be in the red-zone for injuries. Then, once the ‘potential’ tag – treble, quadruple, unbeatables – sticks, and that team understandably falls a little short, it becomes a way to call an outstanding achievement a failure.
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Prior to the 2022 FA Cup final, Klopp told the press: “If we are all only happy when we are really winning when your race finishes what life would that be? When I say ‘Enjoy the journey’ I mean it.
“We only cause ourselves problems as human beings. For example: ‘Don’t come home without a Quadruple’ – you will never be happy. If that is the only way to satisfy you, then that is really difficult.
“[But] let’s give it a go. Football games are sometimes decided by single players, most of the time they are decided by the whole performance and we can work on the whole performance and have world-class players – and we will have world-class players.
“It is not what other teams are doing and it’s like ‘Gah, they signed him’. I never thought that to be honest. When they took a player from me and put him there, in Germany quite frequently, it gives them 20 per cent and us minus 20 and that’s not cool. But as long as they don’t pick from us I’m fine.
“It has never been done before [the Quadruple] so it’s like the first step in whichever island, we’re the first team to give it a try and that’s what we do.
“If you had said at the end of the season you will be in all finals and two match-days before the end we are three points behind City, I’d have said ‘nah, I can’t see that happening’. Not all together in the same season.
“But the boys did it and that’s really special, but we know the decisive part is coming now. You can see it – warming up is finished. Now we have rhythm finally, now we can go for it.”
The four-trophy sweep didn’t come to pass, but boy, how close.
“I could have gone to Bayern [Munich] a few times,” Klopp also said, prior to the victory over Chelsea. “I could have won more titles in my life. I would say there is a good chance at least of that. I didn’t do it. I had a contract here and I never did it. That’s completely fine.
“The world is not full of winners, the world is full of triers hopefully. And I try and, sometimes, I win with some other people together. I am happy with that.”
That the quadruple was even possible related to a dozen years’ work, from the point FSG (then NESV) bought Liverpool in late 2010, and a project started to be shaped, in essence, once Michael Edwards was brought to the club in 2011, along with Ian Graham, by Damien Comolli. Mistakes morphed into moonshots.
It was Edwards and Graham who helped bring in the best players in those early years, and who confirmed that Jürgen Klopp should be the manager to be approached in 2015. John W Henry handed over control to a more football-astute partner in Mike Gordon, and he became FSG’s go-to man; the one who went out and procured the German, after Manchester United had failed, a year earlier, with a cringeworthy pitch to the Borussia Dortmund manager.
Few successes occur overnight. We often only see the fruits of ten years of striving, when someone hits the big-time. We don’t see the striving itself.
NASA going to the moon took a decade-or-so, in addition to all the technological work that had taken place up until 1961, including taking German rocket expertise honed in the 1940s via the horrors of war. From 1961, dozens of unmanned and then manned missions built up the experience necessary to make that final tiny step for mankind. Progress was made, incrementally. Rockets exploded along the way, and astronauts died.
A few brief examples, via a list of the programme’s launches on Wikipedia, is worth quickly summarising, to show the iterations.
Saturn I, October 27, 1961. Test of Saturn I first stage S-I; “dummy upper stages carried water”.
QTV Little Joe II, August 28, 1963. Little Joe II qualification test – the “launch escape system”.
Saturn I, September 18, 1964. “Carried first programmable-in-flight computer on the Saturn I vehicle; last launch vehicle development flight”
Saturn IB. August 25, 1966. “Suborbital flight to Pacific Ocean splashdown. CM heat shield tested to higher speed; successful SM firings.”
Apollo 1. February 21, 1967. Saturn IB. “Never launched. On January 27, 1967, a fire in the command module during a launch pad test killed the crew and destroyed the module. This flight was originally designated AS-204, and was renamed to Apollo 1 at the request of the crew’s families.”
Apollo 4. November 9, 1967. “First flight of Saturn V rocket; successfully demonstrated S-IVB third stage restart and tested CM heat shield at lunar re-entry speeds.”
Apollo 9. March 3, 1969. “First crewed flight test of Lunar Module; tested propulsion, rendezvous and docking in Earth orbit. EVA tested the Portable Life Support System (PLSS).”
Apollo 10. May 18, 1969. “‘Dress rehearsal’ for lunar landing. The LM descended to 8.4 nautical miles (15.6 km) from lunar surface.”
Apollo 11. July 16, 1969. “First crewed landing in Sea of Tranquility (Tranquility Base) including a single surface EVA.”
In between: various other test flights, going further, or trying something different. Several further astronauts died.
None of these things were easy. None could be achieved overnight. And none could be done without a huge amount of teamwork. NASA estimates that nearly half a million men and women across the United States were involved in the Apollo programme. It was about the least-easy thing humankind had ever done (unless you’re a crazy conspiracy theorist who thinks it was filmed by half a dozen people in a Hollywood basement; or a crazy activist who thinks it a shameful example of the evils of colonialism, presumably displacing all the indigenous Clangers in the process).
I mention all of this, as it feels like Liverpool have spent their past dozen years on various missions, all barely possible, but some inexplicably achieved. To win the quadruple, however, would have been like the Apollo mission, back in 1969, boosting from the moon, orbiting Mars, slingshotting Saturn, and depositing a kidnapped President Nixon into the gaseous hellscape of Jupiter, where he probably belonged.
The whole Liverpool/Klopp project looked in jeopardy at various points between March 2020 and March 2021, when football was mothballed due to Covid on the brink of title success, over £100m was lost due to empty stadia and television deal repayments, and then the team, replete with a few ageing players, appeared to be on its knees due to a run of injuries and illnesses. It felt nearly broken. That Liverpool were able to ‘go again’ from March 2021 onwards, to the degree they did, was itself a minor – maybe even a major – miracle.
Before getting onto the actual football that gave so much joy, it’s important to establish the context of what was achieved.
Statistical Contortions To Pretend City Aren’t Much Richer Than Liverpool
Sometimes you’ll read a sentence so bad that, even when trying to take it easy for a while after a testing winter (as I am), you end up writing a piece to counter it. This, courtesy of the Manchester Evening News, may as well have been written in Abu Dhabi:
“Liverpool won the title for the first time in 30 years after recording the biggest transfer spend in a calendar year in English football history, in 2018.”
Now, I hate net-spend arguments, as I’ve noted many times, and made clear in the book Pay As You Play from 2010. But gross-spend arguments – as this is – are the worst.
Net-spending arguments can be twisted by arbitrarily (or sneakily) moving a cut-off point; for instance, only start counting the day after Man City spent £100m on Jack Grealish, and suddenly they didn’t spend any money at all on Jack Grealish.
Hey presto! (Yet he was magically there all along.)
Everton massively outspent Man City in the first half of 2022, so Everton should be better, right? No, because gross spend is dumb, and net spend is semi-dumb. Inflation-adjusted XIs (the ‘£XI’, as I dubbed it), are what counts, along with inflation-adjusted squads. That’s the average cost of the team over the course of the season, in what would today be 2022 prices; as such, you can compare a team from 1993, 2006 and 2019 and all will be in 2022 money, so all can be compared on an equal footing.
Indeed, net spend in the calendar year, before the summer 2022 window opened and they spent big, saw Man City having raised £43m on Ferran Torres. You wouldn’t say City’s chances were nosediving in 2022 as they were -£43m on outlay for the months January-May. That made them the ‘poorest’ team in England, based on that wayward accounting. In truth, they were just offloading one more luxury asset.
Gross-spending arguments take the same flawed approach and make it even worse, by ignoring what money came in. It ignores the sell-to-buy that all clubs, unless financially doped, have to live by. Both net and gross calculations also tend to ignore inflation, which means that a massive historical but still relevant spend – say five years earlier – could be trumped, but the original cost far more in ‘real’ terms due to the fact that transfer prices generally rise.
So, in 2016/17, the average price of a Premier League player was 18x what it was in 1992, when we began our index (not that football began then, but we had to start somewhere). But this season, the average price has risen to 30x what it was in 1992 (having actually fallen to 27x in 2020/21). So an £18m player in 2017 effectively cost £30m in the current market. Average prices sometimes fall, but the general trend – in line with rising income in football – sees them increase.
When Klopp said at the time Paul Pogba joined Manchester United that he’d never spend €100m on a player, it was a time before a 66% price hike in Premier League transfer fees. Pogba’s fee now equates to almost £150m, and in addition to the drain of massive wages, he walked away for free. As such, £64m rising to £85m (€100m) for Darwin Núñez was not astronomical. Indeed, in the Premier League era, Andy Carroll remains the Reds’ most expensive signing in 2022 money, at £135.5m.
Both net and gross spend arguments ignore the state of a club before the arbitrary cut-off point: did they need to spend money, or had they spent the past few years shelling out tons to perfect their squad?
The key fact to all this – to counter the distortions from the Manchester Evening News – is that in 2018, Liverpool sold Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona for £142m; as well as offloading Danny Ward for £12.5m and Ragnar Klavan for £2m, while losing Emre Can (who needed replacing) on a free transfer. (All fees listed when discussing prices relating to TPI are the maximum amount payable, so including clauses that may or may not be triggered, but which are in the initial contract.)
That’s £156.5m recouped during 2018.
The money was reinvested in Virgil van Dijk, £75m, in January 2018; and in the summer, Naby Keïta (£52.7m), Fabinho (£43m), Xherdan Shaqiri (£13.5m) and Alisson, (£64.4m). That’s £248.6m, which is clearly huge; but less than £100m net.
One of the reasons for co-creating the Transfer Price Index with Graeme Riley in 2010 was to look at how much teams cost (the team that plays, and the overall squad), based on transfer spending, adjusted for football inflation.
These were the top four inflation-adjusted squad costs in 2021/22:
Manchester City: £1,229.2m. (Or £1.22 billion.)
Manchester United: £1,148.7m.
Chelsea: £1,018.6m (including £228m out on loan).
As you can see, City’s squad cost was 57% more expensive than Liverpool’s, and the £XI was 42% higher. Based on the talent that started games (which factors in absences due to injury, as well as those not selected to start for other reasons) the £XIs were:
Manchester City: £681.7m
Manchester United: £537.5m
Wages are obviously another big factor, and City obviously top the wage-bill chart, too, albeit Liverpool, with a lot of bonuses built in, also carry a big wage bill. Wage analysis can be more accurate than the £XI if based on company accounts, but often until then, wages can be wildly varying rumours, and a club’s official wage bill is usually at least a year out of date. (It can also include hundreds of office staff, with Liverpool apparently employing 686 people in ‘admin and commercial’, three times as many as Manchester City, who somehow make more money.) What we’ve shown for 12 years is that the £XI often tracks with league position to a fairly strong degree, even if there will be outliers, good and bad.
The sale of Coutinho was seen by a lot of Liverpool fans as a sign of impending doom. Less than three years earlier, Liverpool had lost Raheem Sterling to Man City (at what works out now at well over £100m), having had Luis Suárez pilfered in 2014; and now the club were losing another key player.
That’s where Liverpool were between 2010 and 2018 (and indeed, a process that began before 2010, under the shambolic ownership of George Gillett and Tom Hicks): unable to retain their elite talent, as they didn’t have the financial power to pay mega-wages, but instead had to manage the wage bill in a way that maintained unity. In order to buy, some selling was usually required. Also, the Premier League was lagging behind La Liga’s giants until fairly recently, which made losing players to Real Madrid and Barcelona a constant threat. European rivals will still occasionally do so. Even now, Bayern Munich have snaffled Sadio Mané, but only at a price Liverpool agreed to, at a time Liverpool agreed with (i.e. a player aged 30, entering the final year of his deal and seeking a bumper final payday).
What has changed is losing contracted players to English rivals. A year after a neck-and-neck title race in 2014, Liverpool lost a key player to Manchester City. Liverpool’s rise under Klopp and FSG has seen that threat diminish.
When Raheem Sterling moved to City – essentially taken against Liverpool’s will – the average price of a Premier League player was £7.4m; now it’s £18.1m. Sterling therefore cost almost £120m with inflation. Kevin de Bruyne – a player who can be misleadingly represented as a cheap buy – works out at £133m; while the recently retired Sergio Agüero cost £177m – albeit the only City player to rank in the top 20 in the Premier League era, which is comprised almost entirely of Chelsea and Man United players from 2001-2016. If you were to only look at net or gross spending since Pep Guardiola arrived at City, it would not include the £250m of talent in Sterling and de Bruyne, as well as the players who helped win titles up to 2021, such as Agüero. The starting points were radically different, with so few of the players Klopp inherited worth keeping long term (or ‘poached’, in the case of Philippe Coutinho).
What City have, with so few homegrown and free players, is a squad packed with expensive players, many of whom cost big money a few years ago, but that big money, as an illusion, seems smaller now unless inflation-adjusted. (City, in contrast to other big spenders over the years, simply don’t have many cheap players at all.)
For instance, it would be crazy now to say that Stewart Downing was a cheap signing for Liverpool, because a decade ago, £20m was a lot of money. Right now, £20m is peanuts. Yet from 2012, with inflation, it now equates to £93m; someone who cost c.£30m in the 2000s – as a few players did for Chelsea and Manchester United (Andriy Shevchenko, Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Essien, Didier Drogba and a bit later at £50m, Fernando Torres) – is now the equivalent of around £200m (which is where the ‘actual’ European transfer record maxed out just a few years ago, before the biggest signings abated, in part as FFP partially applied the handbrake).
Perhaps what has changed is a greater number of expensive signings, and fewer super-expensive signings; certainly in the Premier League, with excesses curbed by FFP. When we devised TPI in 2010, FFP had yet to take hold. Now it would seem unthinkable to spend £200m on a single player and stay within the allotted budget if building a team rather than just a vanity project around one individual; but that’s essentially what was happening in the 2000s. Chelsea had a number of £200m players, as did Man United.
The most recent signing in the TPI top 20 is Agüero, at 7th, while Man United’s procurement of Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial both make the top 20. Otherwise, even £100m last summer is not as outlandish, relatively speaking (and the whole point of adjusting for football inflation is to make things relative), as the deals taking place prior to FFP.
(For the sake of this book, ‘2022 money’ is based on transfers in the summer of 2021 and January 2022; before the next season of signings takes place and concludes at the end of January 2023. Also, our inflation model only focuses on Premier League signings to calculate present-day money, so cannot accurately measure overseas spending – but the European transfer market still generally operates in the same way, certainly at the top end.)
Football – amongst the sensible clubs – has also become less about superstar individuals, and in fairness to Man City, they are a prime example of a system of interchangeable players, who almost all cost a lot of money, rather than marquee players.
Even now, the few players who might cost £200m are retained by the big clubs that own them, or are about to be available in the summer on free transfers or reduced buyout clauses. Indeed, holding onto such players – as PSG have done with Kylian Mbappé – is almost the same as paying £200m, as they did for Neymar (and almost as much for Mbappé), as they are essentially writing off £200m; only an oil state could afford to do that.
Manchester City have 17 players who cost at least £33m in the TPI model; they have 15 players who cost £46m or more; 13 players who cost £56m or more; 11 players who cost £62m or more; six who cost £80m or more; and three who cost £100m or more.
That’s the crux.
City’s 17th most expensive player (İlkay Gündoğan) cost £33m, roughly the same as the Reds’ 11th most expensive; yet the biggest indicator of the gulf is that Liverpool’s 15th most-expensive (Andy Robertson) cost £11m, whereas City’s cost £46m. Only Phil Foden was free, otherwise there’s Oleksandr Zinchenko (and reserve keeper Zack Steffen, who played one league game); the next-cheapest are £39.3m, £46.1m and £47.7m.
If you compare the £XIs by position – averaging out the costs of the different players used from 1-11 by the old numerical system from back to front – then there are eight where City’s players cost more, two where Liverpool’s cost more (goalkeeper and left centre-back) and one where the price was the same (centre-forward). Alisson was far more expensive than Ederson (by £46.3m), but even Virgil van Dijk ‘only’ cost £18.8m more (in 2022 money) than the average of the various City players fielded at left centre-back. (Liverpool’s other three centre-backs, in 2022 money, cost just over £41m combined.)
The differences in the other direction – City’s players averaging out as more expensive – were, from right-back forwards, to the tune of £53.6m, £50.1m, £32.9m, £27.0m, £11.9m, £28.1m, £39.0m and £15.7m. City had Foden to Trent Alexander Arnold in the homegrown stakes, and Zinchenko, who cost about the same as Kostas Tsimikas, but that was it; there was no Joël Matip (free), James Milner (free), Curtis Jones (second academy graduate to play more than a handful of games), Harvey Elliott (cheap), Joe Gomez (cheap) and Andy Robertson. There were no gambles in the City squad. Each signing was a kind of luxury. When Liverpool pay bigger wages (albeit still just over half of what City’s top earners receive), it’s because those players have proved themselves to deserve pay-rises, along with performance-related bonuses. City can pay more initially, and then reap the rewards of the quality they pay for.
It seems a little sad that so much time is spent on analysing the finances of football these days, but the reason I focus on it is because it clearly makes a difference. When City’s clear financial advantages are obfuscated, it needs addressing. And how City are financed is also somewhat unsporting.
For all City’s mega-spending since 2008, how many of their best players were whisked away from them at their peak? None. (Leroy Sané might qualify, but he was going to be sold the previous summer anyway.) Ferran Torres went to Barcelona, but only as City were willing to sell.
Imagine losing Kevin de Bruyne to Real Madrid, or Ederson to Barcelona, two or three years ago, and having to replace them, with the 50-50 chance that the replacement won’t be a success. Imagine that, a few years before that, David Silva and Vincent Kompany were bought by rivals when at their peak. City have never had that issue in the modern age.
Yes, City will give their players the chance to always play in (if not win) the Champions League, and will challenge for the title. But an unseen sign of their power is how they can fend off all predators. They are the top of the food chain, and how they do it – indeed, how they got their money to start with – isn’t always palatable.
City are a super-smart operation with a world-class manager, albeit one who left Germany having bored the Bayern Munich hierarchy. City don’t have to entertain neutrals, but there is something sterile about them, as noted by several people in the media that got the blue half of Manchester so riled. They stack the deck in their favour, that it stops feeling like sport. As many noted (and I’ll cover later in more detail), only Liverpool keeping an unexpected pace with City made the league feel competitive.
Guardiola won more in Germany than Klopp, but Dortmund were literally bankrupt when Klopp arrived, and what he achieved – against all odds – will be remembered for longer, as Bayern are a monster of a machine, who were chugging before Guardiola arrived and chug exactly the same after. Guardiola changed the style, but essentially added nothing new. Indeed, managers before and after him won the Champions League with the club, and a lot of observers, including some of Bayern’s hierarchy, found his football duller. Klopp took Dortmund from near collapse to back-to-back league titles and a Champions League final with a young, inexpensive team, who played exciting football. I’ve never quite understood the accusations that Guardiola’s sides are dull, but the reduction of risk can add to that impression. He is indisputably an elite, generation-defining manager; the best in the world – until 2019, when Klopp’s deeper, tougher-won achievements, with a broader skillset, saw him rise to the pinnacle.
Klopp has taken Liverpool much further, from a starting point of mediocrity, than Guardiola has taken City (albeit he has improved them, clearly), whose players had mostly already won the Premier League by 2016. That said, Guardiola, domestically at least, can’t easily take City any further than he already has done. He’s already broken all kinds of records (albeit Liverpool’s 97- and 99-point seasons remain more incredible based on the budget and the starting point, and the 97- and 92-point seasons when also reaching Champions League finals are unique in European football history). Guardiola also had less scope to improve City, whereas Klopp was taking over a side that, for 15 months, had forgotten how to win, how to score, and how to defend, and whose few best players were soon injured or snaffled.
Adam Lallana spoke to BBC Radio 5 Live’s Football Daily podcast towards the end of 2021/22, and explained how Klopp keeps everyone happy: “I know how difficult it is when you’re not playing or not in the squad, it’s tough because you want to play, and you’re paid to play. But football is a team sport and everyone is needed and they had to put in a big shift. That’s the culture and mentality of the group. You keep training hard and trying to show why you deserve to play – and hopefully you get your chance. Klopp is the best motivator I’ve ever spoken to, within a minute of speaking with him, you want to be fighting for your life for him. That’s the genius in him.”
“His empathy, his human nature is unbelievable,” said Tim Hoogland, who played for Klopp at FSV Mainz, and who said that 14 years on he still hears from his old boss. “That’s something that hasn’t changed from when he was my coach in 2008 to now. His human skills were way above everything I’ve ever seen in football. It’s not something you see very often.”
Klopp is also incredibly smart, in a whole host of ways. He is the ideal person to bring together all the different disciplines at Liverpool, in a way that possibly no one else could.
It’s hard to say that Liverpool can easily capture hearts and minds, given the enmity that exists in football fandom, but I think a neutral (or if the labels were removed from both clubs like unmarked cans in a taste test) would put Liverpool’s European and Premier League ride of 2018-2020 above any period of Man City’s dominance given the more thrilling and unexpected nature of it; just as Leicester’s league title trumps anything else in terms of expectations; just as the nature of Istanbul in 2005 tops anything anyone can do, as an underdog 3-0 down at half-time. The same would apply to Liverpool’s quadruple chase, which far outstripped any City season for excitement, even if the end results were ‘just’ the two domestic trophies.
Alas, Liverpool could not ride out Covid in the way that City or Chelsea, with their petrodollar ways, could (although Chelsea had a rude awakening in 2022). That’s a fact of life. Liverpool have turned many cheap and mid-priced players into world-beaters (this is the model), but to pay them all the going rate would cripple the club.
The wage bill, with sensible bonuses, already has little room for leeway, but even to give Mo Salah £400,000 a week – as he seemed to be seeking in the summer of 2022 – would mean he would be on double what everyone else was getting, and would likely see £100,000 added to the demands of all players to follow. That’s how wage structures spiral out of control. That Sadio Mané will be paid almost that much by Bayern Munich will only strengthen Salah’s claims (as others arrive in the Premier League on almost £400,000 a week), but Liverpool’s response is to pay Darwin Núñez a ‘mere’ £140,000 a week [Erling Haaland, with bonuses, is reported to be on nearly £900,000 a week]; which itself [£140,000 a week] is more than Luis Díaz and Diogo Jota are paid, but still less than the existing key men (and all three combined will earn less at Liverpool than Mané alone will at Bayern, albeit Jota and Díaz will surely get pay rises whenever they sign a new deal). Núñez could have got far more at Manchester United, but he made a footballing decision, not a financial decision; as did Virgil van Dijk, when arriving on a wage that did not match the transfer fee.
Liverpool also cannot find themselves with souped-up sponsorship deals that make them the biggest earners in the world. City, for all their intricate brilliance, continue to do it with all the money, and in that sense, you almost can’t blame them. (You can blame them for any financial chicanery, mind, that has been exposed several times by Der Spiegel amongst others. As was reported, “Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan would allegedly ‘rather spend £30m on the 50 best lawyers’ and sue Uefa ‘for the next ten years’ than accept their punishment,” in relation to breaking FFP rules.)
As I always said about José Mourinho: let’s see how he does without the money. It’s like the fastest person in a cycle race – while the rest may take EPO and pedal away as hard as their legs will pump, they’re competing with the guy on the rocket-boosted Kawasaki Ninja.
Even with a big budget at Manchester United, some money at Spurs and a fair chunk at Roma, Mourinho is diminished by both time – staler ideas – and the lack of having twice as much money as everyone else. His Chelsea squad from a decade and a half ago still remain by far and away the costliest in English football, when adjusted for inflation. City can take comfort from the fact that they didn’t distort the market in quite the same way as the arrival of Roman Abramovich. (Mourinho is now down to finishing 6th in Serie A after a big spending spree at Roma, crowing about winning a brand new European competition created specifically for the mediocre sides. This is not Sassuolo, even if the Roma fans did enjoy the ride, and that’s fair enough from a fun perspective – but not an achievement perspective.)
Another example: uninflated, Tanguy Ndombele (£65m at the time) cost Spurs more than any fee Man City had paid for a single player up to that point; yet to claim that therefore Spurs were a richer club than City would be madness. If you take inflation into account, City have spent that type of money or much, much more on many, many occasions. And they still benefit from several of those players; indeed, 11 at £62m or over when adjusted for inflation. Yet this is the logic Man City’s mouthpieces seem to use to obfuscate their spending.
As many have noted, the only thing keeping the Premier League title race interesting is Liverpool’s amazing overachievement on what is a sizeable but, by comparison to City, much smaller budget. (Again, Liverpool are not poor, and FSG invest all the money back into the team via transfer fees and wages, with the latter increasing in line with increased revenues from over-performance on the pitch, to create a virtuous circle.) Maybe Liverpool make it more interesting for City, too. Yet the neutrals can see the relative shallowness of City’s achievements; often only enjoying the fact that the generally disliked Liverpool (due to decades of dominance two generations ago) are the team being denied.
Dan Kilpatrick of the London Evening Standard, who usually covers Spurs, wrote in late May, “… apathy is an increasingly common response to City’s relentless quest for perfection and growing dominance of the Premier League leads to bigger questions about the impact of state-backed sportswashing projects on the game.
“Put simply, it is harder to be emotionally invested in a club when the odds are so overwhelming stacked in their favour by virtue of pouring a state’s resources into the sport. While impressive and a result of more than wealth alone, City’s sporting achievements appear lacking in both jeopardy and the sense of strife and a journey which characterises, say, Liverpool’s successes.
“Guardiola has claimed that most would prefer Liverpool to win the league. On this, he is surely mistaken, although not for reasons he would care to admit. The majority of rival supporters would prefer City to be champions, purely because their unparalleled financial might makes their feats seem inevitable and even meaningless.
“While it would be unbearable for many to see Liverpool win another title, let alone a quadruple, City are easier to ignore.
‘They inspire so few real emotions in many supporters, they have actually become a useful vehicle in denying rival clubs the title. Manchester United fans are largely happy that City stopped Liverpool winning another league; Arsenal fans supported them over Tottenham in the 2019 Champions League quarter-final.”
Kilpatrick then takes a deserved dig at an infamous Liverpool FC marketing slogan, which I always found crass, but even then, he sees some truth to it: “Liverpool understandably antagonised with their slogan ‘This means more’, but in the context of their rivalry with City, there is truth to it.
“There is an authenticity to Liverpool which makes them emotionally arresting, and that simply does not exist with their title rivals, so Guardiola has it right in one sense (that a majority seem more appreciative of Jürgen Klopp’s side) but wrong in another (that this results in a desire for Liverpool to better City).
“City inspire a kind of apathy of hopelessness in most supporters, which is obviously not a healthy attitude on the part of football fans.
“This is one of the most alarming consequences of sportswashing projects: they are robbing the game of the meaning and emotion on which it is built.”
Miguel Delaney wrote in the Independent a few days earlier that, “The Catalan [Guardiola] has spent the last few weeks complaining that more people wanted Liverpool to win the title, but it’s hard to think that is true. The debate around the [Liverpool fans’] booing of the national anthem at Wembley fed into the fact there does remain a resistance to the Anfield support. Many neutral fans would have preferred City preventing Jürgen Klopp’s side winning the title, the domestic treble and a possible quadruple.”
As an aside, this resistance to Liverpool and their fans was later seen in the dumbly tribal online reactions to their outrageous treatment in Paris, which included the tear-gassing and pepper-spraying of children, just for queuing to get in; yet again blamed when clearly innocent, albeit this time it took social media (one of its few positives) to reveal the ‘truth’ rather than 30 years of requests, protestations and inquests. It’s yet more ammunition to the sneering ‘it’s never your fault’ brigade.
Delaney continued: “That would have been too much for many to bear. City winning the title, though? That’s just something that happens now, to a super-funded level that is by this point as akin to an industrial process as sporting perseverance. The money makes it easier to accept as inevitable, so it consequently leaves many football fans fairly emotionless.
“That only points to bigger discussions over the very nature of this sportswashing project, that have only grown in recent years. This is not to repeat arguments that are by now well rehearsed, but it does mean City are curiously fitting champions in that regard.
“This has been the most geopolitical of seasons, and they are the most geopolitical of winners. It just emphasises what is happening to the wider game, as made clear by the futures of Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappé.
“Consider some of the scenes on Sunday, that themselves evoked key themes from the season.
“Premier League chief executive Richard Masters was there to present the trophy, at the same time as his competition continues an investigation into City over potential rule-breaking. Masters had earlier presided over a hierarchy that just waved through the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United, as soon as issues relating to broadcasting piracy were finally resolved. You couldn’t have a clearer indication of the priorities.
“The recent controversy over Newcastle’s third kit [in Saudi national colours] only made farcically obvious the absurdity of that decision, particularly the ludicrous talk of ‘legally binding assurances’ over separation of the Public Investment Fund and the Saudi state, but that was already long after the Chelsea situation [Roman Abramovich being sanctioned by the UK government after the war in Ukraine] illustrated some of the dangers of all this.”
Later in the piece, Delaney added, “The Premier League is currently in a position of unprecedented financial strength, with that largely built on the glamorous image of being the most unpredictable league in the world. The wonder is how long that view will actually persist, as City claimed their fourth title in five years. It is a little disconcerting to think that it would have been five from five had it not been for Liverpool appointing a genius.
“Jürgen Klopp has reshaped the reality of the game, but that has in turn kept the illusion of competitiveness. Even Liverpool, an undeniable super club who are on the brink of their seventh Champions League, have had to push themselves past their limits to keep up with City. And it still wasn’t enough.
“The gap of a point is at once a tantalising illustration of how close Liverpool again came but also a show of how City will almost always be ahead.”
Eamonn Sweeney in the Irish Independent was scathing about City, in an article entitled A classless man in charge of a classless club run by classless people.
“Manchester City won the title race but Liverpool made it great.
“Without Jürgen Klopp’s side the Premier League would be Ligue 1, a championship entirely dominated by a behemoth overpowering all opposition through financial might.
“The football authorities owe Liverpool a debt of gratitude for making the Premier League look more open than it actually is. But all the Sky Sports PR guff about the greatest league in the world can’t disguise the fact that this race never includes more than two horses – 18 points separated second and third place this season. Four years ago when City also pipped Liverpool, that gap was 25 points.”
Regarding the final game of the season, as the title lay on the line, he said: “… The differing reactions of both sets of fans when their teams struggled in the second half showed why this is so. Anfield was a seething cauldron of anxious excitement with supporters trying to lift their team over the line by force of will.
“The prevailing note at the Etihad, on the other hand, was a kind of sulky disbelief. ‘Why is this happening? We didn’t pay for this kind of thing.’ The contest between City and Liverpool is a contest between the synthetic and the organic. And we live in a synthetic age.”
He ended with, “City are the perfect champions for the neoliberal era, true believers in the creed that money makes its own morality. They are football’s Facebook, its Twitter, its Airbnb, its Amazon, its one-percenters. But they’re not Liverpool and they never will be.”
Also from Ireland, where the writers often seem freed of the backslapping and kowtowing seen by some of the English media, Tadhg Coakley, author of The Game: A Journey Into the Heart of Sport, wrote in the Irish Independent about the soul-sucking nature of sportswashing in general.
“… Kylian Mbappé’s disgusting signing-on fee of €150m and an annual salary of €100m, after tax, to stay with Paris Saint-Germain. PSG are owned by the state of Qatar which will host the Fifa World Cup later this year at an estimated cost of €200 billion, but the real cost is in human lives: thousands of migrant workers have died building the infrastructure needed to host the event.
“Sports fans know about the corruption, sexism and inequalities in sport but still we consume it in huge gulps. Why?
“Could it be what French academics Jean-Marie Brohm and Marc Perelman refer to as the ‘opium of sport’, how it facilitates ‘the narcotisation of the conscience’? Is sport really what they refer to as an infantilising drunkenness or narcosis, a type of fiddling while Rome burns (or while the planet is being destroyed by man-made emissions and Ukraine is being bombed to obliteration by Russia before our eyes)?
“Perelman says that sport is society’s only project steamrolling modernity, eliminating all obstacles. Society has no other project, he says, except barbarian sport. Everybody is flocking to it and everybody is joining in. This is difficult to disprove.
“The Premier League is the most popular sports league in the world. It is shown live in 212 territories to 643 million homes with a potential TV audience of 4.7 billion people. I’m one of those people, my home is one of those homes.
“In India, 93 per cent of people (1.28 billion souls) self-identify as sports fans, while 70 per cent of people in the USA follow sport and devote an average of 7.7 hours a week to it. In 2016, the financial value of sport was estimated to be $500bn in the United States and $1.3 trillion worldwide.
“The question is: given that sport facilitates such appalling and damaging behaviour, should we avoid it altogether? By our involvement in sport, are we somehow condoning or facilitating so many abhorrent actions? Would we be better off without sport in our lives at all, so we could better manage climate change, the inequalities in Irish society and the crisis in Ukraine?
“But wouldn’t that deprive our children of all the joy and togetherness they will experience this weekend and every weekend in Ireland? And the volunteerism in clubs and communities up and down the country which is such a font of wellbeing, good mental health and helping to avoid isolation?
“Perhaps instead of scrapping sport, we should put it in perspective. The French philosopher Pierre-Henry Frangne says that ‘sport can only be ethical and virtuous through the moderation of our approach, through the restrained nature of our relationship with it, through the purpose which we confer on it – since it has none of its own, being just a game, a futile activity, even a derisory one’.
“We have to be more like the children Eduardo Galeano eulogises in the epigraph of his book Football in Sun and Shadow: ‘The pages that follow are dedicated to the children who once upon a time, years ago, crossed my path on Calella de la Costa. They had been playing football and were singing: We lost, we won, either way we had fun.’”
Another Irish journalist, Ken Early, wrote in the Irish Times on the eve of City landing the 2022 title, that “Most of us don’t watch football for technical quality or tactical intrigue. We’re watching because we want to feel something – and the risk of defeat adds savour to the joy of victory. In the simplest terms, we like a bit of end-to-end. No coach despises end-to-end more than Guardiola. His teams are designed to exert the maximum of control and allow the absolute minimum of randomness and uncertainty.
“City are also the best-resourced team, so they have the best technical players, playing the most careful, disciplined, risk-averse football. It’s a style better adapted to winning titles than admirers. They would be more charming as a wasteful giant. Look at the joy Manchester United have given the world these last several years. Lurching from crisis to crisis, they continue to be more watchable than City’s vastly superior team.”
He continued, “… But of course the main problem is, and always has been, the money. City represent the ruthlessly efficient application of overwhelming financial firepower and there simply is not a lot of magic about that story.
“They will soon celebrate their fourth title win in five years, which is not an unprecedented level of dominance: Aston Villa did it in the 1890s, Arsenal in the 1930s, Liverpool twice in the 1970s and 80s, Manchester United three times in the 1990s and 2000s. City fans rightly point out that all of these dominant teams were underpinned by considerable economic clout. But in no previous case was the financial superiority as overwhelming as it is now.” [I’d argue that, actually, adjusted for inflation, Chelsea circa 2004-2007 were more financially overwhelming, but the general point stands.]
“For example, during the Liverpool-dominated 1970s eight other teams broke the British transfer record: Tottenham, Arsenal, Derby County, Everton, West Brom, Nottingham Forest, Manchester City and Wolves.”
“Money was spread around more evenly, nobody had a decisive financial advantage. Contrast with the weekend, when City’s starting XI included nine players who cost £47 million (€56 million) or more – that is, each of these nine was more expensive than the record signing of every English club outside the big six. Is it surprising that nobody can give them a game?
“Last week it was reported that City have leapfrogged apparently much-better-supported teams like Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern to become the world’s top-earning football club. The news was a reminder that there is one thing City are good at making you feel, and that is the helplessness that comes from knowing that you live in a world where the richest will always get their way, and if you don’t like it they will spend £30 million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue you for the next 10 years, as someone once said. In that sense at least, City have captured the spirit of the age.”
Finding the Joy
Can Liverpool fans keep enjoying it, though? I spoke to many, all over the world, for the writing of this book. The consensus seemed to be that the football is great, largely down to Klopp – and that the modern game is fast and exciting – but the wider context is not so pleasant.
Norwegian Jan Ove Knudseth said, “The ongoing war in Ukraine, the sanctions against Abramovich and others, the World Cup to be held in Qatar, Newcastle’s new owners receiving a warm welcome to English football and probably a lot more crazy things I don’t know about makes it a little bit hard to enjoy football to be honest. The obvious corruption, hypocrisy and double-standards on display in football’s governing bodies is disgusting. I quietly enjoy Liverpool FC, and little else about football I guess.”
Andrés da Silveira Stein, half-Uruguayan and half-Brazilian by parentage but born in Mexico City in the late 1970s, finds the new media landscape has actually made it easier to be a Liverpool fan.
“I enjoy it more now than when I was young. When I was young I was doing a lot of other things, and access to English football wasn’t easy. Football is now one of the few things I do outside of trudging – working, bah, you know the drill – and because I understand more of the nuances of football, and I can appreciate more what we are doing and achieving over the field. Also, have you seen how Liverpool is playing? How can I not enjoy this immensely?”
Erin McCloskey, an American in New York married to a Liverpudlian, and whom I’ve known online since the start of TTT, said, “What I most enjoy is Jürgen Klopp! Every time he speaks, I’m proud to have him. He’s so smart. He’s so kind. He’s so cool. I adore him in a football sense, but I love it even more when he speaks about the world and current events. He’s compassionate and thoughtful, and isn’t afraid to offer and explain his opinions.
“The most important thing for me is that I can feel proud of the club. I don’t want a dirty oligarch or some dubious oil money, even if it has been proven to purchase success. I want to like the people associated with the club – owners, managers, players – even if it means not achieving the same levels of success. Obviously I want us to win. I want us to be good. I want us to be great. But not if it means selling our soul. Pride > Success.”
Not all early visits to Anfield go smoothly, for those lucky enough to do so. According to subscriber Snatch, “My older brother took me to Anfield as a birthday present. I hated the experience, it was frightening. My mother was not impressed when she found out.” It was April 1950, and he was seven years old. “Fortunately I was not permanently damaged, although it was not until I was at secondary school that I went as a regular.”
Getting back to 2022, Puvan Selvam travelled from Singapore to Liverpool in late May, just to savour the atmosphere in the city during the final league game and the Champions League final.
“Right before our last Premier League game against Wolves,” he told, me, “when the dream of a quadruple was still on, I had a mad image of how crazy the parade would be if we actually did it. And by then it had been confirmed to take place. So I decided to head to Liverpool, catch the Champions League final at a local pub and be in the city centre during the parade. Booked my tickets, managed to convince work on taking some off days and I was off.
“I was conflicted between watching the Champions League final in the city vs. Anfield itself. I opted for the latter, and ended up watching it right next to the stadium in a beautiful pub called The Church. The atmosphere was electric. Though I had to sit there for almost five hours just to keep my seat and view of the screen. Made a couple of friends, some who had travelled from London or Newcastle. But no one mad enough to travel from Singapore to watch it in a pub at Anfield! Just to be there though to hear the songs sung in full voice, was worth it.
“The night ended depressingly of course, and I was in no mood for a parade. But once I got to the city centre, I remember the sun had come up and fans were already out and about from 2pm. What an atmosphere! It was another long wait in the cold, and though the red flares made it extremely difficult to see much of the players I did manage to catch glimpses of many of my favourite players.
“I’m so grateful that I had the chance to do this and though we didn’t win the big two, and that slightly underwhelmed it, the chance to watch the match and parade at the heart of Liverpool was an experience that has left me wanting more. I’ll be back, and this time I hope it will be a mad title party.”
Long-time TTT contributor Abhimanyu Vinay Rajput (El Indio) did the same, travelling from his native Bangalore. He watched the title-deciding game in a pub with author and TTT editor Chris Rowland, who would be missing his first European final, having previously attended every single one from 1976 to 2019, and wrote a book, From Where I Was Standing, about his experiences at Heysel in 1985. As Abhi put it, “We wandered off past the Shankly Hotel and into the Victoria Cross in Sir Thomas Street, just round the corner from the Cavern Club, where the crowd was gathering as we ordered our first round there. We met an Irish Red who was excited about us winning the league, and had planned to travel to Paris as well.”
I too had been hoping to meet Abhi, Chris and one or two others, but my chronic health issues kept me away. The pair met up again for the Champions League final six days later, after Abhi had spent the intervening time touring Britain.
“We called at a Greek restaurant for some solids ahead of the liquid refreshment that lay ahead, before deciding we would watch the game in the Fly in the Loaf in Hardman Street. We got lucky when a group of lads left, leaving a small table we could stand at and put our drinks on – space was already at a premium, and all the seats were taken, it was standing room only. We were in the Fly in the Loaf three hours before kick-off, and it didn’t feel any different from attending a match at the stadium. Everyone was in high spirits, and the collection of songs were brilliant – the Gini song, a rousing, passionate You’ll Never Walk Alone, the Suárez one (Just Can't Get Enough), Allez Allez Allez and others. We kept our hold of the table by taking turns to go to the toilet – by now it was getting very crowded in there!”
The game ended in disappointment, but like Puvan from Singapore, Abhi wanted more.
“On our way back, there was quite a queue at Central Station to get back to our hotel, but it all seemed orderly. We had another round of drinks at the hotel bar with Chris going with beer and a whisky chaser, but I chose initially not have any before deciding on Gin and Tonic. We spoke about what could have been and tried to discuss Paul’s old articles about Stoicism. That helped me recall a conversation from a movie called Bridge of Spies where the Russian spy recalls a story about an unremarkable man who stood up to the beatings of the local police. But because he never gave up the police gave up on beating him. We hoped that we would be back next season with similar zeal, and a commitment to be in with a shout of the Holy Two: Premier League, and Champions League.”
As frustrating as many aspects of modern football can be – not least the financial doping and sportswashing – there is still so much to treasure about being a Liverpool fan, especially right now. It’s just a shame that the team hasn’t quite hauled in the trophies it deserves, but it’s won a few, as well as plenty of plaudits, and yes, millions of hearts and minds.
Someone who won’t give up is Jürgen Klopp. In 2022, the German told journalist Melissa Reddy: “All of us expect that relentlessness from ourselves. None of us are free of defeats, which means we are really used to it as humankind.
“My idea of life is I don’t expect anything, I don’t take anything for granted – as long as I have a chance, it was always enough for me. And we have the chance obviously to react so let’s give it a try. So we felt already how rubbish it feels when you lose so you have to work to get the other feeling.
“When we sang the song [after the Champions League defeat to Real Madrid in 2018] in my kitchen that we’ll bring the trophy back to Liverpool and then we actually did it, I think it was pretty special. By the way, this morning my phone reminded me of that memory with a picture of Peter Krawietz and another friend of mine holding a vase pretending it was the trophy. That’s when we started creating the song, but it’s a good example.”
The struggle keeps things interesting, but also, there does remain a sense of injustice at how the big trophies go to sportswashed clubs. We need to embrace the struggle, for now at least.
Cheats and bullies are harder to beat, but doing so provides the sweetest victories.
As Viktor Frankl, the famous holocaust survivor turned psychiatrist, philosopher and writer, said:
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”
In May 2022, TTT subscriber Murtaza Khan wrote on the site:
“To climb Mount Everest, you need a Sherpa. A true battle-hardened hero. The knowledge and experience required to build as safe as relatively possible path to the peak. I recall a visit to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, located in the Eastern cradle of the Himalayas, a few years ago. The Institute was set up to commemorate the first successful ascent of Everest by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. Perched on top of a hill the ‘climb’ up there was tiring, for me at least.
“During the visit we met a young woman who had scaled Mount Everest. She was no taller or bigger than my 12-year-old sons yet had scaled the gargantuan rock. Her achievement was punctuated by the Sherpas, who guided her and her group. It was amazing to our boys that ‘a girl climbed a mountain’. Their mum told them with the right mindset and people anything was possible in life. That finding the right ‘sherpa’ could help seed and grow success. Wise words from my better half. They often are.
“When you look at Jürgen Klopp it’s not a giant leap to imagine him in his mountaineering gear. His face weathered, eyes beaming and that spontaneous smile against the Himalayan backdrop. Where he leads you follow because he has inspired and motivated you to do so. There is no compulsion, I feel, with the German. His tradecraft has not been welded together in heavy metal rather human nature.
“I used the term Gesamtkunstwerk on how the German, like a composer of an opera without an ending, is guiding us up Everest again. The journey is different each time and this season is one you cannot conceivably plan for. But we adapted to the challenge. Any transformation of a team or organisation must have culture at its heart. The footballing Gesamtkunstwerk Klopp initiated in 2015 has, with FSG and our people, is reaching its peak again. The German’s work of footballing art will never be the prettiest, but its theme of artistic synergies and dysfunction allows Klopp to somehow create something stunning to those who understand its context, timing, and co-contributors.
“The coaching spine running through the club is as strong as ever. If you rewind a few years back Klopp kept reminding us that Jon Achterberg was fantastic. Today the statement is read as fact. Even Cláudio Taffarel’s arrival did not raise my eyebrow as it could have once done. Peter Krawietz or Pep Lijnders are the bedrock of Klopp. Krawietz is Klopp’s companion whilst Lijnders is a next generation coach. Each contributing to Klopp’s Gesamtkunstwerk with the young Dutch coach’s leadership and vision more and more influential from the outside.
“As Klopp leads us up familiar terrain the evolution of Liverpool is not some grand secret. The Neu Schuhraum is the force of inspiration for the creativity we are incorporating in the team. Their work transformative. It’s a higher satisfaction and almost cathartic release viewing his own seven-year work. Now Klopp is staying he will be immortalised at Anfield for generations to come as a seminal piece in Footballing Gesamtkunstwerk. A man who climbs the tallest of mountains with a smile and determination on his face.”
* * *
Whether it’s climbing Everest or shooting for the moon (not to be confused with a Kepa Arrizabalaga penalty), Liverpool can only keep trying; keep up the struggle. As fans, we need to enjoy the ride; especially as there aren’t really any other managers in world football who can do all the things Jürgen Klopp can do, including how his in-check ego allows all kinds of collaborations. It can’t last forever, this delicious chemistry. The club will likely be in a position of real strength when he finally leaves, but some of his qualities will be irreplaceable.
The football is often on a totally different level, and we have to embrace that, and try to ignore the laughter from rivals about slipping up, finishing 2nd, failing to land the quadruple, and so on. We have to keep choosing to go to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
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