MADRID – As the sun beat down on the Wanda Metropolitano on Friday, Jurgen Klopp gathered his players in the shade. It’s nine years now since he won a major trophy, a period dominated by near misses, but a glance at his squad shows how much he has improved Liverpool. There is depth, and there is quality, and in the heat of the Spanish afternoon, it was possible to believe Virgil van Dijk’s claim earlier his month that Liverpool stands on the brink of a golden age.
Roberto Firmino is fit after his groin injury and should play in Saturday's Champions League final vs. Tottenham, his first start since the 2-0 win at Cardiff on April 23. With Naby Keita out injured, that means that the only real selection decision is on the left of the midfield three, where Georgino Wijnaldum will probably get the nod over James Milner.
It’s easy to forget now that there was a serious danger that last season's Champions League would prove to be a pinnacle for Liverpool. It was possible that the emotional fallout from defeat in Kiev would drain the club as past near misses had–notably finishing second in the league under Rafa Benitez 2009 and Brendan Rodgers in 2014. But Liverpool has done what every side promises to in such circumstances and has learned, has improved.
There were three obvious weaknesses about Liverpool last season. Firstly, and most obviously, there was the goalkeeping situation. Klopp vacillated between Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius, picked the latter for the Champions League final and saw him make two dismal errors that ultimately were the difference between Liverpool and Real Madrid. That has been resolved with the signing of Alisson.
It also struggled, towards the end of the season, with a shortfall in midfield. The first-choice trio of Jordan Henderson, Wijnaldum and Milner was fine, but there was very little backup, with the result being that Trent Alexander-Arnold had to fill in, at times, in the midfield. The addition of Keita and Fabinho has made a huge difference, not merely in terms of adding depth, but also in liberating Henderson. With Fabinho operating as the anchor, Henderson has been released on the right to play more as he did in his early days at Sunderland as more of a box-to-box player than a pivot, a role in which he never seemed entirely comfortable.
And then there’s been the defense, which had conceded 38 goals in 38 league games last season and this leaked just 22. In part that’s to do with last January's arrival of van Dijk, who has elevated the whole side and the back four in particular, but it’s also to do with a subtle shift of approach. Although the two first-choice fullbacks, Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, have scored or assisted 30 goals in the league this season, they have been the most obvious sign of a restraint about Liverpool this season.
There have been games when the handbrake has come off, but by and large Liverpool has played slightly within itself this season, conserving energy and controlling games rather than making them the hell-for-leather encounters that so often characterized its football last season.
The constant at the top, Klopp, meanwhile, has lost in each of his last six finals, but that is not a detail that seems to bother him.
“My career so far was not unlucky,” he said Friday. “Since 2012–apart from 2017–I've been in a final every season. I'm probably the world record holder in winning semifinals. If I wrote a book about it, nobody would buy it. If I see myself as a 'loser' then that would be a problem. But I don't see myself like that. Whether I am a winner, that is for the outside world. We don't see it like that."
His mood in Madrid was ostentatiously relaxed–“It's a wonderful club. We fell in love with each other,” he said–as he insisted the club has learned from the disappointment of Kiev. "We're a year older. Players like Trent have 50 more games in their legs. The boys performed in the final [last year]. It was not like we didn't have many chances. Last year we surprised ourselves a little that we were in the final. We were not as consistent as we are now.”
Robertson, who played in the defeat in Kiev last season, equally stressed that it was a platform for development rather than a memory that would weigh the club down.
"We made quite a few signings in the summer and quite a few people left,” he said. “A lot of us played in Kiev last season who can use that experience and deal with the pressure. We can't focus on Kiev. If we did, we'd struggle all the time."
Liverpool is certainly not doing that.