To me, the most overlooked factor in a football team is this: the interconnected mental software, wherein shared time together – especially intense, testing and challenging time (on and off the field/training pitch) – by the team/squad, allied to learned patterns, approaches, directives and the overall ethos from the coaching staff coalesce into one united whole.
It’s something I’ve covered, with different examples, across my recent trilogy of Liverpool books, which concludes with the brand new This Red Planet: How Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool FC Enthralled and Conquered The World. (Available in very few good retailers.)
And right now, Liverpool – already ranked the best team in the world going into the new season – have more of this than anyone. You can argue about the merits of the three major ranking systems whose combined output ranks the Reds at #1, but I think objectively, the interconnectedness of the team is true.
(NB: I wrote some of this piece before the Community Shield final, drafting much of it during the hysteria at a couple of preseason defeats.)
Connective Mental Software
At all times the eleven players on the pitch will be distinct individuals who have to think for themselves, and rely on their own skills with a series of split-second decisions. But their collective understanding is boosted by time together, testing experiences and elite coaching. In essence, they all need to be running the same software, even if each person will have a bespoke understanding and a unique skillset.
Maybe it’s like having Apple, Android, Windows, MacOS, Linux, and various other devices, unable to be linked up on the same wireless or via Bluetooth or a 5G network. They could be top-of-the-line models, but if none accepts files, messages or emails from the other, then coordination would be a nightmare. The aim is to be on the same wavelength, and Liverpool have this in spades.
Obviously there exists a sweet spot for this collective knowledge, just as there does for each individual player, where the huge benefits of gained experience eventually gives way to physical decline. No team remains together indefinitely; players melt (at different speeds), and new ones are required.
I refer to a squad’s connective health as the egosystem, which also takes into account the ‘dickhead’ situation (which is a footballer who is lazy, tardy, selfish, detached, etc., and separate to just being a bit ‘unlikeable’ or abrasive on the pitch), as to how they might ruin the collective focus and interpersonal bonding.
It’s the way a squad harmonises, on and off the pitch, and egos are suppressed for the betterment of the team; as well as the general understanding and mutual respect. You don’t want to clones or robots, but the team has to know how and when to think in unison or to improvise and go it alone (such as, a striker in on goal needs to be selfish and block out worse options, whereas a striker 35 yards from goal, and out near the touchline, is stupidly selfish if he ignores a clear pass or cross to someone better placed, and tries to shoot).
Gradual evolution is so much better than revolution, as the software needs to be slowly uploaded via intense training, game-time under pressure, and even things like travelling together, rooming together, and general bonding routines.
Football is not plug-and-play.
Yes, you can plug someone into the team, but at first they will not be on the same wavelength. Elite players tend to be better at reading others, and they find space or make certain kinds of runs so that new teammates are able to feed them the ball. Even then, others have to learn to read what they want.
What Jürgen Klopp tends to do is start the season with his most settled side, depending on who is fit and sharp. New players are rarely thrust into the XI from game one.
From Opta’s Michael Reid ahead of the Community Shield:
“This starting XI has an average age of 29 years, 315 days – the oldest starting XI named for #LFC since September 1953 against Newcastle (30y 39d).”
Liverpool fielding a team with an average age touching 30 would be very alarming, as an average of 30 is older than any team to win the title in the Premier League era (and maybe before?), but there were other factors involved: the only fit goalkeeper is nearly 36, and three starters in their 30s are under heavy pressure from much younger players: Joël Matip (31) from Ibrahima Konaté (23), Roberto Firmino (31) from Darwin Núñez (23), and Jordan Henderson (32) from Naby Keïta (27), or even Harvey Elliott and Fabio Carvalho (both 19).
Put Alisson back in goal and add two or three of those players (as well as the option of the criminally underrated Diogo Jota, 25, and with a new contract), and suddenly the team is at a “peak” age, rather than “melt-zone”.
The team could easily average around 27, instead of 30.
(While players have always declined at different rates, it could be that, in 2022, we can now add an extra year to the expected decline of players in general, if they look after themselves – albeit explosiveness is hard to maintain.)
One of the reasons why losing Sadio Mané was not such a big blow, to my eyes, was that one of the 30-somethings probably had to go (just as with Gini Wijnaldum a year earlier). Mané was still at his peak, but you can’t keep six or seven players in the team at the age of 32 and 33; before then, something has to give. Was Mané the most vital older player for the Reds? I’d argue no.
Obviously Darwin Núñez will not be on the same wavelength as all the other players, in the way that Mané was. But initially, Núñez is being used as a sub, while he adapts. He also obviously offers a bit more pace than the 30-something version of Mané, and is better in the air.
(As I’ve been noting all summer, Mané is a superb header of the ball, but at 5’9”, didn’t win many aerial duels. Just by being 6’2” and still able to work on his jump and timing, Núñez is already proving an aerial threat beyond getting on the end of an inch-perfect cross when in space, which is often what Mané needed to power home a header.)
The precocious Carvalho will also be used as a sub initially, albeit given his age he may have to wait longer to break into the XI. The more he trains with this team, the more integrated he will get.
But for now, it’s a case of starting the season like a well-oiled machine, which is what the Reds did in 2019/20 when going on the best ever start to a season in English football history, at a time when fans moaned about a lack of transfer activity.
For things like team-shape, pre-planned passing patterns, pressing as a pack, and so on, the benefits of time spent together are clear. You can maybe throw one maverick into the system (Luis Díaz, mid-season), and let him learn on the job; but he was playing with 10 others ultra-familiar with their own roles, and his role was similar to what he played with Porto. (In contrast, had he been thrown in a year earlier, in January 2021, it would have been much harder, with the team missing so many key players, in a campaign where nine new players made their league debut for the Reds.)
Plus, Díaz was going into the more improvisational part of the team: up front; which contrasts heavily with the role of the centre-back, which ideally requires the most combined practice and experience (to marshal a back four in unison, work with the keeper and the defensive midfielder), given that mistakes are costlier at the back than up front. You can’t improvise defending, and as an individual decide to defend 10 yards deeper than everyone else, or, on your own steam, sprint forward to close down the opposition keeper (unless you’re Andy Robertson and it’s part of the plan).
A forward line can attack in all manner of odd and unsymmetrical shapes, but a defence needs to be a line of four on many occasions during each match.
Of course, Virgil van Dijk arrived midseason (January 2018), and made an immediate impact in terms of being a better player than those he replaced, but he conceded penalties, and the team conceded a few twos, threes and even a four with him in the side. His best form arrived the next season.
In recent seasons, Liverpool have had trouble (or it’s taken time) bedding-in Ozan Kabak, Ben Davies and Ibrahima Konaté, with the latter taking a good eight months to suddenly look undroppable, even if Matip has started this season with the shirt.
(It also took Fabinho, a defensive-minded player, half a season to adapt; the same for Andy Robertson, and it took Kostas Tsimikas 12 months. Trent Alexander-Arnold adapted to life in the team very gradually, as most teenagers do.)
As such, I feel that people are overlooking the following:
Alisson, Robertson, van Dijk, Matip, Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho, Thiago and Keïta, with the interchangeable status of Konaté, Gomez and Henderson, and perhaps less so (but increasingly making a case last season), Tsimikas.
I’d argue that that is the most settled “back eight” in English football, with even the stand-ins (Konaté, Gomez, Henderson and James Milner) settled.
Aside from Thiago (starting his third season at the club), everyone else in the aforementioned eight are starting at least their fifth.
With the possible exception of Henderson (and utility man Milner), all are at, or not yet at, their peak (while Gomez looks fully fit again after a slow start to last season due to the horrific injury the season before).
For stability, the back eight is key. The back eight is the bedrock. You can still thrive while making changes to this area of the team, but it seems to be where stability is most vital.
Up front, pressing and passing patterns can be improved with training – understanding matters here, too – but you can also tell someone to go out and enjoy themselves, cause havoc and work at the synchronicity over time. You can’t do that with a central defender or defensive midfielder (and even the attacking full-backs still need to know their back-four work).
Like Díaz, Diogo Jota slotted in seamlessly, albeit even then he wasn’t given a lot of game-time initially (starting just four of the first nine games, with his first start in the third match).
But as noted, Fabinho and Andy Robertson took a lot longer. And while he arrived before the team had fully taken shape, Joël Matip took a couple of seasons to fully adapt to English football and the team Klopp was building.
Though largely written off, Roberto Firmino could almost be the glue up front, to hold together a relatively new attack – if you want someone who doesn’t need to be told by the manager what to do. He has looked impressive in preseason, but he is not a goal-machine and never will be. He makes the room, and the chances, for others. (And it could be that he’s retooled as a no.10, as was his role at times in Germany.)
Obviously Mo Salah remains too, but the others – Darwin Núñez, Jota, Díaz and Fabio Carvalho – are all relatively new. Harvey Elliott is probably settled enough now, having arrived in 2019, and likely to improve with every passing season.
This is also, crucially, where the average age can be brought down, especially after Sadio Mané moved on.
Núñez, Jota and Díaz are all 23-25, while Carvalho and Elliott are 19. (Curtis Jones, meanwhile, is just 21. He’s an enigma: tons of talent, but I still don’t quite know where he fits in, or if anyone knows when he’s going to release the ball. At worst, he’s still a very handy option – albeit now out for a month.)
This, and with Keïta likely to usurp Henderson as a regular if he stays fit, and Konaté in with a chance of once again usurping the better-than-ever Joël Matip, an older team suddenly becomes fresh and full of running again.
Losing Mané was a blow, but teams clearly have to lower their average age once it starts to head towards 30. You can have players who are 32, not teams who are 32. I’m not aware of any major European sides over the years with an average age beyond 30. Not only would the team likely lack pace and fresh legs, it would mean a big sudden rebuild is unavoidable.
Núñez and Díaz may have been brought in to go more quickly into the side, with Konaté presumably acquired as a slow burner, aged 22 at the time (still young for the position) and new to the league. Yet Konaté looked absolutely sensational last season and shone in his first Champions League final.
If you say that Salah (30) is still an elite goalscorer/creator, Thiago (31) is an elite playmaker, Fabinho (nearing 29) a top-class defensive midfielder, Alisson a world-class keeper (about to turn 30) and Van Dijk (31) still the best centre-back in the world*, then you need to find ways to bring a more youthful verve to gel with that exceptional quality and experience.
(* As I analyse in This Red Planet, van Dijk started last season slowly after almost a year out, and only half a preseason in 2021, but then hit his best-ever individual numbers from about game 15 onwards. Clever players like van Dijk and Thiago can go on longer than the average player in their position, and obviously Salah’s fitness levels are freakishly good.)
When fit, Keïta is an exceptional presser in midfield, and both Núñez and Díaz can add that up front.
The option for five subs will obviously provide all teams with different ways to shape a game, and Liverpool have enough depth and variety to find ways to win the game, if required, via the bench. Obviously other teams also have this new benefit, and it could help those who just want to get 11 men behind the ball and chase around.
In the second half of this article I’ll look at all Liverpool’s rivals (and a few other clubs), and while I see possible improvements at each, they are all making minor, and in some cases major readjustments to the bedrock of their team.