It’s a quite astonishing achievement. As the Premier League season enters its final weekend, Liverpool are not only the Premier League Champions, but current holders of the Fifa Club World Cup, Uefa Champions League and Uefa Super Cup. All-conquering is an over-used term, but this is a team who will go down in history, having playing the most ambitious and entertaining football. Can they actually get any better?
“Honestly, I can’t see how,” enthuses their legendary former striker Michael Owen. “If you’re Jurgen Klopp, you’re always going to want to improve, but you’re getting close to perfection with this team already.”
Much has been spoken about the “30 years of hurt” that Liverpool fans have endured since their last English league title. It’s a slight red herring for Owen. It’s not as if there haven’t been famous Champions League wins in the meantime. In fact, it was Owen’s 24 goals in the 2000-01 campaign which propelled Liverpool to the League Cup, FA Cup and Uefa Cup in a single season. But he will admit that the elusive Premier League title was beyond them.
“The 2000-01 season was so special,” he remembers. “But I think in the back of our minds we were always chasing the great teams of that era; Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea. So it was great winning so much that year but we finished third, well behind the front runners.”
We’re talking about that season because it feels there are some similarities with the current team in terms of a relentless winning mentality. Owen says they didn’t feel invincible because they clearly weren’t the best team of the time — strange as it seems now, they beat Arsenal in the FA Cup Final as underdogs (with two Owen goals in the last 10 minutes overcoming a 1-0 deficit).
“But yes, it’s such an amazing feeling when you’ve got confidence in yourself and your teammates,” he says. “And you can see that in Liverpool now. The way they’ve churned out victories and found different ways to win has been ultra impressive.
“And it’s not just this season. Last season was quite sensational. That title chase with Manchester City — they got 97 points and finished second. That was the best runners up performance in the history of football. So you wouldn’t say they’ve hit a peak now because they were equally as good last season — perhaps a bit better.”
But Owen admits he felt keenly the expectation of winning the league at Liverpool — even though when he came into the team in 1997 the side were coming out of a slew of average finishing positions. “It’s been such a long time now that anyone who has ever played at the club will be pleased with what they’ve achieved this season,” he says. And, perhaps, just a little jealous too; after all, slotting peak Michael Owen into this current side would be quite the prospect.
“There wouldn’t be a player anywhere who’d say they wouldn’t like to play for Klopp,” smiles Owen. “No matter what position you play, he’d get the best out of you — and that’s one of his most impressive traits.
“Just look at that team now. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson are really important players who have come from nowhere. Previously steady Premier League players have become world class; the great players have got even greater. He’s a manager who improves players, teams and a club as a whole.”
Which brings us back to how much more improvement there might be in this Liverpool team. Owen — as a famous Liverpool academy graduate himself — has watched with interest this season as players such as Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott and Neco Williams have begun to make first team squads and appearances. He thinks they will perform an important function next season, not necessarily in terms of starting every week, but as squad players who can fulfil roles without costing Liverpool a fortune.
“I can’t imagine Liverpool making a big splash in the transfer market, not least because in terms of their starting 11 I genuinely can’t see who would realistically improve them without having to spend tens and tens of millions,” he says.
“When they needed to do their business, they went and got the best centre back and goalkeeper available — and you’d now argue Van Dijk and Alisson are the best in the world in their positions. They used the advantage of being a successful team to bolster the squad; Shaqiri and Minamino came with real value because those players just wanted to be a part of what was happening at Liverpool.”
KEEP IT UP
So as the title celebrations begin to die down, Owen’s not at all concerned that Klopp will struggle to energise this squad for more glory next season. They are winners, he thinks, and with that comes a mentality that will make them desperate to retain their trophies.
That’s certainly how Owen approached his own career; in his intriguing recent autobiography Reboot, he admitted a “total inability to rest on my laurels … if I scored I was only thinking of the next goal”.
“Most champion players and teams think that way,” he says now. “Liverpool players will now not want anyone else to get their hands on a Premier League trophy they will see as theirs. For me, it’s just a question of how long they can maintain the performance level. If they can do so for another three or four years, they’re going to win a lot more trophies.
“But then, football goes in cycles — it’s just that at the moment it’s Liverpool’s turn to be top dogs.”
And if that sounds like a cautionary tale of enjoying the moment, it’s born from hard experience. Owen was also at Manchester United at the back end of his and Alex Ferguson’s careers. He went to Newcastle United for a club record fee as the Magpies chased a fourth top five position in five seasons; he left with the club relegated.
In Reboot, he admits the move to Newcastle was the one he regretted the most.
“I wanted to do the book for the simple reason that there’s been a lot of, well, opinions on my career and the moves I made. At the time, I couldn’t say what I wanted or how I felt. So it’s been therapeutic really to be so open and honest. I really enjoyed the process.”
LOVE FOR DUBAI
He also got to set the record straight about his side-interest during his playing days: horse-racing. Brown Panther, a horse Owen bred for Manor House Stables (which he co-owns), won the 2015 Dubai World Cup. Indeed, his relationship with Dubai has been long and fruitful as a brand ambassador for First Group. He says he must have visited “50 or 60 times” with his family.
“The facilities, the service, the weather, the hotels, the food, the safety … there’s so much to love,” he says. Indeed, it was after a trip to Dubai in 2014 that Owen realised he needed to stop being Michael Owen the ex-footballer and embark “on the path to a new Michael — a normal person.”
As his book concedes, Michael Owen today is a “completely different person — in the best possible way”. But looking back one last time, what advice would he give the current Liverpool squad as they prepare for the last game of a bizarre, brilliant season?
“Well, I’d say enjoy the moment … even though my career taught me that’s virtually impossible”.