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Doing nothing this summer and it will make sustaining success harder

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Yesterday, Dan Morgan wrote an interesting piece on the ESPN/Netflix documentary The Last Dance, which chronicled the life and career of Michael Jordan, with a particular focus on the team’s final season together.

(Here is where I pause to say that while the series was dubbed a “documentary”, it’s better to think of it as MJ’s memoir. It is his perspective more so than a factual account of the player, his team, and the NBA at that time. There is truth, sure, but it’s his truth, which is different from fact. And that’s OK because it was wildly entertaining.)



Dan made an excellent case for how Liverpool -- Jurgen Klopp and Michael Edwards -- can take an example from the ultimate dissolution of Jordan’s final championship team. That Liverpool, unlike the Bulls, should do whatever they can to keep the band together.



In the final episode of the Last Dance, Jordan said, flatly, that he wanted to return for another year to defend the Bulls title, that he thought he could convince coach Phil Jackson and running mate Scottie Pippen to return for an extra year, and that the Bulls had enough left in the tank to compete four a fourth straight title, what would have been their seventh overall. More than that, he said it was their right, as champions, to defend their crown, and that robbing them of that was tantamount to a sporting crime.



There were crucial two things missing from the Last Dance postscript. After the disintegration of that title team, Chicago entered into an apocalyptic rebuild that it has still yet to recover from. Barring a brief flirtation with success in the late 2000s, the team has stunk. This, ordinarily, is used to underline just what a horrific decision it was for the Bulls to break up that final championship team. But what that argument often forgets (either cynically or just because) is how awful each and every member of the team, barring Jordan, who was forced into retirement, was in their new spot. That team was cooked. It needed a rebuild. Every part of it was tired -- physically and mentally.

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Of course, the ideal scenario for all involved would have been to rebuild around Jordan, who had just shown he could still summon his Superman-like peak, albeit with less soaring and a whole lot more panting. But would that team have been able to roll it back with the rest of core the next year? Nope. Scottie Pippen wasn’t coming back; Dennis Rodman was well and truly off the rails. So what we’re really discussing is not whether that team could or should have returned, it’s whether the Bulls returned Michael Jordan with a brand-new core in the hopes of microwaving an extra title. And as the earlier points of the series pointed out, microwaving a title isn’t easy: A team has to take its lump; it must learn to become a champion.

Would you still bet on the gunning-for-four-peat team without Pippen or Rodman or perhaps Toni Kuko? or Luc Longley? Sure. That team still has Michael bleeping Jordan. But it was far, far, far from a sure thing. Not to mention Phil Jackson was not coming back as coach. And not to mention that with Scottie and Jackson leaving it was unlikely that Michael would want to come back under any circumstances anyway.

Some cycles end at the right time. Would it have been great for Jordan to be able to compete for another title? Yes. Was it likely he would win? Not really. Jordan’s anger at being denied a seventh is an indication of why he was so successful at clinching the first six in the first place. He was a competitionaholic, someone who was homicidally competitive. That guy who looked like that who couldn’t play ended my run? Of course he was pissed -- HE WAS MICHAEL BLEEPING JORDAN.

That crossroads moment will come for Liverpool, too. This great, great team will need to evolve. That scenario might even present itself this very summer.

Now, transfers are hard. To discuss sustaining and maintaining you must acknowledge that most transfers do not hit. What Klopp and Edwards have pulled off with this Liverpool core is nothing short of a miracle. They have built an all-singing, all-conquering, historic juggernaut that has blitzed its way through the Premier League (twice!) and has seen them crowned champions of Europe. And they’ve done it with zero misses in the transfer market. Not one. There’s not a single dud amongst those signed to be front-line, top-tier starters (you can quibble with the likes of Loris Karius et al. but he was not signed to be Liverpool’s goalkeeper for ten-plus years).

Remember: transfers are never as simple as they seem. This is not Football Manager or FIFA or whatever.

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Liverpool do not operate with a bloated squad. When they make a deal for a player, it is because they are allowing another player to leave. When you make such a swap, you always know what you’re giving up; you can never be sure what you’re getting.

A deal involves change, the effects of which can never be predicted. Each team, each player is part of a crucial link, personal and professional: the goofball who makes training and traveling fun; the pros pro who sets the rhythm and tempo of practice; the aging player who spends an extra hour or two at the training ground, showing the young pups what it takes to prepare to play at this level; the young players who excite the aging player, who makes him feel like a part of the group again; the secondary stars whose games rise and fall on the backs of the senior star; the player who might not add much to the stat sheet, but whose movement and discipline opens up space for the creative forces to thrive. All of that gets chucked into a pot and out burps some form of “team chemistry”. When you have it, it is intoxicating and addictive. As an executive or coach or manager, you want to do whatever you can to hold on to it.

But standing pat isn’t the only way. It’s often the wrong way. Players grow, others fall. Egos inflate. Some (rarely) deflate. Young players want more minutes. Guys start taking extra glances at the aging pro who is starting to creak a little too much, making their life all the more difficult.

The lesson to learn from Chicago’s dynastic run and that team is not that they should have run the thing back, but rather that the team should have done a better job of preparing for the post-Rodman/Pippen years.

We’ve seen similar things in football in recent seasons. Real Madrid ran their core a year too long. Barcelona have been guilty of the same thing. Everything at Arsenal got old and tired around Arséne Wenger (you have to remind people these days what a Klopp-like revolutionary he was when he arrived in the Premier League). Alex Ferguson and *shudders* Manchester United’s were the masters of the retooling before a rebuild was required. He tweaked his squad when it was at the top. He would amass a three-year plan: from where we are now, I want the squad to have this profile and to play that style of football. And from there he would slowly evolve the thing, often hoovering up a bunch of honours in the interweaving years. Gradually, the personnel or system would change, though the philosophy underpinning everything would stay the same. The key was that it would be incremental, a prospect worked into the mix here, a veteran with fewer minutes there.

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Ferguson was ruthless. He always seemed to get rid of players a year or two before they hit the wall. Even at the very end of his tenure that streak was there. Remember how his retirement announcement doubled as an order for the club to dump Wayne Rooney in order to move into a new era? It’s kind of bonkers when you think about it. But that’s what he did with all that power and goodwill he accrued over the years. United didn’t listen. They signed Rooney to a new deal. He, along with a bunch of the squad, fossilized almost overnight. The rot set in, and the club still has not recovered (ha).

Klopp only have to look to their nearest title rivals, Man City. This season was one too far for the team's core. They ran out of steam. Vincent Kompany had left, but the likes of David Silva, Sergio Aguero, and company still had to muster the energy to go again, right after a knockdown drag-out fight that took every ounce of their excellence to squeeze out another title. They entered this season wheezing, and have often been caught a tick below their typically bonkers standards. A rebuild is coming, but it's one that should have properly initiated last season, if not the year before.

Liverpool's first league title should be a start of Klopp-Liverpool dominance, at least for the next three or so years (such a timeframe is now considered “long-term” in football). It’s right there before them. But expecting this group as currently constructed to be the ones to carry that through is fanciful. All of modern football and sporting history tells us that’s not the case. The first thing that springs to mind when you think of the New England Patriots teams, the team that has held a 20-year stranglehold over the NFL? Ruthlessness. They got rid of fan favourites when you least expected it because Bill Belichick knew it would help the team in the long run.

It’s not like Klopp has to throw Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mané or one of the heavy-hitters to the wolves this summer. That would be daft. But it’s worth working to a three-year plan, to remove some of the peripheral players now in the hopes that fresh players could become the heavy-hitters of tomorrow.

What does Klopp want his side to look like in 2023/24? Is it 4-2-3-1 with Kai Havertz in the hole and Timo Werner ahead of him? In three years Mané will be 31. Expecting him to still be at his apex at that point is an ask.

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Transfers are an iffy thing to discuss in this current climate. Nobody knows what the long-term impacts of the COVID pandemic will be on the football business. Not completing transfers right now is as much due to circumstances as a choice. But Liverpool could initiate talks with clubs they've worked with before on some deferred deals, as they did with Naby Keita and RB Leipzig. Take Werner, for instance. £55 million (his release clause) seems a bargain now. But in a collapsing economy, it might still be out of Liverpool's reach. His release clause drops in 2021, so logic dictates that it would make sense to wait until then. The creative approach, though, would be to split the difference on the two release clauses, agree to a deal in principle, and allow the two sides to trigger the deal when each has clarity on what their financial situations will look like heading into next season -- when the season is held, how their domestic calendars look, what their domestic and international broadcast partners will want in the way of compensation (if any), what impact no fans at matches has on revenue, what Uefa will do with the Champions League.

That's an approach Liverpool could adopt with a number of clubs, particularly those who are looking to gain some quick capital.

The best of the best have always evolved when they’re at the top rather than wait for the chasing pack to catch-up. It’s how they sustain their success. How they stave off complacency. How they move from being an all-time great side into a dynastic one. Never forget: there were two iterations of that Bulls team. There was the first three-peat, a pause, an evolution, and then the second one. The lesson here is not what happened at the very end, but what happened slap-bang in the middle.


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