This week Liverpool clinched their first first division championship in thirty years. This brought Liverpool’s trophy case to 49 major competitive trophies (depending on your feelings towards the 1985-86 Football League Super Cup) and provided an interesting story of perseverance and the breaking of a self imposed curse. Whilst the cries of “The Reds win their first championship in 30 years” did not mean a return to the classic form of the team that dominated the National League in the 1970s, it did mean that the club which ran English football for the better part of the 1970s and 1980s had restored some of its luster.
The question for successive managers and administrators was how to actually wake the sleeping giant of Liverpool? Sure, trophies came and went, but Liverpool sat on the sidelines watching Manchester United surpass their period of dominance, and then saw Arsenal zoom ahead, followed quickstep by, of all clubs, Chelsea. Even lowly Manchester City lapped them (albeit with some help), something was needed and needed quick.
Liverpool found their answer first in the man, Jurgen Klopp, one of the many managers in Germany who had taken to this new frantic idea from the continent of controlled chaos that is the high press. Implementing a more radical style of high line pressing and rapid attempts to win back lost balls to turn them into positive points. Klopp had witnessed the rise of RB Leipzig and also watched the primordial forms of Ralfball as Ralf Rangnick led squads in Hoffenheim and Schalke, and had brought a similar style into Dortmund once he took the reins there. Once firmly entrenched at Liverpool, Klopp knew he could find important players who had played with the same pace and intensity that he wanted to install in his “heavy metal football” at Liverpool. Importantly, he knew just the place to gauge...Red Bull.
Now we enter the first, and one of the most important, players to join with some connection to Red Bull...Roberto Firmino.
Seems like a bit of a curveball doesn’t it? If he never played for them, where is the connection to Red Bull? He was the final target scouted and signed by Ralf Rangnick at Hoffenheim. Firmino would officially join the club after the formal departure of Rangnick, but the talent and skill that the Brazilian would later bring to the fore once joining Liverpool were at the core of why Hoffenheim thought it prudent to bring him across the Atlantic. Firmino spent five years maturing as a forward and netted 49 times for Hoffenheim, including a 22-goal campaign in 2013-14 that put him on Brendan Rodgers radar. Firmino would move to Liverpool for the 2015-16 season as, ironically, one of the final signings of the Rodgers era at the club. Once Klopp took over, Firmino began to blossom further and entrenched himself as the team’s primary forward and tip of the spear for running down and forcing mistakes from defenders. It has helped Firmino be constantly towards the top of Liverpool assist charts each season.
Next we come to a defender who spent most of his career playing under not only the same Ralf Rangnick, but also former Salzburg manager Huub Stevens (who would precede Julian Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim as well), and finally former Rangnick player Jens Keller. That player being centerback Joel Matip, who, between injury stints, has quietly emerged as a solid option next to all-star Virgil van Dijk.
Now that we’ve pushed some of the trivia bits out of the way, we reach the real meat and potatoes of this. For you see, Liverpool have developed a sort of relationship with Red Bull over the past few seasons. Both sides share a similar philosophy in their football, and the players on either side fit well. We saw it during this Champion’s League campaign, where Salzburg under Jesse Marsch traded body blows with the reigning and defending champions of Europe on their own turf at Anfield. Jurgen Klopp clearly saw something he liked from these fixtures and went and poached Japanese international Takumi Minamino during the 2019-20 winter transfer window.
Minamino had long been a staple of the Salzburg attack, and had been crucial in leading the success that Salzburg saw early on in the 2019-20 season. Currently in a holding pattern and apprentice role behind the world-class front three that Liverpool currently boast, Takumi has been an impact sub off the bench and vital to maintaining the Liverpool attack when called upon for spot starts in cup competition. While he’s yet to net for Liverpool this year, he’s clearly being built up for bigger and better things in the future.
Naby Keita is the next Red Bull alum to see the squad for Liverpool, who were so eager to snap him up they signed him to a pre-contract and let him play out an entire season for Leipzig before joining Klopp and the team for the 2018-19 season. Keita has struggled to break into the Liverpool squad at times, having had numerous injury issues and fitness problems since coming over, which seemed partially related to his service for Guinea. Keita isn’t helped by a backlog of sterling talent that makes up the midfield of Liverpool football club and is competing with the captain Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, Georginio Wijnaldum, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and vice-captain James Milner. On his day, however, he’s one of the top central midfielders in Europe and it is his shadow that current Leipzig players such as Tyler Adams currently walk in. Keita served in the Red Bull organization from Salzburg to Leipzig being a prime example of the pipeline system that has long been advocated as a measure of success. Joining from an anonymous Ligue 2 team from France, Keita has now earned himself both a UCL winners medal, and a Premier League winners medal. Yet, he isn’t Red Bull’s finest success story because that honor falls to his teammate.
Sadio Mane is possibly one of the best to ever have worn a Red Bull shirt. Of the players who have come through the system from their inception and moved on, once again all due respect to Joshua Kimmich or Timo Werner, but Sadio has been the best. The lofty heights of Thierry Henry is really all that is left for Mane to eclipse before he can say, almost without a doubt, he’s the best to have ever done it in terms of players passing through the Red Bull organizations. Since departing Salzburg, Sadio Mane has played in two major European finals, won the Club World Cup, won the African Footballer of the Year award, and finished runner up in the 2019 African Cup of Nations. Mane joined a Liverpool side from Southampton, where he had moved after a successful tenure at Salzburg, and stimulated Jurgen Klopp’s attack almost immediately.
Mane netted thirteen times for Liverpool, playing from the right wing position, before a knee injury shut him down for the end of that season. Since then he’s been a force of nature down the left flanks for Liverpool and has scored at an absolutely blistering pace. At the time of this writing, Mane sits 28th on the all time scoring ledger for Liverpool, equal to the pace of Roberto Firmino who joined the club an entire year prior to Mane’s arrival. Since his move to the left wing, which occurred after Philippe Coutinho left the club, Mane has filled and then exceeded the legacy of the Brazilian. He is the man of the hour for Liverpool right now, and completely irreplaceable on that left wing. While popular praise will go to Mohammad Salah, there are few players better than Sadio Mane, the man who makes the titans of Merseyside run.