John Achterburg, the Liverpool goalkeeping coach, was sitting in the shadow of the Champions League trophy when suddenly there was a booming interruption.
‘Ha! What is this?’. The voice was unmistakable.
Jurgen Klopp, smiling broadly, was walking up the stairs to his office in Melwood when he spotted Achterberg and this correspondent in conversation. Klopp could not resist the chance to pull Achterberg’s leg but he had also worked things out.
Sunday marked the second anniversary of Liverpool completing a £64.6million deal for Alisson
‘This is a story about Alisson Becker, isn’t it?’ Klopp said.
He did not need to wait around for an answer. Sunday marked the second anniversary of Liverpool completing the £64.6million signing of Brazil’s No 1 from Roma and – on this day of all days – the impact of that transfer should not be underestimated.
Alisson is one of the quiet men in Liverpool’s dressing room, far removed from the old stereotype of all goalkeepers being eccentric. But, without him, it is doubtful Liverpool would be taking possession of the Premier League trophy.
Chelsea, Wednesday night’s visitors to Anfield, wanted to sign Alisson in the summer of 2018 when they were selling Thibaut Courtois to Real Madrid.
When that deal dragged on – and Roma dropped their initial asking price down from £90m – Liverpool moved swiftly. It is one of the best decisions they made.
Alisson is set to be in the nets for Wednesday’s tie with Chelsea, who tried to sign him in 2018
Achterberg had been tracking Alisson since 2013. He had been alerted to his promise by Alexander Doni, a former Liverpool goalkeeper who was second choice under Kenny Dalglish, and who had returned to Brazil.
The message about Alisson, even then, was clear: he could be top class.
‘The problem was he had no EU passport,’ says Achterberg, who has been part of Liverpool’s backroom staff since 2009. ‘So there was nothing we could do. We just kept monitoring him. I watched him when I could, then he moved to Rome. The first year, in 2015, he wasn’t in the team.
‘Then we played a friendly against Roma in St Louis in August 2016. I said to the boss that day, “That’s the one I told you about. I think he is good at what he does”. But we were looking at others. I thought Ali was good but it was not only in my hands.’
Liverpool had been tracking the Brazilian since 2013, with Alisson impressing in a 2016 friendly
Liverpool have looked at many goalkeepers in the past decade. Barcelona’s Marc-Andre Ter Stegen was discussed after the Europa League final in 2016 but he did not want to leave. Manuel Neuer and Samir Handanovic, during their days at Schalke and Udinese respectively, were out of reach.
Simon Mignolet had been dependable but it was Loris Karius’ performance in the Champions League defeat by Real Madrid in 2018 – and the shaky nature of his displays in friendlies at Chester and Tranmere – that sharpened Liverpool’s focus.
If they were going to become a serious team, rather than one who kept coming up short, Klopp needed a goalkeeper.
They had been linked with Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak but after lengthy discussions involving Klopp, sporting director Michael Edwards and club president Mike Gordon, the decision was made: get Alisson.
‘I wrote to the boss and I said the only one I would take is Ali,’ says Achterberg. ‘The main quality he has is that he stays as cold as ice. He doesn’t panic in situations, he trusts his belief and his ability. You have to have a calm mind. If you haven’t got a calm mind, you don’t make clear decisions.
Loris Karius’ dismal display in the 2018 Champions League final quickened the Alisson deal
‘That is so important. If you have someone who is putting too much pressure on you – “you need to do this, you need to do that!” – it will affect decision making. If you don’t have a calm background, it will affect you. He was already calm.
‘Goalkeeping is about being under pressure but staying calm, especially for Liverpool. You have one decision every so often to make and you have to make the right one. He smells danger but he plays on his feeling. He trusts the players to pass the ball to him and they make the decision to pass to him.’
There may have been an uncharacteristic mistake in last week’s 2-1 defeat by Arsenal but that was an anomaly to his performances over the last two years.
When Liverpool have needed him – in big league games or finals in Madrid and Doha – Alisson has been the unflappable presence.
The squad knew as soon as he trained with them for the first time, during a training camp in the French town of Evian in August 2018, that Liverpool had landed something out of the ordinary.
When Liverpool have needed him Alisson has been the unflappable presence this season
He was the final piece of the jigsaw – and a key reason why they are now champions.
‘The first training session? I saw the speed of him,’ Achterberg recalls. ‘The reactions, how quick he was. I thought to myself: “****! This is different level!”
‘I said the manager and Ali got the crowd back at Anfield. He kept playing when the ball was passed back to him.
‘The crowd became nervous at the start but he just kept doing what he was doing. He is so calm to play and not afraid if it goes wrong. If he misjudges a cross, he can still make a change in speed to get there.
‘It is not something I’ve seen a lot in goalies. He has speed and power. If the ball goes over the top, he can actually accelerate even quicker. He’s just a bit special.’
For a man who does not make bold statements, that last sentence is telling. No matter how big the transfer fee, Alisson has proven to be priceless.