Despite all of the maths that some people were doing, working out what variations of score lines would lead to a play-off, it was all academical. Liverpool knew that a win would secure a top four finish so they went out and won. A regulation 3-0 victory isn’t something we’ve seen all that much of at Anfield for some time, yet the result was never really in doubt. The Reds were the superior team from the first whistle and Anfield responded, doing exactly what Jürgen Klopp wanted and pushing the players on against a genuinely poor Middlesbrough side.
#LFC spent 221 days – 78.4% of the season – in the top four. pic.twitter.com/9veJuwpc0K
— Melissa Reddy (@MelissaReddy_) May 22, 2017
In some ways this was a strange game. With Boro having already been relegated and the match taking place at Anfield, it felt as though it was little more than a formality. Pressure can do strange things to a team, though, and the Reds couldn’t afford to be even remotely complacent. That has been their downfall far too often in the Premier League era and it’s difficult not to wonder whether a league title might already have arrived in L4 had previous squads not demonstrated that trait. Klopp isn’t a man who likes to rest on his laurels, however, so there was no surprise to see his players come out hot and heavy at the start of the match. But what were the major talking points?
Pressure Can Cause Problems
I think Liverpool started the game well. We game out quickly, put Middlesbrough on the back foot and were unlucky not to score. Philippe Coutinho, reprising his central midfield role that worked so well against West Ham, was pulling the strings and Daniel Sturridge’s intelligent movement was causing problems. The return of Roberto Firmino to the side was an interesting one, perhaps proving how vital the manager considers him to be to the way the team works. He and Coutinho appeared to want to pass mainly to each other, like mates knowing that they can rely on the other, but generally we worked well as an attacking unit.
Liverpool look very, very nervous. Passes under and overhit, snatching at chances, weird decisions being made, everything very scruffy.
— Rory Smith (@RorySmith) May 21, 2017
The longer the game went on without a goal, however, the more nervous everybody became. Slowly but surely the players began to lose faith in the approach and started trying to force the issue. Coutinho and Sturridge were both particularly guilty of that, sending in shots from ridiculous angles and playing passes that weren’t on. By the time the clock had ticked round to the 35th minute heads began to go all over the place. The crowd was getting edgy and that reflected down onto the players, with passes getting overhit and our play generally becoming far more stodgy than it had been.
Perhaps we were lucky not to concede a penalty midway through the first half but, in my opinion, it looked more like a coming together of two players rather than a genuinely terrible challenge. I can see how it could have been given and I can also understand why the referee chose not to give it. One thing I can’t understand is the outrage from some quarters over it, especially as we have been on the receiving end of some genuinely abysmal refereeing all season long. If it should have been a penalty then it’s virtually only the second bit of good fortune we’ve received since August.
You can see the difference in pressure + nerves in the 2nd half, compared to 1st. That’s what it does to players. Now they’re flowing.
— Paul Tomkins (@paul_tomkins) May 21, 2017
Had the penalty been given there’s no way of knowing which way the game would have gone, but Liverpool’s superiority over Middlesbrough was never in doubt. They turned up to spoil the party but they simply weren’t good enough and as soon as the first goal went in the pressure valve opened and relief swept around the stadium. This is a side that absolutely deserved to finish in the top four. It’s had its ups and downs, but all in all we’ve played well enough to earn a return to the Champions League and now it is the manager’s job to build on that. As supporters it’s our job to stop finding everything so stressful and constantly looking for the negative.
I’m not sure anyone knew what to expect from Gini Wijnaldum when we signed him in the summer. The report from Newcastle supporters was that the midfielder goes missing in the big games, but the evidence we’ve seen has been the direct opposite. The goal he scored in this game was crucial and it came at just the right time. It was a lovely move that he finished with aplomb, aided and abetted by what might be the worst goalkeeper in the league in Brad Guzan. I’m no Simon Mignolet fan, but when someone tells you the Belgian is ‘terrible’ make them watch highlights of his American counterpart in this match.
What a finish from Wijnaldum. Atmosphere transformed. Massive, massive goal for #LFC
— James Pearce (@JamesPearceEcho) May 21, 2017
That is to take nothing away from Wijnaldum’s goal, though. The Dutchman has proven himself to have a knack of scoring important goals, having previously netted against Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City. Perhaps it’s Klopp’s decision to reinvent him as a roving midfielder rather than an out-and-out number 10, but whatever the reason he’s been able to pop up when it matters the most and deliver on the biggest stage we’ve had. Rumours of Klopp making Naiby Keita his number one target for the summer shouldn’t be a cause of concern for Gini, with our midfield needing as much steel and intelligence as it can get.
There’s no question that Sadio Mané has been the standout performer of the season, but Wijnaldum deserves an honourable mention for the manner in which he’s settled so quickly into the side. If he continues along his current trajectory then you can see him being an important cog in Klopp’s wheel moving forward. I’m always impressed when players are able to dig themselves out of a funk and that’s exactly what Gini’s done at times. He was poor in the first-half against West Ham, for example, but he was instrumental in us taking the Hammers apart in the second period. That’s a sign of a decent player.
Wijnaldum finishes the season with 6 goals & 11 assists. Constantly stepping up on the big occasion. His goal today was absolutely crucial.
— Joel Rabinowitz (@joel_archie) May 21, 2017
Newcastle fans might have believed that he went missing in big games, but they got relegated last season so it’s natural to ask which of their players didn’t. It’s much harder to perform well regularly in a side that is poor across the board than in one that is full of players at the top of their game. It feels as though Wijnaldum has now found a spiritual home and he’ll likely improve the more settled he becomes. Dan Kennett has pointed out on Twitter the difference in Gini’s stats from home and away matches, which is so stark it’s difficult to assume anything other than a tactical decision on the matter from Klopp. As football fans we sometimes forget that players don’t ‘go missing’ but can be asked to do different jobs. As long as the Dutchman keeps being so effective I’m not sure anyone will mind.
This Is Progress
There’s a trend amongst some Liverpool supporters to downplay the team’s achievement this year. Because they felt we were in a title race earlier in the year the idea of finishing fourth is seen as a disappointment. I’m very much against this way of thinking. We have added sixteen points to our tally from last season and that is no small jump. In their first full seasons in the Premier League era Rafa Benitez notched up 58 points, Kenny Dalglish got 52 and Brendan Rodgers managed 61. In that context 76 points is a remarkable return for Jürgen Klopp, though he obviously had two-thirds of last season to get used to English football.
Became pretty obvious in Jan/Feb that Liverpool had the sixth best squad this season, so fourth is good. Very good. Can build on that.
— Mark Jones (@Mark_Jones86) May 21, 2017
What we need to do now is build on this. Accepting fourth as an achievement in and of itself is what has been Arsenal’s downfall in recent times, so we can’t believe that getting into the top four is the aim. However that doesn’t mean that it’s not something to celebrate. We have achieved this at a time when Pep Guardiola has rocked up at Manchester City and José Mourinho has assembled the most expensive squad in the history of the Premier League. We’ve faced off the challenge of Manchester United and Arsenal and grabbed a top four spot in spite of the weaknesses in our squad and the injuries we’ve suffered.
If you still think it’s been a disappointing season then consider this: We enjoyed our best first-half to a Premier League season when we notched up 43 points earlier in the campaign, yet had we repeated that result for result in the second-half of the season we still wouldn’t have won the title. We were never really in a battle for the title, but we were always in the battle for a top four spot and it’s a battle we eventually won. Some people believe that this is a weak league but in every other year since the new division was formed in the early 1990s 73 points would have secured you a top four spot; this time around Arsenal missed out with 75 points.
A good season.
A step further down the road rather than the destination though.
Well done, all.
— Karl (@TheCenci) May 21, 2017
All season long some sections of the media have attempted to portray Liverpool as a mentally weak side that couldn’t hack the pressure. That notion might well have come about because of our performances in January and February, yet our form since then has been that of a side that would finish with 80+ points if it was dragged out over the course of the season. When the pressure was really on in the last two games, with nothing less than six points guaranteeing Champions League football, we scored seven and kept two clean sheets. This side is developing a real mental strength and is now experienced in getting over the line. It’s been a good season that the players can be proud of, so now we need to build on. I have no doubt whatsoever that we will.