The dust has now settled on the end of Liverpool’s season and we move in to the slightly more exciting but equally as infuriating part of the year when the time usually filled by discussing football matches becomes all about transfer speculation. Yet it feels only right that we should try to put some sort of closure on what has gone before, given the emotional rollercoaster we’ve shared together over the last ten months or so.
When the final whistle blew in Basel last Wednesday night there was a temptation to feel as if the entire season had been a complete waste of time. But is that true? Do we really need to draw a line under everything that has gone before and ‘never speak of this again’? That feels dismissive of a campaign that has had as many ups as it has downs and that we can surely learn from as we move forward. For that reason, then, here’s my look at everything that has gone before and what lies ahead. Enjoy.
The Brend Of An Era
There will forever be a question mark over whether or not the club were right to keep hold of Brendan Rodgers last summer. On the one hand it felt very much as if the writing was on the wall for the Northern Irishman, with the club’s last game at Anfield ending in defeat to Crystal Palace and the last away game ending in that defeat to Stoke City on the final day of the season.
In spite of that, however, there was also a sense from some quarters that he deserved another season. 2013-2014 was the most exciting league season most Liverpool fans had enjoyed in years and at times the football on the pitch was extraordinary. Luis Suarez was credited with being a key reason behind that and his departure a big part of why things fell apart on the pitch. Shouldn’t Rodgers be allowed to bring in some decent signings to replace the Uruguayan and see if he could re-find the magic formula? Especially with the spectre of Steven Gerrard being lifted thanks to his departure to America.
There was also a question about who would replace Rodgers. Klopp had left Dortmund at that point but he’d made it clear that he wanted some time out to recharge his batteries. Who else was a good enough replacement to mean that we would definitely have been stronger with the Ulsterman removed from the dugout? Are we also seriously to believe that no conversations had taken place between the Liverpool hierarchy and Klopp’s people about the chance of him coming in in January if things didn’t work out under Rodgers?
Whatever the reasoning behind the decision, the Reds started 2015-2016 with the former Swansea man still in charge. Many believed his number would be up reasonably quickly thanks to the daunting fixture schedule that the Reds were presented with, with the irony being that we emerged from it largely unscathed. It was a home defeat to West Ham that caused alarm bells to ring and even the players seemed to be concerned that the same mistakes were still being played out.
I will argue with any man who calls Brendan Rodgers a ‘fraud’ and Luis Suarez’s recent praise of the manager should be proof enough that he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his time at Liverpool. In the end, though, his brand of self-praise wasn’t enough to keep him in his job and the proverbially trigger was pulled. Rodgers will always command my respect because of 2013-2014, the first time in my adult life when I genuinely believed the Reds would win the league. Heady days indeed.
Klopp For The Kop
The nature of football means that new signings will happen every year and some will be more exciting than others. I can’t remember a player signing for Liverpool that has ever had me as excited as the arrival as Jürgen Norbert Klopp had me. The man is absolute box office and I, like many, spent the days after the announcement of Rodgers’ departure refreshing my Twitter feed and BBC News desperate to know whether the German would be the club’s new boss.
Of course we know now that he would indeed be confirmed by Liverpool as the new manager and his first press conference was a breath of fresh air. From doubters to believers has been repeated many times since, even put on t-shirts and flags. It wasn’t the only thing that excited about that first day in front of the Anfield cameras, however. We were even talking about the fact that he was wearing jeans rather than a suit. How about when he got Tom Werner in a headlock? What a guy.
There is a synergy between certain managers and certain clubs. Like it or not Jose Mourinho was a match made in heaven for Chelsea because neither the club nor the fans have any class, so he fitted right in. Klopp feels right for us because he is the opposite of Mourinho in every way, just as our club is the opposite of the West London nouveau riche in every department. He is happiness personified, a positive force in action in everything he does. He also doesn’t want to spend billions to make a team like the ‘Special One’ does, instead opting for uncovering gems and working with the team to develop a philosophy that everyone can get excited by.
There’s an argument to suggest that Klopp had a bigger rebuilding job to do at Anfield than any manager has had since Shankly. There was a support base still not united since the reign of Hicks & Gillett and the sacking of Rafa Benitez; there was a squad that seemed to have talent but completely lacked any sense of self-belief; there was discontent between the fans and the owners as our absentee landlords seemed more intent on moneyball ideals than on winning things.
Whichever way you look at it Klopp did not arrive in Liverpool with the club in what he might have called a ‘perfect moment’. Yet he didn’t seem to care. He took it all in his stride and seemed to pick everyone up straight away. His decision to get the players to salute the Kop at the end of the 2-2 draw with West Brom might have been questioned or laughed at at the time, but looking back now it’s clear that it made a real difference to the atmosphere inside the ground for the rest of the season. Just like his decision to call out the early-leavers after the Crystal Palace defeat, he turned a mirror on the fans and we weren’t happy with what we saw, so we responded to his criticism.
Virtually every set of supporters that turns up at our ground nowadays sings ‘where’s your famous atmosphere?’ to the Kop within about ten minutes of the game kicking off. It’s one of the most pathetic chants in the game, given that no ground in the league can boast the sort of atmosphere you’d have got in the 1970s and 1980s. One of the worst aspects of the money in football is that it has killed atmospheres dead. Supporters are paying though the nose to watch the game going on in front of them so more often than not they demand to be entertained rather than realise they’re part of the experience taking place around them.
The chant still hurts, however, because it has a grain of truth in it. Anfield has long been known as one of the best atmospheres in football, yet that atmosphere only gets displayed on rare occasions when the Kop decides that the match is big enough to warrant it. Olympiakos and Chelsea in 2005 and Manchester City in 2014 are the best examples of big games being given the full Anfield treatment, but those games are obviously too few and far between and the regular league game is often greeted by what Klopp has termed a ‘tea party’ atmosphere rather than anything more vitriolic.
This season, then, will perhaps be remembered as the season that saw that Kop re-find its voice. If the average match going experience is better from 2016-2017 onwards then it will be because of how Klopp questioned the fans at times this season and how we responded with loud roars just when the team needed us the most. The welcome that the coaches received before the Sevilla game was remarkable, but it was the rawness of the crowd when Dortmund went 3-1 up that will live long in the memory. There was a synergy between crowd and players that night that hasn’t been seen for years and we all remembered what can be achieved when we’re all pulling in the same direction.
Two Cup Finals
Somehow this season doesn’t feel like one in which Liverpool finished eighth. Eighth is a disgraceful league position for a club of our stature, and yet the mitigating circumstances surrounding that finish make it seem better than it really is. The biggest mitigation being the fact that we reached two different cup finals, even if defeat in both means we have nothing to show for it.
’Liverpool Football Club exists to win trophies’ is the oft trotted out line. This year we gave ourself a better chance at doing just that than in any season since 2011-2012. Yes we twice fell at the final hurdle, but at the start of the campaign we had four opportunities for glory and we were within 90 minutes of achieving just that in two of them. Not bad going considering we could only muster one goal against Carlisle back in September.
For Klopp to come in and sign not one player of his own yet take the club to two cup finals is a remarkable achievement that perhaps not enough people are giving him credit for. It’s not as if he inherited world beaters that just needed some tweaks and fine tuning. This is, by and large, the same squad that lost 6-1 to Stoke but without the experience and quality of Steven Gerrard in its ranks.There have also been some highs along the way: The match against Dortmund, obviously, but also the big away wins at Stamford Bridge and the Etihad and the joy of knocking United out of the Europa League. Klopp is, apparently, a manager who likes his team to have a huge degree of fitness that is developed during a vicious pre-season, something he didn’t get to do with the Reds last summer. No wonder, then, that the players’ legs faltered after 63 games and a huge majority of the season playing a style of football they weren’t physically prepared for.
Liverpool are no paupers, but Manchester City are considerably richer and Manuel Pellegrini has had longer to get his team playing the way he wanted them to. That we only lost the League Cup final on penalties is to the immense credit of the manager and his backroom staff. Equally Sevilla had won two Europa League finals in a row when we went up against them last week. We should have been better in the second half but their experience showed through and they ended up worthy winners.
So what of the future? The signing of Loris Karius suggests that the manager is more than aware of the weaknesses in his squad. Add a decent left-back, a midfield general and another attacker to a fit Daniel Sturridge and who knows what the limit of the squad’s ability will be? The last time that the Reds went into a season without European football was 2013-2014. We came close to the promised land then, so what’s to say we couldn’t get one step closer this time around? From doubters to believers, my friends.