At the end of last week I wrote a piece taking a look at why Jürgen Klopp may look to strengthen in both the goalkeeping department and the defence. I’ll be doing the same thing at the end of this week but with reference to the midfield and the attack. It occurred to me over the weekend, however, that it’s worth considering just how our season went in order to be fair in any criticism of players that I might be levelling. For some Liverpool supporters it’s the league title or bust; the idea of celebrating a top four finish is not even on their radar. For others, getting into the top four was an achievement in itself and there’s nothing wrong with saying as much.
Perhaps because we’ve been so used to Arsenal celebrating making it into the Champions League as if it’s a trophy we’ve now become sniffy about it to the extent that some fans want to be actively down on it. The reality is, of course, that this is only the second time that the Reds have made it into Europe’s premier club competition since the days of Rafael Benitez, so where some people get off being sniffy about it I’m not entirely sure. Liverpool Football Club is European royalty, of that there is no doubt. Just because that’s true, however, it doesn’t mean that our qualification into the competition is assured. With all of that in mind, then, I ask: what kind of season has it been?
A Blistering Start
Can you cast your mind back all those weeks and months to that first game of the season against Arsenal? How they took an early lead and we liked as if we couldn’t string three passes together, before Philippe Coutinho scored a worldie of a free-kick before Sadio Mané introduced himself to the Liverpool fans by tearing Arsenal’s backline apart? We raced into a 4-1 lead only for our defensive frailties to rear their ugly head and in the end we just about scraped across the line. In many ways, that match was a microcosm of our entire season. Chuck in the shock loss away to Burnley that followed and the whole campaign has been summed up quite nicely.
Thinking back on those opening months of the season and it’s easy to see why so many supporters believed this could be the year that we would manage to win the title. We lost just one game in our first seventeen games in all competitions. That included the aforementioned win at the Emirates as well as that consulate victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. We deserved to win at both White Hart Lane and St. Mary’s, got well and truly ‘Mourinhoed’ when United turned up at Anfield and put ten past Crystal Palace and Watford in the space of two games.
It’s a long-posited truth that football campaigns are marathons, not sprints. Even so, the speed at which Liverpool got out of the blocks took virtually everyone by surprise. Jürgen Klopp and his backroom staff had spent the summer instructing their players that the fittest team wins, yet it was still something of a shock to see how willing the lads were to geggenpress the hell out of anyone and everyone. Though it’s difficult to remember now, we even believed that we’d figured out how to break down deep lying defences when we beat Leicester City 4-1 and Watford 6-1 at home.
The issue, of course, was that Chelsea got into a rhythm that was close to unassailable even back then. It’s laughable now to think that Antonio Conte’s job was under threat when we beat them in their own back yard, but the turnaround in his side’s form after that point was remarkable. After losing to us and Arsenal in the space of three games, the Blues went on to win fifteen league games in a row. In fact, their winning streak only came to an end when they rocked up at Anfield and Simon Mignolet saved a Diego Costa penalty late on. I’ll talk about this in more detail later, but sometimes a team just deserves the title and this was one of those times.
Defensive Frailties Just Won’t Go Away
From Martin Skrtel’s desire to wrestle the shirt off every attacker’s back that he met through to Dejan Lovren’s desire to try stepovers on the halfway line, we’ve had issues at the back since Rafa’s time at the club. It’s difficult to tell how much of that is down to personnel and how much is formation and tactics, with both Brendan Rodgers and Jürgen Klopp keen on an expansive style of play that finds no room for defensive midfielders. In truth, though, it’s easy to see why Klopp doesn’t think one is necessary. After all, a defensively midfielder wouldn’t be able to do anything about the vast majority of brain farts that we have at the back.
One of the biggest criticisms of Liverpool for years now is the fact that teams don’t need to work hard to score against us. If you want a goal against Chelsea, you’ve got to earn it. If you think you can score against Spurs then, unless you scored one of the 26 they conceded all season, you’re wrong. Against us, though, all you need to do is go long and you’re in with a decent chance of finding the back of the net. If you don’t agree then just re-watch that Burnley match from back in August, or have a look at the four we conceded against Bournemouth at the Vitality.
I’ve talked about the weaknesses of the defence in the transfer piece I mentioned at the start, so I’m not going to go over that ground again here. What I will say, however, is that Klopp needs to get it figured out if he wants this side to progress. For a team to score 78 goals and yet only manage a goal difference of +36 is pretty woeful. The attackers have done their job for the majority of the season but the defensive unit has not. There are numerous reasons why and the manager needs to have a look at them, but reasons or not we’ve underperformed at the back.
Injuries Made A Difference
When it comes to reasons for our defensive frailties it’s certainly true that injuries have played their part. That’s been the case throughout the side, however, and it started before the season even began. When the Reds went to America for their pre-season work, Joel Matip was forced to miss most of it because of an injury that would persist throughout the campaign. That, coupled with the broken hand suffered by Loris Karius on the head of Dejan Lovren, meant that Jürgen Klopp couldn’t field the backline he wanted to from the beginning of the season.
Some supporters still don’t rate Jordan Henderson, which I find weird in the extreme. Nothing has made clear how much he brings to the team as much as his absence, with the captain’s influence and ability to force the issue against deep-lying teams two of his best attributes. Instead we had to turn to an Emre Can who wasn’t fully fit and for the first couple of months of him playing the role he looked woefully out of his depth. Once he was over the injury he actually developed into one of the strongest players in the team, but for a while there our midfield suffered immensely by the combination of Hendo’s injury and Can’s lack of fitness.
Throughout the campaign we’ve experienced long periods without one or more of Henderson, Lovren, Matip, Coutinho, Mané, Sturridge and Lallana, meaning our bench has looked extraordinarily depleted. Now it’s fair to say that we might not have the strongest squad in the league even when everyone’s fit, yet that’s as nothing compared to how weak it looks when we’re missing three or four players that could easily make out first team. The disruptions to the defence were arguably the most damaging of all. Up to and including the West Brom away game, they had played thirteen league games together and we hadn’t lost any of them.
As I’ve said many times before, usually in reference to Simon Mignolet, communication is crucial when it comes to the defence. They need to get used to playing with each other and working alongside the others at the back, so when one or more players are missing that leaves you in all sorts of problems. Ragnar Klavan is a perfectly decent fourth-choice centre-back, but he ended up playing twenty times in the league. That is not the number of appearances you want a fourth-choice player to have to make and the defence suffered accordingly.
There’s also the Mané question, with the Senegalese international missing the majority of January because of his commitments at the African Cup of Nations tournament. It’s easy to say that Liverpool should have prepared for his absence and I agree, to an extent, that having another player with pace in the side should have been on the top of Klopp’s list of priorities. Yet I also think the manager’s plan was to go to two up top and use Daniel Sturridge whilst Mané was away, only for the striker to get yet another injury and miss the same amount of time as the winger. We should have been able to cope, but the problem was the former Southampton player’s absence occurred at the same time as the team in general dropped off in form.
We Were Never In The Title Race
I’ve mentioned it before but it is absolutely worth talking about again, especially in regards to an end of season review. Liverpool enjoyed their best opening 19 games in the Premier League era by winning 43 points during the first-half of the season. For some this meant that we were very much engaged in a title race and I confess that I got caught up in that narrative with everyone else. Yet had we repeated our first 19 results exactly, including the win over Chelsea, we’d have finished the season with 86 points and still not won the title. The London club would have won it by six points, so whilst it might have been nice to have pushed them all the way, we’d still have missed out and it might well have papered over too many cracks.
I’m not sure even the most confident of Liverpool fans would have turned down 76 points at the start of the season, with the majority of pundits not even predicting us to finish in the top four. The team out-performed expectations by some distance, so we shouldn’t get too caught up on how the points were won. Had we spread the losses and draws out more throughout the season we’d have ended up with the same number of points, yet everything would have felt much more stop-start. Instead we’ve been given a very clear idea of the potential within this side and Klopp will know what he can get them to achieve when everything’s going well. He also figured out how to mix things up towards the end of the campaign to win ugly when needed and get us over the line.
Despite the top four finish, the big wins and the glorious football we watched at times, even optimistic supporters know that there are big weaknesses in this team. There’s an argument that a better finish than the one we eventually achieved might have given FSG an excuse to feel that everything is ok. Instead they seem to have acknowledged that they need to give the manager money to spend in order to push us on to the next level. There are no cracks being papered over, no excuses prepared and no desire to bury heads and pretend everything’s fine; just a desire to get us back to the top table and winning again.
For me this season has been an unqualified success. We can be frustrated about ‘what might have been’ if we want, but the truth is there’s not much point and we have no idea what might have been anyway. All of the noises coming out of the club now appear to suggest that we’re going big this summer and, should we make it through the qualifiers, we’ll enjoy Champions League football once more next year. That is about as good as most of us expected last August, so let’s not allow the fact that we all got a bit carried away to allow us to feel disappointed. From now on top four should be the minimum we expect to achieve, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be celebrated in the now.