Bounce-back season confirmed for Liverpool after last season's injury crisis or deeper stagnation at the club like Dortmund under Klopp near the end?
Shocking? Dreadful? Yes, and yes! None could have predicted Liverpool’s dismal attempt to defend the Premier League title. After breaking record after record, Jurgen Klopp’s men had the worst full season under the German’s reign.
Back-to-back Champions League finals and record-breaking Premier League points tally had accustomed the supporters to glory days. So much so that a meteoric dip such as this was never on the cards. And so, it begs the question, can Liverpool bounce back from this crisis, or is it just the start of the fall?
To begin with, a single season of results that resulted due to unprecedented and unforeseen circumstances does not and cannot determine any club’s trajectory. Jurgen Klopp has firmly cemented his place as one of the greatest managers the world has seen ever since he arrived at Merseyside. An advocate of Gegenpressing, demanding his players to stay on the front foot at all times. Klopp has not only entertained but also delivered where it matters most.
“A message to those Liverpool supporters? We have to change from doubter to believer – now.” – First interview as Liverpool manager – October 8, 2015
The Best FIFA men’s coach for the past two years is not fazed by this dip. But many doubt his ability to sustain performances for a prolonged period. Many pundits believe that stagnation is a key weakness in sides managed by Jurgen Klopp. Just like his final years at Borussia Dortmund, the results are taking a turn for the worse. So, in the face of uncertainty, can the Reds find their mojo back?
Fans and supporters of Liverpool do not see any other figure at the helm than Klopp right now. Jurgen Klopp’s intangible success at Anfield finally brought the Premier League to Merseyside. The charismatic manager is already a club legend and is well respected by the Premier League community.
But last season has still been shocking. To his fairness, losing one of the best defenders in the world and his preferred pairing is not easy to cope with. The absence of Allison during chunks of the season and lack of quality in the centre-back position has been less than ideal. VVD’s absence exposed a critical flaw in Jurgen Klopp sides among others.
Liverpool's 20 centre-back pairings and how many minutes they played across the season. pic.twitter.com/uM2QPVsSzc
— Andrew Beasley 💙 (@BassTunedToRed) June 5, 2021
The squad lacks depth. Unlike his peers, Klopp does not have the luxury of slotting in a like-for-like world-class player. The lack of senior figures in the centre-half department forced Klopp to push Fabinho and Henderson to the back-line. Although they did a decent job at the back, like their teammates, both found themselves out of action due to injury.
As a result, inexperienced youngsters, Williams and Nat Philips had to deputise in the role. During the season, the Reds fielded more than 20 different centre-half pairings. And so, to finish third in the league, despite accumulating a record number of injuries, Klopp deserves more credit than criticism.
Four clean sheets in four games that Kabak and Phillips have started together. Considering neither have much Premier League experience and don't have a Van Dijk type to guide them through games it is an incredible stat. pic.twitter.com/aOQkuBie2Y
— DaveOCKOP (@DaveOCKOP) April 4, 2021
The unbelievable number of injuries in defence started a domino effect that reflected at the front line as well. Pushing Henderson and Fabinho outback left a hole in midfield that was not filled by any of the deputies. Once again, exposing the lack of depth in the squad.
World-class signing Thiago was also unable to exert his dominance as he too picked up a knock that kept him out for half the season. Naby Keita never settled in and Shaqiri did not impact as expected when given the chance.
Jurgen Klopp: "We went through a really tough, tough period and we got through it so that made us, obviously, 100 per cent stronger. After the season we had, to get through and finish third was incredible." #awlive [lfc] pic.twitter.com/X2lvTpxoNI
— Anfield Watch (@AnfieldWatch) July 14, 2021
Further up the field, the Egyptian King and his Senegalese partner on the opposite flank seemed to have forgotten their shooting boots. Missing chances they normally would slot in with their eyes closed, the two renowned wingers seemed irritated. But it was Roberto Firmino that had the worst of the three.
The Brazilian, at least for a while, lost his flair. Unable to find the net for prolonged periods and his lack of impact drew criticism from the fans. Despite Klopp reassuring Firmino’s importance, many believed that the Brazilian did not deserve the game time he got.
A certain Portuguese winger in Diogo Jota was the newfound stardom in a lacklustre side. The newbie was slotting goals left, right and centre for the men in red, something their famous trio seemed to have forgotten. Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, Jota also picked up an injury that kept him out of the team. And despite Salah finishing the season with 22 goals in the league, he was deemed to have had a poor season by his standards.
Towards the end of last season, the mighty Reds finally started to take shape as at least half their injured list returned to the first-team action. Thiago was made the scapegoat for much of Liverpool’s performances at the beginning of his tenure but the Spanish superstar proved to everyone as to why he is so highly regarded.
Roberto Firmino also slowly started to display his scintillating performances and captain Henderson exerted his dominance on the field.
Football eh. 𝐁𝐞𝐚𝐮𝐭𝐢𝐟𝐮𝐥.
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) May 16, 2021
Liverpool fought tooth and nail to finish third in the league from a position wherein even Europa League qualification was in doubt. Allison’s winning header in injury time against West Brom epitomizes Liverpool’s mentality. The “Mentality Giants” did not give in to outside voices and their late-season performances point to a revival than a downhill battle.
With VVD set to return and Joe Gomez gaining fitness, Liverpool is already laying eyes on the prize next season. The introduction of Ibrahima Konate has brought some excitement to the camp and also much more defensive solidarity than before. And although the departure of Klopp’s trusted henchmen, Gini Wijnaldum, is a cause of upset, the emergence of various young players within the club offers relief and excitement.
THE RIPPLE EFFECT
VVD’s towering presence in defence was unquestionably one of the key reasons for Liverpool’s title hauls in the previous seasons. VVD’s capability wasn’t limited to his defensive contributions, in fact, he was the focal point of the team from the back. Almost everyone who played alongside the big man looked nothing short of world-class. Whereas on any other day, those names would probably be better than average at most.
Virgil van Dijk is the *only* Liverpool player to have played every single minute of the club’s record 32-game unbeaten run in the Premier League.
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 5, 2019
His ability to organise defence and to predict and read the game was paramount. A seasoned ballplayer, adding potency to attacking movements as well. But most importantly, VVD’s presence enabled everyone in the team to play free-flowing football, a feature that was truant in his absence.
The revered wing-backs started becoming reluctant to push forward so as to protect the back-line. The midfield was cautious about how far they pushed up, always keeping an eye on the inexperienced defence. The reluctance to push forward in order to protect thus resulted in a poor attacking outcome. The attacking trio did not get the service they once used to and so started dipping in output.
The absence of the “Holy Trinity” made things worse for the Reds. A side that was dependent on fan support to guide them no longer had that luxury, courtesy of the pandemic. Liverpool was dealt blow after blow at every stage during last season. Moreover, Klopp’s unimaginative style of football was well recognized in the league.
📊 STAT: Diogo Jota has been directly involved in nine goals in 10 competitive games for Portugal this season:
⚽️ 6 goals
🎯 3 assists
— Anfield Watch (@AnfieldWatch) June 19, 2021
Teams sat deep, eliminated the wing-backs and denied space. The lack of creative spark and the inability to break down low blocks resulted in one of Liverpool’s lowest-scoring campaigns under Klopp.
UNLIKELY DORTMUND-ESQUE END!
Intense, fast-paced, physical and extremely resilient, Klopp demands a lot from his players. A feature that many believe, drains players after a prolonged period of time. The pattern was noticed both in Dortmund and Mainz wherein the teams slowly started to decline in intensity and output often as a result of stagnation and fatigue. So, last year’s scenes at Liverpool have drawn comparison to this seemingly evident pattern.
While it is clear that players need to be at their very best fitness to compete in Klopp’s side, the prospect of the team falling off the radar is improbable. Every season Klopp improved Liverpool’s weakness, often analysing their drawbacks from the past.
Liverpool’s owners, FSG, have been masterminds of the transfer market, bringing in world-class talents on a bargain. When needed, they go in for the high-profile targets as well. A key feature being the unpredictability of their activity in the transfer window.
🗣️ “He’s played some really good stuff in the past and hopefully even better stuff in the future.” 👊
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) July 13, 2021
From Mo Salah to Ibrahima Konate, Klopp’s and FSG’s incoming players have often been exceptional than not. And as we approach the final stages of this window, one or two more reinforcements might also be part of the play. But, whether or not players do come in, Klopp and co. will have little to worry about and more to be looking forward to.
Harvey Elliott’s scintillating performance last season in the Championship has caught the eye of Liverpool’s coaching staff. The fans in Anfield will also be excited at the prospect of the young Englishman playing for their side. Curtis Jones excelled in his role last season when brought on due to the rapid rise in injuries. He is likely to get some game time if a replacement for Wijnaldum does not pan through.
🗣️ “I am confident in myself, I feel I can get into the team, whether it’s coming off the bench and making an impact. Whatever it is, that’s the main goal.” 💪
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) July 16, 2021
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is reportedly impressing the pre-season training camp and is tipped to occupy a role higher-up the field than he has done so far. If he can maintain his fitness, Chamberlain can compete for a spot in the starting line-up. While Minamino and Keita may not have produced the sort of results expected of them, they still have a shot at impressing the boss.
A new role for this season? 😄
🔴 @Alex_OxChambo on playing as a no.9, pre-season and scoring worldies in training 👇
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) July 18, 2021
The prospect of further signings, including names like Renato Sanches, Saul Niguez, Donyell Malen and more will only boost Liverpool’s chances next season. The fans do not doubt the German’s ability in leading the side and the players cannot wish for a better manager.
There is increased competition with the arrival of big-money signing in the top half of the table, but Liverpool will be expected to do nothing less than a challenge for the title.
“We created our own story and history and didn’t try to do what our wonderful dads and grandfathers did with this club.”
The day after being confirmed as Premier League champions – June 26, 2020