I LOVE Liverpool Football Club. I love watching them play matches, I love talking about them and I love writing about them. Since The Anfield Wrap’s first ever podcast I don’t think I’ve missed one, so I obviously love listening to other people talk about the club, too.
Since the Reds lost to Hull last Saturday, though, I’ve struggled to do any of that. I know the lads will have done some brilliant work dissecting what went wrong and where we go from here, but I just haven’t been able to bring myself to listen to it. I have become disillusioned with everything related to Liverpool.
Yet I can’t help wondering: am I being fair?
In among my irritation at the way the campaign’s worked out is the constant question, ‘what exactly makes for a good season?’ Like many, I genuinely believed that the Reds could challenge for the title. When we got to the end of 2016 just six points behind Chelsea, having scored more goals than anyone else in the top-flight, it seemed like anything was possible.
So when we talk about the relative ‘success’ of this season, should we allow the fact that it felt as though we could be title contenders but ‘blew it’ colour our judgement? Or was it an unrealistic aim in the first place? As fantastic as Leicester’s win was for the club and the area (and my best mate Ian who supports them), did it persuade people that teams could go from relegation strugglers one season to champions the next? If so, surely the leap from eighth to top is nothing in comparison.
Last season Jürgen Klopp took a squad he barely knew to two cup finals. He revitalised the players, the fans and the general atmosphere around the club. Surely the natural progression this time around was for him to win some silverware? After all, he knew the players better and had even managed to bring in some of his own. He’d also had a pre-season, which is apparently crucial to the way he works.
I know people don’t like to talk about projects in football. There are, after all, games going on right now and trophies to be won each and every season. I’m not really a fan of ‘projects’ or ‘five-year plans’ either. Yet, the truth is that managers need time to implement their plans and Klopp has had less than two seasons to do it at Anfield.
Doubtless someone will say “Claudio Ranieri didn’t need time” or “Antonio Conte seems to have managed OK”. They’re fair points, but they also ignore the context of each manager’s situation. You should take nothing away from Leicester’s achievement last season, yet it’s also true that it was a pretty abysmal campaign for all of the usual ‘big’ clubs. Anyone who does fantasy football will remember how hard it was to predict anything, with none of the big hitters bringing home any points consistently.
As for Conte, he inherited a squad that had won the league just two years before. If José Mourinho hadn’t had his meltdown then it’s entirely possible that Chelsea would currently be cruising towards their third title in a row. The Italian didn’t turn up at Burnley or West Ham and make them into contenders. He’s taken a severely under-performing side and got them back to the level they should be at considering their worth and the wages the club pay.
By getting us to the point where we believed that we could be in a title race Klopp has actually got this side punching way above its weight. What we’re seeing right now is probably a return to the mean and whether this season can be looked back on as a success depends entirely on whether or not the manager can get us back to the way we were playing before the turn of the year.
We will not win a trophy this season. That is a little bit heart-breaking. It means our last piece of silverware remains the League Cup, won in 2012. The soonest we’ll be able to win the league again will be 28 years after we won it last. No wonder people feel disheartened and disillusioned by the way this season has panned out.
There is a very valid argument as to whether or not the owners have the ambition required to actually try and win the league. There’s also a conversation to be had about how complicated the Financial Fair Play laws make things when it comes to transfers. They’re both issues that other people have looked at in a much more coherent and intelligent way than I possibly could. They’re not the worst owners, but are they good enough? Who knows.
From where we were on January 1 to where we are now, this season definitely feels like a failure. For most fans, football is a binary world: win a trophy or don’t. In reality it’s much more nuanced than that. What has frustrated during this campaign is the way that we seemingly haven’t learnt from our mistakes. Fail to break down a deep-lying team, get hit on the counter, make a mistake, lose. Rinse and repeat. What will make this season a success or failure when we look back on it is whether the manager has learnt from his own mistakes.
In a perfect world we’d have won a trophy this year. The problem is that fans of 19 other clubs think the same thing. Even if you narrow it down to the real competitors there’s still both Manchester clubs, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and even the likes of Southampton who fancy their chances of picking up some silverware. If you think success or failure depends entirely on silverware then you’re likely to be disappointed more often than not.
Klopp deserves huge credit for getting us playing the sort of free-flowing football we were playing in 2016, just as he deserves criticism for the way the wheels have fallen off in 2017. The players adapted brilliantly to what the German wanted from them, yet too many of them have been found wanting when the going has got tough recently. The owners made a brave decision to bring Klopp in in the first place and by backing him with the signings of Sadio Mané, Joel Matip and Gini Wijnaldum, yet they failed him when they didn’t do what needed to be done to bring new faces in in January.
People may think the ‘fight for fourth’ is boring, but it’s crucial we make the Champions League if we want to bring in the sort of players that can push us on from title challengers to title winners. As a club we have to learn lessons from this season as we move forward. Whether we do or not will determine whether or not it’s been a success on at least some level when we look back on it in the summer.