I THINK it all worked out pretty well in the end.
While I was one of the many Liverpool supporters getting giddy with excitement during those heady autumn months, in which we looked invincible and capable of blowing any team on the planet off the park, minutes 20 to 45 on Sunday demonstrated in no uncertain terms that we all (players and supporters) needed a stepping stone before having another run at the Holy Grail which sits atop the steepest of mountains.
It surprised me just how quickly our players started losing their heads against Middlesbrough, for once getting there ahead of the supporters in the stands who remained pretty calm until our centre-backs started hooking the ball out of play inexplicably, and until our midfielders decided that only a goal of the season contender from outside the box would be enough to see off lowly Boro.
There are a few reasons most teams don’t jump from seventh or eighth to first in one year, and one of the main ones is that most teams finishing so low in the league don’t have players with the requisite mental strength to get over the line in the most psychologically punishing of circumstances. Chelsea are an exception in that they already had a squad full of winners and their previous season’s blip was caused by off-field distractions. While Leicester also made an unexpected jump, I still maintain that they would have crumbled had anyone put them under any real pressure. The gods played more than their part in that title victory, and I’m not sure relying that heavily on things beyond your control all coming together at once is a sustainable way to build success.
For our part, since we turned up at The Hawthorns with the bare bones of our squad and the previously maligned midfield triumvirate of Lucas Leiva, Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum to grind out an ugly win, we’ve seen a side to this team develop that we hadn’t previously witnessed and one that will stand us in good stead in the seasons to come.
The end of season fixture list fell in such a way that Jürgen Klopp got the opportunity to practice in three consecutive away games the previously lacking ability to dog out a result without the need for flamboyance, high intensity or buckets full of goals.
In watching the matches against West Brom, Stoke and Watford, I couldn’t help but think of Rafa Benitez in his second season, realising that he needed the likes of Peter Crouch and Momo Sissoko if he was going to have any impact on this league which presents foreign coaches with challenges they’ve never before witnessed in the flesh, and were able to dismiss when watching on telly as not being as bad as people made out. Only when they first have to play against a Tony Pulis side and all the problems that poses do they truly appreciate how difficult the league is.
While Klopp will no doubt have more attacking, pacey players on his summer shopping list, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see us rolling out teams in the mold of Can and Lucas when we’re rocking up to the Bet365 Stadium next season, leaving his quick-footed wingers on the bench to unleash for the last 20 minutes if needed.
There is a time and a place in this league to unleash the flair players in your squad but, to have any chance of winning a league, it’s still the case that on occasion you need the players capable of manning the door of a city centre bar to get you over the line in a scrappy 1-0 win before getting back on the team bus and forgetting the game ever happened.
In addition to us perhaps inadvertently being forced to learn more of the ugly side of the game in order to defeat the less glamorous sides in the division, a very specific lack of personnel also effectively forced our charismatic leader to change formation away at West Ham and test the diamond with two strikers that we’ve missed since it was so effective in 2013-14.
From what we’ve seen of his philosophy since joining the club, I think Jürgen (more than many other managers) would accept that some things happen in football and life in general which we can only ascribe to luck. Would he ever had felt the need to voluntarily try that formation had he not been forced to by the players he found to be available prior to that game? Perhaps he would, although the fact that we haven’t seen it all season despite struggling at times against sides like West Ham whose main focus is on keeping the zero in their goals against column, suggests that it was a result of circumstance more than free choice. What is beyond doubt, however, is that having used it to such good effect playing against our now most common of opposition, another option has made itself clear to the boss and his team when facing another of the unique Premier League experiences next season. Jürgen himself expressed his amazement after the West Brom game at how supporters in this league will still pay to watch such uninspiring football on a weekly basis when supporters in other countries would never do so in their worst nightmares. What he’s learnt, in the same way that most of his predecessors have done after arriving from other leagues, is that it’s not going to change any time soon so the best way forward is to find a solution that works for those games that you might never have felt necessary at any other time in your coaching career.
Where that leaves us going into next season is why the manager looked so happy and optimistic immediately after the game at the weekend, stating that he’d be ready to start again this week if necessary. Jürgen has used his first full season in charge to figure out a number of things about this league and a number of things about the players at his disposal.
The fact that we’ve dragged ourselves across the finish line, only one point ahead of Arsenal, means that he can validly go to the owners and show exactly what the squad is missing and what we need to make that leap to the promised land in the coming seasons. But importantly, he’s also now got a blueprint for next season with a squad of players who will mainly remain the same save for, hopefully, a few quality additions, who will all have learnt the lessons with him, will all have improved having been through the experience and will all, together, be more capable next season of dealing with the problems they couldn’t overcome this season, and more capable of dealing with the pressure of an end of season run-in having experienced two very different types over the past two seasons.
The season’s only just finished and I’m already having to prepare myself for a summer full of the giddy optimism of a title challenge next season.
That in itself shows how far we’ve come.