I MUST admit to a slight envy of Manchester United this week.
Seeing them carry off the beautifully crafted former UEFA Cup, by dint of winning the undervalued Europa League put a real gloss on United’s hitherto uninspiring season. Jose Mourinho’s manic escape from a year-long practiced sullen persona summed it up. A season during which United had consistently underwhelmed and played drab football ended with two trophies in the cabinet.
You don’t need to spout the well-rehearsed Liverpool mantras about the purpose of the club’s existence and what Bill Shankly made of being placed anywhere but first, to see that our Manchester rivals have, by hook or by crook, ended with a superior outcome to their season.
However, success is always relative.
Liverpool got the tone just right during the annual “lap of honour” after last Sunday’s win over Middlesbrough. They had achieved their final goal. No silverware to parade but nonetheless a tangible reward for nine months of extreme highs and numbing lows; of guts with no glory.
A welcome break though from the recently established pattern of just missing out, of writing a nearly men narrative, of lacking bottle and/or character. The prize attained; a return to European football’s top table is critical for the club’s standing in this super-competitive era of Premier League heavyweights, yet the muted celebrations — and in particular Jürgen Klopp’s shy, retiring presence on the pitch at the end — spoke volumes.
Liverpool FC finally appears to grasp the idea that in its 125th year, qualifying for next season’s Champions League represents mere opportunity; but also a real chance to re-establish itself on footings more in keeping with the club’s principle traditional value — winning.
Opportunity knocks for the players — the core of this team will be retained — to grow in stature and experience while competing with Europe’s best. The same goes for Klopp to put a final stamp on what still feels like an extended honeymoon, buy more of his own players and translate oodles of promise into delivering success.
More than anything else however, this staging point represents a chance for owners Fenway Sports Group to cast off any lingering doubts surrounding their intent to cement Liverpool’s progress. Their ultimate goal still has to be a Premier League title but by aiming high, if ancillary success comes by way of other competitions, then a club with one trophy in 11 years has no business being sniffy about it.
There is no room for another false dawn akin to 2014 when indecision and conservatism cost the Reds their last chance to reclaim an embedded place among the elite. The sudden fall from grace under Brendan Rodgers is proof that linear progress isn’t guaranteed in modern football. Liverpool’s owners must surely now realise that you have to strike while the iron is hot. A winning mentality in the dressing room is harder to cultivate, but the development of a winning psyche and setting of a club’s expectations comes from the top.
The signs are good; leaks from the club hinting at a record summer spend and a change in Klopp’s public utterances in which his watchword has switched from development to quality suggests the penny has dropped. Klopp has evidently learned much about Premier League football over the past two seasons; most obviously with a more pragmatic approach to winning “ugly” away from home against more agricultural opponents, but perhaps most tellingly in a realisation that training and development can only take a squad so far without a wealth of stellar raw materials.
Once a few players fall victim to injury (albeit it that we’ve suffered more than our fair share) a bench consistently compromising unused teenagers is the ultimate lesson, as well as being a prime bargaining chip in persuading owners to loosen purse strings.
The basis for further optimism is in the season we’ve just witnessed with a core of no more than 14 reliable performers. In an ultra-competitive league 76 points is a fine achievement, compared with last year’s paltry 60. With fairly minimal investment; more goals scored (78 v 63), less conceded (42 v 50) and greater consistency, laced with some superb flowing football at times is the evidence that Liverpool’s progress shouldn’t end here.
The opening third of the season gave so much cause for hope. Such was the pace, intensity and fluency of the Reds’ play in the heady days of autumn, a sturdy case for a title surge was made. A manful challenge was sustained into the New Year. Liverpool need to hark back to that time to remind themselves of their potency. The later wins over Spurs and Arsenal were reminders of the same vibrancy, swagger and dominance. At times Liverpool played like Champions, never bested by any of their immediate rivals in the upper echelons.
Keep banging that drum, Jurgen.
Of course, January was tough to take. Swansea at home — a killer title blow — was crushing; the Southampton and Wolves exits further deflating and extra proof that the fall-out of cup football doesn’t exist in isolation within the tapestry of a season. Despondency set in as we took a while to recalibrate our sights; the nadirs being the limp showings at Hull and Leicester. The manager seemed to hit a flat spot and it was reflected in slow starts, an absence of tempo and a short passage of anaemic, if not complacent performances.
Although the Reds coped initially with the loss of Phil Coutinho’s magic prompting, his vain search for form after returning to the fold in 2017 meant Liverpool — also deprived of Sadio Mane — never reached those early heights again, at least until the last knockings of the campaign.
Ironically though, we can take as much heart from the way, once a more realistic goal — of securing a top-four finish — was set, Klopp squeezed every last drop from a squad stretched to the limit to get Liverpool over the Champions League line.
If there is an alternative blueprint for next season, it will be in the doggedness of those four consecutive away wins; West Brom, Watford, West Ham but particularly at Stoke when a comeback victory was secured by willpower alone. Equally, presented with a requirement for maximum points from two pressured last games, an emphatic seven-goal salvo put paid to concerns over a supposed brittle mentality.
If the first half of the season was all about the attacking thrust of Mane, Coutinho, and the retrieval of Adam Lallana’s grace (with Roberto Firmino a willing foot soldier throughout), the more laboured second phase saw those with a cast of critics, Emre Can and Simon Mignolet become unlikely heroes. Gini Wijnaldum weighed in with vital goals, and Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren — when fit — developed a sense of surety in front of a keeper exhibiting a mental reset.
James Milner, the unlikeliest of left-backs; the quietest of captains, just led by example, whacked in all but one of the pennos, and endlessly ran back and forth. He deserves a rest, although he will probably now turn out for Yorkshire in cricket’s County Championship.
There is a sense of achievement in that everyone has contributed; it has been a team effort, the goals and the plaudits have rightly been shared around. No gleaming silverware just yet, but the spoils of this particular “victory” hopefully realised in the summer.
All is set fair.