Back in December 2021, after a grim performance at Leicester, it seemed to me that it’s the end of an era for this Liverpool squad. A second half of the season energized by a mid-season transfer gave me hope that, despite the heartbreaking end of the season, the young players (such as Konate, Eliott or Diaz) will fit in nicely among the world class core. But at the same time, I expected some big decisions from Liverpool in the upcoming transfer windows.
What I did not expect at all was another summer without properly reinforcing the midfield. The deadline-day loan signing of Arthur was only a consequence of a last-minute injury, but it had nothing to do with long (not even medium) term planning. It was reactionary, and it reminds more of the January 2021 fiasco rather than the swift, behind-the-scenes transfers of Fabinho, Salah or Alisson.
The consequences of this passive strategy are already visible: after 6 games against teams that finished last season outside the Top 5, Liverpool have only 9 points out of 18. During the 540 minutes played, they were only in front for less than 90. What’s worrying still, is the lack of intensity in all the departments and the declining quality of the midfield.
The injuries in that department certainly did not help, but they are hardly surprising and should not be an excuse for the bad start of the season. The medical history of players such as Thiago, Keita or Ox tells you that they will all miss significant parts of the season. Add to this the age of Milner and Henderson and you get a very fragile and predictable midfield, where Fabinho will burn out sooner rather than later and a lot will be expected from young players like Eliott, Jones or Carvalho.
The slow start of the season leads to two types of reactions among the LFC supporters. Some of them argue that we are only 5 points behind Manchester City (last season there were 14 at some point) and things will be fine once the players will return from injuries. Some others are writing this season off as a ‘transition’ season.
I think both reactions are wrong.
First, I think it’s a mistake to compare the current results only against Manchester City. Yes, they are the main contenders, and they will probably win the league easily. But I find it borderline arrogant to disconsider teams such as Tottenham, Arsenal, Man United or Chelsea, who are all stronger compared to the last season and are currently ahead of Liverpool in the PL table. Before comparing to Man City, compare to the ones ahead of you.
Second, when saying this is a season of transition, one has to ask the question: ‘Transition to what?‘. At the end of this season, 3 midfielders will be out of contract (Ox, Keita, Milner) and other 3 will be over 30: Henderson 33, Thiago 32 and Fabinho 30. Liverpool will have no midfielder inside the peak age band, as you can see from the chart below. Add to this the fact that Virgil and Matip will be 32 and Firmino (31) will be out of contract and you get a worrying picture. If the current season is one of transition, I cannot imagine a name for the next one.
On top of that, in a well-run club there should be no transition in the first place. The midfield should have been transformed gradually, over the course of the last 2-3 seasons, when Liverpool was in a position of strength. In reality, since the signing of Fabinho in June 2018, the only midfield signings were Thiago (2020), Carvalho and Arthur (2022). Considering the injury record of Thiago, the youth of Carvalho (20) and the fact that Arthur arrived in the last possible moment of the transfer window (on loan), you can see how the midfield area was neglected over the last 4 years during which Liverpool won both the CL and the PL.
There is no transition. This is decline
The decline doesn’t usually happen overnight. Just like bankruptcy, it comes slowly, and then all at once. I believe that for Liverpool the decline started back in 2019, right after winning the CL. That transfer window, the only additions were Adrian, van den Berg and Minamino. It continued with the inexplicable lack of reaction in January 2021, when despite half of the team being out injured, the only solution found by the club were two deadline-day sub-mediocre and forgettable loans. Add to this the consistently neglected midfield area over the last 4 years (described above) and you get plenty of signs of a slow, but inevitable decline.
I believe that this is the season where the decline will become clearly visible. What does that mean? I’d love to be wrong, but I’m afraid that Liverpool will finish this season outside the Top 4 and will have a relatively short CL experience.
What could have been done better?
Liverpool operates with two important constraints: first, they have a ‘sell to buy’ transfer policy and second, they have a relatively risk-averse strategy when it comes to transfers. The first means that you will rarely see the club throwing money to fix expensive mistakes (think Kepa, Lukaku and Werner in Chelsea’s case). The second means that Liverpool prefer to wait for their target men (think Konate), unless other teams threaten to hijack the transfer (think Luis Diaz) and will only bring a player if they are 200% convinced that there is a need for him (think Alisson).
I have doubts that the ‘sell to buy’ policy is sustainable on the long run against other clubs that operate with more flexible financial limits. But it worked for Liverpool until recently, and to make sure it keeps working they should have compensated by making smart signings from a position of strength. Smart signing means players like Bruno Guimaraes, Ryan Gravenberch, Moises Caicedo or Matheus Nunes – all in their early 20s and available for less than 10m in the previous transfer windows.
It’s certainly frustrating to see the club in this situation, especially after an exhausting season when both players and fans were pushed beyond their limits. It’s frustrating to see the world class core of players struggling to make things work by themselves. It’s frustrating for players who are asked to play more minutes than they can handle at their age or to play in different positions because there is simply no alternative. And it’s certainly frustrating for the injured players who cannot help in any way.
But this is the consequence of long-time negligence that cannot be fixed overnight. I’m afraid that the best days of Klopp’s Liverpool are behind…
I tweeted this in the middle of the season, right at the end of 2021, after the defeat at Leicester. I rarely tweet about football since Twitter is really not the place to express your football views, but in that moment, it felt like a good run is coming to an end. I spent the remaining of the season hoping that the time will prove me wrong. And in a way, it did: the performance improved, a promising new player arrived unexpectedly in January and Liverpool went on to win the two internal cups and 49 games out of 63. More importantly, Klopp extended his stay until 2026. But that doesn’t change the fact that a few key players will leave this summer, another few will be out of contract next year and an ageing group of important players will see less and less minutes next season.
This was an exciting and memorable season. There were many great moments and Liverpool was in contention to win the quadruple until the very last minute of the Premier League season. Unfortunately most of the Liverpool supporters will remember this season for the wrong reason: failing to win a big trophy.
“2021-22 will ultimately go down as a tale of what might have been.”
Finishing second in the Premier League did not feel that bad: the damage was already done in the first half of the season, and the performance improved after the turn of the year. And in truth, 92 points would have been sufficient to win the title in 24 out of 30 seasons. But we probably need to accept the fact that the Premier League is now just like Bundesliga or Ligue 1, where every season the same team runs away with the title before the end of March and often close in on a century of points. I hope that in a few years, Liverpool winning the league back in 2020 will not look like an anomaly comparable to Leicester 2016 or Lille 2021.
What really hurt this season was losing the Champions League final against Real Madrid. Probably not as much as in 2018, where the feeling of injustice was infuriating, but enough to throw a shadow of disappointment over an otherwise brilliant season. It hurt because of the expectation to win it (the bookmakers had Liverpool as favorites, about 60%-40%). It hurt because Liverpool dominated the game (23-3 shots, 9-1 shots on target, 2.4-0.9 xG score). It ultimately hurt because the result meant that this Liverpool squad finished their season without a big trophy.
A bit more about the final
Football is a low scoring game, and even more so in a Champions League final. The last 4 finals ended 1-0, 1-0, 1-0 and 2-0. Scoring first will pretty much guarantee you win the game (the only exception in the last decade being Atletico in 2014). Liverpool played their usual game, with arguably the best possible starting XI, albeit 3 of the players were coming straight from injuries and all of them were at the end of an exhausting season when every one of the last 10-15 games felt like – or actually was – a final. But playing their usual game made them predictable: “Liverpool was easy to decipher” Ancelotti admitted after the game. Madrid, on the other hand, looked less tired (with two extra weeks to prepare) and armed with a clear plan: defend in a low block and hit on the counter. They knew exactly what to expect.
Madrid’s plan worked; they managed to score first and, as expected in a CL final, they went on to win the trophy. They did rode their luck on a couple of occasions, and used their street-wisdom to break Liverpool play and then waste some time after the goal. But despite the Liverpool domination, Madrid’s plan ensured that Liverpool had no clear cut chance. And after they scored, Madrid had Liverpool right where they wanted them. In another night, playing in the same way, Liverpool would have likely won, but football is not like chess, where a good opportunity is always converted. Football is more like poker, where you can still win with a bad hand.
What’s next for Liverpool?
Liverpool will have some big decisions to make in the upcoming transfer windows. The midfield and forward departments will go through massive changes starting this summer. Mane, Origi, and Ox are already on their way out, Salah and Firmino are entering their final year, Keita and Minamino will probably leave if a decent offer comes up, and Virgil, Matip, Thiago, Henderson and Milner are on the wrong side of 30.
Filling in the boots of Mane or Salah will not be easy, and Liverpool will have to take more risks in the transfer market. The bad decisions during the January 2021 transfer window almost cost the club the Champions League qualification last season. The addition of Luis Diaz – forced by the Tottenham bid – was so important during the second half of this season and proved that a mid-season transfer can be successful.
Taking more risks in the transfer market doesn’t mean going after 100mE+ players or entering a bid war with the big spenders. It means that smart transfers will have to be done, and preferably before the old player leaves, just as it was the case with Konate (replacing Matip), Diaz (replacing Mane) or Thiago (replacing Gini). Missing out on the CL participation would have spiraling side effects: on top of the financial losses, it would become increasingly difficult to bring good players.
The consequences of caring
A good approach when dealing with disappointment is to make an effort to focus on the positives. This is exactly what happened the day after the final, during the season trophy parade through the streets of Liverpool. “It was a moment of togetherness, a moment to reflect on the highs and to forget about the lows“:
The two near-misses at the end of the season hurt, but that is a consequence of caring. Just as in life, “you win, you lose, you laugh, you cry, you cheer, you boo, and most of all, you care.“
Football (and sports in general) is not always about winning just as not all the good stories have a happy ending. Sometimes it’s also about that sense of anticipation before an important match:
“It’s not about watching your team win the Cup as much as that moment when you wake up thinking, In 12 hours, I might watch my team win the Cup. It’s about sitting in the same chair for Game 5 because that chair worked for you in Game 3 and Game 4, and somehow, this has to mean something.”
During this season, the Liverpool supporters were blessed with several such moments of anticipation. Only on two occasions the anticipation turned into celebration, but that’s the nature of sports. “The world is not full of winners, the world is full of triers“, as Klopp said recently.
Liverpool will try again next season. Even if this generation has peaked, there’s still enough motivation to write some good stories. For players like Trent, Gomez, Konate, Diaz, Jota or Milner the best days are ahead of them.
And who knows, maybe that defeat at Leicester was not the end of an era after all.