Fans! Fans in the seats!

The last two pieces I’ve written here have been at least mildly philosophical in their direction. The West Brom match was about perspective, while the Burnley write-up was about timing. This one, coming as it does at the end of the season- a trying and disappointing one -has to be weighed in the context of the major events of that season. It’s all well and good to get yet another late season win over Crystal Palace, but it was the significance of that win that will enable all of us to take something positive out of the last ten months on the football pitch. Getting into the top 4 and, thus, qualifying for the Champions League next season ended up being quite significant goals for the club, rather than the bottom-line expectations that all of us began the season with. One of the most important factors is, of course, the money (It’s always about the money.) Finishing third not only gave us £2 million more in prize money from the Premier League, but also guaranteed us £58 million more from UEFA, just for playing next year’s group stages. Prestige is also a factor, since the money gained that could be used for new players means that more potential targets will be interested, since everyone playing in Europe (and many outside of it) wants to play in the CL. It’s a bit of a tougher sell to say something like: “Come to rainy, northwest England to play for one of the biggest clubs in the world… in the second-tier European competition.” Certainly, playing in the Premier League would be mollifying to a lot of those potential targets but this is where that whole context thing comes in.

Aiming in the other direction, we can ask why we lost six more games (including six straight at Anfield for the first time in club history) and finished thirty points behind where we were last season. In this case, the answer should be obvious: injuries. I’ve been watching this club for more than 40 years and I’ve never seen anything like this. We not only ended the season with our sixth- and seventh-choice centerbacks playing together regularly (one of whom was playing non-League football in Kidderminster last season) but also lost both of the last-minute signings (Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies) we made in January to reinforce that same position. I’ll talk more about that in a couple end-of-the-season pieces, but certainly the overall framing for 2020-21 has to be how we struggled to fill the gaps and had to rearrange our previously dominant approach… and then still finished third in the league, albeit without a trophy.

But that’s another big question: Is the pursuit of trophies the most important thing? I don’t want to seem like I’m prevaricating. I grew up with a dominant Liverpool side that repeatedly won almost everything there is to win. I expect the club to be successful and am frustrated and disappointed when it isn’t. But one of the major taglines of this season for the game as a whole was: “Football without fans is nothing.” There’s not a single, major outlet that I read that didn’t have writers regularly opining that the matches they were covering were “soulless”, “rubbish”, “empty”, or at least “missing something” (obvsly.) Certainly, having full stadia is better than the alternative (even if the insight into what’s actually said on the pitch has often been fascinating this season.) There’s no doubt that hearing some of the songs wafting up from Anfield yesterday was a return to a more familiar time. But, of course, most of the time when I’m at Magee’s, I can’t hear anything coming from the stadium, anyway. But that’s because I’m surrounded by supporters on this side of the pond, which almost always makes the matches more fun than watching them alone at home, and which is also something that we’ve been able to do far too rarely over the course of this season.

The concept of context involves why you’re there in the first place, right? Ostensibly, everyone is watching Liverpool because they enjoy watching Liverpool; if not football, in general. So, even with the injuries and the lockdowns and the failures to reach the goals that we thought were well within reach, there were still many moments of genuine joy, right? Roberto Firmino’s late header to win the match against Spurs; demolishing Palace, 7-0, in our previous match; running Atalanta off the pitch in Bergamo; and, yes, even not taking a loss in our final 10 league matches this season, with the crowners being a win at Old Trafford for the first time in seven years and, of course, Alisson’s unforgettable 95th-minute header to keep us in the race for top 4. So, yesterday’s match was a regular win against Crystal Palace (and one has to question whether beating an obviously overmatched Palace side on the regular is actually a positive situation for all involved. This is where the ESL discussion looms again…) But it was also a release valve for everything that both club and fans have been through for the past 18 months. It was a return to normalcy, even if it’s a level below the “normal” that we’d become used to in the previous few seasons.

Is it just the winning? Or the fans? Or the style? Is it just Liverpool and everything that the club represents? Is it just football? Or is it a combination of all of these things? If it is, indeed, that combination, then context can very easily be applied to what happened this season and can help justify failing to reach almost any of the goals that players, manager, and supporters all wanted. The real question may be whether most can accept that scenario and were able to derive some joy out of watching our Reds play, under whatever circumstances, and which kept alive the human connections that we have with the players and as LFC supporters and simply with each other. It’s good to gather together and enjoy each others’ company. Let’s do that again soon.

Liverpool 2 – 0 Crystal Palace

There was no way to expect anything exceptional from this match, given that it was The Hodgson and a Palace squad with no less than twelve(!) players out of contract at the end of the season. That’s a side that’s been due for an overhaul for a couple seasons running now and it wasn’t helped by the loss of two of their best, young players; Eberechi Eze days before the match (Achilles) and Nathan Ferguson hours before (also Achilles; ouch.) Combine that with the usual Wilfred Zaha pining for somewhere (anywhere) more successful and it’s hard to really get too choked up about Roy’s retirement from major football, even if I were inclined to do so, which I most certainly am not. Sorry (not sorry), Roy, but some memories linger and listening to someone be indignant for the past decade about not getting a chance at Liverpool when basically all you did was insult the club’s history for the six months you were here while putting us in the relegation zone hasn’t done you any favors in the eyes of most Reds fans.

So, it was their 4-3-3 vs our 4-3-3. They tried to target Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams in the same manner that other recent opponents have done, but the difference here is that their midfield really couldn’t hold a candle to our trio of Fabinho, Thiago Alcântara, and Gini Wijnaldum. When the long balls didn’t work, there was no one there able to retain or regain possession. Indeed, the best operator they had on our side of the pitch was Andros Townsend, who kept dropping deep to try to lend a hand but was often busy just trying to keep up with the irrepressible Andy Robertson:

That extended to the defensive side, as well. I’m disappointed that I can’t find a video clip of his best play of the game, which was catching up with Zaha who was in on goal alone and simply running him to the endline and getting a goal kick out of it. The guy’s a machine and, given that he again started every PL game for us this season and almost all of the CL games, as well, I’m genuinely concerned about the stamina of the Scottish captain in this summer’s Euros. But that’s kinda what “irrepressible” means, right? Speaking of which…

That pile o’stats also includes completing 9/14 long passes and winning 8/13 ground duels. Since he and Fabinho have been able to regularly play together in the midfield, Thiago has become exactly what we expected from Bayern. I realize I’m just repeating myself for the past two months’ worth of game reports but, after the disappointments of earlier in the season, it’s been worth mentioning that this is exactly why we deviated from our usual transfer approach to bring this man in. And, certainly, the last match of the season was a huge bonus to 1/3 of our front three:

Sadio Mané has stated more than once now that this has been the worst season of his career and it’s hard to argue with him. Certainly, there are any number of matches we can look back on and think: “If he’d just been able to finish in that one instance…” how different our season might have been. But that’s football (and life), yo. Getting to double digits in goals is at least something to appreciate and it goes hand-in-hand with those contextual things that also involve this man:

I’ve said before that I don’t think Rhys is quite at the level that we’d hope for in a starting centerback. But the fact is that both he and Nat have played well enough to get us to third place. Many would like to suggest that it’s the greatness of the fullbacks alongside them and the #6 in front of them that have made it work, but I think that’s way overstating the case, especially when talking about Nat. Anyone blathering on about how he’s “a mid-Championship level player” is basically admitting that they don’t know what they’re looking at. Is he as good as Virgil Van Dijk or Joe Gomez or Joel Matip? No. But both he and Rhys have proven for the entire last third of the season that they’re good enough to be considered as options beyond the emergency straits that we’ve found ourselves in. That debate was also often found around a nailed-on, Liverpool legend.

Gini is a legend here, full-stop. Jürgen’s quote is ideal: “He played 90% of the time. He was a #10/winger at Newcastle, then he comes here and controls the midfield.” No one has been more reliable for us in the middle third and generally for five years. He’s always been there, even performing well at the 6 when Fabinho was still bedding in three seasons ago. And no one should ever forget the burst of energy that he gave us in the second leg against Barcelona, when he was so angry to have been left out of the starting lineup that put he in two of the goals that carried us home. In many ways, he’s been the polar opposite of Naby Keita; always available, always durable, always doing the little things that often didn’t stand out on the stat sheets. This game against Palace was the same way, as he helped completely dominate them in the midfield and, thus, completely control possession so that we could dictate the game in the way we wanted. Is he a legend in the same way that Steven Gerrard is a legend? Of course not. But in the same way that Rhys and Nat have to be appreciated for what they’ve done, game in and game out, Gini also has to be for the five seasons he’s given that have been among the club’s best in its 129-year history.

So that’s a wrap for this season. I’m going to do one or two “looking back” pieces, since there’s a lot to process as there almost always is. I’ll also be watching the transfer wires, like usual, and will probably stop in to talk about the Euros and how our guys are performing there, if things become interesting and it’s not simply watching the French squad parade to the end. But, there it is (was.)

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