What have we learned, Palmer?

Spoiler warning if you’ve never seen Burn After Reading but this may be the funniest scene the Cohen Bros. have ever done

It’s tempting in many situations to express grandiose conclusions about the results of a sports season. Many people try to tie said results to one or more major factors: Coaches, injuries, strategies, presence of particular players or lack thereof, etc. But this is, in large part, not one of those situations that’s so easily categorized. The glaring factor in this season for Liverpool, of course, was that of injury.

And not, of course, just one injury but those to an entire class of player. The three largest numbers in the above tweet are following our #1, #2, and #3 choice centerback. At one point, not only were all of them missing, but so were the two midfielders- Fabinho and Jordan Henderson -that Klopp most preferred in deputizing for our missing CBs. We also finished the season missing the two players (Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies) whom, against normal club tendencies, we signed in January to try to fill the gaps left by Virgil, Joe, and Joel. Consequently, we finished the season with what were our #6 and #8 choices at CB, in Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams. And still finished third.

The counterpoint to our massive casualty list is that, even in the midst of those injuries, we were top of the league for the first 16 games and the best in form for the last 13 (most of those with Nat and Rhys.) But the 9 games in between those two segments were performed in the equivalent of 17th place, taking 7 points to Manchester City’s 27. That’s where the title was lost. Of course, “midseason slump with mass injury problems” is not a shocking headline. It’s almost expected, as the January grind is where many teams and many of Jürgen Klopp’s have run into problems with fatigue and depth. After years of complaining of the need for an actual midwinter break, the PL also didn’t get that with the condensed schedule caused by the pandemic. Oh, yeah. The pandemic…

Speaking of unusual circumstances, those were about the most unusual encountered by the football world since the 1940s. Beyond all the maudlin interpretations about the lack of people in the stadia (“Football without fans is nothing”, et al), it’s fair to say that some clubs probably do suffer from the lack of supporters cheering them on more than others. Liverpool is likely one of them, especially given the emotional approach of our manager to the game. It’s not hard to imagine that one of the important contributors to the transition from a 68-match unbeaten streak at Anfield to the club’s first six-match home losing streak in its history was the lack of the fabled 12th Man. Other clubs had to contend with the same thing, but they generally didn’t have to contend with the massive injury problems on top of it. Or they’re just used to playing in front of non-existent (Man City) or somnolent (Arsenal) crowds.

But that doesn’t explain everything. It wasn’t as if the defense was completely shredded open. We only lost two matches in any competition by more than two goals (the freakish Aston Villa game and the second match with Man City) and only four more by more than one goal (Leicester City, Everton, Atalanta, Real Madrid.) But it still added up to nine PL losses and an exit from the CL in the quarterfinals and barely a whisper in the other two cups. The most telling thing about the overall record was how poor we were against the bottom quarter of the table until that final streak that secured third place. Two draws to Newcastle; a 0-0 draw and an 0-1 loss to Fulham; a 1-1 draw and an 0-1 loss to Brighton; an 0-1 loss to Burnley and a 1-1 draw to West Brom. Even the 2-2 draw and 0-2 loss to the Bitters can be looked at with some disdain, given how they finished and despite the VAR (and injury) impact on that first match. The failure to score goals was at least as impactful as the inability to keep them out.

Only Mo Salah was truly carrying his share of the load among our attackers with Sadio Mané enduring what he cited as “the worst season of my career” and Roberto Firmino going on a long barren stretch through that poor middle period. Of course, the fact that Sadio finished with 11 goals and 7 assists and 5 more goals and another assist in the cup competitions shows just how high the standards have been set. Bob was similar, with 9 and 7 in the PL and another 2 assists in the cups. After all that, we still finished third in goals scored and fourth in goals allowed, which gave us a GD of +26 which is… third. Don’t even need advanced stats! That status also included the fifth-most clean sheets and the most big chances created (OK. A little advanced stats) so, just as with the comparison between the middle of the season to its two ends, the potential was there. In the long view, things also look more positive, given that we were trolled as the “worst champions ever” while finishing 17 points behind Man City, who as defending champions last year finished 18 points behind us. Also, if you combine the past two seasons with ’20-’21, City accumulated 265 points. Liverpool? 265 points. So, it’s fair to say that we’ve remained roughly consistent with our most obvious challenger for top honors. They’ve just gotten over the line more often (but still somehow don’t have a European Cup…)

In other marginal news, we finished at the bottom of the VAR table once again, tied with Leeds at -8 (meaning VAR decisions cost us 8 more goals than we gained.) Given our string of 1-0 defeats and 9 draws, can you imagine what a better result in that infamous table might have done for us? OTOH, we won the Fair Play league for the fifth straight time under Klopp, with the fewest yellow cards and no red cards issued at all this season. No other side since the advent of the Premier League has gone more than two seasons in a row. So, if there were money involved in doing things “the right way”, we’d be making piles of it. Alas, those are the things we have to console ourselves with after two seasons of unvarnished glory. Next season, with the return of football-as-not-nothing, we’ll have to see about getting the trophy train started again. Let’s take a look at who’s going to help us do that (and a few who won’t.)

The squad

The front line

I don’t think there’s any real need to make changes to the front line. I know that’s likely controversial with those of you who don’t believe in Bob the way I do, but I think there was enough of a chaos factor attached to this season to think that there’s still enough talent there that shipping anyone out would be a mistake. Mo Salah is obviously irrefutable. There was some hare-brained pundit suggesting that this was the perfect time “for Liverpool to cash in” and sell him to someone else in return for the enormous windfall that would result. Putting aside the rather obvious situation wherein every club across Europe (except Man City!) is operating on shorter funds than they normally would and doesn’t have the money to pay us what he’s worth, why would we possibly jettison the player of the season? 25 goals and 5 assists across all competitions (plus creating more chances than anyone else, just in case we’re back on the “Mo is so selfish!” idiocy) are numbers that most clubs would kill for. Or, at the very least, hope for in one season of four. We’ve gotten them for four straight. Sadio Mané is in a similar situation but for different reasons. Yes, it was a down year and, yes, it’s easy to wince when watching the number of chances he let go wanting that he almost certainly would have put home in the previous four years. But he’s still one of the best dribblers in the PL (2.7 per 90; .4 shot-creating dribbles per 90) and still drags defenses into Spirograph (dating myself) patterns because they know how deadly he normally is.

Diogo Jota was the new star of the show in October and November, providing an obvious spark and appearing to be worth many times his substantial price from Wolves. But, as with many others, injuries waylaid his progress and we never got to see how long he could maintain that form and he was obviously still recovering upon his return. Even then, many were still calling for him to replace Roberto Firmino… until the last few games of the season when it became apparent that Bob was still the engine of our machine. His expected goal chain value (how important he is in linking passes together that lead to an expected goal) is still twice the PL average at 1.12, as is his goal build-up value at 2.25. His passing stats took a hit, but that may have come from the halting nature of our entire operation, since we kept moving our best midfielders to centerback. Granted, it’s tougher to talk about these less visible stats when you look at Diogo’s 13 goals in 30 matches played to Bob’s 9 in 48. But the purpose of picking up Diogo wasn’t to replace anyone, but to rotate the front three. In this season, more than any other, it became obvious how much fatigue was playing a role in their performance. After two-and-a-half seasons of almost non-stop play together, it’s reasonable to think that they might’ve hit a wall. We can have Diogo’s nose for the back of the net and Bob’s creativity. Beyond them, though, there wasn’t much to speak of, with Xherdan Shaqiri’s minimal time, Divock Origi’s minimal presence, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s new role as a rotational forward not generating a lot in the last 10 minutes of matches.

The midfield

It’s safe to say that the experiment with that new, Spanish guy worked out, even if it took a little longer than most of us expected. But it’s otherwise really hard to get a handle on how well the midfield worked as a unit, given that prominent members weren’t available because of duty in the back line and/or injury for much of the season. I think it’s also safe to say that Fabinho is the gravity well that keeps the whole thing spinning (I’ve been reading about black holes again and I don’t mean Man City’s budget.) In the calendar year of 2021, Fabinho played 18 games. In 6 of them with him at CB, we went 0-2-6. In the other 12, with him in his #6 spot, we went 8-2-2. This isn’t a knock against his ability in the back line, but rather a measure of how distorted our operation becomes without him patrolling in front of it. Indeed, the finest measure of Liverpool’s undefeated streak over the final 10 matches was the absolute command of the middle third that he and Thiago Alcântara had together. This was possession football at its finest. Thiago’s passing stats stayed in the same range as they had in his previous three seasons at Bayern and, believe it or not, so did his shot creation per 90 (2.96.) Given the length of his absence from the pitch and the personnel chaos, it’s pretty remarkable that he could maintain similar numbers. The uneven results of some of his earlier outings also demonstrate just how good his last third of a season was. Similarly, Captain Jordan Henderson‘s play was consistent with his effort in previous years. The unfortunate part of it is that he only played a little over half of the PL season (21 matches.)

But the other stalwart of the middle three was irrefutably Gini Wijnaldum, who has kicked his last ball in a Reds jersey. The main thing that Gini brought above all else was possession. He didn’t often make incisive passes or crunching tackles. But when the ball came near him, he took it and kept it. He was the pinnacle of the recycler role in the 4-3-3 and this season was no exception. In fact, he actually had his best “live pass” (pass that led to a shot attempt) number of the past four seasons with 46 in the PL. So, for all those who think he didn’t help our attack, it’s fair to say that he wasn’t stellar in that role, but he also wasn’t invisible. The fact remains that that simply wasn’t what Jürgen was asking him to do in our setup. Similarly fair and critical questions can be leveled at many of the other midfield regulars, like James Milner Robot Warrior, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Naby Keita. Millie is finally slowing down, Ox has never been the same since the horrible knee injury against Roma three(!) seasons ago, and Naby is likely never going to produce at the level that one would expect for the third-most expensive signing in the club’s history. Jürgen has already suggested that Ox should have a bigger role in next year’s squad, such that signing a replacement for Gini isn’t paramount on our wants and needs list. As for Naby, were I in Michael Edwards’ shoes, I’d be taking the first solid offer that I got, but he’s the wizard and I’m not. One real upside and another reason to not rush out for a Gini replacement is Curtis Jones. He made it into 29 matches, albeit with only 17 starts, and produced 3 goals and 3 assists. But the biggest jump forward was in his distribution play, with 2.8 shot-creating actions/90 and .31 goal-creating actions/90. He’s still not quite the defensive stalwart that Gini is (43% tackle success rate), but he’s still improving and was definitely a highlight of this awkward season.

The back line

Ha. Yeah. So, it’s really difficult to look at this unit and make solid assessments because of the revolving door at centerback until the last quarter of the PL season. In total, we had 18 different pairings of players in the middle and I believe it was the second West Brom match (i.e. third from last) when Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips became the pair with the most games played together. We have, of course, largely been singing the praises of both since March, so I don’t really need to replay it here. Do I think it might have been worth it to trigger the option on Ozan Kabak? With the imminent arrival of Ibrahima Konaté and the maturing of Phillips into a regular, probably not. However, that presumes the solid return of both Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez and last reports were that there’s a chance that neither of them will be ready by the start of the season, such was the dire nature of their respective injuries. And, of course, the rotating cast at CB also makes it more difficult to look at the performances of Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, since not only were they working with a different tandem in the middle every week, but were also often lacking the cover and passing outlets that both Fabinho and Hendo typically provide for them. There is a potential domino effect present in Sadio’s subpar season, in that he and Robbo normally work together so well on the left, but with the latter having to protect someone else less talented and/or experienced than Virg, the same kind of service may not have been available.

Extending that theory out to Trent may be part of the answer as to why 4 goals and 13 assists from the prior season dropped to 2 and 7 this year. But it’s hard to debate that he was one of our best players from April forward when Rhys and Nat had gelled in the middle and suddenly it was the same lineup and the same tendencies to know and rely on in every match. Familiarity with the guys running around behind you is a pretty useful thing for high-level football. Similarly, Robbo’s 2 and 12 from ’19-’20 dropped to 1 and 7. I’ve argued multiple times in this space that what we really missed from Virg and Joe’s absence wasn’t so much the defensive solidity as it was the initiation for our offense and the freedom that said solidity gave to the fullbacks. A further problem may have been fatigue. Both Robbo and Trent have basically been playing every match we’ve been in for the past four years, barring the League and FA Cups. With the compressed season and the lack of any real time off between the last two outings, it’s open to question as to how much that may have inhibited consistent performance. The depth that we were hoping to develop with Kostas Tsimikas and Neco Williams was sacrificed to exigent circumstances and Klopp apparently not being willing to trust the former, at least. And with the Euros plowing forward, Andy’s situation isn’t changing for the better when it comes to getting some rest. He seems to be the most tireless of any of those four, so we’ll see how it shakes out.

The matches

Despite the overall aura of doom and gloom, there were still a lot of high points to this season; not least of them the simple fact that we got to see Liverpool play football. But there were a number of others, like:

  • Ending the mild hex that the Gunners had put on us at the end of the previous season with a 3-1 win at Anfield and Diojo Jota’s first goal for the club (Incidentally, this was also Sadio’s third of the season, after a brace at Stamford Bridge, so everything started well.)
  • Continuing our then dominance of Leicester City, 3-0 at Anfield, where Bob was continually denied by post or random bad luck until finally breaking through. There was also a perfect Robbo cross to Diogo for the second.
  • Continuing the similar dominance over Wolves, 4-0 at Anfield, with a remarkable variety of goals by Mo, Gini, and Joel. The last one should have been Sadio’s off a brilliant curling pass by Trent, but last touched Nélson Semedo on the way in.
  • The 2-1 win over Tottenham, when they were contending for top spot in the league, but where we utterly dominated the match, only struggling to hit the back of the net past Mourinho’s parked bus. Bob finally sealed it for us before sprinting halfway down the pitch toward the partially-filled Kop.
  • The 7-0 rout of Crystal Palace at Selhurst, with starts for Takumi Minamino and Naby, and a number of excellent goals with the best one (and one of the best of the season) coming at the 5:08 mark in that video (Bob to Robbo to Bob.) This was the point where other fans were asking: “Who’s going to stop Liverpool?” And then, Joel got hurt and our finishing boots got lost in the closet.
  • What followed was the desperate period where we won only 4 of the next 15 matches, before finally reasserting ourselves with one of the best performances of the season against Arsenal. This was probably Trent’s second-best assist of the season with a ball right onto Diogo’s head for the opener.
  • Central to the push for a top 4 spot was the long-awaited league victory for Jürgen Klopp at Old Trafford, where we dominated for long stretches but couldn’t shake them until yet another long break by Mo Salah for the finisher.
  • And then, yeah, that game at the Hawthorns, where what was probably Trent’s most important assist of the season became the first keeper’s goal in the 129-year history of the club and kept us in the hunt for the Champions League.

Most of those highlights came from the PL, since the Champions League games were kind of rote affairs and we didn’t do much in either of the other cups. It’s interesting to note, though, given most peoples’ estimations of various players’ seasons, the number of Man of the Match awards that were given out for Liverpool’s PL season, as recorded by the club. Tied with 1 were Alisson, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, Jordan Henderson, Andy Robertson, Neco Williams, Diogo Jota, and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Curtis Jones had 2, while Fabinho and Thiago both checked in with 3, Nat Phillips and Mo Salah with 4, Roberto Firmino with 6, while Sadio Mané had… 8.

The human cost. One other thing to consider is that, despite the disappointing results of the season as a whole, the circumstances surrounding it simply can’t be ignored. With most of the international players unable to spend time with their extended families and the lack of supporters in Anfield, it was likely easy to feel like they’d lost touch with a lot of the people that make up their lives, in the same way that all of us have while we waited out the virus. This especially hits home in the case of both Jürgen and Alisson, both of whom lost parents that they were quite close to (mother and father, respectively) and whom they were unable to say goodbye to or mourn alongside other family. Yes, the season wasn’t what we wanted, but even moreso it wasn’t what either of them wanted, on and off the pitch. So if you’re frustrated at what happened to the expected dynasty, try to keep in mind that there’s a great, big world out there outside of football and if You’ll Never Walk Alone means anything, it means sticking with those people that may have gone through a lot more trauma than simply finishing third in the league (to say nothing of the countless millions who’ve lost relatives and friends to this modern scourge.)

So that was 2020-2021. It’s not a year that many of us will look back upon with any great joy for a variety of reasons, football-related and not, but it was all part of the journey, as the gaffer likes to say. Here’s hoping for a positive summer and a return in August. I might do one or two more things along the way, before I start in on another lengthy preview (like last year) once it appears that the club’s transfer business is done. Thanks for reading all this time and if you know others who might be interested in reading more about the Reds, please pitch them a link.

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