There’s a lot of baggage to unpack about the end of last season and the season as a whole, really. As I mentioned in the Detroit OLSC’s FB group, after the way things ended, I was burned out. It had been basically two years of non-stop football, since the second COVID year got compressed and last year started early. Plus, when you realize that we played every single match it was possible to play last season and I sat here and wrote about all of them except the last one, I hope everyone can appreciate how a break might have been necessary. I haven’t looked at The Athletic in two months. I haven’t listened to the Guardian or Tifo or Michael Cox or any of my regulars. I just wanted nothing to do with anything that was a reminder about how we were right there, in two successive weekends, and came away without the big prize.
But these things happen in football. There are a lot of great sides that didn’t come away with the trophies they really wanted (which is usually all of them) and it’s possible to consider ourselves fortunate that we still ended up with two, however inadequate compared to winning the league and winning the Champions League. But it also meant losing one third of the troika that has largely defined the Klopp era at Liverpool Football Club, since Sadio Mané had informed the gaffer a year ago that this was going to be his last as a Red. The Front Three of he, Bobby Firmino, and Mo Salah is now a thing of the past. It’s always a shame when significant transitions like that happen, but that, too, is part of the game, so you deal with it and move on. We’re still quite loaded up front and have become even moreso with the arrival that quieted transfer window warriors everywhere for at least a couple weeks, in Darwin Nuñez.
And, let’s face it, for all the uncountable positives about Jürgen Klopp’s career, there is an element of tragedy to it. The attempts at promotion with Mainz; one of which they missed by one point and another by one goal. The loss in the 2013 CL final to Bayern Munich after winning the Bundesliga for the previous two years (also the last time anyone other than Bayern has won the Bundesliga…) The xG disaster of his final year at Dortmund, where they should have finished so much better and which might have meant that he stayed even longer with BVB. But he didn’t and instead he came to Merseyside, where he now has the luxury of leading one of the top buying clubs in the world, rather than constantly trying to fill holes created by being a selling one. It’s not to say there are no concerns about LFC not having the spending power of certain rivals, as we are not an oil club. But those concerns are far less and we do have the upside of being a club (and a manager) that players really want to play for. Luís Diaz is just the latest example of that and there will likely be many more in the future.
But before we start talking about that future that begins this weekend in the Community Shield, let’s wander through a bit about the past and the present.
Obviously, Sadio is a huge loss. In his six years with us, he put in 115 goals and made 30 assists. He went from excelling on the right wing to excelling on the left wing to excelling at Bob’s false 9 role in the center. He was everything that Jürgen and we looked for in a forward and was as tenacious on defense as he was in the offensive zone. Indeed, one of the hilarious things about him is that, as gentle and considerate as he was off the pitch, he was an indomitable machine on it and there was no one more competitive in a Liverpool shirt. I thought he might be fading a year or two ago. Turns out, he’s not even close. He should enjoy the automatic success that comes with being part of what is currently the only big club in Germany.
On a different end of the scale was our man, Divock. Although he utterly lacked Sadio’s consistency and ferocious attitude on the pitch, Divock was part of enough big moments in his seven years at Anfield (minus a couple loans) that he’ll always be at least a minor legend for the club. Being the thorn for Everton is often enough to guarantee that status, but Divock was a lot more than just that. Now he’s playing for another red club and hoping to be more than just the nettle to their blue crosstown rivals. Just like Sadio, he moves to a club with an enormous history and one that is currently sitting on a league title in Milan. I hope he finds the playing time that always eluded him here to go with the success.
On that same note, albeit a much shorter one, we said goodbye to Takumi Minamino who, like Divock, was an enormous part of the domestic cup competitions. Last season, he was top scorer for both the League Cup and the FA Cup for Liverpool. Unfortunately, he didn’t get a minute in either final and precious few in the leagues, either. I wanted Taki to succeed here in the same way I do every player who plays for us. But it just didn’t work out as it often doesn’t. At Monaco, he’ll have much greater opportunity, surrounded by a young squad that finished a surprising third in Ligue 1 last season, and will at least have a presence in the qualifying rounds for the CL, if not beyond. When he left, he spoke nothing but compliments about Liverpool in general and Jürgen in particular, praising him for increasing his skill and approach to the game. Clearly, some of the mentality had rubbed off.
And, as always, it’s about the little things. Mentality (the monstrous kind) is something that’s developed and which our manager is acutely aware of. Working with companies like neuro11, which the squad was seen doing again this summer in training, is about giving the Reds that slight edge that other clubs (like, say, Chelsea) might not have when it comes down to pressure situations. That’s what gets you to the final of three knockout competitions in the same season and lets you go on a 15-2-0 run to end the season. If Aston Villa had had that kind of determination instilled in them, we might’ve ended last year in very different circumstances. If you’re desperate for reasoning as to why we were so close but not quite over the top, there certainly could have been issues with fatigue; not just because the entire squad was playing the maximum amount of games, but because one player was carrying the load not only for us but a nation.
There’s no argument that Mo faded a bit in the second half of the season. It’s fair to point out that Sadio played with the same weight on his shoulders that Mo did and still produced in the latter half… but so did Mo. 16 of Sadio’s goals came after he returned from AFCON. But 9 of Mo’s 31(!) also came in that period. We were just expecting a couple more that might’ve turned the tide and it just didn’t happen. That said, ensuring that Mo will be with us for what is likely the remainder of his career is extremely important as, since he’s arrived here, Mo has quite literally rewritten the record books.
He’s done all of the above under the shroud of a really dark side to Premier League officiating, as well, which also was likely a contributing factor to that fade.
Mo’ fouls, Mo problems
I was going to write about this in its own piece back in the winter, but eventually decided not only that I needed a little breathing space (writing other things, starting a new job) but also that I really couldn’t talk about it any better than Paul Jenkins had already done. He’s laid it all out here and I really encourage you to take a few minutes to read it before continuing here. It’s perhaps best summarized by this one image (although he has several more to drive home the point):
That, quite honestly, is absurd and about as a clear a depiction of institutional bias as one will see. As Paul’s article shows, it’s not isolated to just that season, either. Those of us who see him every week have long known or at least assumed that Mo was never going to get the calls that others receive, but it’s still startling to realize that it’s not just a bit of our own presumed favoritism of our guy, but a glaringly obvious thing. What causes this? That’s a touchier subject. Is it racism, conscious or unconscious? Probably. Is it media-created bias? Probably. Is it an inability to acknowledge that Mo might be so good that others have no choice but to foul him? Probably. The mildly weird thing, of course, is that it’s not just an “anti-Liverpool” bias, which is the typical conspiracy theory, since Paul’s analysis shows that Mo is officiated differently even among the players on his own side. That’s what we have on our hands. In fact, we might have two of them, since Luís is also someone that seems to operate on a different wavelength from those around him. How many times do you see a penalty called in a pre-season friendly? He got one against Leipzig last week. But, again, given how thin the margins were last season and will be this season, it’s frustrating to think that if officials had treated our guy just a bit more like every other player in the league, things might’ve been different.
So that’s enough about what’s past. I have another piece in mind about the present, including more about Mo and Darwin and how the latter might enable us to switch to the 4-2-3-1 more often. I’ll also talk a bit about the young’uns (one of the goals against Leipzig was a delivery from 23-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold to 21-year-old Curtis Jones to 19-year-old Harvey Elliott to 23-year-old Darwin; the move, of course, was begun by 23-year-old Ibrahima Konaté…) and take a look at a bit more of the future, including money-wise. I’m hoping to do that tomorrow before the game on Saturday, but otherwise probably Sunday so we can look at that game, too.