On Saturday, Liverpool's unlikely dream of a top four finish all but ended. With European qualification already secured by way of League Cup victory, it also meant that losing to Arsenal was the last league match of the club's season that especially mattered as far as results in the present are concerned—at least beyond that winning always feels better to all involved than losing. Some might label it defeatism, but it can also be a reason to start laying foundations for a better future.
In February, we looked at the road Liverpool would need to take to secure an unlikely top four finish and Champions League qualification. At the time, the numbers said that Liverpool would need 2.2 points per game to have a shot at turning their impossible dream into an unlikely reality. Today, those same numbers say that Liverpool will likely need 2.5 points per game.
The eternally hopeful will talk about a run of title winning form always being possible, and maybe it is. They will talk about how Arsenal always implodes and Chelsea is a mess and Newcastle doesn't seem built for a legitimate run at the top four, and there might be some truth in all of that. But Liverpool don't just need a run of title winning form and a club ahead of them to stumble now—they need to perform a a level above what would be title winning form in almost any Premier League season. And even then they need some help from each of the three clubs ahead of them in order to make it.
It can be hard to approach the question of just what is possible in an especially rational manner when you're a fan. It can be hard to discard faith as a supporter; almost impossible not to think that when it's your club this could be the year everything falls just right. After all, sooner or later it has to for somebody, and it is, after all, Liverpool—a club that never seems to do things the easy way and has in the past won when more rational sorts might have called it impossible.
The time for those impossible dreams of cracking the top four, though, was before Saturday's six-point swing suffered in defeat to Arsenal. Afterwards, when even if Liverpool win their game in hand they'll be seven points back with three clubs in front of them, it has rather moved beyond that.
The average point total for the side in fourth over the past ten seasons has been 68. Currently, Arsenal are on pace to finish with 69, while fifth place Chelsea is on pace for 65, and Newcastle is on pace for 62. If Liverpool were to equal their points total from 2009-10 and leapfrog Newcastle into sixth place with 63 points, it would now take an even two points per game. It would be a tough ask, though not outside the realm of possibility, but finishing sixth isn't anybody's goal for the season.
To hit 65 points and draw level with Chelsea's projected tally, then, Liverpool would need to manage the 2.2 points per game that previously would have seen them finish fourth. To do that would mean besting their season-long form in any year since the Premier League began aside from 2008-09. Of course, Chelsea, as some will rightly point out, are struggling and have just fired their manager. Part of the reason for firing their manager were struggles in the league, where over the past ten games they've averaged only 1.4 points per outing. But even at that rate for the remainder of the season they would finish with no less than 62 points.
Which might sound like good news for Liverpool, as then two points per game could just about give the club a realistic shot at fifth, leapfrogging them past both Newcastle and Chelsea. The problem, however, is that in contrast to struggling Chelsea—a side still gathering points at a rate closer to Liverpool's 1.5 per game this season than the 1.79 it takes on average to secure a top four finish—Newcastle's form has actually moved ahead of their season-long average at a time when many had expected it to begin to drop off. All of which means that just to get to fifth now, whether considering points per game over the entire season or recent form, Liverpool almost certainly need 65 points.
Which, finally, moves us on to the issue of Arsenal, currently in fourth place and projected to finish with 69 points. To get 69 points, Liverpool would need nine wins and three draws or ten wins and two loses in their twelve remaining games. That would give them an average haul of 2.5 points per game over nearly a third of a season, a pace that over an entire campaign has only ever been managed once in the Premier League—by Chelsea's 2004-05 squad that reached 95 points. Meanwhile, even if Arsenal stumble—even if they implode—and finish the season on a form to match the struggling, suddenly manager-less Chelsea, they would end up on 65 points.
Having lost to Arsenal on Saturday, that's now the best case scenario for Liverpool: If Arsenal suffers a monumental collapse, and Chelsea doesn't rebound, and Newcastle keeps running in place, then 2.2 points per game over the remainder and 65 points in total just might draw Liverpool level with Arsenal in fourth. But if any one of those three sides does a little bit more than what's needed in that best case scenario, the number jumps quickly back towards 2.5 points per game, a pace that would top both Arsenal's Invincibles and Chelsea's 91 point campaign in 2005-06.
It's time to accept Liverpool's battle in the league is done and look to the future. At the time, many felt that August and September were not ideally suited to testing unproven players while pushing aside last season's top performers. Now, however, the equation has changed, and it should mean a chance for Jordan Henderson to start every week in his best position. It should mean giving Jonjo Shelvey significant minutes to see if he can match his form with Blackpool at the Premier League level. It should mean a starting role for Sebastian Coates, a player who won the Copa America with Uruguay after starting in every knock-out round and was named young player of the tournament in the process.
It seemed foolish to play Jordan Henderson on the right instead of Dirk Kuyt in the early going. And leaving Maxi Rodriguez on the bench in November to keep playing Stewart Downing seemed a borderline irresponsible team selection. In cases such as those, it seemed that the coaching staff was sacrificing points in the present in order to build for the future. Now, though, there actually is little to fight for in the league at present; now is the time when it makes sense to worry about the future.
Liverpool have two priorities for the remainder of the season: Win the FA Cup, and find out which of the youngsters and fringe players can play a role in next year's push for Champions League football. And if you are the sort to never give up entirely on foolish hopes and impossible dreams, then given the inconsistencies of many of this season's regular starters, making a handful of changes that prioritise youth might even be the thing to inspire Liverpool on an unlikely, ridiculous, mathematically nigh-impossible run towards the top four. It is, after all, Liverpool. They've won before when anyone with a bit of sense has known they can't.