I’m going to start this off by saying that last season provided some of the best sports-related moments in my life. Liverpool didn’t win anything, and that hurt at the end of it all, but before then, the team was playing the kind of exhilarating and exciting football that every fan wants to see their team play. With Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge up front scoring buckets of goals, and Steven Gerrard as the beating heart of the team, dragging them to victory even when he wasn’t at his best, Liverpool punched far above their weight. And while, again, I wouldn’t change anything about that season but the score of the Chelsea game, that fairy tale run may have ended up being a detriment to the team's progress this year.
Liverpool weren’t supposed to get second place last season. They weren’t supposed to make a title run that went, if by technicality only, right up to the last game. They certainly weren’t supposed to be playing the most attractive football in the world. But they did, and as a result, expectations going into the summer were far too high, and many of Brendan Rodgers’s questionable managerial decisions were allowed to be swept under the rug without being addressed.
As much as fans said they were tempering their expectations, after the euphoria of the last season, it felt like anything was possible. In the end, nothing short of the same magic would suffice. After all, why settle for the humdrum football that Liverpool had been playing for the past few years when we'd gotten a taste of the extraordinary? Only two or three strategic signings, we'd said, and we'd be flying again. Suarez leaving was a huge blow, but not entirely unexpected, and it came early enough in the summer that it still felt as though the club could find a way to use the money from his sale wisely. Champion's League football was on the horizon, and that would serve as a lure for big name players.
One glorious winter transfer window aside, though, Brendan Rodgers has not shown much savvy in the transfer market, and last summer was no different. Warning bells should have been ringing when the club put so much effort – and money – into signing Dejan Lovren. The Croatian defender filled a role that the team already had covered twice over, by Mamadou Sakho and Daniel Agger. That duo’s impressively lengthy combined injury record meant that a solid, dependable third-choice center back should have been brought in, but it wasn’t a priority and it certainly shouldn’t have cost 20m and required a protracted negotiation period.
The only unqualified success of Liverpool’s transfer dealings has been the dashing Emre Can. Anyone who looked at FSG’s history of transfer activity wouldn’t have been expecting the owners to do any business in the winter window after the money they put out in the summer. They seem to demand that the team sink or swim on their own after a big expenditure of cash, so long as they’ve made some attempt to fill the holes in the team. By December it couldn’t have been more obvious that Liverpool needed to find goals from somewhere, but FSG had brought in Rickie Lambert, they’d brought in Mario Balotelli, and so Brendan Rodgers had to figure out a way to make it work.
Despite having a solid run of games from mid-December to March, the team couldn't maintain the high level of play they needed to pull themselves out of the hole they were in. Injuries to key players, a lack of goals, and the distraction of Steven Gerrard's impending departure only made the situation worse. Liverpool crashed out of the Champion's League after a particularly embarrassing showing and will have to wait at least another year before they can redeem themselves in that arena. Not a single victory against any of Everton, Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal -- and more than one humiliating defeat -- have crushed any lingering optimism that fans carried over with them from the last season.
Earlier this month, Simon Mignolet won Liverpool's Player of the Year award. I'm reminded of former Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina's comments upon receiving the Player of the Month award for December 2010. The Spaniard said, "[...] it's never good when a goalkeeper wins it because it means we've been busy." While Mignolet had a horrible run early on in the season -- thanks in large part to a shaky and unreliable defense -- he's been the team's most consistent player this season. Bright talents like Coutinho and Henderson have had patchy displays, with both going long runs of games over the course of the season being anonymous or downright poor. Mignolet deserves his award, but it's telling that no one else even gave him a run for his money.
But what if last season hadn't been so spectacular? What if the team hadn't come within a hairsbreadth of winning their first league title in over twenty years? When Brendan Rodgers was hired, he made it clear that he had a three-year plan. Year two blew that out of the water, and now in year three, we've been brought back down to earth again. If Liverpool had performed as anticipated and hopped a couple of places up the table, would the team now find themselves in the same position? Would we have been so forgiving of Brendan Rodgers's weaknesses as a manager without Sterling, Sturridge and Suarez bailing him out of trouble? Would we have had to endure another year of Steven Gerrard as an ineffectual defensive midfielder if the team hadn't eeked out all of those nail-biting 5-4 victories?
There's no way to know, and like I said, I don't think I'd change it if I could. But it's strange to think of the ways in which one season of over-performing became a burden that the side had to overcome. This season is over now. All that's left is the ugly crying when Steven Gerrard plays his last game at Anfield on Saturday. But the summer's beckoning, and with that comes speculation and transfer rumors. Gerrard and Johnson are both leaving, marking the end of an era for Liverpool Football Club. The team will have to figure out how to move on and grow. In 2015-2016, the potential side will have little in common with its 2013-2014 predecessor. As fans, we'll have to learn to adjust our expectations to face this new reality.
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