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The Liverpool Offside 2016-17 Season Review, Part 1: A Question of Success

In the first part of our season review, the TLO staff look at the big picture and ask just how 2016-17 will be remembered.

West Bromwich Albion v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

For Liverpool in 2016-17 there was no silverware, but there was a top four finish and Champions League qualification. There was a top four finish, but a chance to achieve even more was undermined by poor results against opponents Liverpool should have done better against while their cup runs disappointed. How, then, do you judge the season? A clear success or a qualified one? A partial failure or a hopeful foundation? Has the club exceeded your expectations, fallen short in some way, or ended up doing about what you had hoped for?

My pre-season expectations amounted to the Manchester clubs fighting Chelsea for the title with Liverpool battling to finish above the North London duo for the top four. I believed that the absence of European football combined with a full pre-season under Jürgen Klopp would ultimately be the decisive factor given the teams in question seemed close in quality. While Liverpool pushed above those expectations in the first half of the season before struggling and falling short of any loftier goals, in the end they made great progress in Klopp’s first full season.

Eighth to fourth, more goals scored, fewer goals conceded, and an extra 16 points with arguably the worst squad in the top six reflects well on the manager even if there are some areas for improvement. Liverpool’s lack of a composed midfielder—a problem that moving Philippe Coutinho into midfield may solve—proved to be the issue I thought it would be against low blocks and in hectic games. Combined with a lack of depth in attacking areas that at the time I genuinely believed would be addressed in January, Liverpool made a top four finish less comfortable than it should have been.

Overall, this has been a strong season that gives the players, coaching staff, and the recruitment team a base to build upon with Champions League qualifiers to come in August.

My pre-season expectation was two points per game and top four. As it turned out, that just about scraped it in the end, which speaks to the strength of this year’s top six more than anything. I wanted to see lots of goals, and for the first half of the season—and the final two fixtures—I got my wish, though that early 2017 form and recurring troubles with breaking down stubborn defenses is worrisome.

Players developing under Klopp was another wish, and more or less panned out, with Coutinho’s continued transformation into a genuine superstar and Emre Can’s progress in the latter part of the season particularly pleasing, and despite our league position from matchday eleven on, I’m not one to complain about our missed title challenge. Overtaking Chelsea in the end would have required a 2.5 ppg average over the last 27 games, and that was always going to be a tall task for a side short on quality depth.

I think context matters here. I definitely felt like top four was the main thing at the start of the season. During that brief, heady period in the first half when were were kinda sorta in the title race, I thought to myself, “this is nice, but it won’t last, and that’s okay.” And then in the first few months of 2017 I thought that we would be consigned to another 5th or 6th place finish. So while we hit the target for the season, the fact that we did ended up being a much bigger accomplishment given the obstacles we ran into.

As people have pointed out, Liverpool spent hardly any money, they had to cope with key players being out of the team (either due to injury of the Africa Cup of Nations), and our bench was stocked with academy kids. And while I think the kind of manager hagiographies that happen in English football are a bit overwrought, it’s hard to argue that Jürgen Klopp wasn’t the lynchpin here. In what turned out to be a brutal season at the top end of the table, Liverpool managed to do enough to finish above the line. That’s incredible.

It has to be viewed a success in my opinion. The only question is whether one chooses to look at that success as a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” situation. I do think Liverpool punched above their weight a little bit against the top sides, and needless to say they shockingly underperformed against some basement dwellers this year. I would like to think the problem areas are pretty apparent, and that the opponents that gave us the most trouble did so precisely because we were missing certain skillsets in our squad. This gives me hope that Klopp can formulate a clear plan to rectify his group’s shortcomings. But then again, we signed Dejan Lovren to a new contract, so what do I know. Just please don’t get bounced out during qualifiers by Young Boys, okay?

Liverpool were playing so well at times this season that it was difficult for us to watch. Because we wanted more. We could see the potential for more. The rest of the time, the matches left us feeling spent with impatience when the team was struggling to find brilliance. But you can see that brilliance is coming. And Champions League qualification is key to attracting the players who will help usher it in. Teams always need to do better. But a top four finish for Liverpool in Jurgen Klopp’s first full season is progress. It was harder than it needed to be, sure. But nobody will care that the club just edged it out when we're doing European nights again. And doing it well.

Top four was the goal at the start of the season, and that’s where we ended up. There were games I would definitely prefer to forget, but there were also games that Liverpool showed just how well they could perform, and that’s definitely something I’m excited about for next season. Given the injuries we were working with and given how thin our squad was stretched, top four is an excellent end to the season. So, a clear success, everything considered, and a source of much optimism for the coming year.

I would call this season a qualified success. We made the top four in a particularly competitive season. And we had a really great run of games at the beginning of it. It might be hard to remember now, but we were in the conversation to give Chelsea some competition in winning the league all the way through the end of 2016. The front four of Mané, Firmino, Coutinho, and Lallana was phenomenal. Sadio Mané is the truth and the light. That’s why it was so frustrating when it all came crashing down. It wasn’t a slow dip in form—it was a sudden, precipitous drop off of the edge of a cliff in the first six weeks of 2017.

A lot can be blamed on injuries and missing players and a lack of depth, but some of it is the same old deficiencies in defense and an inability to break teams down. The good news is that this team definitely has a solid base to build from, and hopefully with a few strong signings this summer they can start to address some of the problems.

Prior to the season, I said that I thought Champions League qualification was a minimum threshold to be considered a “success” and I stand by that sentiment. Earning 76 points is nothing to sneeze at, and a significant improvement over last year’s haul. Hell, last year it would have been good enough to secure a second place finish. This season, it was barely enough to qualify for a Champions League play-off spot, but there you go. Five teams finished above 70 points, with Manchester United just behind with 69. Unlucky. When viewed as a whole, it was glorious at times, and frustrating at others. Give or take a couple of injuries, and this season could have been something truly special, or yet another season where we came up short. A disastrous January ended any silvery hopes we might have otherwise had, but Klopp & Co. did an excellent job getting the lads refocused and grinding out results down the stretch.

If you’d told me 76 points and top four to start the year, I would have jumped at it, and so from that perspective it’s hard not to call the season a success, pat ourselves on the backs, and head into the summer looking for a few big signings before returning to the Champions League. Still, even if on paper the result is positive, it’s hard to look past points dropped against bottom-half sides in games that, injuries or form or anything else aside, Liverpool really should have expected more from. Burnley, Bournemouth, Swansea, Hull, Leicester, and Palace. Six losses for this Liverpool side, worth 18 points in the table, and all against sides that ended up tenth or below. The good news, perhaps, is it feels like a lot of those losses can be blamed on a lack of depth. So. About that summer transfer window and making a few big signings?

Tuesday — Part 2: Transfer Business
Wednesday — Part 3: Underperformers and Overachievers
Thursday — Part 4: Klopp Concerns
Friday — Part 5: What Comes Next?

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