Liverpool are in a bad patch. Even when the performances have been decent-to-good, the Reds seem unlikely to score. Gone are the days when fans could feel certain there would be a late goal or comeback and the inevitability of a win, even if it might have been ugly.
In a season blighted by injuries, the defending Champions look increasingly likely to finish outside the top four. Now, they must hope for perfection in their own results, and slip-ups elsewhere.
Amidst the fan mood, which ranges from maniacal laughter in the face of ongoing disappointment to consistent shouting into the void to quiet melancholy, there are some who are quick to point out that It Has Been Worse On The Pitch Before.
These comments mean well, and, on the surface, are probably true. It has been worse before.
Despite the financial challenges confronting Liverpool and other clubs due to the uncertainty of the market in a pandemic, the club are nowhere near being in the kind of financial turmoil that exists elsewhere in the sport. Looking to their own bureaucratic history, the club is not in court with an uncertain future.
Meanwhile, on the pitch the absolute dire form that characterized so much of the Roy Hodgson era is at least nowhere in sight, and even an injury-laden Liverpool fares well in comparison to most recent-past line-up images on Twitter (leaving aside how much money I would pay to see a centre-back pairing of Dejan Lovren and Martin Skrtel right now).
The club are current holders of the Premier League trophy, and their sixth European Cup has not yet started gathering dust — to say nothing of their first ever Club World Cup trophy. This is a long way away from even 2015, when fans were faced with “last time Liverpool won the league” banter. It has certainly been worse before.
So why does this feel so different?
Well, on the pitch it feels like injustice in a lot of ways. The injury record is unprecedented, not just for Liverpool FC but for any club in the Premier League. Even in the midst of a season many predicted would be littered with injuries due to the fixture congestion and lack of pre-season preparation, Liverpool lead the pack with major long-term injuries to key players — and even to squad players important for rotation.
This feels like an injustice not simply because we as fans can feel almost certain that Jürgen Klopp’s men would be challenging Manchester City in a world where even half the injuries didn’t happen, but also because it feels harsh on the players. Klopp has assembled a world-class side who are either entering or just now leaving their prime playing ages, and more than anything it feels like these players deserve to be challenging for silverware this season.
As Liverpool fans, we may never see the likes of this team again, and it feels cruel to see the legs cut out from under it in this manner. No player plays forever. Playing years, let alone playing years at one club, are limited. Jürgen Klopp’s players have shown a lot of heart to go with their physical exertions over the past few seasons, and they deserved their time in the light. Put another way, If I hadn’t seen such riches I could live with being poor.
Sport isn’t just, of course — often the best team loses, just ask José Mourinho. What Klopp’s team have been faced with, though, seems more than unfair. To win the trophy fans thirsted after for 30 years without those fans in attendance to shower them in adulation was one thing; it also feels cruel, though, that they don’t have the backing of the Anfield faithful now, when they could most use a boost. Players have played with the backing — and hassling — of fans for their entire careers. That these players should reach such heights without fans feels wrong. They deserved knowing how much we adore them for what they achieved.
Liverpool are not the only club with injuries and bad results playing in empty stadiums, of course. The potential is what makes it all harder to take. Not every club could have expected to challenge for the league title this season; Liverpool were favorites. The achingly high possibility makes the fall harder to handle. A bad result is harder to stand back up from if you are burdened with thoughts of what might have been lodged in the back of your mind.
Of course, there are other challenges that make the idea that The Club Has Been Worse Before feel a little besides the point.
There’s a pandemic on, which has put collective health under threat. Many of us have lost loved ones to COVID-19, and even if we’re lucky enough to have our friends and family healthy, no one has been untouched. The uncertainty and isolation have led to spikes in mental health problems. This is more important than football.
But the pandemic and its impact affects how we watch football, too. Watching Liverpool play is a leisure activity, a break from our work week, a time to let go and relish in the delight (and maybe even the hurt) that comes with giving eleven men in red so much power over our emotions.
This has been different during a pandemic. In non-pandemic times, the losses are perhaps easier to take sometimes because we can at rant to mates or have a pint. There are more distractions. There’s more of a sense of a collective. The pandemic has removed that aspect of the sport, whether your matchday routine involves going to the ground or waking up at sunrise to watch in a California pub that opens early for your group, specifically.
Football without fans is nothing, we’ve said in the past. It usually had to do with ticket prices and the treatment of fans by the powers at be, who often treat us as consumers rather than valuable parts of the sport. That might just change once it’s safe for fans to return.
Now when we express this sentiment we mean something slightly different: the spectacle of matches in empty grounds is diminished. The lifeblood of the game, its highs and lows, are gone. And the experience of watching the game divorced from our normal routines has, if anything, gotten harder as we enter a year since the pandemic affected many of us for the first time. It’s hard graft to watch this Liverpool team play, even when they beat Sheffield United like it’s not all that hard to win. It’s not the same.
Has it been worse before for Liverpool Football Club on the pitch? Sure. Maybe. Yes.
But that doesn’t minimize just how hard it is to watch this glorious team struggle against so much while we’re stuck at home looking at a laptop, relying on Twitter and WhatsApp and Zoom to feel less like we’re watching alone.