So far in this series, I’ve mostly looked at what Liverpool need to do to ensure a coveted Top 4 finish. While still important (and not quite guaranteed, though very, very close), I’m not going to focus on how to do the bare minimum to scrape into the Top 4 (as we did last year), but rather on what momentum to finish this campaign can mean for next season.
With four Premier League matches remaining--away to West Brom, home to Stoke City, away to Chelsea, and home to Brighton—Liverpool could finish with a maximum of 82 points. For a team that has thus far averaged 2.06 ppg, such a late season flourish is perhaps not likely, but equally, it would not be outside of the realm of possibility.
We have had several 3+ game winning streaks in the league so far this season. Following the 4-1 Tottenham away defeat, we won three matches on the trot before drawing 1-1 to Chelsea. We then followed that draw with two more wins. And again, following the reverse fixture against Spurs, we won three in a row again.
Interestingly, our best league winning streak this season came during the packed holiday schedule, 4 wins in a row against Swansea, Leicester City, Burnley, and Manchester City. This streak also included an FA Cup win over Everton.
This Liverpool side has proven so far this season to be one that relies on rhythm. Simply, winning begets more winning.
As the Champions League run becomes a larger and harder to ignore elephant in the room, the calls for Jürgen Klopp to rest players will surely grow louder. However, I’m not sure this is the best strategy for several reasons.
First of all, because of heavy rotation in the first part of the season, this Liverpool side looks nothing like the side that had to claw its way over the line last campaign. Instead of nervy 1-goal victories from exhausted players, this side looks fresh and is playing brilliant, flowing, attacking football.
Secondly, as mentioned: rhythm. The attacking trio of Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah, and Sadio Mane are playing with a supreme level of confidence and understanding. The midfield is clicking, and the defense is as solid as it has been in years. Whatever Kloppo is doing, it’s working, and he shouldn’t rock the boat too much.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, finishing as high as possible in the league table bodes well for next campaign.
Although we tend to think about 2013/14 as some magical flash-in-the-pan, the seeds of that campaign were sown in the tail end of 2012/13. Liverpool finished a pitiful and distant 7th that year, averaging just 1.61 ppg. But in the second half of the season, the Reds, with the crucial mid-season additions of Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho, averaged a cool 2 ppg (AKA “Top 4 caliber”). And in the second half of the season, there were 6 wins by a margin of 3 or more goals, culminating in a raucous 6-0 win at Newcastle.
Leicester City, too, did not come out of nowhere. In the second half of their 2014/15 campaign, one in which they seemed sure to go down, they turned it around, winning 7 of their last 9 matches. And we all know what happened next, for better or for worse.
In the second half of this campaign, Liverpool, with the cruicial mid-season addition of Virgil van Dijk (and crucial mid-season subtraction of Coutinho?) have earned 35 points from a possible 45, or 2.33 ppg. If Liverpool can replicate that over the course of next season, it would be on pace for 88 or 89 points. It would be enough to challenge any team for the title, even the great Manchester City, until the end of the season.
If, Liverpool can win out, that would be a staggering 2.61 ppg in the second half of the season. City, in the greatest Premier League campaign ever, ever, are averaging 2.64 ppg. Winning out would be a clear statement to the league that we are ready to make the next step up, domestically.
Besides just looking good and being good for our psyche, it winning out would also give us an outside chance to pip Manchester United for second. It would be a just reward for playing brilliant football, and overcoming a difficult start to the season. And, it would be a just reward for Mourinho’s dire, negativist brand of shit football.
Moreover, balancing the league and Champions League will be a necessary trick Liverpool will have to learn if they find themselves in a similar situation next year, but further up the table. If, for instance, we’re not a point behind United for second, but rather in a tight contest with City for that long coveted league title. This is, in a sense, a title run-in dress rehearsal.
Of course, there will be temptations to rotate, especially against Stoke City, which falls directly between the two semifinal ties. But if Klopp goes full strength from here on out, we should be in for some good times, both this season and next.