Part 1: This is the End
It would be impossible to try to dissect Liverpool’s 2017-18 season without first trying to come to terms with how it ended. The Champions League final against Real Madrid didn’t provide the dream ending everyone was hoping for, and for many it will be a bitter final note to end on, but what will you take away from it as Liverpool head into the offseason?
This hurt feels big. It’s hard right now to get around it and remember that we really are a better team than we were last year, at the end of the day. We’re better than anyone, even ourselves, expected.
We finished in the top four, we didn’t stumble against the mid- or lower-table teams as often as in past seasons. We made it to the Champions League final. Logically, I know this season should be considered a success. In time, I’ll accept that it was. We achieved nearly everything we set out to do, even with some critical losses. We broke records. It still hurts.
I think the thing to take away is that we started finally building on the foundation Klopp has laid. There are walls and structure there now, we just need to reinforce it all with more squad depth. The drum we’ve all been banging for months and months and months. We can’t have our ankles cut by injuries anymore. If we want to be the best we know we can be, we need more talented players in the squad. Period.
I’m not sure there is a tremendous amount to be gleaned from the Champions League final that wasn’t already known to some degree. I was hoping that the match would offer some measure of where this squad stood in relation to the three or four clubs in Europe you would expect to see in the final, but I feel like we didn’t get a chance to really see that.
Or maybe we did. Yes, Salah’s departure was clearly a key turning point. That’s not the type of setback any squad easily takes in stride. For this squad, the shock was too great, there was a bit too much hope invested in the bench options, and despite Sadio Mané’s best efforts, it wasn’t enough. So in that sense, there was a reckoning.
The overall sentiment seems clear. A stellar foundation is there, but quality reinforcements are needed—of that, there is little doubt. Liverpool’s management have gotten a lot of decisions right in the past few years, perhaps none as important as the one made in hiring Klopp. If they can get a couple more right this summer, we might get the chance to see something truly special.
My head is in the future already, to the players coming in and what next season brings. Beating Real Madrid would have been an unbelievable achievement for Liverpool but the journey we just went on with this team this season still ends in wild success. Jürgen Klopp has been exactly what Liverpool wanted and needed and despite the minor setbacks and want-away players he has gone from strength to strength since becoming manager.
The season ends with a loss. Real Madrid won the Champions League again. But they won it by beating Liverpool. Our team returned to the pinnacle of Europe and it was so much fun watching it happen. It’s crushing for the players to lose the game and Loris Karius may have a tough road of mental recovery ahead of him, but Klopp is in charge of managing all of that and more. Jürgen has instilled a unity and winning mentality into this team that they will carry with them into next season. I’m happy.
The way the season ended hurts. There’s no getting around it. And I’m still not sure if the manner of it—with Liverpool playing Madrid mostly level and losing to a rugby tackle that broke Mo Salah and a pair of disastrous goalkeeping errors—makes it better, or worse. I suppose, in my head, I know it makes it better. In my head I know it means this is a Liverpool side that really can go toe-to-toe with anyone—with Madrid or City or Roma and, I have little doubt, with Bayern or Barca or PSG.
That doesn’t make it sting less, as it’s easy to imagine on another night Salah escaping Ramos’ arm-bar and Karius avoiding at least one of his errors and having it add up to Liverpool’s sixth European cup. But there’s a foundation, a high-quality Best XI plus one or two more. Naby Keïta is arriving and probably Nabil Fekir, too. There are no guarantees, of course, which is part of why the ending stings, but this special side should only get stronger now. There’s at least reason to hope for more.
Well, that was a kick to the soft parts, huh? I think what makes this loss so confounding is that, somehow, the worst parts about it were also the best parts. Let me explain. It was terrible to lose in the manner that we did, with a deliberate, cynical injury to Salah and Karius letting in awful goals. Losing on merit would have been a much easier pill to swallow.
On the other hand, the fact that we didn’t get played off the pitch by Real Madrid, that pretty much every player bar Karius did their jobs at least adequately, is a small silver lining. On Saturday, I saw a team with a solid spine, and in particular, a solid defense. We have fullbacks now—legit, competent fullbacks who went toe-to-toe with some of the best players in the world and didn’t give an inch. We’ve got them for years to come, and neither one has hit their peak yet. Virgil van Dijk is the leader we’ve needed in our back line since Carra retired, and Dejan Lovren can perform like the player we all long ago gave up hope he’d be with Van Dijk’s stalwart presence beside him.
I think this is the most excited that I’ve ever been about a summer transfer window since the great King Kenny Debacle of 2011 destroyed my confidence in such things (and even that brought us Captain Hendo). We saw time and again this season, including on Saturday, that our starting XI can challenge anyone, but it’s our bench and lack of depth that really held us back. Some of it was unavoidable injuries, but losing Coutinho hurt us a lot from that perspective. People have argued that the starting XI seems to play better without him, but there’s no denying that having him in the squad meant there was at least one game-changer available on the bench.
It’s easy to see the final as an event unto itself, but really it was the confluence of a season’s worth of minor and major events leading up to Salah’s injury that ultimately sealed our fate. Adam Lallana spent most of the season injured and/or well off the pace. Emre Can went down during the vital run-in. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, of course, injured in the semi-final. And—although we nearly went the entire second half of the season without discussing this point—Philippe Coutinho was sunning his Mickey Mouse tattoo in Barcelona. Some of these decisions were “avoidable” insofar as the club could have refused to sell or could have stepped up recruitment efforts in January. Some, the injuries, were not.
At any rate, even if you could have brought Coutinho back with a magic wand for the final, Salah’s injury alone was probably enough to sink us—most teams aren’t Madrid and can’t bring a player like Gareth Bale. For most teams, losing a goal-per-match star player is going to be just too big a blow. But a Coutinho or fit Ox or in-form Lallana would have at least helped, and now Liverpool need to find a player or two like that they can bring on so that it isn’t such a significant and noticeable drop-off.
I think it’s important not to succumb to recency bias too much. That Champions League final is the aftertaste of the season that we’re going to have to sit with all summer, but it did not define our year. Last season, there was a lot of talk that we were at an advantage without European football and that much of our success was down to having a full week off between league games. To add a full Champions League campaign and only lose a point compared to last season’s finish, and actually look a fair chunk better by expected goals is a genuine achievement. Especially when one considers Chelsea were in the same situation and found themselves 23 points worse off than last year.
We absolutely smashed it in terms of the transfer window, with a case to be made that our three best players this season were all new signings. We were able to integrate Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez into the first team squad really without any kind of problem. This hurts, but everything outside of the final is looking good.