Part 3: Underperformers & Overachievers
Some Liverpool players, both new signings and existing squad members, stepped up and look key to Jürgen Klopp’s long-term plans. Not everyone, though, hit the heights we hoped for in 2017-18. Looking back, who have you been most impressed by? And on the other side of it, who left you feeling disappointed?
We all know that Mohamed Salah had an absolutely incredible year. We’ll be talking about this season of his for decades to come. So for now I’ll talk about some other players. Virgil van Dijk never entirely convinced me for Southampton or the Netherlands, and the price tag struck me as very steep, but he has well and truly shown me to be a fool. Similarly, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain always struck me as somewhat limited at Arsenal but has looked a much more complete player at Liverpool. In terms of personnel already at the club, I think James Milner has in typical fashion had a quietly strong year, returning to midfield from left back and outperforming many who were considered ahead of him last year.
In less positive news, it’s hard to see how Alberto Moreno ever makes his way back into the first choice side. He still hasn’t been able to overcome his frequent errors, and it looks like he’ll never make good on his genuine talent. The injury-plagued pair of Adam Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne probably deserve another year to remind us what they can do at full fitness, but it’s not clear to me that they’ll definitely return the same players.
Salah and Robbo and Ox exceeded pretty much everyone’s expectations as new signings, but for me, 2017-18 was about Firmino defining the attack and making last summer’s “sign a 20-goal striker” talk look asinine. As good as I knew he was—and I’ve been firmly on Team Bob since he signed—I still didn’t expect him to turn into arguably the game’s top false nine over the course of the season. On the flip side, I’m very worried Lallana may never get back to his pre-injury form and that his time as a key, contributing squad member is done.
I’m going to take a walk on the wild side and give credit here to Dejan Lovren and Loris Karius—even after the final. I’ve been pulling for Lovren to succeed since he arrived from Southampton but even I had reached a point where I thought it just wasn’t going to work out. The Tottenham match was probably a nadir, and I felt that was the beginning of the end. I can’t say he’s been flawless since, but Lovren has proved a lot of people wrong in a big way. He’s stepped up in some crucial situations in the biggest matches, and has also proven himself to be an important locker room presence.
As for Karius, it’s cruel that everyone’s last memory of him over the summer is going to be his brutal errors in the Champions League final. But for a decent stretch since he took over from Simon Mignolet he transformed the mojo around that position from perpetual laugh track to occasional chuckle. He might not be the best option for Liverpool going forward, but he at least deserves to have that remembered as well.
Holy cow, I love this team. Get ready for a novel. Is it even worth it to point out Mohamed Salah? Best player in the league, one of the best in the world, smile like the sun, puts joy in my heart. What I will say is that I’m surprised how quickly the front three meshed together and how lethal they ended up becoming. That dynamic seemed to click overnight and they never looked back. Can an attacking unit collectively count as an over-achiever? Are there any rules governing this?
And I’m over the damn moon about Trent Alexander-Arnold. What a player, what a season he’s had. I’m Team Future Captain all the way. Next, be honest, who among us would have expected Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to flourish under Klopp the way that he did before his injury? And Milner! Trusty Boring James Milner, Champions League assist leader, midfield stalwart, selfless hero. He’s proved again and again that he’s willing to do anything Klopp asks of him. This season was his best in a Liverpool shirt.
And look, I’m going to do it. I’m going to say Loris Karius did really well proving himself this season, too. He’s a young guy who messed up on the most important day of his life and it cost us big, but up until then—once he’d gotten the number one spot—he’d been handling it well. I’m not saying we couldn’t do with an upgrade, but he exceeded my expectations this season.
As for disappointments, after how last season ended I had hoped for more from Simon Mignolet. However, what can’t be impugned was the man’s professionalism and decency throughout everything. If any keeper leaves this summer, it will probably be him. Adam Lallana is a concern for me with the constant injuries. This time last year I labeled him integral to Klopp’s system, but he’s fallen a long way down the list since then. Similarly, I’m starting to fear for our Joe Gomez. I hope he can dig his way out of this injury-loop he’s in, but I’m not totally confident.
The list of over-achievers has largely been filled already: Salah, Robbo, Milner, Dejan, Trent, and Ox all exceeded my expectations to varying degrees. I’ll quietly shout out to Alberto Moreno’s start to the season, which was outstanding before he got injured and Robbo took over. It’s just a shame it likely won’t matter much to his career here.
On the other side of the spectrum, Lallana’s days as a functional footballer at this level may just be at their end, Hendo’s struggles in the early parts of the season when we were going whole hog on the pressing can’t be ignored, and Emre Can remains a frustrating collection of attributes that add up to just a little less than a useful footballer—though it looks like that won’t be our problem any more. And does anyone know what happened to Joël Matip?
I largely agree with everyone’s notes on who’s overachieved, and I don’t think I could ever extol enough the wonderful redemptions of Dejan Lovren and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Alex was less derided than Dejan, but at the time of his transfer Reds fans were largely disappointed by his arrival. It wasn’t that he was a bad one as much as he looked a step sideways. Not for the first time, the LFC fan base as a unit got the call wrong as Ox’s work ethic, positive mindset, and quality on the ball gave Liverpool’s post-Coutinho midfield the balance and grit it needed.
Dejan’s redemptive arc, though, was one to behold. Some of it might be down to playing with arguably the best centre back in Europe, but it’s more than that. Dejan faced vocal criticism and really buttoned us up not only with his play but also the grace with which he met the worst of our fandom. I mean, the guy went from death threats—and he still gets abuse from the “top bantz” crowd—to starring in the best rom com of all time, “Merseyside with Mo.” Maybe it shouldn’t surprise given his experience as someone who survived some harrowing shit as a refugee, but man, I am such a fan of the way he treats the people on this squad with such love and grace.
As for underachievers, it’s really tough to note anyone. Especially when those I’d consider underachievers would mostly have a good reason attached (see: those injury problems). I don’t know. In a season where we crashed the CL Final and booked our tickets into next season’s edition, I feel like I can’t really name a true underachiever. We aren’t a perfect squad, but I feel this team all did enough to acquit themselves.