Part 4: Underperformers and Overachievers
When you win the Champions League and earn 97 points in the league, for the most part you’d expect most of the players to have had impressive seasons. Still, we wanted to know if there was anyone who stood out to the writers of TLO, either unexpectedly or to a greater degree than hoped for. And on the flip side, we wanted to know if there was anyone whose 2018-19 turned out worse than people expected heading into it.
Despite only making 25 appearances this season, Joe Gomez is the standout overachiever for me. We knew the kid had talent, but it’s easy to forget that when he laced up next to Van Dijk against West Ham he had played centre-back for the club a grand total of five times since arriving in 2015. As good as Van Dijk makes Matip—and to some extent Lovren—when they play next to him, neither were as impressive as JoeGo, and we had absolutely no right to think he would be quite so spectacular. If the club ever figure out how to improve his durability, we could be looking at a generational talent.
Robbo and Trent obviously make the shortlist as well, with both players taking a huge step up in production, and the latter in particular displaying maturity way beyond his years at both ends of the pitch.
At the other end of the spectrum, it largely comes down to players that didn’t play much, because most of those who were on the pitch did really, really well. Adam Lallana looks just about done at the top level every time I watch him play, and Daniel Sturridge is similarly diminished. Xherdan Shaqiri’s second half of the season was quietly pretty abysmal, and I wish Naby had been able to stay healthy enough to play more consistently.
As I talked about back in part one, I think there were only one or two games this previous season that could’ve gone differently. Both of those games happened to be against the team that finished one point ahead of us. With a season like, just about the entire squad stood out.
Still, when it comes to players who maybe underperformed, I feel like we needed just a little bit more from Daniel Sturridge and Xherdan Shaqiri and that if we had it might have made the difference. It’s harsh, because those players did still come up big in a few moments. Daniel scored that goal against Chelsea, and Shaqiri netted two against United. But when you need an unbelievable amount of points to win the league, you need more from the players that take up the spots Shaq and Studge do in the squad.
I’m still so in awe of this team, to come together in the way that they did for the season that they had. Ninety-seven points, a sixth Champions League trophy. They’ve made their own history, etched their names into the LFC annals forever.
For overachievers, I think honourable mention has to go to Joe Gomez, Fabinho, and (in my possibly biased opinion) Jordan Henderson. Joe Gomez and Fabinho especially, as they both moved into their preferred roles, and while Fab took some time to get used to the pace of Klopp’s play and the league’s style, once he did he made that holding role his own. So much so that it allowed Jordan Henderson back in the role that he made his own in 2013-2014, and that in turn really unleashed our captain in a way that he’d sacrificed when we didn’t have any other holding midfielders. The addition of Fabinho was understated for the most part, and truly seemed like the last piece of the puzzle needed to achieve everything we did this year.
As for underperformers, I’m going to join the chorus and say that Xherdan Shaqiri was a bit of a disappointment after his “fire at will” first half. After scoring those two against United in December (on my birthday, no less!) his form started to dip and he was relegated to bench warming for reasons mostly unknown (injury? defensive question marks?). Whatever the reason, I had such high hopes for him after being impressed early on. Hopefully a full pre-season will help whip him into shape for us because I think he could still be a valuable piece of the puzzle.
Joe Gomez was a surprise revelation at centre-back to start the season, too. He was so good next Van Dijk. Joe is obviously a talented player and did a fine job at right back, but I wasn’t expecting him to turn so many heads after sliding into the middle. Sadio Mané also took his game up a level this season, matching Salah and Aubameyang with 22 goals in the Premier League. Mané was everywhere, doing everything, and crucial to Liverpool’s dynamism on the pitch.
Naby Keita is my underachiever. I like him. But it’s been two seasons now that we’ve been anticipating Keita’s arrival. There were glimpses of magic once he got up to speed with Klopp’s methods and the mysterious ways of the league but we’ve yet to see what he can do for this team on the regular. Injuries played their part, of course.
Next season will be an important one for Keita. He and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will be vying for midfield roles now that Ox is back from injury and fit. Academy players will be maturing and joining Melwood training. An attacking player could be brought in over the summer that further complicates Keita’s path to consistency. He needs a solid preseason and I really hope he’ll start strong in August.
Virgil van Dijk is a legit contender for the Ballon d’Or. Alisson was the difference between winning a sixth European Cup and, well, not winning it. Gini Winaldum and James Milner never really got the credit their key cog play deserved. And the attacking trio remain arguably the best attacking unit in the game. But all of that, to one degree or another, was expected. I’m not sure I expected Andy Robertson to end the season as probably the best left back in Europe, even after a strong second half to last year. So. Andy Robertson. From Celtic castoff to Liverpool’s working class hero.
On the flip side of it, from a footballing perspective I honestly was expecting more from Naby Keïta. I still believe in the player—and his stats, while limited, were promising—but for as much as Liverpool paid for him and as good as he looked in Germany, I wasn’t expecting to essentially have to wait two years for him to arrive.
Then, on a more personal level, I feel bad that things ended the way they did for Daniel Sturridge—after coming back from his loan at West Brom, recommitting to the project, accepting a limited role, then that goal against Chelsea. For a while, I really believed he’d have a small but important role to play this season.
Am I just allowed to say “defence” for overachievers? What are the rules here? Our fullbacks have not-so-secretly been the lynchpin to almost everything this season. Virgil van Dijk is a gorgeous, ponytailed powerhouse who helped bring the best out of every player paired with him. And Alisson has been the answer to our prayers.
But aside from that, is there any player who overachieved more than Divock Origi? He scored four of the most important goals of the season. In terms of making his time on the pitch count, it’s hard to look past him.
As for underachievers, I have to join the chorus saying that Naby Keita has not yet lived up to the hype. It’s ridiculous to count him out yet, because there were flashes of brilliance and he never really got any consistent playing time, but this season wasn’t his best.
The entirety of our defence deserves extra medals after this season. Being able to watch games against the best teams in Europe without having a panic attack any time the ball came close to Alisson was incredible. Even better: a post-season conversation about whether Matip or Gomez made a better partner for Van Dijk. That’s exactly the kind of problem I want to have.
Well, let’s start with the disappointments cause the list is short. While I’m obviously very high on Naby Keïta coming good, I am so bummed that his season turned out to be such a let down for him. I suspect we’d have been less clear on this being a bummer had he not gotten injured and actually got to see if he’d finally put it all together the way that run of games leading up to the injury had indicated. Alas.
I get why Sturridge might make the list for some and, honestly, it might be my undying love for the man, but I feel like his contributions were kind of what people should have expected from him. That’s not an indictment, more an acceptance—but it means his season wasn’t a disappointment to me. He showed up against PSG. He dropped brilliance against Chelsea. And that’s kinda fine from a fringe player. His contributions were in line with his fitness and fit in the squad. Not that that makes his departure hurt any less, of course.
As for the overachievers, another shout for the defence is in order. Yes, the guys bombing up and down the flanks have gotten a lot of pub, but that defensive spine anchored by VVD and Alisson is just something else. As noted elsewhere, having a defence that functions so well is a blessing if for no other reason than I’m not always feeling like I’m 30 seconds away from cardiac arrest every time an opponent dribbles into our half. We looked world class at times, and for a team with an attack most teams would kill to have, also having the League’s most air-tight defenses felt like a FIFA cheat code.
I also need to give a shout out to the fullbacks for their contributions to the attack. We’ll always remember TAA’s assists against Barca, and Robbo might be the most dangerous crosser on the left I’ve had the pleasure of watching. Our best attacking efforts always seemed to start out wide with these two playmakers, and that needs to be celebrated.