Part 1: Putting 2020-21 Into Perspective
It’s been a difficult year on and off the pitch for Jürgen Klopp’s injury-ravaged Reds. We try to make a little sense of a season played without fans in the stands that saw Liverpool start out as title defenders before plummeting out of the top four—and then finding the resolve to claw their way back into the Champions League places.
It’s been the longest, most exhausting season of Liverpool football ever. It’s also been, in a strange way, the most forgettable and meaningless, embedded as it has been within a terrible year of global pandemic. There are times it’s seemed to have stretched on forever, and yet there are other times it feels as though—much like the past year—it didn’t actually happen. About all I’m certain of now is that, whatever 2020-21 was, it’s over.
It’s over and Liverpool are in the Champions League places. If you’d told me before it all I’d be trying to judge a year when Liverpool finished third with 69 points and were knocked out of the Champions League quarter finals, I’d have guessed I’d be massively disappointed. But I’m not. By the standards the club has set, finishing without silverware and out of the title race feels like it should be a disappointment.
But having lost their three senior centre halves—and the midfielders who replaced them and the January signings that replaced the midfielders who replaced them—and struggled through the club’s worst run of finishing under Jürgen Klopp and having the second most VAR decisions go against them, I can’t be disappointed. I can only be happy. Happy Liverpool are third and the season is over.
Happy that this group that won the Premier League and Champions League and then added Thiago Alcantara and Diogo Jota will mostly get a chance to to rest, get fit, add a couple of players, and go again next year like this whole cursed past year—in the land of Liverpool football and in the real world—never happened.
The purpose of these reviews is to look back at the season after it’s over, to try to look at things objectively and with the benefit of hindsight. And this season in particular is one that needs perspective to properly decipher.
Getting to May 23rd has felt like climbing Mt. Everest, and it’s easy to see how all of these little things contributed to this insane season. Players and staff dealt with the loss of family members, with season-ending injuries, with hairsbreadth VAR decisions and the heightened expectations of a title defence without any defenders and a full season without the Kop. Given all that, to end up in third place is an impressive achievement.
In the barren days of winter when nothing seemed to go right for the Reds, it was easy to pinpoint this team’s weaknesses—or the weaknesses of the players who were still fit, in any case—but from its end point, we can see the strength of character that it took to save this season.
I guess that the biggest things I’ll take away from this season, though, are the ‘what ifs.’ What if Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez stayed fit? What if a few of those VAR decisions had turned our way? What if Firmino and Jota got more time to play together before Jota got injured? Hopefully those questions will be answered next season, with a team that’s had some time to rest, recuperate, and get ready to show what they can do.
What a wild, strange, exhausting season, shorter than any other on the calendar but somehow so much longer and more draining. Even when Liverpool were topping the table, everything just felt off due to injuries, empty stadiums, and that ridiculously compacted schedule.
It’s so strange to be sitting here feeling ecstatic about a third place finish after how amazing this team was in the two prior seasons, but when you look at what it took to even get here, you can’t help but feel amazed they pulled it off. It would be wildly unfair to judge the result based on preseason expectations given everything that’s happened since.
In the end, this group reeled off eight wins out of ten, miraculously got into the Champions League—which we’d all but written off as a pipe dream—and reminded us of how special this team can be. I had been looking forward to a long break and a reset not long ago. Now, with the way it ended, I can’t wait until August.
It was a grueling campaign, and one that really had me questioning the purpose of it all at times. Even before the short-lived European Super League debacle, this season really felt painful and pointless because of the lack of fans, unending injuries, and relentless nature of the schedule.
But then Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool had to do the impossible, climbing from 8th to 3rd in the table with our sixth and eighth choice centre backs, earning 26 of the last 30 points available along the way. And that Alisson header? I’ve not celebrated a goal like that for years. It reminded me of what I’d missed—what we all missed—and why I love football.
There’s no silverware for finishing top four, but this might be Klopp’s finest hour as a coach. It’s easy to keep winning when you have momentum, but it’s a lot harder to right the ship, especially with an injury-ravaged squad with no relief in sight. He and the team were forced to look within, find a way to squeeze out every last drop of talent and determination, and finish on the highest of high notes. Up the Reds, and let’s get back to competing for the biggest and best trophies next year.
To get Champions League football after I had pretty much closed the book on it a couple of months ago? That’s definitely a win no matter what. Watching the football from December to March was a slog for many of us, and I can only imagine how the players felt mired in that slump, with their teammates constantly dropping out of the lineup or having to play out of position. But regardless of how or why they found themselves in such a position, Liverpool met an unimaginable injury crisis by knuckling down and going on a remarkable streak of games. That’s something to celebrate.
Remember that one time when Jose Mourinho said achieving 2nd place with a pre-Bruno Fernandes Manchester United was his greatest career achievement and we all laughed? If Jurgen Klopp were to make the same statement about Liverpool’s third-place season, the footballing world would simply nod in solemn agreement.
A season-ending injury to the best centre back in the world was hard enough. But to also lose his first and second choice partners for the season, the club’s captain, and then to have two of their three world class attackers come down with Covid-19? Most would’ve written the season off. But not these Reds. Finishing in the Champions League league places was the minimum acceptable option to start the season, and that they somehow managed that in the end maintains the trajectory of a project begun even before Klopp arrived—playing in the Europa League next season, without oil money to fall back on, might well have begun a downward spiral for this side that’s come so far.
Players having to perform isolated away from their families for long stretches of the season. Players who would’ve run through brick walls for their teammates and manager. A team that had to contend with catastrophic injuries and awful form—and owners seeking to mangle the game beyond recognition—still managing to squeeze themselves into the top four. This was truly a season where Klopp’s mentality monsters proved their mettle just as much as in their romp to the league title last year and their Champions League the season before. Third is more than just third this time around.
Coming into this season, after the Jota and Thiago transfers last summer, I thought we were going to be watching the deepest, most talented team in recent Liverpool history. It felt like this was a squad that would go toe-to-toe with Manchester City for the Premier League title and go deep in the Champions League, a squad that could win it all again.
Of course, what we ended up seeing instead was an injury crisis of unprecedented scope. Klopp, who prefers to rely on settled squads with consistent patterns of play, had to field an ever growing list of players and combinations just to get bodies onto the field. In the end, after everything this team endured—from the mental difficulties of being isolated to the physical demands of the fixture list coupled with injuries and illness—finishing third is an amazing accomplishment.
We started this season as PL winners, believed for a while that we could win it again this year, saw it all crumble real fast, gave up hope of European football next season, and then regained some last-minute hope as we were pushed over the line running on fumes. I’d say this is what Liverpool fandom always feels like, but even then this has been a particularly torturous emotional arc.
The thing is, though, I never for a second lost the love and fondness I have for this group of players. I saw them go through some real lows, and felt each event like it was happening to me. And I came out feeling compassion for what they went through and admiration for their grit. It takes a special coach and set of personalities to build this sort of emotional bond with a fan who lives on another continent. A fan who spent a drunken night on a rooftop in New Delhi in March tearfully explaining our downward spiral to a bunch of mildly interested friends. First, they lost Virgil. Then they lost Joe! Then Hendo! That’s too much! No one deserves that much misfortune! But they’re still running, and fighting, and persevering!
For Liverpool Football Club as a corporate machine, on the other hand—the one that tried to found a Super League, to access government funds to pay staff, and have consistently treated the women’s team like trash—there’s far less positive to take from the past year. And the cruel reality is that sustained success at the highest levels seems more or less impossible without having calculating and predatory billionaires at the helm. That’s what capitalism has made of modern sport and it’s something I, a lowly fan, can’t do a lot to change on my own. But it’s something that maybe the fans, players, referees, staff, and all the rest can challenge over time, the way they bullied the Super League off John Henry’s to-do list.
As far as the players are concerned, though, there really is so much to love about this season—the arrival of Thiago, the sensation that is Diogo Jota, beating United 4-2, Mo Salah’s abundance of goals, Alisson’s goal, Fabinho’s importance, the now universal acceptance of Jordan Henderson as a remarkable leader. And finishing third in the league table. Somehow. In spite of everything.
It seems dumb to say I feel tired while Andy Robertson lives and breathes and runs up and down the left wing, but mostly today I’m immensely grateful that I get to watch this team once or twice a week and to root for them.