Part 3: Underperformers and Overachievers
While injuries were inarguably the key issue in Liverpool’s 2020-21 struggles, the situation was made more difficult when some players failed to hit the kind of heights they had in the past. Meanwhile, those injuries gave some unheralded fringe players a chance to shine. Today we dig into the players we expected more from this season—and the ones who delivered unexpectedly.
Liverpool had three things go wrong, at least compared to the past few seasons. The big one was injuries. Another major issue, one that was often overlooked by the pundits, is that they had the second most VAR decisions go against them in the Premier League. Neither of those are especially within their control, and if injuries and officiating hadn’t gone against them this is a side that’s almost certainly in the thick of the title race.
However, there was a third problem this season: poor finishing. Of the famed front three, only Mo Salah was converting as expected, while Firmino and Mané both spent much of the season in dire form in front of goal. If the baseline is Liverpool’s forwards should at least convert their chances at about par with expected goals, both fell nearly four league goals short of that mark—and with Mané previously averaging three goals more than expected per season at Liverpool, that’s seven goals lost from expected Mané.
Depending on how you add it all up, in past seasons we would have expected seven to eleven more goals from the duo in the league alone based on their historical strike rates and underlying numbers—more than enough for this side to comfortably finish second and maybe even challenge for the title in spite of those other issues. The good news, if you’re looking for some good news, is that their underlying numbers said they were still getting the chances they did in past years. They just weren’t finishing like in past years.
On the flip side, while Nat Phillips has clearly earned cult hero status, with an eye to the future I was most intrigued by the clear steps taken by Curtis Jones, who—perhaps slightly unexpectedly given he’s often been seen as a more attacking sort of midfielder—appears to be growing into a top class controlling presence. Given the age distribution of Liverpool’s midfield and departure of Gini Wijnaldum, Liverpool are going to need big things from Jones next season, and this past year gave strong evidence that he’s up to it.
For underachiever, while I want to make it clear I don’t think he was Liverpool’s worst player, Sadio Mané was the most disappointing. While all of Liverpool’s front three had stretches where they struggled, Mané’s seemed to last longest and it coincided with the team’s poor form in the new year, which really made it stand out. He did finish strong, and Liverpool may not be in the CL spots if not for a few of his goals down the stretch. However, more than any other player, Mané looked like he needed a mental break for much of the year. Here’s hoping his late rebound and a summer reset will set him up for 21-22.
For overachiever, Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams were nowhere near the first team picture in August, but both were forced to carry a heavy load after Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez and then Joël Matip were lost for the season. Nobody would have been surprised if they had been disastrous, especially playing together, but both performed so much better than any reasonable person could have expected. They both do have some big weaknesses in their game, and I’d rather not see another situation where they have to play for Liverpool, but this year would have been much more painful and disappointing if not for Phillips and Williams exceeding all expectations.
It feels like a million years ago now, but Curtis Jones’ form in the first half of the season was such a pleasant surprise. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from him, but the way he brought a more technical skillset to the role than we’ve seen previously was such a nice unexpected bonus.
What makes it frustrating is that was supposed to be Thiago’s job. He really has improved in recent weeks and looks like he’s starting to grasp the system properly, but looking at the entire season, it’s hard for me not to put him down as a disappointment.
Underachiever: Premier League refs and VAR. They absolutely tried to do everything in their power to deny Champions League football to Liverpool, but came up short when it counted most.
Overachiever: The football god of injuries, who successfully placed an unbreakable curse on our centre backs. Or nearly unbreakable, until Nat Phillips headed it away, requiring only light stitches and a head bandage in the aftermath.
Yeah, the refs really were remarkably shit this year.
On the playing side, though, it’s a bit of a tricky question in both directions, because almost all our players had markedly uneven seasons, with far greater swings in form than has been the case in the past. Both Alisson and Trent, for instance, were absolutely phenomenal down the stretch after very pedestrian performances throughout the year, while Mo’s continued decline in underlying numbers didn’t affect his top-line production at all.
I guess Rhys Williams, although he’s clearly not ready for this level, being able to not immediately drown against Premier League opposition is the biggest overperformance, at least relative to expectations, that I can think of.
On the underperformance side, Takumi Minamino’s inability to get on the pitch, affect play when he did, and ultimately remain at the club despite every other attacker in Red going through a finishing crisis at the time was surprising and disappointing to me, although I didn’t think he looked awful when playing. Also, Kostas Tsimikas played six minutes of PL football this year and had ten touches in the competition, which is less than I expected.
No underperformer this season can be entirely removed from the context of a pandemic-compressed season (which affected everyone to some degree) and a biblical plague of injuries (experienced by no other club to degree it impacted Liverpool).
I’m not sure if this falls neatly into either the under or over category, but I want to take a moment to really appreciate Andrew Henry Robertson, aka Robbo, who once again brought us his near-perfect fitness and availability along with unwavering commitment and constant involvement in key parts of our game. Left to me, the Player of the Season would be jointly awarded to him and Mo.
In the definitely-falls-in-the-under category, with all the injuries it’s hard to believe just how little Naby Keïta was involved this season. Time to sell him to bulk up the Mbappé Fund, IMO.
After several seasons of expecting Naby Keita to take over a consistent role, it really felt like this had to be the year it happened. It seemed Klopp wanted to transition his midfield, with Keita and Thiago being a key part of that. What we saw, however, was yet another season marred by injuries and inconsistent play. I don’t see a future for him at Liverpool at this point, which makes him my biggest disappointment of the season.
On the overachiever side, Nat and Rhys have already been mentioned, so I’ll go in a different direction and talk a bit about Diogo Jota. He was someone I was excited to see as a rotational piece to give the front three some rest and chip in with a few goals. Then he went on an absolute tear to start his Liverpool career, scoring seemingly every time he stepped on the pitch. He ended up missing a significant amount of time later in the season, but nine goals in just over 1,100 minutes was well above what I could have hoped for. Also, a huge shout out for Alisson, who was at his best in the last quarter of the season after a rocky start to the year.
I’m going to go a little off the board and highlight the fact that, arguably at least, the biggest underachiever this past season might just have been the Liverpool FC board for threatening to derail an already crazy season with their dreams of a European Super League. Read the room, guys.
Talking players, I hate to single out anyone in this super difficult season but Naby Keita has to be the choice here, right? We waited a full year for his transfer to happen, and after three seasons at the club, we’re still waiting for the player we thought we were signing to show up. And it’s not even like he’s terrible. He does pop up with the occasional goal or game where he’s electric. But mostly he simply exists. That’s where we are with him, and at this stage in his career, that’s not enough.
On a more positive note, Mo Salah scoring 22 goals in a team that at times looked like they were shooting at forcefields is incredible. Special shout out to Andrew Robertson and Gini Wijnaldum for redefining the term “iron men” by seemingly playing every game for both club and country while everyone else was getting hurt.