Part 4: Could 2020-21 Have Gone Differently?
After winning the Premier League last season and the Champions League the year before, expectations were high for Liverpool heading into 2020-21. While there were good reasons for their struggles, once they dropped out of the title race it was probably fair to say they didn’t live up to those expectations. But could anything have been done differently?
I said in preseason that we’d miss Dejan Lovren, but no one could’ve predicted just how much we’d miss Degsy. I was nervous that we were making a similar mistake to the one Man City made the year before after not replacing Vincent Kompany, and it really sucks to have been right. Still, the sheer scale of the injury crisis meant that even keeping Lovren—or bringing in a player like Ozan Kabak in the summer rather than January —wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
An argument could be made that Jürgen Klopp should have given up on the “Fabinho as center back cover” strategy much earlier, too, but instead I think I have to give the manager credit here. He got it right in the end, if only just. Kloppo is right to point out that no team could compete for trophies with the amount of injuries that we suffered, especially in one position. To right the ship midseason and qualify for Champions League when the chance looked dead and buried? It was a hell of the job all around, and especially by the manager, to make sure the players stayed focused and got back on track.
There were quite a few of us here who were concerned with the depth at centre back heading into this season, especially with the injury history of Joe Gomez and Joel Matip. Unfortunately, those concerns were well founded. Having another senior team centre back on the roster might have helped to keep Fabinho in his holding midfield role. As we saw later in the season, when Fabinho went back into midfield it unlocked the full class and ability of Thiago. Of course, if Liverpool had another senior team centre back to start the season they probably would have gotten hurt too, so it might all be moot.
Yes. Others have mentioned this already but there were centre-back depth issues that we knew about going into the season. Now, would The Curse have spared those centre-backs? We just don’t know.
Honestly, the one thing that should have gone differently this season is the distraction that was the Super League announcement. It was a hilarious time for a lot of us, but we really could have done without it.
The need for an established fourth-choice centre half was something all of us were calling for last summer given Joe Gomez and Joël Matip were both known injury question marks. It meant going into the season with one reliably fit player at the position. The recklessness of trying to mount a title defence with not just three players where most top clubs carry four but those three players was slapping a kick-me sign on your own back and being surprised when it results in getting kicked. It was a reckless gamble—and it looked a reckless gamble in August and September.
With all that out of the way, I think Ritika’s right to highlight the Super League as a perhaps even more obvious, more avoidable fuck up by the club. And its timing really did hurt given it coincided with Liverpool trying to get their shit together and make a late top four push.
Before the Super League announcement, Liverpool did seemed to be doing just that—getting their shit together. They’d won three on the bounce, dispatching Wolves, Arsenal, and Aston Villa. Then the club’s owners stuck their foot in. Whatever one’s views on the Super League idea, the timing made it an almighty distraction when the players needed to keep their focus on the pitch, and it’s hard to blame them for not being fully able to and dropping points to Leeds and Newcastle in its immediate aftermath.
Buy a centre-back and score your chances would’ve solved a lot of our issues this season, but some of the explanation of our 30-point drop-off from last year is just variance. Our ability to convert narrow advantages into points in our title-winning run was outrageous and probably never going to be sustainable, and this year we saw that come home to roost on top of everything else.
We didn’t really stand pat after winning the league, but added Thiago and Jota to an already great team, and were mostly screwed over by expectations probably being too high following last year’s points tally, and a combination of injury, refereeing and finishing-related circumstances. Besides going into the season with a threadbare central defence, I can’t fault the club’s strategy much.
We now know he plays okay in this team, and that factors into the judgement, but Ozan Kabak was right there for the taking back in pre-season. His agent was desperately trying to hawk the guy to us all through the summer for a relatively affordable fee. We got cheap, cut corners, the unthinkable happened, and this season suffered for it.
Virgil Van Dijk had been an ironman since arriving at Anfield in January 2018 for good reason. Unlike most gifted athletes with his godly levels of athleticism, the star centre half is curiously a master at conserving energy. He often prefers to stay on his feet rather than engage in risky tackles, never getting caught too high up the pitch to have to strain to recover and often appears perturbed whenever he has to exert himself defensively.
All of which made the season-ending ACL injury he suffered at the hands—and flailing legs—of Jordan Pickford so unusual: it’s the sort of situation in which the Dutchman rarely finds himself. Was there the temptation, to which many an attacker often succumbs, to invite Pickford’s clumsy contact and try win the penalty? If that was the decision, how much closer would the final 17 point gap between Liverpool and Man City have been if he had instead hung back? Could the Reds have mounted a credible title defence?
As others have mentioned, another centre back would have been extremely beneficial, and that’s not even just a hindsight thing since many of us felt that way before the season even kicked off. But the truth is that even an extra CB or two wouldn’t have totally erased the effects of playing way too many damn games on too little rest, and that’s on the leagues and federations.
Especially considering the compressed schedule, the Premier League could and should have done more to help out teams playing in the Champions League and Europa League in midweek. FIFA and the confederations could and should have done more to cut down on unnecessary international matches. In general, a lot more should have been done to look out for the wellbeing of players who were being forced to play the usual slate of matches.
Instead, they went all in on continuing to push the boundaries of what’s reasonable to expect out of players and teams that go deep in multiple competitions, and they did it on an accelerated timeline. As a club, Liverpool made their own mistakes, but FIFA and UEFA and the Premier League did their part to set them and a lot of others up to fail.