Part 4: Underperformers & Overachievers
When you come within two games of a historic quadruple you expect most of the players will have had a good year. Rather than trying to figure out who was good or great or best, then, we sat down to try to figure out who out-performed expectations. And on the flip side, we wanted to figure out which players we had high expectations for at the start of the year didn’t quite live up to them.
I can’t start this off without reiterating that this whole season was about overachieving. Sixty-three matches for the men, a couple of trophies, 90+ points in the Premier League. Plus on the women’s side the team got promotion back to the Women’s Super League. It’s hard to pick out a singular overachiever when the whole damn club purely went for it.
Was it Klopp, perhaps, pushing our club to these heights. Was he the overachiever? Was it the B Team, players like Caoimhin Kelleher, Kostas Tsimikas, and Taki Minamino—who almost single handedly brought us those two domestic trophies that had eluded us under Klopp? Or new signings like Ibrahima Konaté and Luis Diaz who immediately made an impact? How about Joël Matip, who had his best season with us since signing mostly by staying fit?
As for underachiever, for me it has to be Naby Keita, and it all comes down to fitness and consistency. It’s tough when you’re in and out of the lineup and Jordan Henderson, Thiago, and Fabinho to compete with, but it’s been three seasons and given his transfer fee we’re well past any grace period for settling in and I felt like last season was his last chance to prove he could be the player we thought we were signing on a consistent basis.
I’m going to disagree a little and say that the Top 4 in midfield were the clear overachievers for me, and that includes Keïta. The biggest concern last offseason was who would replace Gini Wijnaldum’s minutes given the injury histories of Thiago, Henderson, and Keïta. Thiago and Keïta did miss some time, but they still managed 39 and 40 appearances respectively, which is more than most really expected of them.
Meanwhile, Henderson only missed two matches, and they were due to illness, not injury. He made 57 appearances, which led the squad—though at times he did maybe look a little tired because of it. Throw in 48 appearances for Fabinho and the Reds’ four most important midfielders ate up way more minutes than anyone would have realistically expected.
Which in turn brings me to my underachiever. I was incredibly excited when Harvey Elliott started to look like he was going to be a real contributor. After his first few appearances it looked like we had a star. Then the injury happened. The injury was out of his control, and I obviously don’t hold the time off against him, but given how good he looked in the opening weeks I still had hopes he could be a super sub when he returned. Instead, he ended up stuck down the pecking order and often didn’t make the bench, which was disappointing after how good he looked in those first three appearances.
In a season where so much collective overachieving was done, it feels rather weird to single anyone out for underachieving but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s slow road to exile has been definitely the most depressing thing to witness for me. He didn’t feature once for Liverpool after the cup game with Nottingham Forest, which is pretty stunning considering the fixture pileup Liverpool faced. He still has his moments but those are getting increasingly rare, and when he’s on the pitch, the team has looked poorer for it. It’ll be a sad ending to a Liverpool career that started off with so much promise, but that appears to be the end we’ve reached.
For overachiever, there are many names that we could go with, but I’ll have to go with Kostas Tsimikas. On the pitch and off, he’s brought energy and made himself an essential and beloved member of the squad, and his FA Cup winning penalty will play over and over on highlight reels for years to come.
This team was so good from top to bottom that choosing an underachiever seems unfair. Since I have to pick someone, I’ll go with Curtis Jones. I’m a huge fan of Jones, and think he has the chance to become a legitimate world class midfielder in this team. After some very strong performances last season and Gini Wijnaldum moving on, I thought there might be a chance for him to step in and taking a more regular role. While he often didn’t play poorly, it’s probably fair to say he didn’t take that chance, and his penchant for shooting from range when there are better options can be frustrating.
As for the overachiever, there are more than a few options. I think Joel Matip best fits the bill, though. The lanky defender stayed fit for pretty much the entire season, and played the most minutes for Liverpool since joining the club. He was quietly stellar all season on the defensive front and added three goals and three assists on top of that. He also led the team in progressive carries (275) and progressive distance carried per 90 (244 yards).
I feel bad singling him out due to his age and how talented I think he is, but like Gabe I expected Jones to take a step forward this year and instead he seemed to take a step back. The main problem—and what often led to frustration watching—seemed to be a desire to do too much. To go for individual glory rather than laying off to a better placed teammate. The good news is if he figures out he doesn’t always have to do it all himself, all the talent to be a key contributor for Liverpool for a long time is there. But he needs to figure that out.
As for the other youngsters, I’m fine with Elliott not having much of a role in the second half. Injuries like the one he had can take a long time to recover from—and recovery can mean more than simply being able to run and train. Speaking of injured players, I also thought Keïta mostly wasn’t bad this season and sometimes was even exceptional, but at this point I’m not sure I’ll ever stop waiting for the other shoe to drop any time he starts playing well.
To focus on the overachievers for a bit, for me it’s a tight race between Matip and Tsimikas, and since we’ve always known he’s a top CB and the main thing Matip overperformed was his injury record I’m going to go with Liverpool’s Greek Scouser. Tsimikas showed up and made a case for being one of the game’s top ten left backs. It’s just tough luck for him that Liverpool also have the game’s best left back in the team. Still, for as long as it’s sustainable, that’s a good problem to have. Honourable mention, too, to Taki Minamino. His role never grew beyond fringe, but without him we don’t win the two domestic cups.
Everyone overachieved. Everyone did so much. They just kept running. All I did over the season was watch and feel exhausted from watching and then nap a lot.
More seriously, I think I agree with everyone who’s already pointed out both Jones and Oxlade-Chamberlain as folks maybe not living up to their potential. I also find it hard to say whether or not a few other players may have been underachieving towards the end of the season or whether they were simply exhausted.
As for overachievers, it’s Kostas Tsimikas. That perfect sleep-deprived human has had such an incredible start to his Liverpool career. What an addition to the team. A special shout-out to Divock Origi, too, for overachieving on The Narrative before getting the send-off he deserved from the club.
A world-class squad like Liverpool’s generally doesn’t overperform as much as perform to their expected quality. Alisson taking up another level, the clear night and day difference evidenced by Virgil Van Dijk’s presence in the side vs. his absence last year, the casual brilliance of Thiago in the middle of the park. All noteworthy but all, at least to a degree, probably expected.
Joël Matip demonstrating a newfound ability of availability is likely as close as one gets to an overachiever in a side so good they nearly won the quad. The Cameroonian flourished alongside Van Dijk this season, locking down a starting spot and relegating new signing Ibrahima Konate to the bench for a good chunk of the campaign. Playing foil to Van Dijk, Matip’s world class progression from the back was at times the key route to goal against low blocks. The lanky defender even finished off one of his slaloming runs with an expertly-chipped finish against Leeds to cap off a brilliant individual season. Konate is most certainly the future, but if he can stay fit Matip will remain the present.
It seems harsh to label players barely considered adults as underachievers, but for most disappointing campaign it’s arguably between Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott. Elliott’s case is more understandable, and returning as quickly as he did from a gruesome ankle injury takes huge character. However, the excitement surrounding the youngster coming into the campaign—a hype train led by Jurgen Klopp himself—may have set the bar for expectations a little too high. Still, he’s only 19, and admittedly still getting to grips with the professional side of the game. We may not have got the season those opening weeks promised, but I have plenty of patience.
Jones, on the other hand, needed to take his next step this season. Since bursting into the consciousness of Reds supporters two seasons ago after that stunning Merseyside derby winner, the expectation was that he would follow Trent Alexander-Arnold’s path into the first team and bring that attacking threat from midfield that Keita was never able to consistently provide. Nine games missed due to freak eye injury robbed him of rhythm, but even Klopp has admitted Jones sometimes “needs a bit of a push,” and the local lad’s inability to earn the playing time as his talent suggests he should has to be counted as a disappointment.