So Liverpool are out of the FA Cup, failing to progress further than the fourth round for the fourth successive season.
After fielding a heavily rotated side, Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds were undone by a resolute Wolves who outshone an underwhelming, makeshift XI.
Why? Because for once, Liverpool look capable of lifting their first league title since 1990.
Leading the Pack
The gap to third-placed Spurs is six points, with the north London side still to visit Anfield.
For the first time in five years Liverpool have a genuine shot at winning the league, there is no team to catch, there is no team to worry about with games in hand—the Reds have destiny in their own hands.
As it stands, no favours are needed and the facts are simple: match the results of City and Spurs over the next 17 games and Liverpool will be champions for the first time in 29 years.
There is also the reality that once again the Reds are in the knockout stages of the Champions League, although a tricky fixture awaits Klopp’s men in the shape of Bayern Munich.
But Liverpool have strengthened. What about squad depth and what about the fact that clubs exist to win trophies?
Both are valid points on the face of it, but both miss the overall bigger point that is that Liverpool’s absolute priority has to be winning that elusive title; nothing else comes close.
On squad depth, Liverpool have certainly strengthened. Klopp has used a familiar 16 players throughout the Premier League this season and it has the Reds on top of the league.
But with 11 fixtures played in 39 days there is now a level of fatigue and injury.
As for trophies, the last time Liverpool won the league was 28 years ago. To be exact the time gap is 28 years, 247 days, 18 hours and 19 minutes as I write this—there is a rival fans’ website dedicated to it.
Sitting on top of the league, destiny in your own hands and having played a competitive football match the equivalent of once every 2.8 days over the last month, there is a sensible argument to take stock of what you have and weigh it up with what could be.
As for the FA Cup itself, yes it’s a trophy, but it isn’t the league title and winning the old cup has done little for the longevity of managers in modern football.
The London side have won four of the last 10 iterations of the FA Cup, with neighbours Arsenal winning three. The winners of the Premier League have crashed out in the early stages of the cup six times out of the last seven years.
As for European success, since Chelsea‘s cup double seven years ago the winners of the FA Cup have ducked out of UEFA’s premier competition at the round of 16, or haven’t even been in the Champions League in Wigan’s case.
The correlation isn’t hard to see, the days of ‘winning them all’ have gone. The last time any team from England won all three major competitions was 1999, when Man United topped the league with 79 points.
The last time any English team won three major cup competitions was 2001. At Molineux, Liverpool fielded a player who wasn’t even born then.
These are remarkable achievements and they remain remarkable because they are rarely done. It is not a barometer to judge a season upon.
Football has changed, especially with City’s unprecedented form in the Premier League. You do not win a title with less than 80 points any more!
Whether Liverpool actually go on to win the title is not the point as hindsight cannot be applied selectively, but being out of the FA Cup does improve the chances of such success happening.
Klopp has discussed many, many times how his preference is for good preparation for fixtures, which he will now be afforded.
Indeed, with a free weekend in both January and February, he will be able to have a mini winter break of warm-weather training ahead of the final run-in and the return of the Champions League. This is the manager’s preference.
The rights or wrongs are irrelevant, it’s about the overall aim, and the overall aim is absolutely and utterly clear.
Like it or not the FA Cup is now an also-ran’s competition, devalued by the FA itself with their insistence on money-grabbing semi-finals at Wembley, coupled with inane kickoff times to please overseas audiences.
But mention rotation or prioritisation and people cry ‘tradition’.
Last season’s final was contested by Chelsea and United—ask both sets of fans what the mood was going into the game.
Want to make the FA Cup thrive again? Scrap the replays, scrap extra time, make the ‘big boys’ play lower-league opposition away from home, don’t make teams who play each other in the league play each other in the cup, and ultimately, make the final the showpiece.
No amount of FA Cups or Champions League victories will quell the want or need to be league champions again. It is the line in the sand for which all Liverpool managers are ultimately judged.
Liverpool must win the league—it is, has been and will continue to be a millstone around the club’s neck until it is won again.
The league title, or lack of one, is a millstone around Liverpool’s neck until it’s won. All the FA Cups in the world won’t fix that, neither would a sixth European Cup. Get all the eggs in one basket for one season only, ESPECIALLY when the future is in your own hands..
— Chris Williams (@Chris78Williams) January 7, 2019
So with Liverpool in pole position, playing attractive football (while only leaking 10 goals and losing once) there is a real chance to never see the clock hit 29 years without a title.
How anyone would want to actively put that at risk is simply beyond my thinking.