Like many of us, Chris McLoughlin hasn’t enjoyed this season, and he’s had a better view than most to see it behind-closed-doors.
I usually spend the summer longing for the football season to start, so it’s been quite a difference to spend the football season longing for the summer to start.
Without question, this is the worst season of following Liverpool I have ever lived through – and I was a season ticket holder during the Graeme Souness era, which was so bad that the Reds won four more Premier League away games this season than they did during the 1991/92 and 1992/93 seasons combined.
That first Premier League season provides some perspective. Liverpool‘s league position shows they finished sixth in 1992/93. Their points tally shows sixth was only 10 points above the relegation zone, but ending the campaign with a 6-2 home win against Spurs was a gloss-painting finale.
Anything to bury memories of Man United fans chanting ‘going down’ when they won 2-1 at Anfield in March to leave the Reds 15th, three points above the drop zone, eh?
It feels a little like that now. That beating United 4-2 at Old Trafford, Alisson‘s header at West Brom, the 3-0 at Burnley and (hopefully) Champions League qualification has helped to erase memories of six Anfield defeats, a no-show at Southampton and calamitous defending at Leicester. That some kind of salvage operation has been pulled off and we can file 2020/21 under ‘asterisk seasons’.
In the past, you knew when a Liverpool team wasn’t competitive. Not in terms of challenging for honours, anyway. Yet we went into this largely joyless 2020/21 campaign as Premier League champions, Club World champions, off the back of 196 points in two seasons and – after the arrivals of Thiago and Diogo Jota – with what looked like an even stronger squad.
There was a nagging doubt that not replacing Dejan Lovren with an experienced centre-half was risky given the injury record of others, but what’s the worst that could happen?
The truth isn’t an excuse
Some say they’re bored of injuries, particularly the one suffered by Virgil van Dijk, being used as an excuse for how Liverpool‘s season has played out. Aren’t we all? But the truth isn’t an excuse. Losing your best player for seven months will always cost you.
Liverpool have suffered defensively and offensively without Van Dijk. Yes, yes, the 7-2 at Villa, but every team has those days. Man City and Chelsea seem to have recovered from conceding five at home to Leicester and West Brom, Man United shipped six to Spurs.
Until Alisson went forward at The Hawthorns, conceding a corner to Liverpool was effectively as good as winning a goal kick. I’ve seen more threatening chess set pieces than Liverpool from corners without Van Dijk unless the goalie goes up.
I’ll cut to the chase. Even if Joel Matip and Joe Gomez had stayed fit to avoid the disruption of Fabinho and Jordan Henderson playing at centre-half before Jürgen Klopp trusted Nat Phillips and brought in Ozan Kabak and furloughed Ben Davies, Liverpool would not have won the Premier League this season.
They’d have been closer, probably runners-up, but when Van Dijk hobbled off at Goodison Park in October the belief gradually began to ebb away from of the rest of his teammates. Not immediately. They won six and drew at Man City in the next seven, but then came the 2-0 home defeat to Atalanta in the Champions League.
It has been forgotten, probably because they got through to the knockout stages, but that was Liverpool‘s worst home performance of the season. And there have been plenty to choose from. No shots on target and only two corners. Against a team they beat 5-0 in Italy. Woeful. Klopp had an off-night too.
A minute after conceding, he made a quadruple substitution – including taking off Mo Salah – having already rotated with Neco Williams, Kostas Tsimikas, Rhys Williams and Divock Origi all starting. Three minutes later, Atalanta got a second.
Normally, especially at Anfield, there’d be a response. The mentality monsters would rise from the canvas and fight back. There was no response whatsoever. The final 25 minutes were so bad that BT Sport’s highlights package features only the Atalanta keeper flapping at a Neco Williams cross. Don’t look for it on YouTube, you’ve been through enough already.
The soulless games behind closed doors
I won’t lie. Every behind closed doors game I’ve been to has been grim. Truly soulless. As Klopp said, it’s not even 5% the same without fans. Don’t get me wrong, I’m privileged to have attended in my role for Liverpool FC Magazine & the Matchday Programme, but watching a set of glorified training sessions in a superficial shadow season was like sitting in an empty pub for two hours with only water on tap.
Yet the Atalanta game was the 12th Liverpool had played at Anfield with no supporters. The Reds were unbeaten in the previous 11. The lack of atmosphere has unquestionably affected Klopp’s side disproportionately compared to others (although every team has lost at least four home league games this season), but for me there has been a bigger issue.
I left Anfield that night thinking this Liverpool team no longer believed they can get results with key players missing. It was no coincidence that Henderson also missed that game, by the way, but Van Dijk was such a game-changer for LFC that his long-term loss created doubt. Switching Fabinho to centre-half also significantly weakened the midfield engine room.
Subconsciously, I reckon a mental block developed and was exacerbated when Brighton got a dodgy VAR penalty to earn a late confidence-draining draw three days later. West Brom‘s equaliser at Anfield in December then led to a psychological capitulation that undid the entire season.
Chuck in all the other injuries and the notable loss of form of two players who suffered from coronavirus, and the spiral was only going downwards.
Every single established first-team player who has avoided injury, Salah excluded, has suffered from dips in form this season. Even Mo hasn’t been at his best, but 30+ goals in a bad season is no mean feat.
For so many proven top-class players to lose form at the same time points to a collective drop in confidence being the underlying factor, perhaps best emphasised by so many goalscoring chances being wasted seemingly every time they play.
I still saw a Liverpool team that grafted, but one that was mentally shot before Ilkay Gundogan issued the last rites at Anfield in February. We clung on to the hope of Champions League glory, but be honest. You never really believed, did you? And nor, I suspect, did the players.
Better times ahead
Next season? Better times ahead. Key players back, new ones arriving, a renewed sense of purpose and Anfield hopefully full and rocking again. Trent Alexander-Arnold‘s interview in the Liverpool vs. Crystal Palace Matchday Programme is borderline bullish. But don’t make the mistake of putting all your eggs in the transfer basket when you’re hoping for improvement.
The second most disappointing season I’ve ever lived through was 2002/03. El-Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou came in and copped the blame for making Liverpool worse when, truth be told, a serious drop off in form by the core of Gerard Houllier’s team – Dudek, Carragher, Hyypia, Henchoz, Riise, Hamann, Gerrard, Heskey and Owen – were more costly than their limited impact. The same goes now for Thiago, a player who will flourish next season.
Yes, Klopp’s squad must be strengthened, despite the quiet summer window that lies ahead. Some players must absolutely be moved on. Having substitutes who again make a difference when the Reds are behind would be handy too.
But if Liverpool are to become title contenders – never mind winners – again in 2021/22 it is the established, experienced players who must rediscover their belief, confidence and form.
With Virgil van Dijk amidst them, I fully expect that to happen. How long until next season starts again?