Liverpool’s 2023 drew to a close with three more points collected at Turf Moor on Boxing Day, and an at least temporary spot at the top of the Premier League.
It was a deserved win, in which the game swung from an easy stroll against well-meaning road cones in claret and blue to something a bit more uncomfortable as a profligate second half wore on – until the returning Diogo Jota settled matters late on.
Jurgen Klopp and his players have built themselves a sound foundation from which to roll onward into 2024, in a positive end to a year that started out in such dysfunctional fashion, but one with caveats that can’t be ignored as we move into the second half of the season.
Given how much debate there was at the beginning of the campaign, the Klopp version 2.0 of Liverpool has answered many questions across the first four-and-a-half months of 2023/24, yet some answers remain elusive.
Polarising bookends to the year, as late-December gives us a Liverpool that has suffered just one reversal in the opening 19 league games of the season – a controversial one at that – it’s ludicrous to think of the state we were in at the start.
A miserable start
Even when signs of revival began to kick in domestically, we were on the receiving end of a Champions League humbling at the hands of Real Madrid, when conceding five to them at Anfield.
A punishing season within the slipstream of an outlandish but ultimately unrequited tilt at a quadruple in 2021/22, we undeniably spent significant stretches of 2022/23 licking our wounds.
Even the 7-0 demolition of Man United failed to be the precursor to a run to even Champions League qualification, following it up as we did with a careless defeat at Bournemouth and a hammering at Man City.
It wasn’t until almost mid-April and a trip to Arsenal that we properly started to shake that shroud of vulnerability.
From two goals down to a point gained, this was arguably the day that we stopped feeling sorry for ourselves, going on as we did to win our next seven in the league, before drawing our last two fixtures.
New rivals and new faces
While Pep Guardiola will still have a say in matters come May, it seems apt that we are currently looking at Mikel Arteta’s team as the one to fight it out with for Premier League honours.
In a tumultuous summer in which we were fast out of the blocks in terms of recruiting those long-desired and much-required midfield reinforcements, we were then unexpectedly preyed upon by the fast-mobilising Saudi Pro League.
Frustration mixed with hopefulness, the abrupt departure of Fabinho, coupled with the injury to Stefan Bajcetic, left a defensive midfield void, one that we stunningly tried to fill with a sweeping attempt to hijack Moises Caicedo from Chelsea‘s clutches only for the player himself to knock us back.
In response to this setback, we returned to pragmatism and brought in Wataru Endo instead from Stuttgart, while Alexis Mac Allister was asked to occupy a role that he seemingly wasn’t purchased to fill.
Before the close of the transfer window in came Ryan Gravenberch, a midfielder who had previously brushed Liverpool aside in favour of other options, and another who wasn’t the classic defensive midfielder we needed.
Average age and demographic of the midfield significantly altered, but still missing a key component, it made for a degree of ambiguity.
That also seeped into defence and attack, with genuine question marks being raised over whether Virgil van Dijk could ever be the Van Dijk of old again, and a lingering concern that we had still not adequately compensated in the front three for the loss of Sadio Mane 12 months earlier, just as we were waving goodbye to Bobby Firmino and fending off more Saudi interest in Mo Salah.
There was a degree of limbo at play, certainly until the transfer window closed.
A squad in transition, but a bright end to a volatile 2022/23; a refreshed midfield and still one of the strongest spines in the Premier League, all part of a wider collective that would go into 2023/24 with a point to prove.
Dependent upon whether your nature is glass is half-full or half-empty, it meant that either the sky was the limit or a lowering of expectations.
At the halfway marker of the season, both paths are still open to this Liverpool vintage.
A team that has cleaned up its act compared to last time around when it comes to dealing with rank-and-file opponents, but has yet to pick off a win against any of their defined ‘big six’ rivals, yet has beaten the ambitious pretenders from St James’ Park and Villa Park.
Trips to Eastlands, the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Stamford Bridge and St James’ Park already navigated, sojourns to the Etihad, Old Trafford and Villa Park still to come, and the visits to Anfield of Newcastle, Chelsea, Man City, and Tottenham ahead of us, it will be our better management of these games that will decide if the sky really is the limit or not, for what is still a work in progress.
Stretched by injury problems, be it the loss for the season of Joel Matip or the elongated absences of Andy Robertson, Diogo Jota and now Kostas Tsimikas, or the complete no-shows thus far of Thiago and Bajcetic, we have also had to absorb shorter-term losses of Alisson, Curtis Jones and Mac Allister.
In times of adverse results, we would probably be referring to an injury crisis, but while results have remained positive so has the general outlook.
Added to the myriad of injury problems, and the fact that some players have simply struggled for consistency, Liverpool have had to deal with a cluster of contentious issues with matchday officialdom, from both those overseeing events on the pitch and the ones sat at Stockley Park.
Throw in one of our most creative players having to deal with the abduction of his parents, and the collective’s mental strength has been stretched significantly.
Anything is possible!
Yet here we still are, about to begin the inward 19 league fixtures, right in the mix of the most interesting of things – but kind of without the right to be where we are, while simultaneously having fully earned our current position.
A game that will be the first act in a peculiar month in which we will face just three league encounters, the first and last of those coming on the first and last days of the month.
Here’s to the work in progress, but anything is possible, Reds.