12 July 2018
Liverpool's previous 2016-17 season - while perhaps not spectacular - was a good and solid campaign that finally saw them qualify for the Champions League again for only the second time in eight years. Although there were not a lot of signings made in the summer of 2017, the ones that were made proved crucial to an even better showing in 2017-18. Mohamed Salah became obviously the key signing due to his magnificent number of goals and assists massively bolstering Liverpool's already decent attack. But Andy Robertson finally resolved the team's chronic problems at left back while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain improved further as the season continued, at last beginning to fulfil his true potential that he had not managed to really during his Arsenal days.
However, despite a very decent first month of the season it took Liverpool until the end of October to really start displaying better form. In August, there were swaggering attacking performances against Arsenal and in both European legs against Hoffenheim to take the club into the Champions League proper in style. However, the first game away to Watford really showed the team's shortcomings at that time as three goals scored was not enough to win the game as the defence crumbled under pressure, particularly when facing set pieces.
Really though it was September and most of October that were the only dreadful part of the season with a mere two wins in ten matches. There was a horrendous five nil loss to Man City at the start of this run that obviously affected the team though admittedly four of the goals were scored when they were down to ten men. In other games it was not just the leaky defence that was at fault but there were also issues in terms of Liverpool not being able to break down deep lying defensive teams down like when facing Burnley and Manchester United at home and when they did create chances too many of them were snatched at and spurned. In fact, the Spartak Moscow away game felt like the 2011-12 season all over again as so many chances were frustratingly missed. However, it was arguably the nadir of the season, Tottenham away, that finally then led to a subsequent revival. Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip were particularly abysmal in this 4-1 loss at Wembley making catastrophic mistakes that led to Spurs scoring easy goals. It is interesting that on the DVD Lovren says how he felt it was initially the close and dramatic 3-2 win against Leicester in late September that paved the way for future success, but it was really this Tottenham defeat that was the catalyst, as the team reached its lowest point and fought all the way back from there.
From the final game of October though the team really started to step up as the defence tightened up somewhat and Liverpool's scintillating attack featuring the "Fab Four" of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Phillipe Coutinho in the first half of the season reached another level. The fast, incisive passing and movement from the previous campaign improved further while the frenetic counter-pressing also contributed to the team breaking down more of these tight packed defence due to winning the ball back quickly and preventing other teams countering them. In fact, Liverpool's own counter attacking prowess was another source of goals as their pace, dribbling and understanding between each other led to numerous chances created on the break while in this run from the end of October on wards obviously the team became more clinical at taking their chances generally too.
Though even in this largely tremendous run from late October to the new year there were a few issues, however. Firstly, even though Liverpool started to break more stubborn, deep defences down by passing it with pace between both flanks to prise them open, there remained sometimes when they failed to get through enough like against Everton and West Brom at home, though admittedly Mane should have passed to a better placed teammate to tap it in during the derby that would have made it two nil. Also, interestingly even though Liverpool made it all the way to the final of the Champions League by the end of the season, their form in group stage was a bit patchy despite the record seven nil away win versus Maribor. In their second game against Sevilla in November, the defence proved to be their Achilles heel yet again as they somehow managed to end up drawing the game despite an incredible three goal lead by half time. They were complacent and stopped playing, while despite Alberto Moreno improving generally when he played in 2017-18 and actually becoming quite a good other option for left back, he had a similar nightmare against Sevilla like he did against them in the 2016 Europa League final being at fault for two of the goals conceded. This left qualification for the knockout rounds of the Champions League still to be decided by the final game against Spartak Moscow but to be fair they were back on top form that provided momentum for the resumption of the competition in the next year, thumping the Russian club seven nil with Coutinho even scoring a hat trick.
Philippe Coutinho, obviously left midway through the season but despite the enormous disappointment of seeing him go to Barcelona his continual professionalism in still performing really well for Liverpool and scoring a number of great goals and serving up some deft assists was impressive. Also, he did provide the team with five years of dedicated and tremendous service. However, his muted goal celebrations towards the end and the fact that he personally paid some of his own transfer fee in his desperation to leave Liverpool for the Catalans did leave a bit of a sour taste, however.
But anyway, it was onwards and further upwards in the new year as the loss of Coutinho in fact made the team stronger while the club pocketed up to 142 million. The Fab Four became the Thrilling Three/Red Arrows and played even better as the team was less focused on the one player as playmaker and played to all their strengths more. The team became better balanced too and it was this loss combined with the signing of Virgil Van Dijk at the other end that led to the team becoming superior. Although understandably it took the Dutch international a few games to settle in to the back four after an amazing goal scoring debut in the FA Cup Everton derby - admittedly he performed poorly against Swansea City and West Brom (in the cup) - he finally became the centre back signing that the club needed to make them more resolute by providing leadership and assurance. Meanwhile, he also proved to be a decent passer from the back and generally the average number of goals conceded reduced in this second half of the season when he played.
Funnily enough, despite there being too many goals conceded due to an absence of Van Dijk, the opinion on the DVD that the Manchester City game at Anfield in January was probably the catalyst in the even greater form in the second half of the campaign rings true. Oxlade-Chamberlain scored the first of his beautiful long-range strikes against Manchester City in this season while goals from each of the thrilling three led to them going 4-1 up against a team who finished the league campaign with a century of points. It is interesting because Mane - perhaps due to a red card for accidentally but dangerously injuring the City goalkeeper in the reverse fixture back in September and being selfish in the Everton derby game by not passing it - only really reached his very top form in this second half of the season from this game onwards. But anyhow, defeating by far the top team in England with a sensational attacking performance provided the team with massive belief and confidence that they took into their future games.
However, even in this superb second half of the season there were still a few dodgy match days. Swansea, like previously mentioned came a bit too early in Van Dijk’s Liverpool career for him to be totally effective while they also had a problem breaking them down too and missing a sitter when they had a chance to equalise. But the main problem was the 3-2 defeat at home to Premier League relegation fodder West Bromwich Albion in the FA Cup in late January, as the whole defence was poor and really two or three - if the missed Firmino penalty had been converted - should have been enough to win the tie. Even in these domestic cups - particularly when the team reaches the latter stages - there is so much competition to win the trophy due to the big six teams in England, but Liverpool really must focus a bit more on them too (in this same season the team departed the league cup in their first round) in future to finally end their terrible trophy drought. It is awful that Klopp has never managed to take the team further than the fourth round in the FA Cup and clearly it is another missed opportunity for silverware.
Another issue - like with the first half of the season too unfortunately - were the lack of a win against other big six members like Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United. The away match against arguably Liverpool's greatest rivals Manchester United in March was particularly annoying. Lovren had one of his weak games and was bossed by Romelu Lukaku while the otherwise superb young right back Trent Alexander-Arnold had a rare poor performance that saw Marcus Rashford score two, easily preventable goals. Meanwhile, again at the other end Liverpool failed to break down the two defensive walls. It was so frustrating because Liverpool has failed to beat its disputably fiercest rival in so many matches now with no wins against them under the management of Jose Mourinho.
The defeat away to Chelsea and failure to take all three points against Everton, West Brom and Stoke City can be both criticised for shoddy set piece defending in the game against the Baggies and lack of cutting edge in the others, but it can also be made allowances for to an extent too as by this point the injury hit squad was being rotated for these games and the concentration was more on the Champions League. Even though Liverpool had to wait until the final day against Brighton to seal top four qualification for next season's Champions League they did well to qualify for it for a second season in a row especially given all the extra European games in 2017-18.
But anyway, it was clearly in the run to the Champions League final during the knock out rounds that Liverpool's greatest achievements took place in 2017-18 and those famous Anfield European nights were recreated. The round of 16 tie versus Porto was simply over after the first leg as Liverpool romped to a five-nil win with Sadio Mane scoring a hat trick and the other two members of the thrilling three contributing with a goal each (the last Mane goal and Mo Salah one was particularly sublime in a season of great goals). However, although it was a remarkable performance to defeat Porto five nil on aggregate, the finest performances of the 2017-18 season must be in the two legs against Manchester City in the quarter final. In the first leg at home, the Anfield chorus provided an awesome vocal backing that also stunned City into submission and by the end of the first half the team was three nil up. During the second half the team led by Van Dijk at the back defended so perfectly that yet again City's miserable run at Anfield thankfully continued. Despite the first half in the return leg at the Etihad being very torrid for Liverpool as they sat back and were overrun by the Citizens with Van Dijk making an uncharacteristic error to concede in the first couple of minutes, they stepped up and started playing again in the second half. Two expert finishes from Salah and Firmino led to a deserved win and to have defeated Manchester City not just at home but also away in the Champions League - arguably City’s most desired trophy - especially after the routing earlier there in the season in September was stunning and simply the high point of the season!
Although the semi-final against Roma was perhaps not totally as significant a victory as against Manchester City, as really with Liverpool buying Mo Salah from them it was expected that the Reds would win, it was still an absolutely fabulous triumph. The first leg comprised of yet more dazzling attacking football from the thrilling three with them being really ably supported by the likes of Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner creating chances too (in fact Milner achieved a record number of assists in the Champions League). But there were a couple of downsides like the concession of two late goals that threatened the team a bit for the second leg - especially given that Roma had got three goals back at the Stadio Olimpico to defeat Barcelona over two legs in the previous round - and the bad knee ligament injury to Oxlade-Chamberlain. He had provided the Liverpool midfield with vital thrust due to his pace, dribbling, passing and shooting in his desired central midfield role and without him the squad was down to the bare bones in that area.
But anyway, despite Roma making it really close in the second leg due to them scoring four goals, Liverpool's further two goals at the Stadio Olimpico were enough to take them to Kiev by the odd goal in thirteen. Sadio Mane was at his finest to score the opener while Gini Wijnaldum finally broke his record of not scoring in an away game for an English club though he could hardly miss that header to make it 2-1. However, despite the euphoria of the club making it to yet another European final there were defensive cracks in particular during this game that really showed what was going to happen in Kiev. Liverpool's assistant manager Zeljko Buvac had unfortunately left for an indefinite period of leave before the game so perhaps that played a role, but they ended up conceding four goals in the one game and they were all quite cheap with Lovren and Loris Karius particularly being at fault. Although Lovren redeemed himself in the final what happened with Karius was obviously disastrous.
Although perhaps the 4-1 loss to Tottenham was the worst performance of the season clearly and undoubtedly finishing runners up again, in yet another final was the biggest disappointment of the 2017-18 season and sting in the tail at the end. For the first thirty minutes that Salah was on the pitch Liverpool played pretty well but once he departed - after being wrestled and yanked down by Sergio Ramos (why no punishment?) - the game was transformed. As Salah is the talisman of Liverpool FC it really hit the team hard and they started to lose the midfield battle and Real Madrid dominated play from then on. The fact Real Madrid started to create more chances from this point on shows how well in fact the Reds did to keep it a clean sheet until half time despite the loss of their top player too. However, after the half-time break came quite possibly the worst goalkeeping performance by a keeper in a final ever. The first goal conceded by Karius was simply bizarre and shocking and should one hundred per cent never have happened with him daftly throwing it against Benzema for the Real Madrid striker to easily tap in. Astonishingly despite this crazy blow Sadio Mane then scored with the assistance of Dejan Lovren's tall header - easily his best performance in a Red shirt and in fact the whole of the back four was strong against Madrid - and Liverpool had got back on level terms. However, then came really the final crushing blow as Gareth Bale entered the action and scored surely the greatest ever goal in a Champions League final - an outrageous overhead kick - to put Madrid back ahead. Sadio Mane - the best Liverpool player on the night - then struck the post but all hope was definitely gone when Gareth Bale sent an easy to save long range shot and Karius weirdly parried it into his own net.
To be honest, regarding Ramos although it was unfair that Liverpool lost their best player due to his excessively hefty "challenge," it must be acknowledged too that Madrid did dominate the midfield battle for most of the game and really despite the loss of Salah perhaps Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum should have done better really and were out shined. To be honest although they are highly skilled too, perhaps they are a bit too workmanlike together and hopefully the addition of Naby Keita and Fabinho will address this. Adam Lallana clearly was not fit and so was never going to have the impact on the game that Gareth Bale had as a substitute.
In terms of the goalkeeper position for next season, Karius, and Mignolet too, have had far too many chances and if the team is to really have a chance of landing a trophy they need a player of genuine quality between the sticks who makes much less mistakes. Although Karius was concussed after an earlier collision with Ramos and it might have affected him that argument is possibly a bit of an excuse too because he made a similar handling mistake in a previous knockout round of the Champions League which very fortuitously ended up on the post. Karius did improve in his games in the second half of the season and he made some crucial saves admittedly too, but he also made some silly errors e.g. Tottenham home and Manchester City away (the City player was not offside after Karius’ weak punch) to name a couple. So, Liverpool really needs a top-class keeper as if Karius had not made those errors the score after ninety minutes in the final may have been 1-1 and it would have been game on.
For the defence to improve, Dejan Lovren - who did at least form the greatest partnership with Van Dijk and actually had some decent games in the Champions League knockout ties - and Joel Matip need to become more consistent and eliminate their proneness to basic errors. Ragnar Klavan proved to be a reasonably capable deputy for the most part so perhaps he might not need replacing, though perhaps he should be the one to make way if the club decide to sign a different partner for Van Dijk. Despite a couple of injuries Joe Gomez had a very strong season and though perhaps he is a more defensive minded right back to the excellent Alexander-Arnold, he has achieved so much to recover from an anterior cruciate ligament injury and still perform so well. He can be an option for centre back in the future too and Nathaniel Clyne who was injured until the final month or so of 2017-18 will have to really play well to get his place back which is welcome competition.
In attack, the club must do their best to hold on to each of the thrilling three and should really sign some back up for them as the lack of squad depth in midfield too cost the team towards the end of the season. Rotation in the first half of the season did help to keep players fresh and fitter longer but in the end the lack of squad depth was really exposed as all the extra games caught up with them. Hopefully, Oxlade-Chamberlain can recover from his knee ligament damage in a similar way to Joe Gomez, not lose his pace and deputise on the wing for Salah/Mane in addition to continuing in midfield and Lallana can return to full fitness and have a bigger impact in the next season. But surely, the team needs another winger and maybe a striker too to add greater depth as the final transformed when Salah was substituted and so perhaps although he is the talisman the team is too dependent on him. Dominic Solanke performed well in the final league game - scoring against Brighton - but he will have to significantly improve as he and Danny Ings only scored one goal each all year, so both are unconvincing back up while there are clearly major doubts over Daniel Sturridge's ability to stay fit. It remains to be seen whether Divock Origi will be sent out on loan again as he did not achieve too much last season with Wolfsburg.
Despite the lack of a trophy it was still another very fine season from Liverpool as the Reds attack reached an even more spellbinding level to the season before under Jurgen Klopp and the DVD is long yet a very comprehensive account of it and entertaining throughout. The live wires that made up the thrilling three bagged numerous goals/assists and it is amazing after Torres, then Suarez, how Salah is yet another even more superior successor to the previous as Liverpool top goal scorer with him breaking the goals record for a 38 game Premier League season. However, there needs to be more goals from midfield and defence even, while the teams record against the big six will have to go up a level again to challenge better for trophies. Also, while the team has managed to break deeper defensive teams down a bit more frequently in 2017-18, they still have sometimes had problems in breaking through the two opposing, compact player lines in other games so that requires improvement too. But anyway, the club was very close to a sixth European Cup in 2017-18 but just fell at the final hurdle so they are not far off a first trophy in what will be seven long years next season if they can maintain their upward trajectory in form though there is so much competition. There were obviously various factors in their Kiev defeat but clearly the main ones were the loss of Salah, the abominable second half performance of Karius and the form of Gareth Bale. Although it was a sad end to the season really the defeat has not induced as much despair as the other final losses this decade and instead provided some defiant hope as if Salah had not been injured and the keeper had not been a calamity then it could have quite possibly panned out differently. The hope is that in future Liverpool will keep all their best players fit in a final, have greater squad depth and sign a keeper who is a real winner. They were really unlucky in Kiev and surely if the team can keep reaching finals then at some point they can win that elusive trophy again and anyway for the club to reach the final in only their second appearance in the Champions League since 2009-10, is promising and an achievement. For all the searing and flowing attractive brand of football Klopp has provided since he took control of Liverpool in 2015 he deserves a trophy to avoid being empty handed like Roy Hodgson and Brendan Rodgers were. He is already a superior manager to Rodgers as he has taken Liverpool into the top four twice in successive seasons and we can have another attempt at a long European journey next season, but ultimately he does need to conquer his terrible finals record and get some silverware in order to be seen as a truly great Liverpool manager.