Goals from Georginio Wijnaldum, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana saw off the Teessiders on the final day of the Premier League season and sealed the Reds’ spot in the 2017/18 Champions League play-offs on this day three years ago — something which simultaneously laid key foundations for much of the development under Jürgen Klopp since.
It now looks — and largely was — a relatively routine three points that secured that coveted top-four spot for the Merseysiders on a sunny Sunday in May 2017.
But there were still notable hurdles jumped.
A strong first-half of the season, a dip in January and February, and a steadier March, April and May had earned Liverpool 73 points and control of their own destiny, come the campaign’s curtain call against already relegated Boro.
With fifth-placed Arsenal a point behind, a home victory would guarantee Klopp’s men fourth and would even earn them third if Manchester City lost at Watford (which they certainly didn’t — Pep Guardiola’s side won 5-0).
Certain subplots harboured a degree of doubt, though. The Reds, for instance, hadn’t won at Anfield since the 3-1 Merseyside derby victory on April 1, a game which saw Sadio Mané’s impressive debut season curtailed courtesy of a knee injury.
Indeed, Klopp’s men were yet to win a 2016/17 Premier League game at Anfield where the Senegalese hadn’t featured.
The 4-3-1-2 system utilised in the 4-0 win at West Ham the previous weekend, however, was rolled out again by Klopp. It was a formation which seemed to be getting more out of a slightly less pacy side.Embed from Getty Images
Despite that, Middlesbrough’s solid defensive effort throughout the first-half — coupled with Patrick Bamford appearing somewhat unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty by referee Martin Atkinson after his 22nd-minute tangle with Dejan Lovren — led to a degree of uncertainty building up as half-time approached. Then, though, up popped Wijnaldum.
At the end of what was also his first season at the club, the Dutchman was already developing his knack of scoring very important and very well-timed goals. Here was another.
Within the single minute of first-half stoppage-time, his intelligent third-man run was cleverly found by Roberto Firmino. An excellent first-touch took him into the box and he hammered the ball home at Brad Guzan’s near-post.
The finish was as emphatic as the sigh of relief it cued amongst the players and the supporters. Liverpool didn’t look back.Embed from Getty Images
They came out for the second-period with additional purpose and confidence and, within 11 minutes, were 3-0 up. Coutinho’s 51st minute free-kick and Lallana’s close-range finish five minutes later all but secured the points.
That allowed the game’s final half-an-hour to largely become a seeing out process and for Lucas Leiva — making his final competitive outing for the club after 10 years at Anfield — to get an appropriately cheery on-field send-off, after he replaced Coutinho on 78 minutes.
Things could have been significantly more complicated had that penalty been awarded or Wijnaldum’s timing not been so characteristically spot on, but plenty of the now familiar key attributes were already on show.
There were signs, in the minutes prior to the opener, of a certain amount of restlessness creeping into the players and crowd — but not as much as there might have been. That sense of mutual trust, understanding and — consequently — patience meant there was still a consistent, collective determination either side of any groans of frustration or concern.Embed from Getty Images
The game-management that has largely improved year-on-year under the German was also evident in the pleasingly uneventful final few minutes. Trent Alexander-Arnold — watching on from the bench on this particular afternoon — was presumably taking note.
Liverpool getting over the line in a make-or-break match was a key step forward and experience — especially given the events of the Europa League final 12 months earlier. Undeniably, though, this was a game that also opened doors in the months and years that followed.
Virgil van Dijk’s move from Southampton would stall a little over a fortnight later, courtesy of tapping up claims. The prospect of Champions League football was presumably a key factor in the Dutchman making Anfield his destination of choice, however, and then, of course, in his willingness to wait until January to swap the south coast for Merseyside.
Mohamed Salah’s arrival almost exactly a month after the Middlesbrough victory also feels like one that wouldn’t have happened had the Reds settled for fifth and the Europa League. Especially given Roma were a Champions League club themselves and — as Liverpool would witness first-hand — a very capable one at that.Embed from Getty Images
Needless to say, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keïta would have been unlikely to commit to Klopp’s project late in the summer — by which stage Hoffenheim had been beaten in the play-offs and the Reds’ group stage place had been confirmed — had the Gunners taken that final top-four spot for themselves in the spring.
Andy Robertson may have been one player who would have joined even without Champions League football, given he joined from relegated Hull City, but the additional lure of those nights under the floodlights can’t have done any harm.
That’s a fair few bedrocks of the current squad that, potentially, came in off the back of that one result. The significance of the victory has only grown with each nudge, step and leap forward that Liverpool have taken since, too.
The run to the Champions League Final that it teed-up in 2017/18 would be what defined that campaign and its progress, even if one less point was gained in the league (75) as Liverpool retained fourth-place.Embed from Getty Images
Fabinho, Alisson Becker and Xherdan Shaqiri would join in the summer of 2018, following disappointment in Kiev. Even minus Philippe Coutinho and Emre Can, by this stage, the Reds’ trajectory now felt more upward, assured and well-founded than it had in a long time.
Those additions, alongside the growing catalogue of experiences, helped take Liverpool to a level where they could put together a 97-point Premier League season alongside a Champions League-winning one in 2018/19.
While the European success may not have been replicated in 2019/20, the exceptional consistency levels have been more than maintained thus far, such is the strength of the base that now appears to be in place.
A base that had a considerable portion of itself nailed down thanks to that 3-0 success three years ago.
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