The headline usually the very last part of my column that I write, but not this time. As soon as I imagined the comments on social media by those who won’t read past the first nine words, I felt the need to address their predictable points early on.
Yes, I’m fully aware this was a trophyless season. For some, that fact alone means they cannot accept 2020/21 as any form of success for Liverpool Football Club. That’s understandable.
But, in my view, what Jürgen Klopp has achieved with his side against all the odds is nothing short of remarkable. I’m pretty sure there isn’t another coach in the game right now who could have managed what he has.
Let’s briefly review the last three seasons.
2018/19 – Champions League success No.6. Klopp joined Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Kenny Dalglish and Rafa Benítez as a manager who had brought Europe’s greatest prize back to Merseyside.
He did it spectacularly. Bayern beaten in their own back yard, 4-0 against Barcelona with Mo Salah & Roberto Firmino missing, whilst victory in the tactical battle against Spurs in the searing Madrid heat, applied the cherry on top of the proverbial European cake.
Of course, it was their third continental final in four years, but the first of those which had a happy ending for the Reds. The consistency Klopp managed to get out of his players in European competition, right from the off, laid the foundations for his whole tenure.
Victory in the Wanda Metropolitano was just the latest in a long line of encouraging indicators which showed how far the German had brought this team in less than four years in charge.
Then, in the following season, came the one we had waited so long for.
A bizarre second leg saw Atlético Madrid knock Liverpool out of the Champions League, just before the Covid lockdowns which saw the Anfield support forced to stay away.
But even without the roar of the Kop encouraging him for the final months of the campaign, Klopp led his players to a first top flight success in three decades, doing it in style. 99 points accumulated and an 18-point gap over runners-up Manchester City.
That was on the back of Club World Cup and Uefa Super Cup successes, whilst a scintillating 97-point haul in the previous season – which in any other campaign down the years would have seen the Reds as comfortable Premier League champions – saw Liverpool pipped to the domestic title by the finest of margins.Embed from Getty Images
It will be hard for a lot of people to understand how I could possibly think that 69 points and third place is even remotely comparable, but when context is considered I believe this is the manager’s greatest magic trick yet.
Without belittling Klopp’s incredible achievements over the two previous seasons, the Champions League and domestic title victories were done with a squad which, for the most part, remained injury-free.
As mentioned, there were notable absentees for the Barcelona comeback, and Joe Gomez was out for much of that season after a nasty ankle injury picked up at Turf Moor. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain missed virtually the entire campaign after knee ligament damage against Roma the previous season.
In 2019/20, Alisson and Fabinho had extensive spells on the sidelines through injury problems, while a knee injury also kept Joël Matip out for several months.
But neither of those years even came close to 2020/21 injury turmoil in terms of the level of disruption Klopp had to contend with.
In a truncated campaign, with a tightly-packed schedule, there were always going to be more problems caused by overuse and fatigue.
But then freak impact problems like the one suffered by Virgil van Dijk early in the season added insult to literal injury.
For much of the campaign, van Dijk, Gomez and Matip have been absent. And a list of seven to 10 injured players heading into a match was not uncommon.Embed from Getty Images
Fabinho was too often forced to deputise in defence, limiting his influence, while Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams did an admirable job when called upon despite, frankly, neither being of the standard required of a Liverpool regular.
Ozan Kabak came in for a while after joining on loan from Schalke, but then he too, rather predictably, ended up on the treatment table. As for Ben Davies, his signing from Preston North End seems to have been a bit of a waste of time for all involved.
And that’s just the defence. Months were missed by the likes of Thiago, Jordan Henderson and Diogo Jota through their own injury issues, while burnout from the intense playing schedule, saw the likes of Andy Robertson and Sadio Mané struggle to replicate their best form.
And yet, despite all this and a terrible run of form which saw Liverpool tumble down the table in the first few months of 2021, Klopp managed to steady the ship, take his side back to basics and produce a remarkable unbeaten run to leapfrog West Ham, Leicester and Chelsea into third.
I’m not saying the boss was perfect. On many occasions the football was not great, and too many points were dropped against weaker sides in situations where it should not have been allowed to happen. His reluctance to use Kostas Tsimikas and give the exhausted Robertson a rest here and there continues to be a source of confusion for me.
But still, Champions League football was secured. Going forward, it’s a massively important achievement for a club which wants to continue the momentum it has gathered over the last few years and attract the players it needs to carry on being a real force both at home and abroad.
Europa League or even Europa Conference League football could have set the club back years. The top players do not want to be playing on Thursday nights.
The Premier League and Champions League wins were huge achievements for Klopp and it is the silverware for which the German will be remembered in the decades to come.
But finishing in the top four this season – succeeding in what seemed for a long time an impossible task – feels more like a masterstroke than any of it.
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