After a season of seemingly unending success for Liverpool, it’s hardly surprising that rival supporters are making the most of a series of slip-ups that have now seen the Reds knocked out of two competitions over the space of little more than a week, and also experience defeat in the league to end any prospect of an unbeaten Premier League campaign.
But, as is so often the case with footballing rivalries, there’s a little perspective being considered by those celebrating, and the situation at Anfield is far from being as disastrous as is being portrayed by some.
First came the Premier League defeat to Watford. It was a result that few saw coming, but given how tight many of Liverpool’s league matches have been, it was fairly likely that there would be at least one slip up before the end of the season and that an unbeaten campaign was still a very long way off.
Watford might not have been the most obvious of opponents to inflict a first defeat for the reigning European and World Champions. But Nigel Pearson’s team had already given a commendable account of themselves during a defeat at Anfield which was their only loss in the first nine fixtures following the appointment of the current Watford boss.
Despite the loss, Liverpool’s still held a minimum of a 19 point lead over Man City, who were 25 points adrift at the time but with two games in hand, and although it ended Liverpool’s record-equalling run of successive league wins, there was never a realistic threat of it allowing City back into the title race.
The reaction to the loss also highlighted just how unfamiliar the very concept of defeat for Liverpool had become, with 44 games having passed since the previous occurrence, and an utterly astonishing record of 35 wins and 1 draw over the previous 36 league matches.
The next setback for Liverpool was the loss to Chelsea in the FA Cup, and while it marked a second defeat in a row – and three from four matches in all competitions at the time – there cannot be too much criticism of an away defeat to a strong display by one of the country’s best teams.
One piece of criticism which could be somewhat justified would relate to the team selection by Jurgen Klopp, and whether a full strength side would have progressed. But on the flip side of that, the number of games played – and due to be played – by the first team players had to be taken into account by the Reds manager, along with the fact that recent months had resulted in key players sidelined due to injury.
The team for a domestic cup fixture was therefore always likely to involve a few squad players and while such an approach is far from alien to managers of the bigger clubs, in Liverpool’s case it highlighted the significant drop in quality offered by some of the senior players who are typically amongst the substitutes. It also wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that some of those players have often failed to make the most of any opportunities they’ve been handed.
Capping a miserable period of the season for Liverpool was yesterday’s defeat against Atletico Madrid to suffer elimination from the competition at the same stage as in 2005/06 whilst also competing as defending champions.
As disappointing a result as it was, especially following a dominant performance over 90 minutes in which Liverpool were denied a quarter final place only by the heroics of man-of-the-match Jan Oblak, it isn’t a loss which would justify describing Liverpool’s season as a disappointment.
Atletico Madrid have been among the best teams in Europe for much of the last decade, and despite struggling to keep up with the top two in La Liga this season, there’s no shortage of quality throughout the squad and Atleti’s very best performances this season have tended to come in some of their biggest games.
Though as good as the Spaniards were during the final 20 minutes of extra time, it still took a goalkeeping mistake for the momentum to swing decisively in Atleti’s favour, and with the away goal counting against Liverpool, it gave Diego Simeone’s team a sense of freedom which they took full advantage of in going on to record not only an aggregate win, but also a victory on the night.
As with the loss at Watford, it would be easy to get carried away with disappointment if not put in perspective.
It signalled the end of a 43-match unbeaten home record in all competitions, and was the first home loss in European competition since 2014. It was also the first time that Liverpool have been knocked out of Europe before the final since the penalty shoot-out defeat to Besiktas in February 2015 – a match hosted at the venue of this year’s final.
On the negative side of things, however, the game drew further attention to two of Liverpool’s biggest problems this season: a lack of sufficient back-up in crucial positions, and a frequent struggle to finish teams off when dominating.
Should Liverpool’s success continue beyond this season, both will need to be addressed by a manager with a successful track record of finding the answers needed to take the team forwards.
Klopp vowed to learn from the clear disappointment of both losing the Europa League final and failing to qualify for Europe at the end of the 2015/16 season, and did so by leading Liverpool to a much improved league campaign the following season during which they finished ahead of Arsenal and Man United to qualify for the Champions League.
Defeat in the 2018 Champions League final was then followed by victory in the competition 12 months later. And the agony of missing out on last season’s Premier League, in spite of a sensational season, has been followed by a season that will almost certainly see Liverpool crowned league champions for the first time in 30 years, potentially in record-breaking fashion.
Each response to disappointment has been emphatic, and offers plenty of hope that Liverpool will strengthen some of the weaknesses which have been exposed of late.
So while supporters of Liverpool’s biggest rivals may enjoy a brief period of turbulence for the Reds, it’s safe to assume that if Liverpool’s current position is something to be disappointed by, it’s still a position that fans of all other clubs would happily see their own team in.