One question that gets asked of football fans a lot is “if at the start of the season, your team was offered x points, yth position in the table, and z status, would you have taken it?”. Of course, the x, y, and z change based on the team in question. Many Twitter threads, many Facebook posts, and several fan forums are filled with variants of this question and ensuing discussions. It is indeed a pertinent question to understand how a team performed versus the fans’ expectations.
Of course, this question is generally asked to the fans of teams that have not been wildly successful – like Manchester City this time or completely miserable – like Sunderland last season. The question makes most sense to the fans whose team has had a mix of success and failure. And it is generally asked after a milestone – like the season end or midway through the season.
Liverpool fans get asked this question a lot. They have a lot of expectations from their team and their team generally has produced mixed results in the last few seasons. Since we are at the midway stage in the season, the question is inevitably coming and since I am one of those Reds fans, I have put down my thoughts here.
If I have to briefly describe Liverpool’s season so far, it has been a “mixed bag”. Whether it is in terms of results or in terms of performances, Liverpool have provided great entertainment for the neutral but for a fan they have dished out exhilarating performances and abject displays in equal measure. On the level of the players, the attack has not looked so potent since Luis Suarez lit up the league in 2013-14 but the defense has never looked as flimsy as it is now. So let us take a look at some of the positives and negatives from this half-season.
In terms of competitions they are competing in, despite their consistent leaking of points in the league, they are still very much in contention for a top-four spot, although the competition is fierce for the second, third, and fourth spots. The title is almost a foregone conclusion with Manchester City 13 points clear at Christmas, which is in itself a record. With 35 points in 19 games, the Reds can achieve the magic number of 75 points for the season, but it will need a bit of an improvement in the second half.
In Champions League, they struggled early on against Sevilla and Spartak Moscow, but they picked up pace since the third game week and ended the group stage unbeaten and at the top of their group, setting up a last 16 tie with FC Porto. They have a very good chance of making it till the quarter finals at least and that definitely is at least at par with fans’ expectations, if not more.
In terms of transfers, all the players who have come in the summer transfer window have proven to be of great value but none more than Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian returned to the Premier League with a point to prove and he took less than half a season to make that point – quite emphatically. His 21 goals in all competitions have wreaked havoc on many an opponent so far and he has shown no signs of slowing down. Andrew Robertson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have also shown that they can easily fit into Klopp’s system and have hit the ground running. Even the young Dominic Solanke has had a good introduction to senior football. Another positive that emerged late on Wednesday was the signing of Virgil van Dijk. The Reds had pursued the Dutchman the entire summer but the pursuit ended in heartburn. But even before the start of the January transfer window, Liverpool have announced that the Southampton defender will join them on January 1.
Finally, in terms of performances, as mentioned above Mohamed Salah has been the standout performer. But his addition has led to creation of a far more potent attack, giving a boost to the performances of Firmino, Mane, and Coutinho as well. This has led to the coining of the epithet “Fab Four” for the four of them. Coutinho had scored 13 goals and assisted 7 of them in the entire last season. This season, he has scored 11 and assisted 7 goals in all competitions in the first half itself. Firmino has gone a step further and scored 13 goals in the first half this season, compared to 11 he scored in the entire last season. Sadio Mane is also on the way to improving his tally from last season. The performances from the “Fab Four” are definitely the best part of any Liverpool game these days.
In terms of competitions, Liverpool crashed out of the League Cup early and had to wait till the last game week of the Champions League Group Stage to ensure that they top their group. In the league, they have lost to two top-six rivals – something that had not happened previously under Klopp. But more than those two huge losses – 9 goals shipped in two games – what has hurt the Reds most are the draws. Last season, in the first 19 league games, Liverpool had won 13, drawn 4, and lost 2. This season, they have won 9, drawn a whopping 8 games, and lost 2.
So, the first half has seen Liverpool lose sight of two silverware opportunities – both the League as well as the League Cup are gone but they might have also made it a bit more difficult to reach the top-four at the end of the season.
In terms of transfers, none of the players who actually came in have flopped. But the negatives are around the transfers that could have been, and the acrimony generated by some of them. Every single living soul who knows what a football looks like now knows that Liverpool are severely limited in central defensive options, but had they managed to get Virgil van Dijk in the summer, the story could have been different. Instead, what they got was a Southampton complaint to the Premier League and an ever-increasing price, if they ever land their defensive target. After all the drama in the summer, the Reds have finally captured their target but at a price, which is almost double their original bid.
Liverpool themselves were at the receiving end of a massive transfer raid as Barcelona came calling for Philippe Coutinho. But despite sneaky news stories from the Catalan club and a slight tantrum from the Brazilian, Liverpool managed to keep the player. However, this transfer saga did cause a lot of heartburn among the fans and perhaps between the player and the management as well.
Finally, in terms of performances on the pitch, Liverpool’s defense definitely takes the rotten cake. Individual errors, group lapses of concentration, goal keeping goof-ups, traditional weaknesses from set pieces, they have all been part and parcel of what must surely be considered an abysmal half-season for Liverpool’s defense. The patchy nature of their performances and the relative lack of quality from bottom half sides this season means that stats are kind to the Reds’ defense (just 2 goals more shipped this season, compared to last season’s 1st half) but anyone who has watched them play enough this season will admit that this Reds defense is the weakest link for the team.
As I said in the beginning, it was a mixed bag of a half-season for the Reds. When they were good they scored 15 goals in two Champions League matches, they went on to score win three successive away league matches by three or more goals. But when they were bad, they shipped 9 goals in two matches to top-six competitors and they threw away 2- and 3-goal leads as if they were stale food items.
For me personally, I feel that Liverpool would do well to achieve a top-four spot in the league, reach quarterfinals in the Champions League and a trip or two to Wembley in the FA Cup. For these targets to be achieved, the Reds have to improve. Their defense needs more steel and their midfield more verve. Liverpool fans are hopeful that the addition of VVD will add the much needed strength in defense. Otherwise, the attack is the only element that has kept them in the hunt for all three targets and if those targets are not met, that too will be chipped away by other teams.
I am sure that come summer, Liverpool fans will be again asked if they would have taken their side’s X points, Yth position, and Z status at the start of the season. I feel if the values of X, Y, and Z are “more than 75 points”, “fourth or better”, and “FA Cup Finalists/ Champions League Quarter Finalists”, then most Liverpool fans will be happy.