Ten moments that cost Liverpool a top-four finish and Champions League qualification
As Mohamed Salah put it on Thursday, even the “bare minimum” proved beyond Liverpool this season. Had you suggested, a year or so ago, that Jurgen Klopp’s side would soon find themselves outside the Champions League, few would have believed you. Football, though, moves in mysterious ways.
Having been on the brink of four trophies last term, the Reds couldn’t even secure fourth place this time around. A slow start turned into a wretched autumn, and by the time their dreadful winter was over, Klopp’s side needed miracles which ultimately never arrived.
A body blow, for sure, for a side who had contested three of the last five Champions League finals prior to this one, and one which could have a significant impact on the club moving forward.
Ultimately, though, Liverpool can have few complaints. Over the course of the season, they simply haven’t been good enough. Here’s where it all went wrong for the Reds…
The summer transfer window
For many, the die was cast at Anfield by the time the summer transfer window closed at the end of August. Liverpool simply didn’t do enough business to address the issues in their squad.
They had been active in the close season, completing deals to sign promising youngsters Fabio Carvalho and Calvin Ramsay, and committing to what could end up being a club-record deal in landing Darwin Nunez from Benfica.
But their refusal to land a high-class midfielder, despite that being an obvious weakness, was hard to fathom. Even more so when, in the closing hours of the window and with injuries mounting, they opted to loan Arthur Melo from Juventus. The Brazilian managed only 13 minutes of first-team football in the eight months which followed.
A slow start
Having recorded points tallies of 90-plus in three of the previous four seasons, and only once been crowned champions, Liverpool know there is little margin for error when you are competing with a behemoth like Manchester City.
So when they took just two points from their first three matches of this season, the alarm bells were already ringing. The Reds were poor in drawing at Fulham on the opening weekend, couldn’t find a way past Crystal Palace at Anfield and then, most annoyingly, were outbattled by Manchester United at Old Trafford. Seven points gone, in the blink of an eye. The tone had been set.
Darwin’s red card
After goals off the bench against Manchester City and Fulham, there was much excitement around Liverpool’s new Uruguayan striker ahead of his Anfield debut against Palace in August. Nunez, though, made headlines for all the wrong reasons, reacting petulantly to some gentle provocation from Joachim Andersen.
His headbutt led to a straight red card, a three-game ban and, crucially, robbed him of the chance to build some early momentum in his Reds career.
Liverpool’s form in the early part of the season was patchy, to say the least, but in Luis Diaz they at least had one shining star. So when the Colombian went down with a knee injury during the defeat to Arsenal in October, heads were in hands at Anfield.
The news was bad, with Diaz set to be absent until after the break for the World Cup. He returned to training, on schedule, during Liverpool’s winter training camp in Dubai, only to break down again after only a couple of sessions.
This time, the issue would require surgery, with Diaz sidelined until April. By the time he returned, Liverpool were out of the Champions League, FA Cup and Carabao Cup, and were playing catch-up in the Premier League.
Like Diaz, the absence of Diogo Jota this season hit Klopp’s side hard. The Portugal star missed the start of the season with a hamstring problem, but was just starting to find form when he tore a calf muscle in the dying stages of the win over Manchester City in October.
He would be missing until February, and though he has finished the season in decent form, it is easy to wonder what might have been had he remained fit for the bulk of the campaign.
Just when it looked like Liverpool had fought their way through their tough patch, with wins over Rangers, Manchester City and West Ham in the space of a week in October, they ran into yet another dead end.
Defeat at Forest, who started the day bottom of the Premier League, came courtesy of Taiwo Awoniyi, who spent six years as a Reds player without making a single senior appearance. Klopp bemoaned his side’s luck, but in truth they deserved nothing from the game. It would not be the last time they let themselves down on the road.
Despite their struggles, Liverpool’s home form generally has kept them away from serious trouble, but their sole league defeat of the campaign turned out to be a pretty costly one.
It came against Leeds, another side haunted by relegation and one who should really have been swatted aside. Instead, Joe Gomez’s errant backpass, poor decision-making and some baffling late defensive hesitancy allowed Jesse Marsch’s side to pilfer a 2-1 victory on a Saturday night at the end of October. How they celebrated. How Liverpool came to rue it.
Either side of the World Cup, Liverpool were threatening to find form. They beat Tottenham and Southampton at the start of November, and then defeated Aston Villa and Leicester at the end of December.
But the New Year was brought in with a dreadful loss at Brentford, and within a month the Reds’ season had unravelled. They were spanked at Brighton, knocked out of the FA Cup by the same opponents, and then thrashed by lowly Wolves. Even a home game against struggling Chelsea brought only an insipid goalless draw.
A bad day in Bournemouth
When Klopp looks back on the key turning points of this season, surely the disappointment of defeat at the Vitality Stadium in March will stand out. Liverpool were five league games unbeaten before that, the run including wins over Everton and Newcastle and then that memorable 7-0 thrashing of Manchester United.
But just as they had at Forest, they came up short against the league’s basement club. Philip Billing scored in the first half, Mohamed Salah missed a penalty after the break and the Reds lost 1-0. They would live to regret their timidity.
If Klopp ever wanted a game to emphasise how far his side had fallen, this was it. City on their way to a fifth league title in six years, Liverpool on their way to a fifth-placed finish. No contest.
Even when Salah fired the Reds ahead in the first half, there was little belief. Julian Alvarez levelled before the break, and then Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Jack Grealish added some gloss to the scoreline. Liverpool were a rabble, outplayed, outran and outclassed.
Out of the Champions League, too, as it turned out. — Goal