“I said to the boys before the game, but because it’s you I think we have a chance,” the words of Jurgen Klopp after Liverpool staged the incredible Champions League semi-final comeback against Barcelona in 2019.
There was no such comeback against Real Madrid this time, with Klopp’s side exiting the Champions League at the quarter-final stage after a 3-1 defeat in Madrid gave them too much to do at Anfield.
Perhaps, though, more telling from Klopp’s emotional post-Barcelona press conference two years ago was his assessment that: “This club is a mix of atmosphere, emotion, desire and football quality, if you cut off one it doesn’t work, we know that.”
Without the atmosphere and emotion of the supporters inside the stadiums, it simply has not worked for Liverpool this season. Klopp could never have known that one of those pillars of Liverpool Football Club would be cut off so soon, but now his words have been proven in an unwanted but emphatic fashion.
Liverpool without supporters simply doesn’t work.
In an attempt to ‘create our atmosphere’ - an oft-used phrase from Klopp and his players since football went behind closed doors, the PA system at Anfield was at full blast on Wednesday night and Liverpool certainly started well.
Once famed for their fast, frantic starts, Liverpool this season have been slow and laborious in first halves - failing to score in 55 per cent of games in the first half (compared to 35 per cent of second half).
Elimination from the Champions League means it’s now all eyes on the remaining seven Premier League games to ensure that the Reds don’t drop out of Europe’s elite competition for the first time in five seasons.
“It’s not only that we want to play the Champions League because we like the competition,” said Klopp. “It’s (also) for different reasons.” Those reasons being predominantly financial, especially after this past year of lockdown football.
So what are the implications and questions after Liverpool’s Champions League exit? We take a look.
1. How will this affect a potential top-four finish?
Provided they can do the job they require, it will be on results elsewhere going their way. But, perhaps crucially, a lot of those teams around them have to play each other - meaning they can’t all win all their games. Those dropped points are where Liverpool will have the opportunity to profit.
Despite the exit to Real, Liverpool have won three league games in a row for the first time since the first three games of the season. It’s been far from impressive, but grinding out results is what will be required.
It’s now pure focus on that and somehow claiming fourth (or third) place to ensure they’re at the top table next season.
2. Where does Thiago fit in?
This is a big question. The Spaniard hasn’t started any of the last three games, overlooked for Naby Keita for the first-leg in Madrid and for 35-year-old James Milner in the return at Anfield. It was the main talking point for supporters pre-match.
Milner showed why he was selected in the opening minute, putting in a strong challenge on Karim Benzema. Thiago’s tackling, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired.
A Champions League ‘midfielder of the season’ and winner of the tournament less than a year ago, Thiago being overlooked for a game of this type is strange. He was signed to be an orchestrator, setting the tempo and opening defences – but it hasn’t worked so far.
Perhaps, if Virgil van Dijk and others had been in place this season, the set up of this team would have been different, and the plan for Thiago could have been implemented. So far though, he’s failed to do what has been expected.
3. Will Mohamed Salah stay?
Salah’s future could well depend on Champions League qualification, but also on what Liverpool can offer him as terms on a new contract. This summer he turns 29 and will have two years left on his current deal. He’s clearly agitating for an improved contract, but can Liverpool offer that after this financially-hit season? On the flip side, can any club afford to buy Salah either?
The recent investment into Liverpool’s owners, FSG, from RedBird Capital could be significant and play a key part in being able to keep Salah. Despite some grievances, Liverpool will be looking to keep him.
Salah is a player whose availability puts him on a level like Luis Suarez - who is still playing at the very top level at age 34. Salah could well have another five years left at the elite level - to sell now would be too early.
4. Is a ‘rebuild’ required?
When Liverpool lost the 2018 Champions League final to Real in Kiev, the starting lineup was similar to that which lined up against the Spaniards in 2021.
The front three is the same, and Milner and Gini Wijnaldum were in midfield. Meanwhile, Thiago and fellow new signing Diogo Jota were on the bench.
Within 48 hours of the defeat in Kiev, Fabinho’s signing was announced, while Alisson Becker and Virgil van Dijk followed in the months after, transforming the defensive spine of the side and leading to Champions League and Premier League titles.
It’s now the midfield and attack that appears in need of a refresh, but an overall ‘rebuild’ is wide of the mark.
If Wijnaldum leaves, as expected, then a new midfielder is certainly required, especially with Milner’s age to consider. A new centre-back may be needed, too – even with Joe Gomez, Joel Matip and Van Dijk due back in the summer.
Up front, a younger forward will be targeted, but Jota will also progress, and there’s still 18-year-old Harvey Elliott to return from loan.
Calls for a rebuild are over the top. Yes, some additions to freshen things up are required, but arguably it’s more about using the squad more effectively - with the likes of Kostas Tsimikas, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Xherdan Shaqiri getting very, very few minutes.
5. Is the squad tired?
Klopp has denied this several times this season, most recently when speaking specifically about Sadio Mane – claiming the issue was more mental than physical.
But to the eye it seems like they massively are. The players who have had to be relied upon so heavily this season – Wijnaldum, Mane, Firmino and full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson - appear far below their best.
Mane and Firmino’s goals have gone missing, while no Liverpool midfielder has scored more than two league goals this season. “It’s been a difficult season for me,” admitted Firmino after the 0-0 against Real Madrid.
“I always want to be helping with goals and assists, but that hasn’t been happening, unfortunately.”
Firmino, like many in the squad, need the end of this season sooner than later. A summer to refresh, a full, proper pre-season, some normality to socialise and be human again.
Football is often a microcosm of society, and in many ways Liverpool’s season has displayed the wider effects of the pandemic on us all - missing our companions, friends and inspirations.
This is the anomaly of a season and next year will be different.
Matt Ladson is editor of This Is Anfield
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