In Liverpools long and glorious history of winning Leagues, European trophies and Domestic cups, 2016 will not show anything in the honours list. We failed to win a trophy again, we finished eighth in the league and did not qualify for Europe.
Yet we begin 2017 with a fan base full of optimism for the future, as the buzz has returned to Anfield once again. It may not show anything in the history books of the future, but there will definitely be some stories to tell the grandchildren in the future…..
Liverpool entered January in the Semi Finals for the League Cup and still in Europe, with the FA Cup yet to begin. Although dreams of the top four were far-fetched, the cups offered a re-invigorated Liverpool side the opportunity of glory under our new manager, Jürgen Klopp.
There were plenty of injuries in the squad as some players struggled to get to grips with the new fitness regime and high-energy pressing style, but Liverpool eventually overcame Stoke in the semi-finals, winning the away leg 1-0 despite two injuries in the first half. This was a priceless lead for the second leg as Stoke won the return leg 1-0, and we went scraped through on penalties, sending Anfield into raptures. A trip Anfield South beckoned again, facing Man City, but this time we lost on penalties.
To be fair, City had the better of the whole game and should have put us out of sight. Again Liverpool were struggling with injuries, relying on a centre back pairing of Lucas and Kolo Toure for most of the game. Even though the cup run ended in disappointment, Jürgen Klopp had managed to get us to a cup final just four months into his reign as manager, something Brendan Rodgers failed to do in over 3 years. We would only need to wait another 3 months for another one…..
Journey through Europe
Liverpool faced unfashionable Augsburg in the Europa League knock out stages, squeezing through 1-0 over the two legs. The most memorable outcome of these two poor games has turned out to be the unknown Estonian centre back, Ragnar Klavan, who played for Augsburg. He had impressed enough to be signed by Jürgen Klopp later that year.
The draw for the next round was when this competition suddenly became a priority to everyone at the club – we faced Manchester United. The clubs had never faced each other in Europe before, and with this competition now offering Champions League qualification to the winners, the stakes were high.
To be honest though we could face Man Utd in a tiddlywinks match and supporters would still be desperate to. The atmosphere that night is one of the best I have experienced, with the reds scoring a goal in each half to win the game 2-0. It was thoroughly deserved on the night, and put is in a fantastic position for the second leg.
Coutinho’s wonderful dribble and finish just before half time at Old Trafford meant United needed to score three in the second half, and the reds cruised to a memorable 3-1 aggregate win. We were in the Quarter Finals of the UEFA Cup and had beaten our biggest rivals along the way…..
Next up was a draw guaranteed to stir the emotions – Jürgen Klopps old club, Borussia Dortmund. A 1-1 draw in the first leg put us in the driving seat for the second leg, but a fantastic start and two quick away goals from Dortmund, on the counter attack, in the first 10 minutes stunned everyone at Anfield.
We trailed at half time 3-1 on aggregate. Dortmund where quicker, slicker and much better than us in the first half, and the only saving grace was that we had a glimpse of what a team that had been built by Jürgen Klopp could be capable of.
The second half is one of the best I have ever seen at Anfield. It defied logic and expectation, as we scored four goals to win 4-3 on the night, with three in the last 15 minutes including an injury time winner from Dejan Lovren. Singing YNWA at the start of the game was special and at the end it was incredible, celebrating another famous Liverpool comeback to reach the semi finals, as Klopp led the celebrations on the pitch.
There have been so many big European Nights under the Anfield lights over the years, and this one was up there with the best. Kenny was in tears and the spirit of Istanbul, Olympiakos and St Etienne was alive and well. We never do it the easy way do we?
So close, so far…
A late winner for Villareal in the away leg meant we had to win the second leg, which ended being a comfortable 3-0 win, taking us to the final to meet the holders, Seville. It did not match the drama or tension of the Dortmund game, but the celebrations were fantastic again – we were in our first European Final for nine years, an incredible achievement for Jürgen Klopp so soon after getting the job. Although we won the first half 1-0, we lost the final 3-1, as the final became a step to far for us, but it had been an exceptional journey to get there.
As well as the famous cup games, there was the small matter of a 4-0 home derby win to enjoy, as we dominated the blues from start to finish. There was also a 6-0 win away at Aston Villa, 3-0 at home to Man City, and the amazing, calamitous but hilarious 5-4 win at Carrow Road. What Liverpool lacked in consistency, we made up for in entertainment, scoring goals for fun but sometimes letting them in as well. The season ended in disappointment but the improvement under Jürgen Klopp had been there for all to see, gathering momentum through the cup competitions and getting close to glory again.
We are at the half way point now after 19 games, and it is a pleasant surprise for me to see us doing so well. Not many people – definitely not me – expected us to be in second place while again in the semi finals of the cup. Although there have been surprising disappointments like Burnley West Ham and especially the defeat at Bournemouth, we are far and away a better side than the one that begun 2016.
Winning 4-3 at Arsenal, 2-1 at Chelsea and 1-0 against City prove that we can compete with the tope teams, while comfortable wins against Leicester Hull Middlesborough Stoke and Watford have given us a consistency not seen at Liverpool for a long time.
The winner at Goodison has to be the highlight so far, simply because of the drama of such a late goal in such a big game, and with a four point lead over fifth place we are exceeding expectations, so far.
If you had told me last January that we would have reached two cup finals and end up second in the league in 2016, I would have been delighted. If you had told me that James Milner would excel at left back, Henderson as a holding midfielder, Lallana in centre midfield and Firmino as the main striker, I’d have thought you were mad. Jürgen Klopp and his staff have made a number of decisions that have paid off, and I cannot give him enough credit for that.
Other players like Emre Can and Lucas are also doing well in new positions, while new signings Sadio Mané, Wijnaldum, Matip and Klavan have settled in very quickly and made a difference.
The issues with Sakho have been disappointing, and although I like him as a player and would rather have him than Lucas at the back, things like this happen at other clubs too, not just Liverpool. When it comes to internal disciplinary matters, you have to back the managers judgement.
From strength to strength
Everything feels rosey at the moment and it is a good time to be a Liverpool fan, but football can change very quickly. Many players left the club in the summer, and I cannot think of any that I would like to have back in a hurry. Joe Allen, Benteke, Jordan Ibe, Skrtel and Ballotelli were the high profile players sold in the summer, and none of them would get in this team at the moment.
One concern for me though is the depth of the squad, and if we suffer even half of the injuries like we did last season, we may struggle to retain our consistency. I believe that a team should strengthen from a position of strength when possible, and would like us to sign at least two players in January to help continue with our momentum. We are in such a good place now, probably an unexpected one to be fair, so it is the time to build on that while we can.
Neither goalkeeper has proven themselves to be good enough to rely on consistently. It was harsh on Karius, who had only had a few weeks to prove himself, to be replaced by Mignolet who had not proved himself in over three years, but it has turned out to be the right decision in the short term. Tottenham Arsenal Chelsea and Man Utd all have better goalkeepers than we do, so it is a position we need to improve.
It is good to have players like Sturridge and Origi available to come on if we are chasing the game but I feel that the squad lacks depth in midfield and defence to cope if two or three injuries happen at once. We are a big enough club, with enough resources, to expect to have two players for every position. We do not have that at full back, in midfield or out wide, and we should act quickly this month, while we are an attractive proposition for players to consider.
Sadio Mané could be away for six weeks, Coutinho is still not fully fit yet, and we only have Alberto Moreno and Trent Alexander Arnold to cover at full back. Henderson was injured in the last game against Man City, and one substitution meant we had to move four players around to fit Origi in. If Lucas leaves and with Sakho still out of favour, we only have three centre backs available, even if Matip returns soon. We didn’t spend anything net on transfers in the summer, and it would be great to see us go for it in a big way for once under FSG.
The year of 2016 will not show anything in the Liverpool honours list, but it could prove to be a catalyst for the future. There have been more highlights than disappointments, more wins than defeats, more cup finals than the previous four years and so many memories to savour.
There are similarities to 2002 under Houllier, 2009 under Benitez and 2014 with Rodgers, when we were so close to success but failed to take the next step, and then slipped away down the table, and had to begin to rebuild again. Manager, players, owners and supporters need to make sure that doesn’t happen this time, and it is time to build on the momentum of 2016.
Last year has been good. The next few years could be even better.
Written by Simon Ward