The past few years have been a rollercoaster ride for the Reds and their fans. But LFC Transfer Room’s Sumit Halder (@Sumwitter) believes you have to be crazy not to recognize the progress.
On a seemingly chilly afternoon of May 24, 2015, a few hundred Liverpool away fans went to see live their hero Steven Gerrard’s last game wearing the Red shirt. They hoped to see the end of this legend’s career and embrace the future with new hope and aspirations.
Their hopes were short-lived and brutally demolished, as the 34-year-old Gerrard was badly let down by his teammates in a humiliating 6-1 loss to Stoke.
Liverpool finished 6th that season, coupled with a first-round exit in the Champions League. To most LFC fans, that was unacceptable.
Fenway Sports Group took no exception to this perception, as they slowly changed the back room staff and prepared for a managerial change, only to give Brendan Rodgers some more time to resurrect his LFC career.
That was not meant to be, as Rodgers kept chopping and changing his original attacking, passing style. Ultimately, the result was nothing more than the lack of a clear identity coupled with poor selection of players. After a lacklustre draw against arch-rivals Everton, FSG sacked Rodgers after 3+ seasons in charge.
Enter Jürgen Klopp – Progress 1
The selection of a new manager was swift and very decisive. On October 8, 2015, Jürgen Klopp who as Borussia Dortmund manager won two Bundesliga titles and finished runner-up in the Champions League, agreed a three-year deal to become the club’s new manager.
Klopp’s attacking style and possession-based game suited Liverpool perfectly. But most importantly, his passion made him the best choice for the role.
With tempered expectations from the fans in his first truncated season, Klopp did surprise a few by reaching the League Cup Final (only to lose in the penalty shootout to Manchester City) and Europa Cup Final. After a very impressive display in the first half and taking the lead, Liverpool faced a stunning comeback from Sevilla in the second half to lose the game 3-1.
The fans, the players, and the manager alike all left Basel completed devastated, as this was their only route back into the Champions league. Surely they’d taken some important steps, i.e. beating the top 4 regularly and reaching the Cup finals, but more importantly bringing back the attacking style of play to Anfield.
But some key issues needed to be addressed – a genuine striker, adding depth in the back 4 etc. Klopp reassessed the situation with a positive outlook, saying, “We are disappointed and frustrated 100% but … we will have time to train and we will, for sure, come back stronger..” There were already signs of progress in the first season.
2016-2017 – Progress 1.1
In the summer of 2016, Klopp made few key acquisitions: Sadio Mané, Gini Wijnaldum, Joel Matip, Ragnar Klavan & Loris Karius all came in to improve squad depth and size. None of these were deemed to be spectacular in the midst of Manchester United paying £80m for Paul Pogba from Juventus, and Manchester City & Chelsea adding two new world class managers in Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte, respectively. The transfer market was crazy and fans’ expectations were even crazier.
Liverpool’s net spend was almost zero, ranking 17th in the Premier League as many players were sold as part of the in-house clean up effort.
Even to the most optimistic fans, the squad not only lacked depth in all department of the pitch, but also the world class talent to drive them forward in crucial matches.
But Klopp’s pressing style and attacking pace again proved a masterclass against the top teams. Liverpool didn’t lose a single match that season against their top 6 rivals; however, the team lacked the firepower to break down oppositions who sat deep and played direct. This led to some indifferent results against the smaller sides.
Injuries to key players posed stumbling blocks again in the goal to achieve top 4; however, the desire, passion and “time to train” took a seemingly ordinary squad into the final match of the season against Middlesbrough with the chance to secure a spot in the Champions League places.
In a nervy first half, Liverpool failed to get any inroads as the atmosphere in Anfield was like a pressure cooker waiting for the time to burst in joy. The moment came when Wijnaldum changed the complexion with powerful opener. The sigh of relief and the loud chorus of joy were heard several miles away from the stadium. A comprehensive second-half display, topped by insurance markers from Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana, meant the top 4 mission was accomplished.
There was still a slight twist of drama, as the Reds still had to play for play-off in mid August to qualify to the Champions League group stage.
Their eventual opponents: high-flying Bundesliga darlings Hoffenheim.
2017-2018 – Progress 2.0
After finishing 4th in 2016-2017 Bundesliga season, TH Hoffenheim had high hopes of securing a place in the group stages of Champions League. This was a remarkable achievement, given they finished 15th a year earlier.
Around 2000, Dietmar Hopp, a cofounder of SAP, invested heavily in the club with the ambition of promoting it to the big leagues. His efforts finally paid off when Hoffenheim graduated to the Bundesliga 1 in 2007-2008 season. The prospect of the Champions League group stage was one more feather cap of a club that was formed in 1945 with the merger of a gymnastics club and a football club.
For Liverpool, it wasn’t easy either. The club needed to advance through the group stages not only to gain financial strength, but also to reestablish itself among the European elite. For Klopp and the fans, it was an important milestone, as it potentially would mean they could heavily invest in attracting world-class talent again.
Liverpool were the better side over the both legs (6-3) as they produced a stunning attacking display against the German rivals in the home leg to put the tie to bed.
With this win, fans were more optimistic than ever that their club could secure top talents, even at a high price. So they went to work on addressing their problem areas.
Liverpool had issues breaking down deep-sitting opponents the season before, so they brought in attacking winger Mohamed Salah from AS Roma to stretch teams out a bit more.
To address their defensive frailties, Liverpool were prepared to stump up major cash for Southampton centerback Virgil van Dijk. But we all know what happened there, and Liverpool failed to get any new center back in the transfer market.
As expected, the back four looked thin, exposed and lacking leadership in key losses against Manchester City and Tottenham. More prevalent, were draws against Sevilla, Newcastle and Watford, all of which came with Liverpool in winning positions.
The January window presents an opportunity to once again address this, but this time get it right. The club has made its way to the Champions League Round of 16, but they’ll need reinforcements.
Matchday six’s emphatic win against Spartak Moscow now gives them more financial firepower to go all out and not make the same mistake of waiting till the end of the transfer window.
Many pundits/naysayers have put forward a view that they haven’t seen any progress under Klopp. Liverpool sometimes does look like a team in disarray — vulnerable, soft, with clear lack of leadership qualities in the back and in the middle. They are nowhere near perfect, as critiqued by Klopp himself. But the success cannot be discounted for the few shortcomings in the last two years.
If making to the top 4 in the Premier League from 8th is not progress, then what is progress?
If making to the top 4 with a net spend of zero is not progress than what is progress?
If qualifying to round of 16 in the CL is not progress then what is Progress?
They are clearly a WORK IN PROGRESS.