The 2017/18 season has been one of the most memorable campaigns in years. Even the 2013/14 league campaign was given a run for its money as the most entertaining season in this millennium as Liverpool romped their way not just across England, but also Europe, putting teams to the sword with a free-flowing, all-smiling, goal-scoring bunch of hardworking madmen. Beautiful.
The season had emotions galore: elation, devastation, ruefulness, and now nostalgia. But that nostalgia actually masks something that fans are probably a bit keen to whitewash or blot out – that panicked period between the end of the summer transfer window and November.
First, though, a historical refresher is required. After seemingly agreeing on personal terms with Virgil Van Dijk, in a deal that was reportedly meant to cost between £50-60 million, Liverpool were reported for “tapping up” the player, by Southampton FC. Liverpool then released an official apology, and amongst this transfer window furore, Philippe Coutinho handed in a transfer request. It was all seemingly getting a bit manic.
The season had begun though and had started well, but even then the vultures were circling, and every weirdo on twitter was sharpening their knives, desperate to be right at Klopp’s expense. On August 31st, fans and pundits alike were screeching: how could Liverpool not sign a new centre-back? Social media was divided, with fans criticising the manager for his decision to solely pursue Van Dijk, and others screaming and raging against Liverpool’s transfer committee or ownership.
I hedged my bets, and in my assessment of the transfer window itself, surmised:
“Hence, in relation to Liverpool’s centre-back issues, it’s understandable why the club could not get the desired outcome, however, that is not an acceptable excuse considering the team and funds the club had to seek out an alternative. That is unless you agree entirely with the principle of a manager’s autonomy, and his stance, to return at a later date.”
The decision to not sign a centre-back was widely condemned as an absolute failure, and this rage bubbled along quietly at first, but the murmurs of discontent were becoming louder and louder, however, it was not until an autumnal sunny Saturday afternoon in Manchester that the moderates would suddenly rise up and become radicalised – to borrow a phrase from Four Lions.
A 5-0 away drubbing, marred by a red card, and some woeful individual errors saw Liverpool publicly humiliated by Manchester City, in their first real show of force in a league season in which they would dominate like no other team before them.
Instantly, those rogue voices, amassing and building their strength in dark, unsavoury areas – like Sauron, recuperating in the darkest areas of Mordor – became mainstream: “Klopp out!” “FSG out!” “We need to spend more!” “No wonder Coutinho wants to leave!” “We’ll never win anything!”
Everyone wanted to add their voice to the conversation, and Jamie Carragher – whilst trying to strike an optimist tone within his column, failed to do so – noted his concerns of how winning titles was simply too big of an ask for Klopp, in the “impossible job”.
Duncan Castles, as if the Witch King of Angmar, gleefully stuck his knife in, as the Twitter Nazguls rained down their smug hot-takes on how Liverpool were coming apart. It was like Alastair Campbell, Bernard Ingham, Mike McCurry, Peter Mandelson and Malcolm Tucker (the last of whom is fictitious) had summoned every press baron across Britain to unleash hell upon Klopp, completely disregarding his work and achievements with Liverpool thus far. “You didn’t sign a centre-back!” the press screamed. “Off with his head!” rival fans chanted in riposte, as a worrying number of Liverpool “fans” joined in too, much to my surprise. One bad result changes little was the line from most fans, but this performance contagion was not isolated.
A 4-1 loss to Spurs, in which both Lovren and Mignolet had torrid days saw the very worst of Liverpool’s fellowship emerge, as Dejan Lovren was amassed with abuse and abhorrent threats. A post-match piece from the Echo captured the virtuous hindsight, which hundreds pertained to have prophesied back in August:
“Klopp famously said Liverpool watched alternative centre backs to Virgil van Dijk “500million times”. Klopp, Michael Edwards and the scouting staff needed to look harder.
That is Liverpool’s problem to solve. For Lovren, the days to forget mount up. Klopp will do his best – both publicly and privately – but right now, it feels a long way back from here.”
Things were looking bleak, and out of nowhere, the pressure was mounting upon Klopp, who barely had the chance to show what his team could do in the Champions League, having secured qualification with the highest points total ever required for the fourth spot a mere handful of months prior.
Anfield was angsty, but the radical fans never quite managed to breach its walls, even after the lows of losing to City and Spurs. Unlike our red rivals from north London, discontent was not voiced during games, and despite the loud noises of pundits and fame-seekers on Twitter, or spurious callers on 5Live and the like, a good number of Liverpool fans kept their nerve.
For all the bad results, unfortunate calls and rotten pieces of luck, the underlying performances from Liverpool were good. The results may not have reflected it, but it was clear: Liverpool were on an upward trajectory, and it was only a matter of when, and not if, the team would start to pick up momentum.
Philippe Coutinho’s white-hot form certainly helped remedy the mental quagmire Liverpool fans perceived themselves in, whilst new Kop-hero Mo Salah was beginning to write his name into Premier League history. It wasn’t long before Liverpool were the top scoring outfit in Europe, surpassing PSG, and Liverpool’s front three outshone their Citizen equivalent. The Fab Four was not quite history yet, and looked imperious, blitzing teams and melting away defences, an inferno of footballing brilliance, a maelstrom of speed, intelligence, strength, purpose, directness, incision, finishing ability and sheer joy.
Coutinho’s latest back “injury” scuppered the feel-good moment, but the arrival of Virgil Van Dijk, followed by a derby winning header, and retribution against Manchester City, for their 5-0 battering, in the form of a 4-3 blockbuster, ending their unbeaten league run, completely rejuvenated the fanbase.
From then on, Liverpool seemingly did not look back. The Holy Trinity of Salah, Firmino and Mané terrorised teams across Europe, with the industrious midfield behind them working diligently, and Van Dijk marshalling a new-look defence, in which Lovren looked commanding, assured and confident, with Robertson and Alexander-Arnold on the opposite flank.
It seems, after all that nonsense about Klopp paying the price for his error of not signing Van Dijk, and living by his mistakes, he was right after all! Klopp stuck by his men, Van Dijk (and Lovren) and his conviction and belief in them paid off. If we really consider where Liverpool was at the end of the transfer window, and where they finished come the end of the season, Klopp’s decision to wait for Van Dijk was entirely justified. Would Liverpool have won the league with him back in August? Almost certainly not. Besides, Liverpool’s exit from the FA Cup featured Van Dijk starting anyway, so it’s probably fair to say waiting for Van Dijk did not really cost Liverpool at all in any major competitions. Of course, the path to Champions League qualification may have been easier with Van Dijk in the side from August, but Klopp was criticised for not bringing in an alternative to him. Considering Jonny Evans was the Premier League centre-back flavour of the month back in January, can we really be sure any other centre-back would have performed as impressively as Van Dijk has since joining? Van Dijk appears the perfect fit, and a fit worth waiting for too.
Klopp has more than earned the trust of the fans, and the board and ownership seem to back him completely too. It’s time for the fanbase and pundits who were ever so critical back in August and September to stand up and note they were wrong. Klopp got it right. He is a man of conviction, and maybe it’s those who are all too eager to criticise and malign who need to hold their nerve next time.