2019/20 in Review – Liverpool
As uncertainty reigns over the remainder of the Premier League season, no club is being made to feel the pressure more than Liverpool. But while the champions-elect face an anxious wait as the fate of the season is decided, and whether they will be allowed the opportunity to seal their first league title in 30 years, Jamie Braidwood takes a look back and reflects on how Jurgen Klopp’s record-breaking side find themselves on the verge of history.
Put simply, when the Premier League season was suspended indefinitely due to the Coronavirus pandemic on March 13, Liverpool were in the midst of the best league campaign in English top-flight history. The Reds had won 27 of their 29 games to start the season, picking up 82 points from a possible 87, in was the best start to a league campaign ever, in any of Europe’s top five leagues. Liverpool remain 25 points clear of second-place Manchester City, the biggest lead at the top of the table ever in England’s top division, and are just two wins away from completing the earliest title win of all time.
But there is far more to Liverpool’s extraordinary season than just records and statistics. Over the season Liverpool have proved themselves to be one of the most complete and competitive teams in history, with each component of manager Jurgen Klopp’s side playing its part to perfection.
Of course, this team didn’t suddenly become this great overnight. Indeed, the confidence and assurance Liverpool gained by winning the Champions League last June has been hugely significant. As has the motivation and desire the players have had to improve on last season’s incredible league tally of 97 points, which in the end was not enough to beat Pep Guardiola’s excellent Manchester City side. At the time it was a crushing blow for the team, but winning the Champions League was a huge boost, and when the Premier League resumed in August, Liverpool picked up where they left off and did not look back.
A nine-game winning run to end the 2018/19 season was followed by eight successive wins to open 2019/20, and then from late October to February, Liverpool won a league-record 18 games in a row to extend the gap over City to an unprecedented and insurmountable total. It will go down as one of the most dominant and relentless stretches of form elite football has ever seen, but not once did Liverpool allow themselves to get caught up in the emotions of chasing history and greatness. Each match was played like a cup final, and that steely focus and determination allowed Liverpool to go one step further than any other side in league history.
It almost sounds easy, but that could not be farther from the truth. Indeed, when the 2019/20 season is looked back upon in the years to come, one of the subconscious revisions people may make to their memories is that Liverpool strolled their way to the title, that the gulf between 1st, 2nd, and the rest of the league proves that Liverpool faced no competition in what was one of the most straightforward title campaigns ever seen. Reader, I plead to you, do not allow yourself to fall into that trap, for Liverpool’s emphatic results are actually best characterised by narrow wins and late goals, by their ability to back themselves in difficult situations, and the strength of their mentality and willingness to win. In October and November especially, with Manchester City hot on their heels at that time, Liverpool battled and ground out the victories required to continue their relentless push. Think back to the late wins against Leicester, Aston Villa and Crystal Palace; every time it looked unlikely, but every time Liverpool went all-in and produced a winning hand.
But with the substance also came the style. There was a narrative thread present during the majority of Liverpool’s run that they weren’t playing their best football. In reality though, Liverpool spent a lot of time during those games in second gear, almost as if they were conserving energy, waiting for a 20-minute spell that would see them through.
When we did see them hit their stride, however, they were simply devastating. Champions Manchester City were blown away at times during a 3-1 win in November, while Leicester City were the unfortunate side on the receiving end of Liverpool’s most comprehensive display of the season, the 4-0 away win on Boxing Day that will be remembered as the defining performance of this record-breaking campaign. Both performances brought out the best of Klopp’s team; a perfect blend of intensity and precision that completely overwhelmed their opposition.
There have been other highs aside from Liverpool’s achievements in the Premier League. The club won more silverware by defeating Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup and lifted the Club World Cup for the first time with victory over Flamengo in December. There have also been lows. The 3-0 defeat to Watford which brought to an end Liverpool’s 44-match unbeaten run and hopes of an invincible league campaign was particularly sobering, as were the defeats to Chelsea in the FA Cup and Atletico Madrid in the Champions League last-16. The fact that all three defeats came in the same two-week period suggests that fatigue had finally set in, after a 12-month run that came as close to perfection as we have ever seen.
Player of the Season
This is seriously tough. There are at least 10 Liverpool players whose seasons so far I would grade as “excellent”, and in my Premier League Team of the Season I would personally include seven Liverpool players: Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, Jordan Henderson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andrew Robertson, Virgil van Dijk and Alisson (Roberto Firmino, Gini Wijnaldum and Joe Gomez are the other players who I think have had “excellent” seasons, by the way).
But from that impressive list there is one player in particular who has elevated his game to another level this season, and was instrumental in pushing Liverpool to such heights. Sadio Mane has had an outstanding campaign and has won several games on his own through his sheer determination and will to win. In October, November and December, in particular, Mane was a relentless and devastating attacking force, and was simply unplayable on his day. No other player has been responsible for turning draws into unlikely wins as the Senegalese.
Young Player of the Season
My likely runner-up in the Player of the Season award, Trent Alexander-Arnold is the clear winner in this category. There is not another full-back in world football who offers more of an attacking threat or produces such quality from deep positions as Alexander-Arnold. The 21-year-old’s development has taken another huge step forward this season and his unique skillset is invaluable to this Liverpool team. The quality of his two assists and goal in the 4-0 win over Leicester in December was a particular highlight, as he also picked up the Premier League’s Player of the Month award.
Moment of the Season
I wrote about this moment at the time, and it remains Liverpool’s highlight of what has been a stunning campaign. Even though the performance in Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Manchester United did not reach the same heights as that Leicester win on Boxing Day, the pure, unbridled scenes that followed Salah’s game-clinching goal will go down as one of the iconic Anfield moments.
When Salah ran the length of the pitch and finished under David De Gea, Anfield saw a wild release of passion and celebration, as for the first time Liverpool’s fans declared that the Premier League title was theirs. Alisson sprinting to reach Salah and join in with the celebrations adds to the emotion of the scene, and the fact that such a moment came against rivals United is not lost on anyone.
Moment to Forget
Liverpool’s unbeaten run was always going to come to an end eventually, but what no one expected was the manner of what was their sole defeat of the Premier League campaign.
The 3-0 collapse and performance at relegation-threatened Watford was awful, and Liverpool looked completely unrecognisable to the team that had previously gone 44 games unbeaten. It was a jarring moment, as just before then the prospect of an unbeaten league season was beginning to look like a real possibility, but the defeat only put into perspective the incredible run Liverpool had been on up until that point.
Goal of the Season
Another tough one, but the answer is Salah’s header and Liverpool’s second goal in the 3-1 win over Manchester City. Liverpool and City had gone toe-to-toe the previous season, and the defending champions arrived at Anfield in November with the opportunity to cut the gap between the teams to two points. Liverpool did not allow that to happen and were emphatic in their victory. What I admire so much about this goal is that it comes straight from the mind of Klopp, and it is an illustration of how Liverpool took their gameplan to another level in 2019-20. It also cuts City open and ruthlessly exploits their shortcomings. In many ways it’s an allegory for the whole season.
Reader, let’s watch it together, step by step. The goal takes just eight seconds and starts with Alexander-Arnold at right-back with the ball on his left foot, almost facing his own goal. Under pressure from the City press, he is looking to switch the ball to Robertson on the other flank, which attracts the interest of Bernardo Silva. Alexander-Arnold waits, almost teasing Silva into committing to the interception, before whipping a curling, cross-field pass into the space left in behind the Portuguse. It’s a perfect ball, and the weight on it instructs Robertson to drive forward. In one pass Liverpool have beaten the City press, and the front three spring into action. Robertson looks up and sees that Salah has edged in front of Angelino, and so bends a delicious ball that evades Walker, Stones and Fernandinho but also curls away from Ederson. It bounces perfectly on the penalty spot and up into Salah’s stride, who can’t miss. It’s a type of goal that often gets overlooked in end-of-season awards, but it’s a truly perfect Liverpool goal.