For better or worse (mostly worse) it’s been a season like no other for Liverpool.
Expectations were so high as they set off on their first league title defence in more than three decades, but a hurricane of extenuating circumstances – coupled with a good old fashioned mid-season collapse – quickly knocked them back off the perch.
Yet it doesn’t feel like it’s all doom and gloom at Anfield. Jurgen Klopp’s team pulled it together for the final stretch and go into the summer with a feeling of cautious optimism about what lies ahead once the Euros are out of the way.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, let’s take a look back at the never-ending hurricane that was season 2020/21.
Premier League – 3rd
Between September and December, Liverpool were actually pretty functional. The 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa is often seen to symbolise the defensive fragility they showed throughout the season, but it was an outlier among their other early performances.
It was the only defeat the Reds suffered in their first 15 league games, though it did foreshadow the impressively dramatic collapse that came after the new year.
Their first game of 2021 started with Danny Ings coming back to haunt them at St Mary’s, and that preceded a defeat to Burnley that ended their record-threatening undefeated home run.
They later lost three games on the spin against Brighton, Man City and Leicester that all-but ended their title hopes, and by the time they lost to Fulham at home on 7 March, Liverpool were eighth and seven points off the top four.
But then out of nowhere came a run of form that rivalled anything from 2019/20.
There was no Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip or Jordan Henderson, yet they put together a whirlwind run of eight wins in ten games to finish the season with a bang. Alisson’s wonderfully bizarre header against West Brom set up a photo-finish that saw them steal third place on the final day with a comfortable win over Crystal Palace.
FA Cup – Fourth round
With their injury situation hitting fever pitch by January, the domestic cups were hardly high-priority for Klopp. Nonetheless, he fielded a strong side against Aston Villa in the third round, who had to field their reserves after a Covid-19 outbreak.
They won that one comfortably despite Louie Barry’s equaliser giving them a serious scare, before the campaign was ended by Manchester United at Old Trafford.
EFL Cup – Fourth round
The 7-2 win over Lincoln City in round three was fun.
The 0-0 draw with Arsenal, followed by a penalty shootout defeat in round four? Not as fun.
Champions League – Quarter-finals
With everything else collapsing around them, Liverpool’s Champions League campaign was a real source of hope for most of the season.
They raced through the group phase in convincing style, making light work of Ajax, Atalanta and Midtjylland…even if they did suffer a rare Anfield defeat to the Italians.
Their last 16 tie against RB Leipzig came at a time when they were desperately struggling, but the Bundesliga title-chasers were swept aside with two of Liverpool’s best performances of the season up to that point.
But the dreams of another European Cup were ended by Real Madrid at the quarter-final stage. A 3-1 defeat in Madrid spelled the end for the Reds, as an empty Anfield unable to inspire another miracle in the second leg.
In a season where virtually every player was either injured for months on end or struggled to perform consistently, Mohamed Salah was the beacon of inspiration that kept things ticking over.
The Egyptian started the season with a hat-trick against Leeds and his eventual tally of 22 Premier League strikes saw him fall short of Harry Kane in the race for the Golden Boot.
He also scored in four straight Champions League games to guide the Reds into the quarter-finals and is one of the only players who brought it to the table week in, week out.
Honourable mentions go out to Nat Phillips for the admirable job he did in Van Dijk’s absence, to Trent Alexander-Arnold for his remarkable recent recovery, to Andy Robertson for never stopping, and to Alisson…just for being Alisson.
Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino both fell short of expectations this season, but between them, they scored or assisted 43 goals. It would be harsh to call either Liverpool’s ‘worst’ player.
Instead, that title falls on Naby Keita, who struggled for a third straight season to make any substantial impact.
It’s not clear what’s going on behind the scenes with the Guinean but the new No.8 just not cutting it, and hasn’t been seen on the pitch since he was substituted in the first half against Real Madrid for “tactical reasons.”
It’s been a long, difficult season for Jurgen Klopp – both personally and professionally.
The German tragically lost his mother earlier this year and that led to speculation that he could step aside from the Liverpool job. But he made it clear that was not happening, and fought on to inspire his team to a remarkable finish to the season.
He’ll be the first to admit he’s made some tactical missteps, and holds as much responsibility as anyone for the collapse of the club’s title defence. But any Liverpool fan who would prefer to have anyone else in charge heading into 2021/22 needs to reassess their priorities.
Back when the season kicked off, Liverpool harboured realistic expectations of retaining their title. So failing to do so, finishing 17 points off the pace, and being out of the race as soon as January, represents a clear disappointment.
And after two seasons in which they won literally everything, so too does the lack of any silverware.
But Champions League qualification was always the minimum expectation, and despite that looking like a distant ambition at the beginning of April, they managed to get it over the line with a place to spare. With all the injuries they have been forced to contend with, that’s quite the feat.
So with that in mind, it’s pass-marks…just.