Before the 2016/17 Premier League season kicked off, there was at least one certainty: that there were at least six clubs with big-name managers who would be fighting for – at the very least – a Champions League spot come the end of the season.
And so the fact that the race to make the top four came down to the final day is no surprise.
We knew that at least two teams would be disappointed, and that it was possible that all six could play well, and still two could miss out on the top four. Apart from Chelsea, all of the other sides have had their ups and downs this season, but if you were to hand Liverpool fourth spot at the start of the season, they’d surely have taken it.
After all, the Reds have only been in the Champions League once since 2009 when they went out in the group stage, and even that was an ill-fated attempt under Brendan Rodgers, who rather bizarrely ended up prioritising the league.
What that means is that, since 2010, Liverpool have mostly had to make do with Europa League football, and as a result, they’ve mostly had to make do with signing Europa League standard players. This summer will change all of that, and that’s why the fourth place finish was so important, even if results since January have been disappointing.
And yet, if you take away some of the more toothless performances towards the end of the campaign, you see that this Liverpool side has a lot of potential, even if there is plenty of work to be done on the team, especially ahead of the addition of European football to the calendar next season.
The Reds started off the season in hot form, scoring goals for fun and proving that they are one of the most exciting teams in the league when they’re on form, scoring goals, winning penalties and keeping more possession of the ball than any team in the league barring Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
And yet, there are other, less tangible reasons for Liverpool to be optimistic ahead of next season. For one thing, Jurgen Klopp’s young side have managed to pull more points than anyone else from losing positions this season, and they’ve done so whilst going the entire season without picking up a red card.
Discipline is key to what Jurgen Klopp is doing, getting his players to press in a certain way all game. That seems to be translating itself nicely into behavioural discipline, too. It’s all the more impressive when you consider the fact that only Everton’s Idrissa Gueye made more tackles this season than Jordan Henderson, and only Middlesbrough made more tackles per game than the reds. They know their game involves lots of tackles and pressing, but they seem to know exactly where the line is.
But probably the most worrying stat for Liverpool is the number of players Jurgen Klopp has used this year. No Premier League side has used fewer players, and although that shows that the manager probably knows what his best team is, it could also be a problem for next season when the Reds have European football to contend with, too.
Last year, Leicester City won the league using the fewer players than anyone else, but this season they struggled. That hasn’t all been down to the extra effort of Champions League football, but they did spend the pre-Christmas portion of the season fielding weaker sides in the league whilst resting bigger names for the Champions League. That should serve as a warning to Klopp as he looks to strengthen his side for a higher standard of European football over the summer.