Our man Dave Tindall reflects on an historic season for Liverpool and why he thinks Virgil van Dijk should have pipped Jordan Henderson to a top award.
In my head I knew we had a lot more silverware to admire but the magnitude of what this Liverpool team has achieved really hit home when I randomly swished onto Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s Instagram page.
There, the man who scored the final home goal of our unforgettable title-winning season, was stood in a ‘Champions’ hoodie proudly showing off the Super Cup trophy, the Premier League trophy, the Champions League trophy and the World Club Championship trophy.
Seeing is believing and, wow (said in a Jurgen Klopp voice), that is some sight. Never has an English team held all four at once so no wonder Ox, and others, didn’t miss the chance to cash in on such an incredible photo opportunity.
While our reign as Champions League holders will be over soon, the Premier League trophy can be given a daily rub and polish for a long time yet.
Time for another wow. We ended the 30-year wait to be crowned top-flight champions by beating our nearest rivals by 18 points. 18!!! You all know that but every so often I pull up the final league table to look at the numbers again.
In a normal era, 18 points would be staggering but up against a Manchester City side which had averaged 99 points for the last two seasons, it’s unfathomable.
The stats don’t lie
The points tallies from the last three seasons cause a further head shake.
2017-2018: Manchester City 100, Liverpool 75
2018-2019: Manchester City 98, Liverpool 97
2019-2020: Liverpool 99, Manchester City 81
So, a 43-point turnaround in the last three campaigns. Does. Not. Compute.
After missing out by a single point last season, I’d rather solemnly concluded that we might have to wait until Pep Guardiola got bored and left the Etihad before our chance came again.
I mean, how on earth could we beat that monstrous tally of 97 points? Well, we did. Klopp’s genius hit new heights, we kept winning game after game and City cracked completely.
And, yes, it does feel good to have done it when we clearly aren’t the richest team.
Using net spend figures from Transfermarkt over the last five years, we are way down in 14th in the Premier League table (below Brighton, West Ham, Bournemouth, Watford and Newcastle) with a net spend of £107.58m. That’s dwarfed by the top two – Man City £601.98m and Man Utd £484.88m.
We’re also third behind the two Manchester clubs when taking into account wage bills so there’s an extra level of satisfaction knowing that we’ve hit top spot by being the smartest rather than the richest.
It’s been a blast seeing the Hendo trophy-lift shuffle over the last year and a bit and long may this new-found habit continue.
VAN DIJK MY PLAYER OF THE SEASON
Twitter went berserk arguing that Kevin De Bruyne should have won the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year ahead of Jordan Henderson although such debates/rows are rather pointless.
I’ll obviously stick up for the skipper all day long and his reaction said everything. “As grateful as I am, I don’t feel like I can accept this on my own. I owe a lot to so many people but none more so than my current team-mates, who have been incredible and deserve this every bit as much as I do.”
This was the Writers’ award and obviously journalists like a good story. Henderson provided it. Not only did he lead us to the Holy Grail but he was a star off the pitch too, helping raise money for the NHS as part of the #PlayersTogether initiative.
His rise in stature and continuing demands for perfection that drove his team-mates on made Henderson a massive presence this season and Liverpool fans who watched him week in, week out have no doubt that he was a worthy winner.
And yet, while the captain was awesome – as were so many others in red shirts – I’d have given my vote to Virgil van Dijk.
There are lots of ways to judge or interpret who the best player is but a classic route to take is this: who would be missed most if taken out of the team?
I love skill, flair and class so marvel at some of De Bruyne’s play. But somehow you get the impression that, if he wasn’t there, they’d find someone else to knock in a cross or do a dragback and curl one into the top corner during a 5-0 win.
De Bruyne does it better than anyone else but unlike, say, Sadio Mane, the Belgian didn’t manage a winning goal in the Premier League this season, his strikes coming in scorelines such as 8-0 (v Watford), 5-0 (v Norwich), 4-0 (v Brighton) and 3-0 (both games against Arsenal).
And in the nine games City lost, he started five and came on as a sub in two others. That’s probably not his fault – he must have rolled his eyes more than once at the City defence – but the bottom line is that he couldn’t drag his team back from defeat when things went wrong.
‘Van Dijk’s presence can’t be stressed enough’
By contrast, van Dijk’s influence was massive. I don’t have to check which games he started/missed as our giant Dutchman played every single minute of our 38-game Premier League campaign – worthy of some sort of prize in itself.
Having the reassuring presence of van Dijk at the back is huge to Liverpool’s system as it allows the full-backs to bomb on and create all those assists – 13 for Trent, 12 for Andy Robertson this season – for our frontmen.
And – the importance of this can’t be stressed enough – when leads need to be protected, van Dijk is the cool head who sees us over the line.
Liverpool won the title by such a margin not due to blasting teams 4-0 and 5-0 every week but because we kept coming out on top in tight games.
Before lockdown, we won 14 of our 29 matches by a single-goal margin and I lost count of the amount of times van Dijk headed away a set-piece, cut out a cross or made a decisive tackle to keep the lead intact.
Every football fan knows that if your team concedes a late equaliser one week, there’s a good chance the same thing will happen the week after and it becomes a habit. You’re on edge, the opposition sense it and late goals keep killing you.
The nearest we came to anything like that was conceding a 69th-minute leveller at home to Burnley when the title had already been won. That was complacency rather than panic.
De Bruyne was the best pure footballer, I’ll concede that and applaud his amazing tally of 20 assists, but if Player of the Year is based on influence – and surely that’s a great measure – there is only one winner in my eyes: Virgil van Dijk.
KLOPP DESERVES MANAGER’S ACCOLADE
The awards roll in from everywhere and Jurgen Klopp was the latest to be recognised when being named League Managers’ Association manager of the year earlier this week.
Should there be a debate about this one? Probably not when even Sir Alex Ferguson, who the award is named after, said: “It was thoroughly deserved. The performance level of your team was outstanding. Your personality runs right through the club.”
Of course, massive credit must go to Chris Wilder at Sheffield United, who were odds-on favourites for relegation at the start of the season.
A shout out too for Burnley’s Sean Dyche but winning the title with seven games to spare was something else.
At a time in history when we see repeated evidence of incompetence by those in charge, Klopp has shown what a true leader looks like.