Constantly working on the edge of crisis is part of the job when you manage Liverpool. The rise of managerial impatience is one of the biggest changes in football over the Premier League era, money increasing expectation. Never is that more obvious than at Anfield where, almost every week, Jurgen Klopp has attempted to manage expectations. Almost every week, he has failed to do so.
Had Liverpool fallen out of the top four on the final day, the columns and interviews would have begun in earnest. They would not simply have mused whether Klopp had fallen short of expectations in his first full season, but called into question his entire reputation as a coach. That is the lot of a manager at any elite club. You are one defeat from concern, two defeats from crisis, three defeats from accusations that you have lost your spark.
Klopp knows that more than anyone. “I know what will happen if we end up losing a fourth game in a row,” he said before Liverpool drew with Chelsea in January. “Am I allowed to go for the best position in the Premier League? Or should we just put our heads down and say, ‘OK, sorry, we failed again. Let’s get through the season and next year try again with different players and, if someone asks for it, a new manager’?” Those quotes were spun by one tabloid as ‘Jurgen Klopp believes he could face the sack if Liverpool lose to Chelsea at Anfield’. Nonsense, of course.
On days such as these, tension is inevitable. With Arsenal taking an early two-goal lead and Manchester City thrashing an embarrassing Watford at Vicarage Road, Anfield fretted. “Liverpool need a goal from somewhere, tensions have increased,” said Sky Sports’ commentator. The game was only eight minutes old.
To some extent, Liverpool were guilty of increasing the angst. They played the first 30 minutes as if it were second-half stoppage time, shooting speculatively from distance and crossing the ball into the box from deep. Klopp had chosen to play with Roberto Firmino and Daniel Sturridge as a strike partnership, but neither flourishes with the ball at head height or above. Adam Lallana and Georginio Wijnaldum both gave the ball away by forcing the issue unnecessarily.
It’s at these times where you worry about Klopp’s effect on a team. He is a manager for whom inspiration and perspiration are the key ingredients, but his persona hardly screams calmness under pressure. Klopp kicked every ball, admonished every misplaced pass and felt every spurned opportunity. He was living the occasion, rather than directing it. Before long, he was celebrating maniacally like every fan on the Kop.
There is no perfect time for a team to score, but the final seconds before half-time are better than most. Rather than 15 long minutes for supporters and players to consider their potential failure, Wijnaldum settled the mood. The touch from Firmino was typically delicate, and the Dutchman took the ball beautifully in his stride before thrashing past Brad Guzan. Rather than worry and mither, supporters could discuss Martin Atkinson’s failure to award a penalty against, and red card to, Dejan Lovren. Sighs of relief all round at refereeing incompetence.
Goals change moods, and none more so than Wijnaldum’s. The second half was an extended lap of honour from the moment that Philippe Coutinho had scored a free-kick past the abject Guzan, a team finally able to bask in its achievement. There were tributes from the stands not just to Steven Gerrard but the retiring Xabi Alonso. Klopp even sat down in his seat for the last 30 seconds, before rising to applaud the final whistle.
Despite all the histrionics, Klopp has achieved progress at Liverpool and it does feel sustainable. Had supporters been told in October 2015, when the German was appointed, that he would bring Champions League football back to Anfield for the second time in eight years in his first full season, they would have accepted the offer gleefully. Liverpool were a longer price than five other clubs to reach the top four this season, yet merit their place. It will be worth starting preseason early if their play-off is negotiated successfully.
The defining aspect of this Premier League season has been the increase in competition at the top of the table. Chelsea earned 43 more points than 2015/16, Tottenham 16 more points, Liverpool 16 more, Manchester City 12 more, Arsenal four more and Manchester United three more. The races for the title and top four have been marathons run at a sprinter’s pace.
Amidst that increase in competition, Klopp deserves huge credit for managing a squad lower on numbers and quality than he would like. Liverpool changed first-choice goalkeeper twice during the season, their captain has been injured since February, their striker never blended form and fitness and four of their key players (Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Joel Matip and Lallana) missed a combined 34 matches through injury and the African Cup of Nations.
Just because Liverpool fell away from their title bid does not mean that this is a season that deserves to be tainted in just-not-quite. Klopp’s team required the highest points total in Premier League history to reach the top four, and they did exactly that. There are enough reasons to believe that this is more than another false Anfield dawn for the positivity to last throughout a football-less summer.