You might not have noticed, but Liverpool – a football team who have been really excellent for quite a long time now – are currently rubbish. Like, really properly rubbish. Not Chelsea rubbish, but still…
While they are bad, and before we give them any chance to spoil everything by becoming good again (which looked a real possibility before Real Madrid ran all over them) here they are among 10 Premier League teams who were great until they weren’t. Don’t shout at us.
Previously: Champions in 2017
And then: 5th in 2018
What happened: Obviously not a full-on disaster of a season – certainly nothing like as bad as their previous response to winning the league – and they still ended it by winning the FA Cup. But it was still an unpleasant and acrimonious campaign marked by wildly divergent opinions on transfer plans between manager Antonio Conte and the Chelsea suits.
Conte seemed to want a return to the giddy profligacy of the early Abramovich days and, in fairness, did have the title win from the previous year to indicate he was a man worth backing.
Conte wanted established, experienced names to kick his squad on yet further. The board, with Marina Granovskaia as de facto director of football, wanted younger or cheaper talent that they might be able to flip for a profit. It was an impasse. When the decision was finally announced that the club and manager would go their separate ways at the end of the season it all felt like an unnecessarily unsavoury end to what had been a really very successful if never entirely amicable partnership.
Previously: Runners-up in 2019, Champions in 2020, 3rd in 2021, Runners-up in 2022
And then: ? in 2023
What happened: While they remain in with a shot of the top four, it’s far too early to be writing off a champion team like Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool isn’t it? Absolutely, but let’s do it anyway because they have looked really pretty shit this season. Mo Salah has gone from the league’s best striker to a mediocre creator, Sadio Mane is being missed terribly, and Liverpool’s defence has been every bit as bad as it was in 2020/21 without the obvious mitigation from that time of all the defenders being injured. In Jamie Carragher’s words: ‘Absolute shambles’.
Liverpool have gone past 90 points in three of the last four seasons, and the downside to that excellence is that you set yourself a ludicrously high bar. Especially when it means you’re being measured against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, who continue to also churn out 90-point seasons and, may well do so again this year. As long as they don’t pass the ball to that ridiculous striker they have.
Liverpool had the impossible task of having to sprint to stand still, and now they’ve fallen over. Their imperious title-winning team of 2020 dropped 15 points all season and most of those after the title was won. This mob had dropped more than double that in 2o games.
Previously: Runners-up in 2004, Champions in 2005, Champions in 2006, Runners-up in 2007, Runners-up in 2008, 3rd in 2009, Champions in 2010, Runners-up in 2011
And then: 6th in 2012
What happened: History will tell us that Chelsea were simply too busy winning the Champions League for the first time to worry about piffling little matters like their domestic league position. It is, inevitably, a bit more complicated than that.
The run to Champions League glory was a gloriously bonkers and unlikely one, their semi-final success against Barcelona famously prompting Gary Neville to make a noise never heard from a living human before or since, but it was a staggeringly unlikely rescue act for a season that went wildly awry.
Andre Villas-Boas was the new manager and, when it quickly became apparent he was a nerd, the tabloid knives were being sharpened. It didn’t matter that Chelsea started the season with six wins in their first eight games, everyone was just waiting for the nerd to get his comeuppance. And he did. A humiliating 5-3 home defeat to Arsenal came in a run of three defeats in four games and it was soon clear AVB’s Chelsea would not be bothering the title contenders.
A 1-0 defeat at West Brom in March proves the final straw, and AVB is replaced by caretaker boss Roberto Di Matteo who, after promptly and improbably overturning a 3-1 first-leg deficit against Napoli in the last 16 of the Champions League, did then unashamedly and correctly focus his endeavours on the free hit he’d been given at Europe’s biggest prize rather than trying to lift Chelsea to fifth in the league or whatever. He won the FA Cup as well just for a laugh to absolutely rubber stamp it as the most wildly successful disastrous season in all of football history.
7) Leeds United
Previously: 3rd in 2000, 4th in 2001, 5th in 2002
And then: 15th in 2003, 19th in 2004
What happened: Leeds’ was more of a slow-burn collapse borne of their own – or more specifically their chairman’s – ambition and wild profligacy. It all really took place in slow motion, a car crash you couldn’t turn away from, but it was still one of the most profound collapses of a team in Premier League history.
You could argue heartily that this Leeds team never truly made it to the status of a great side, but they were really very close to it, and you certainly can’t argue about the collapse. Seven years after finishing third in the Premier League, six years after reaching the Champions League semi-finals, they were in League One.
Failing to qualify for the Champions League in 2002 was ruinous for Leeds, leaving them unable to service a debt that had mounted year on year in the pursuit of more and more players to keep them in the Champions League. A business model built on permanent residence in Europe’s elite competition was always doomed to fail at some point, and so it proved.
After just about avoiding total disaster in 2003 under Terry Venables, more player departures – notably Harry Kewell – left them weaker still the following year and still trying to stem the bleeding.
They never looked like getting away with it in 2004, and it was more than 15 years until they would return to the Premier League.
Whatever Leeds’ stature, in a feature about teams collapsing and falling apart, it would be remiss not to include the one who so perfected a specific style of implosion that the phrase ‘Doing a Leeds’ entered the football lexicon and still requires no further explanation to this day.
Previously: Runners-up in 1994, Champions in 1995
And then: 7th in 1996
What happened: There’s a quaintness now to Blackburn buying the Premier League for about £20m in the mid-90s, but at the time they were an unbeatable financial powerhouse and nobody much minded because the money came from a local fella and more importantly was stopping Manchester United just winning everything.
But having pushed United in 94 and famously bested them 12 months later, Blackburn fell away dramatically in 1995/96. After amassing 84 points and 89 points in the previous two seasons, they managed just 61 and a mid-table finish.
And they had to recover hard to manage even that. There are plenty of these where the reasons for the demise are not too hard to spot. Here, Kenny Dalglish’s shock resignation as manager was the catalyst for a disastrous start to the season in which Rovers lost four of their first six despite Alan Shearer remaining the league’s pre-eminent striker.
By the time of a 5-0 thrashing at struggling Coventry in December, the defending champions had already lost eight games and a relegation scrap looked a distinct possibility. They steadied the ship impressively enough from there on, but the glory days were gone.
Rovers were relegated three years later and are currently stumbling around the Where Are They Now? Files of the Championship.
Previously: Runners-up in 1996, Runners-up in 1997
And then: 13th in 1998
What happened: One of the truly great non-champion teams in Premier League history, Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle famously spaffed the title away in 1996, and then signed Alan Shearer. Nevertheless, 1996/97 was a mixed bag of a thing with an early run of nine wins in 11 games (most notably the famous 5-0 win over Manchester United) suggesting another title challenge before a mid-season slump saw Keegan walk away. Newcastle did still recover to finish second that season, albeit with a points total – 68 – that might these days, if you’re lucky, just about snag fourth.
So there was plenty of reason for optimism heading into the 1997/98 season despite 96/97 not being entirely plain sailing. But pre-season was a horror show. Les Ferdinand and David Ginola both left for Spurs before Shearer suffered an ankle injury that would keep him out for half the season.
Kenny Dalglish brought in his old Liverpool pals John Barnes and Ian Rush, both by now extremely past their best, and also signed his son Paul which felt a little bit like that Simpsons episode where Homer thinks Bart is good at American Football. Fun fact: that episode actually premiered during this season. Maybe where they got the idea.
Most damningly, Dalglish then had his Newcastle do two things. One, play cautious, turgid, fan-infuriating sufferball. Two, play it badly. After the thrilling Keegan teams, this lot just absolutely stunk the place out. Especially when sole remaining source of fun and joy Faustino Asprilla left in January.
Shearer’s return from injury wasn’t enough to fully lift the gloom as Newcastle limped unforgivably boringly to 13th place with a meagre 35 league goals to their name – just 10 more than Shearer himself had managed the previous year.
Previously: 3rd in 2006, 3rd in 2007, 4th in 2008, 2nd in 2009
And then: 7th in 2010
What happened: Years of steady progress under Rafa Benitez had culminated in a proper full-blooded title tilt in 2009 where Liverpool would eventually come up just short of perennial party-poopers Manchester United.
It was time for a bit of a squad refresh, so Liverpool replaced Sami Hyypia, Alvaro Arbeloa and Xabi Alonso with Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani. Don’t want to be too much of a prick here, but again: sometimes you don’t have to go looking too hard to find out where things have gone wrong.
Fernando Torres getting injured was also sub-optimal in a campaign where Liverpool showed only glimpses and flickers of the previous season’s excellence and the only real highlight came in a run to the last four of the Champions League.
Benitez was mutual consented at the end of the season.
3) Leicester City
Previously: Champions in 2016
And then: 12th in 2017
What happened: Now there’s a very compelling argument that the 5000/1 season is the inexplicable one-off here, rather than what happened next. But to that we say: shut up, it’s already hard enough to get this to 10 teams without discounting the literal worst ever performance by a defending champion, beating the previous year’s efforts of Chelsea. We would also say that Leicester have never again finished as low as 12th since 2017 (for now) and have since rebuilt to the extent that they spent almost two whole seasons in the Champions League places (albeit without ever actually finishing there) and won an FA Cup. So, you know, nur.
And while it was pretty reasonable to think Leicester would not repeat their title success, that they would struggle to find the Big Six quite so accommodating for another season, that Spurs were obviously improving, that Chelsea had a great new manager, that some bald fraud had taken over at Manchester City and so on, none of that can explain the extent to which they fell away from the previous year’s absurd highs.
The loss of N’Golo Kante to Chelsea was obviously a massive contributing factor, while the novel experience of Champions League fixture congestion was only exacerbated by the fact they were doing really rather well in it.
Defeat at Hull on the opening day was inauspicious and by the end of 2016, the reigning champions had won just five of their 19 Premier League games. Alarmingly, things were about to get worse, and a five-match losing streak in January and February that raised genuine fears of relegation meant the beloved title-winning opera-loving Claudio Ranieri had to be taken out back. A five-match winning run followed to at least put paid to the idea of following title glory with relegation, but there was still one final humiliation left for the champions as they were thrashed 6-1 at home by the Tottenham team they had so spectacularly merked the previous season.
Previously: Champions in 2015
And then: 10th in 2016
What happened: While all eyes were understandably on Leicester’s unfolding miracle, Chelsea were in the middle of one of the all-time banter runs themselves. Champions in 2015, they would collapse to 10th in Leicester’s fairytale season before bouncing back under Antonio Conte to win the title again in 2017. Up to you which is actually funnier, but we put it to you that at the very least Chelsea’s run of Champions-10th-Champions is far closer to Leicester’s 14th-Champions-12th run than Premier League legend currently observes.
Having won the title for a third time under the returning Jose Mourinho in 2015, there was little indication of what was to follow despite a vaguely underwhelming summer of transfer activity in which eyebrows were raised by Petr Cech’s departure to Arsenal while almost nobody noticed Mohamed Salah slipping out the door on loan to Roma. SPOILER ALERT: That move would go on to cause quite serious Premier League ripples.
Yet the seeds for the season’s disaster were truly sown in the very first match. On the face of it, a 2-2 home draw against Swansea in a game Chelsea had led twice was a frustrating enough way to start the season. But the real moment of significance in that game was Chelsea team doctor Eva Caneiro going on to the field to treat an injured Eden Hazard. This incurred Mourinho’s wrath and set him firmly on his third-season doom spiral. He was absurdly out of line, and Caneiro would later win a £5m settlement after taking Chelsea to court.
Chelsea were thrashed 3-0 by Man City and, while they did manage to beat West Brom despite a red card for John Terry, were then beaten 2-1 at home by Crystal Palace. It was Mourinho’s 100th home match in charge of Chelsea in the Premier League, and only his second defeat.
Victory over Arsenal was a rare highlight, but after 12 games of the season Mourinho’s side had already lost six and the doom had descended. The increasingly morose Portuguese hung on until December, when back-to-back defeats to Bournemouth and Leicester proved too much for anyone.
Guus Hiddink came in as interim boss and embarked on a 14-game unbeaten run that, while not always pretty did at least lift Chelsea from the absurd yet terrifyingly real prospect of a relegation fight to the more bearable embarrassment of mid-table nothingness.
1) Manchester United
Previously: Champions in 2007, 2008 and 2009, Runners-up in 2010, Champions in 2011, Runners-up in 2012, Champions in 2013
And then: 7th in 2014
What happened: Sometimes there is a real mystery as to what causes a champion team to break apart and drift back into the pack. And sometimes it’s because the greatest manager of all time leaves the club but insists that his replacement be David Moyes, a man who is undeniably just as Scottish as Sir Alex Ferguson but in all other ways is his inferior.
Moyes, to his credit, has just about repaired a reputation built over a decade of graft at Everton and destroyed in a few horrific months at United thanks to his fine work with West Ham. But the crucial thing is that none of his fine work at West Ham is making any of the Big Six think they should give him a job. Not even Spurs.
“Your job now is to stand by our new manager. That is important,” Ferguson famously said on the pitch after his final game in charge. But the problem was the new manager just wasn’t up to the scale of the task.
A messy and expensive transfer saga to bring in the game but limited Marouane Fellaini – a Moyes favourite at Everton – was undignified and offered the first major warning sign that the new manager had misunderstood the brief.
And by the time United had lost three of their first six – including defeats to both Manchester City and Liverpool – the knives were already out for the man the fans had been told to stand by. An early fixture list that pitted United against Chelsea as well as those two did Moyes no favours, while the man himself spoke darkly about whether the fixture computer was fair. From Ferguson, this sort of thing might have been seen as masterful mind games; from Moyes it sounded like a man with a tinfoil hat calling a computer a bias nonce.
Things picked up a bit, but a home defeat to Moyes’ former club was only funny to absolutely everyone else and looking back now the surprise is that Moyes was able to limp on as far as April when it was so transparently obvious that this really wasn’t working for anyone. Maybe United did stand by him. Far longer than they should have.
They ended up seventh after giving it Giggsy ‘til the end of the season, which doesn’t seem too abysmal until you consider that United’s previous worst effort in the Premier League had been a couple of third-place finishes almost a decade earlier when Ferguson was going toe-to-toe with Wenger’s Arsenal and Mourinho’s Chelsea in perhaps the league’s greatest competitive era. Rather than finishing eight points behind Roberto Martinez’s Everton.
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