04 June 2018

Liverpool Season Review 2017-18

I wish I hadn't waited until after the Champions League final to start writing this. That, obviously, unfortunately, colors everything that came before.

I want to reiterate that Liverpool had little right to get the season they got.

A record amount of goals scored in a Liverpool season. Mohamed Salah setting the record for Premier League goals in a single season. Salah, Firmino, and Mané combining for 91 goals, just one fewer than Liverpool's entire total last season; it's 17 more than Liverpool scored in 2014-15, when Liverpool played two more games. And Liverpool earned a top-four place in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2007-08/2008-09. And Liverpool had that wonderful unlikely Champions League run from the play-off round to the final.

But the Champions League final also reminds that I am filled with both regrets and what-could-have-beens from this season.

There are what-ifs had Liverpool not shit in multiple beds because Liverpool will always do Liverpool.

Ten matches where Liverpool had a lead but could only draw or lose.

Seven of those came in the league. Watford, a late set play that shouldn't have counted. Chelsea, a Willian fluke cross-that-went-in. Everton, a penalty that wasn't. Arsenal, five minutes of madness with three regrettable goals conceded from individual errors. Tottenham. I still don't want to talk about Tottenham. West Brom, two late set play breakdowns when Liverpool thought the match was won, after a couple of months of not doing those things.

That's 14 points, right there. 14 points that would have made this the highest-points total for a Liverpool season in the Premier League era. 14 points still wouldn't have caught Manchester City – wouldn't have come close because good lord, City – but every point dropped remains infuriating.

There are what-ifs had Liverpool gotten a bit more from referees.

Spurs at home. United away. Among others. Seven opposition penalties to Liverpool's four, a high in opposition penalties and a low in Liverpool penalties since I starting tracking this in 2011-12. I suspect it goes farther back than that. To be fair, Liverpool missed four penalties this season, but only one in the league, and Liverpool's last penalty came in January. And the opposition missed three of their own. It's not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

And there are all those what-ifs from the Champions League final. Sigh.

It was what it was, for better or worse, for better and worse. But it was still far more better than worse.

Liverpool finished fourth in the league last season. Liverpool finished fourth in the league this season, with one point less than in 2016-17.

There were similar numbers in shot production, but a vast increase in goals per game, big chances per game, xG per game, and xG per shot. I suspect this is what happens when your most prolific shooter goes from Philippe Coutinho to Mohamed Salah.

Meanwhile, there were slightly fewer opposition shots allowed, but a similar amount on-target and from big chances, and almost exactly the same xG per shot, and it led to a couple fewer goals conceded. Also, Karius' save percentage this season was 68.9% and Mignolet's was 63.9% last season so that's probably got something to do with it as well.

But there's also a lot more consistency, at least in results. It certainly wasn't the best form early in the season – with the squad yet to fully coalesce, with the Coutinho transfer saga, with the massacre at Manchester City – nor late in the season, when the long campaign caught up with Liverpool and far more focus was on the Champions League. But there was no winter of our discontent, there was no "holy shit Liverpool have gone ten matches and the only win was a 1-0 replay over Plymouth Argyle." Klopp was much more willing and much more able to rotate, and Liverpool were a lot stronger for it.

And you also have to remember that last season took place with damned few games besides the Premier League, and this season also saw a run to the Champions League final. 56 matches in 2017-18, 47 in 2016-17. When Liverpool had fixture congestion in 2016-17 – again, winter, our discontent, etc – Liverpool went into the toilet. That wasn't necessarily the case this season, even if Liverpool were unsurprisingly better the few times they had a week's rest.

Firmino, Salah, Mané, Henderson, Karius, Alexander-Arnold, and Gomez all played a lot more than last season – at least eight full matches worth of additional minutes. Liverpool's ten most frequently used players all played more minutes than they had the season before. Even Matip and Can, who missed the last two months of the season through injury. It is no surprise that both Milner and Robertson looked the freshest in the last few games of the season.

And at the other end, two of Liverpool's near ever-presents last season – Lallana and Clyne – hardly featured in this due to injury. Nathaniel Clyne played the most minutes in 2016-17. He featured in just five games this season. Divock Origi made the most appearances in 2016-17. He spent all but one late substitute appearance on loan with Wolfsburg this season.

The workload caught up with Liverpool, the squad depth caught up with Liverpool.

Imagine the front three being available this often. I don't want to imagine them not.

Firmino never missed a game through injury, left out of the squad in just two of 56 matches. Salah had a minor knock which kept him out of consecutive games in early January, but that was it until the Champions League final. Mané suffered worse, with a three-game suspension in September swiftly followed by a five-match hamstring injury, but he was basically ever-present afterwards.

That's nuts.

All three of these players are machines, especially Firmino, who played 81.7% of all of Liverpool's available minutes last season as well. Salah played 65.5% of Roma's in 2016-17, but the majority of matches missed came because of the African Cup of Nations. Mané missed more time in 2016-17, both because of a longer injury as well as the African Cup of Nations.

When you're fighting against City's money and United's money and Chelsea's money, you need your best players available. Liverpool's were, more often than not.

For all the complaints about squad depth and the amount of fixtures, Liverpool were incredibly lucky with how often Firmino, Salah, and Mané were available. Almost every other position saw players miss significant time: Lallana, Can, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Henderson for stretches in midfield; Clyne and Gomez at full-back; Matip at center-back and also van Dijk not joining until January. But the front three almost totally stayed fit.

It's likely that won't be the case next season. Not to mention that production's gonna be hard to replicate as well.

The league results comparison highlights one of last season's biggest issues. Liverpool's play and Liverpool's results against some of the league's lesser lights. Liverpool's only league losses in 2016-17 came against teams which finished 9th, 12th, 14th, 15th, 16th, and 18th.

That was far less of an issue this season, with the one loss at Swansea – narrow, to a set play goal, in the midst of some of the worst fixture congestion – the only loss to sides outside the top five.

If only we could say similar about matches against Liverpool's peers. Gulps, tugs collar, etc.

Despite the complaints above, Liverpool even dropped fewer points from winning positions, having given up a lead in eight league matches last season compared to seven in this – including two matches where Liverpool had a lead but lost, which didn't happen in 2017-18.

Set play defense was less of a problem – as written about last week.

Breaking down deep defenses was less of a problem – sure, there was Everton and West Brom and Swansea and Stoke, but it was less frequent than last season. That's what happens when that front three does all those wonderful front three things.

This was a side that curb-stomped an awful lot of teams who should be curb-stomped.

The handful of 5-1s, 6-1s, 4-1s that we saw early in 2016-17 – and rarely after that – became more frequent and more consistent. 25 out of Liverpool's 56 matches this season – 17 out of 38 in the league – saw Liverpool score at least three goals. Every single month this season saw Liverpool score at least three in at least one match. Only September and March had matches without at least one four-goal performance. 14 different matches this season saw Liverpool score four or more. The likes of Bournemouth, Stoke, and Huddersfield got smacked, but so did Arsenal, Porto, and Roma.

Have I mentioned that I absolutely adore goals? Because I absolutely adore goals. And this Liverpool did lots and lots of goals.

Liverpool's five 0-0 draws?

- Manchester United at home. Screw those guys. Also, Mané didn't play.
- West Brom at home. The only one where all of the front three played, but also smack in the middle of a horrific run of two-games-a-week fixtures. I can't any of this season's matches against West Brom. So happy they're relegated.
- Porto at home. Dead rubber, didn't matter. Salah didn't start either.
- Everton away. Late season, two-games-a-week, "screw the league." Firmino didn't start, Salah didn't play.
- Stoke at home. Late season, two-games-a-week, "screw the league." Mané didn't play.

They're all kinda explainable. Unlike more than of a few of last season's "running into a brick wall despite a full strength XI on a week's rest, and sometimes not even finishing 0-0 because you stupidly conceded at least once."

So, yes, while there are regrets, there's a lot to be happy about. And there's a lot to be excited about.

This is a settled side, especially over the last half of the season. Only five players made their Liverpool debut in 2017-18 – Salah, Solanke, Robertson, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and van Dijk – compared to ten new players in 2016-17. Only three players who made a league appearance in 2016-17 didn't feature for Liverpool this season: Lucas, Ejaria, and Kevin Stewart. That number was 16 from 2015-16 to 2016-17.

As with the summer before 2016-17, Liverpool's transfer dealings were a complete success. Those five players who made their debut this season all made Liverpool a better side. Salah was unfathomably monstrous; Robertson, van Dijk, and Oxlade-Chamberlain are all in Liverpool's best XI; and Solanke at least demonstrated potential, seemingly first-choice back-up ahead of Ings and Origi at age 20.

The side that this manager is building is reaching its final form.

But it's also still a young side – the youngest average age in the Premier League last season – but one that isn't just entering but is now fully in its prime.

That's a hell of a lot of peak age players. Peak age for attackers and midfielders: almost all 24-27. Peak age for center-backs: almost all 26-30. Still young at full-back, but that's fine because they have to run for days and they're all experienced for their age. Still some young potential beginning to be realized in both the full-backs and Keïta and Fabinho and Solanke and Gomez. The three keepers Liverpool have been linked with – for what little that's worth – are all 25 years old. As is now-constantly rumored Nabil Fekir. And there's still James Milner, the aging veteran who's seen it all and can play multiple positions but also the cool uncle who'll buy you beer and can run like he's a decade younger than he actually is.

Mmmmmmmmm. I'm already way too excited for next season.

So, what'd we get this season?

That top four finish. That Champions League run. All those goals.

A reasonable job identifying and rectifying some of last season's failures, even if some others arose. A fairly brilliant job coping with two matches a week for the majority of the season, at least until the final month. Transfer business already nearing its apex and it's barely June. Fabinho and Keïta already signed. Two pieces left: attacking depth in the perpetually-rumored Fekir and please buy a new, top-shelf goalkeeper. Increased consistency, and return to European elite. And all those wonderful, wonderful goals.

Even with the regrets, it was good. It was very good. It was very fun. Football is supposed to be fun. Football has to be fun or what's the damned point.

And next season will be better.