Liverpool FC 2016 Review: Reds back on the rise after fluctuating year of crushing lows and exhilarating highs

Liverpool FC 2016 Review: Reds back on the rise after fluctuating year of crushing lows and exhilarating highs

Liverpool bring the curtain down on the 2016 calendar year with a heavyweight Premier League clash against Manchester City on Saturday evening, but how will this year be remembered from the Reds' perspective?

Charlie Malam

Incredibly, it took Liverpool 36 Premier League games to achieve their first victory by a 1-0 scoreline in 2016. 

Sadio Mane's instinct, reacting quickest in the 94th-minute to tap in a rebound, sealed not only the most gratifying of last-gasp derby victories away at Everton, but also gave the Reds a maiden 1-0 win in a year in which they have won games 6-0, 6-1, 5-4, 5-1, 4-0, 4-3 and 4-2.

Perhaps that statistic (and those scorelines) serves to show just how tumultuous and strenuous a calendar year this has been for those of a red persuasion on Merseyside. It hasn't half been stressful.

More so, with one game to go, Liverpool are the highest scorers in the Premier League in 2016 with an astonishing 86 goals. That's an average of 2.3 goals per game.

The year's second-highest scorers, Chelsea, boast a respectable yet still markedly inferior 74, and the Blues are the only team above Liverpool in the current league table and the calendar year equivalent.

All in all, Liverpool have scored four goals or more on seven occasions in 22 games this season - almost averaging a four-goal or more game once in every three. Real Madrid or Barcelona would be proud.

By contrast last season (albeit then with the previous manager's squad) they managed to score four goals or more seven times across a total of 63 games. At this rate, by the time Liverpool have finished the season - in which they have at the very least 23 games to go - they will have scored 4+ goals in more than 10 games.

No surprise then, that this is Liverpool's best-ever start to a Premier League season after 18 games. Only once before have they also had 40 points at this stage, in the 2005-06 season. Then, though, they had a +17 goal difference whereas now they boast one that stands at +24.

That aforementioned tally of 86 goals is also the highest number Liverpool have managed in one year since mustering up 87 in 1985, and with Manchester City to play host to in their final game of 2016 on Saturday - there could yet be more to come. It would certainly be fitting if there were enough to break that record.

For Liverpool, the first-half of the 2016-17 Premier League season and even the year of 2016 as a whole, is one defined by free-flowing, scintillating, irresistible and often unstoppable attacking football. 

But their relentless, full-throttle, forward-thinking brand of play is not like that of seasons in recent memory, when their team was characterised by a small nucleus of key players that prop up the rest.

Rather, the success of Liverpool's current crop of players - and especially their mesmeric front six - derives from the ability of the collective, rather than just a few individuals.

There is no single way to stop them, and that is a result of the talent and spirit harnessed by the manager. Stop one player, and there's still another four or five that can hurt you. There's always alternatives. Always options. Always danger. 

That, added to the renewed hope and buoyancy among Liverpool supporters, says much about the work Klopp has done at the club. On his first day at the club, his goal - he said - was to turn doubters into believers. He's most definitely done that. Step two? Tangible success.

Unparalleled attacking form an example of Klopp's influence 

It's been an incredible year of improvement for Liverpool - a club renowned for their rollercoaster-like ability to go through the motions. Up one week, down the next. 2016 has been no different.

While the year started with a dismal 2-0 defeat away to West Ham United, the Reds provided glimpses of what was to come (this then just the fourth month of Klopp's tenure) with a 3-3 home draw against Arsenal and an enthralling 5-4 win away at Norwich City - a game that, in time, will be remembered as the ideal example of the end-to-end nature of the Premier League. It truly was an all-time classic.

The Arsenal draw and the Norwich win came within just the first month of the year, and yet are games perhaps still representative of the Liverpool team 11 months on.

There are defensive deficiencies in there, for sure, but also an incredible array of attacking quality and an abundance of goalscorers. Entertaining at both ends, it might best be said. No wonder there have been mentions of that infamous 2013-14 campaign.

Those goal-laden results were sandwiched between a smash-and-grab 1-0 defeat at home to arch-rivals Manchester United, who remain the only team to have won in the Premier League at Anfield this year. 16 league games since have seen 10 wins and six draws. That's a longer unbeaten home run than any other side in the first division.

In all competitions, Liverpool are unbeaten in 23 games on home soil. That, added to their renewed ruthlessness in front of goal, sums up best how far Klopp has brought on this Liverpool side. One which when considered, has only been tinkered with rather than overhauled by the German in the transfer market - who has made several key additions. 

This team is still much the same as the manager inherited, and yet it is performing twice as well as it did previously. 

Importantly, Klopp's signings have (largely) made waves upon their arrivals. Sadio Mane and Joel Matip are the two best examples.

The former, who has the potential to become the club's most expensive ever addition dependent on add-ons, was seen as an over-priced luxury player when he first joined. The type of player to have one good game in every five.

How he has disproved his doubters since. Mane, in fact, has become arguably the key cog in this machine. The winger's directness, width, explosive pace and movement has made his £30 million (potentially rising to £36m) price-tag look a steal, as have his eight goals and four assists.

Talking of steals, Liverpool ought to send a letter of apology to FC Schalke 04 for prising centre-back Matip away on a free transfer. The commanding Cameroonian, despite his injury troubles, gives the team the kind of spine and resilience they have lacked in recent years. 

Comparions to Sami Hyypia, who likewise was brought in for next-to-nothing and went on to become one of the club's most important players for a decade, may seem premature - but there's more than a hint of truth about them. Matip really can have that kind of impact, it appears.

Coupled with the remarkable improvement of some of the Reds' players who were underperforming, or failing to hit the heights they quite clearly are capable of, under the previous regime - Liverpool are a team, and a club, rejuvenated.

Roberto Firmino, for example, has scored more Premier League goals in 2016 than any other Liverpool player with 15, and that's as a false nine and within just 32 games. Every striker dreams of a one-in-two goalscoring ratio, not least a natural attacking midfielder.

All of Firmino's 18 goals for the club have come since Klopp took over and of those to spend the entire year in the Premier League, only six players - including Sergio Aguero, Diego Costa, Alexis Sanchez and Liverpool teammate Mane - have scored more than the Brazilian.

Adam Lallana's new-found cutting edge - having netted 11 in 2016 and seven alone this season - also typifies the improvement of attacking players under Klopp. No midfielder has been involved in more goals than the 29-year-old in 2016-17, and the Englishman has actually dropped into a deeper central midfield role this term.

And Lallana's 2016 - by far the best season of his career - all started with that 95th-minute volley at Carrow Road, hammering the ball up off the ground and into the top corner to seal a stunning three points at the end of January.

His next biggest contribution came at a time that perhaps best sums up Liverpool's up-and-down-and-up-again year, inside just a four-day spell in February.

Losing on penalties to Manchester City in the League Cup final after a hard-fought 120 minutes on the Sunday, Liverpool would thrash the same opponents in convincing fashion at Anfield in the league on the Wednesday night, categorically ending their title hopes simultaneously.

On that mid-week night under the floodlights on L4, Lallana scored the opening goal, driving inside the near post with a low shot from 30-yards to get the better of compatriot Joe Hart.

He was later named Man of the Match for one of his finest performances yet for the club. Since, he has only improved and right now he is one of the most important and impactful players in the English top-flight.

European run showed renewed togetherness harnessed by Klopp

Since then, Liverpool have regularly lurched from the bad to the brilliant in 2016. Yet they have been the former on many more an occasion, particularly now that they have cast aside their European commitments.

Liverpool's UEFA Europa League run in the second-half of the 2015-16 season restoked the Anfield fires in quite incredible fashion. First their vanquishing of old rivals United in Europe for the first time, then the swashbuckling 4-3 come-from-behind demolition of Klopp's former club Borussia Dortmund before the sweeping aside of Villarreal - again in the face of adversity having trailed from the first-leg - completed their run to the final. 

It was the run that Liverpool required, having been stripped of their European prestige since the departure of Rafael Benitez in 2010.

The only problem was that it distracted from their domestic exploits, which were understandably cast aside as Klopp's charges sought more attainable continental glory.

Ultimately, it all ended in disappointment.

Between the Reds' European run from April to May were underwhelming half-hearted defeats and draws to Premier League also-rans, perhaps hungover performances from the energy exerted against teams from across the continent, or sometimes as a result of fielding weakened rotated line-ups.

It was clear that the Europa League was the priority, due to the end prize not only of silverware, but a ticket to the UEFA Champions League group stages. That reward only came with winning the competition and Liverpool put themselves in a good position to do just that by setting up a date with Sevilla in Basel in mid-May.

Unfortunately, from a commanding position - leading 1-0 at half-time after Daniel Sturridge's otherworldly outside-of-the-boot strike - Liverpool crumbled in the most un-Klopp-like fashion at FC Basel 1893's St. Jakob-Park.

They eventually lost 3-1, surrendering their advantage 17 seconds into the second-half and collapsing from there on in. Given the voyage undertaken and the sacrifices made to help get to the final, the outcome - and more so the manner of it - was a crushing blow to Liverpool when confidence appeared to only be rising.

But perhaps, as the months since have proven, that defeat may have been a blessing in disguise. Liverpool now are playing arguably the best attacking football since the infamous team of 1987-88 - widely regarded as the club's best-ever eleven (and that's some feat).

There is no doubt that extra rest and recovery time between league games has allowed Liverpool to perform at their peak more consistently, rather than producing some of the exhausted displays seen at this time last season. Back then, their packed festive fixture schedule also led to a severe first-team injury crisis come January.

Real promise for the future under Klopp

This season, Klopp's Liverpool have lost only twice in 22 games in all competitions, winning 16 of those and scoring 57 goals in the process. A lack of European football, and the added travel and fatigue that comes with it, has certainly helped them be so impressive. 

And my, oh my, how impressive they've been. Let Chelsea's 12-match winning streak not overshadow it, for Liverpool this season are defying all kinds of expectations and showing that they are ready to compete for the grand prize that is the Premier League title.

Sturridge's strike in the 4-1 win over Stoke City on Tuesday, which maintained the Reds' magnificent unbeaten home run, was the 100th league goal scored under Klopp, coming in just his 48th game in charge.

No manager has ever reached that milestone in fewer games. Club legend Kenny Dalglish also managed it in exactly 48 matches, though so did former boss Brendan Rodgers - and look how that ended.

But this time it feels different to the ill-fated Rodgers years. This Liverpool side does not feel like it is experiencing a false dawn. Instead, it feels like the beginning of a creation of a real force, largely thanks to Klopp and the managerial quality he possesses in abundance.

Their form this season, and the slow but steady improvement throughout the year, showcases that. So too, do the manager's comments and his attitude.

When Liverpool lose, Klopp is gracious in defeat. He is not over-reactionary (unlike the club's supporters on Twitter), nor is he when Liverpool win. He preaches patience, concentration and has an undying desire for improvement.

Even after comprehensive 5-1 and 6-1 victories on home soil, Klopp can find faults. And that is not him simply over-scrutinising for scrutiny's sake, it is his persistent pursuit of perfection. It is why Liverpool have come on as many leaps and bounds as they have until now. 

Klopp's management style bodes the club, and the squad, very, very well. The results it has had on the players at his disposal is no surprise.

There is a reason this Liverpool side has only lost two games in the current campaign, and there is arguably evidence to suggest Liverpool are still yet to be outplayed for an entire 90 minutes. 

Of course, this year, and too this season, has not been one without its disappointments and setbacks. However, the fact a year that contained two lost cup finals and an eighth-placed finish ends with such optimism and promise is a credit to Jürgen Klopp, his staff and his ever-improving squad.

Finally, it feels like Liverpool are back on the right track - and under Klopp, it feels like this track is one that leads to the success the club so dearly craves.

2017 might just be the year in which Liverpool deliver some long over-due silverware after year upon year of near-misses.