The Premier League’s most extraordinary season ended with Liverpool’s landmark triumph as 18 at last became 19 three decades on.
The supremely dominant Reds sealed glory with seven matches to spare. According to the football calendar, it was the earliest Premier League triumph in history. According to the 2020 calendar, it was the latest.
The chance to match or equal Manchester City’s all-time record of 100 points would pass them by, but that will be scant consolation indeed for Pep Guardiola’s men, a spec in the distance by the turn of the year.
Liverpool’s Champions League win last year presented further opportunities for silverware in the UEFA Super Cup and the Club World Cup, and the Reds did not falter. Hard-fought victories against Chelsea in August and Flamengo in December completed an international treble.
Heavy rotation again limited the longevity of Liverpool’s domestic cup campaigns, while their defence of their European crown was halted in bitterly disappointing fashion at the Last-16 stage.
But any anguish was short-lived. Liverpool were destined to be champions. Their players and, perhaps even more so their manager, secured legendary status.
After Liverpool remodelled the spine of their team with an outlay of £238million in 2018, they frugally opted for stability last summer.
The only senior arrival was Adrian, a free agent following the end of his contract at West Ham United. Alisson Becker’s previous deputy, Simon Mignolet, decided to pursue first-team football in his homeland, and the Reds moved very swiftly to tie-up a move for the experienced Spaniard.
Just 39 minutes into the campaign, he was dramatically thrust into the limelight. Alisson had sustained a serious calf injury, and Adrian would have to deputise until late October. On his first start, he wrote himself into Anfield folklore with a decisive penalty save from Tammy Abraham to clinch the Super Cup in Istanbul.
In all, his nine-match run in the side would bring nine victories and two clean sheets. He had not always been convincing, but he had certainly played his part in Liverpool’s perfect start to the season.
Thereafter, his involvement was largely restricted to the cup competitions, and it was in those games that his failings were exposed.
Against Chelsea in the fifth round of the FA Cup, he was clumsily beaten by Willian’s centrally-struck effort early in the game. One week later, just three minutes after Liverpool had clawed their way ahead in extra-time in a bruising Champions League tie against Atletico Madrid, his sliced kick-out presented an opening upon which Marcos Llorente capitalised. Alvaro Moratawould later score the away side’s gut-wrenching winner at his compatriot’s near post.
That desperately disappointing night aside, the 33-year-old has, on balance, done enough to retain his role in the squad.
The only other summer additions were promising teenagers Harvey Elliott and Sepp van den Berg, who mostly plied their trade at youth level over the course of the year.
Elliott scored four and set-up nine in his 20 outings in Premier League 2, the UEFA Youth League and the EFL Trophy, earning eight domestic appearances for Jurgen Klopp’s senior side. In those games, he tormented defenders and oozed confidence, leading many supporters proclaim him a superstar-in-the-making for his boyhood club.
The highlight of his campaign was surely the FA Cup fourth-round replay victory against League One Shrewsbury, when he helped a predominantly teenage Liverpool side to a memorable 1-0 win.
Van den Berg was also in action that night, adding to the clean sheet he earned against MK Dons early in the League Cup. In the two subsequent rounds of that competition, he was unable to prevent his team shipping five goals, but the focus for now should be on his contribution to the Premier League 2 group which finished in fifth place. The 18-year-old Dutchman remains very raw.
Liverpool’s most expensive signing came in January, when they pounced on Takumi Minamino’s £7.25million release clause. Minamino had majestically inspired an RB Salzburg side which rallied from three goals down in a narrow CL group-stage defeat at Anfield, with the defenders who faced him reportedly urging Jurgen Klopp to consider a swoop.
His 13 appearances so far have passed without a direct goal involvement, but there have been encouraging flashes from the Japanese attacker. It is hoped that a full pre-season will aid his adaptation to the English game and to life on Merseyside, and that he will truly show what he is capable of in 2020/21.
The turning point of the season
Ask Liverpool fans to identify the pivotal fixture in their title-winning campaign, and almost all will give you the same answer – Aston Villa away, an occasion so significant that it will crop up time and again in supporters’ recollections decades down the line.
Before kick-off, the situation was this. Liverpool were six points clear of City after a rousing comeback victory against Spurs at Anfield. Nine wins and a draw from their first 10 matches had the Reds firmly in the driving seat in the first phase of the title race.
But, 87 minutes into their trip to Villa Park in early November, they were staring at the possibility of a stinging first defeat. Trezeguet had given the newly-promoted Villans the lead after 21 minutes, and an impossibly tight offside call against Roberto Firmino aside, the lacklustre visitors rarely looked likely to haul themselves level.
And so it was that their eventual breakthrough came from one of the unlikeliest sources, left-back Andrew Robertsoncharging in at the back post to nod in and break Villa’s erstwhile stubborn resistance. Tellingly, Robertson did not bask in his moment of glory, instead retrieving the ball and frantically encouraging his team-mates. Even from here, a draw would not do.
Four minutes into stoppage time or as it fittingly came to be known – ‘Kloppage time’ – Liverpool won a corner. Trent Alexander-Arnold whipped it into the front post, and Sadio Mane bowed his head to connect, directing the ball into the far corner. There were manic scenes of celebration in the away end after a scarcely-believable turnaround.
The result was rendered all the more significant by the immediate context. At the Etihad, City had produced a fightback of their own against Southampton, albeit in slightly less spectacular fashion. Kyle Walker’s winner had arrived five minutes from time, with Sergio Aguero having cancelled out James Ward-Prowse’s opener midway through the second half. Liverpool could so easily have left the Midlands with their advantage halved.
And their next league game? City at Anfield. We’ll never know just how profoundly dropped points at Villa would have altered the dynamic, but Liverpool had demonstrated a truly indomitable spirit which appeared to gradually suck the life out of their only challengers. In the event, they dismantled the reigning champions, glaringly exposing City’s defensive and characteristic frailties in a 3-1 victory. Their advantage was nine points, and though no Liverpool supporter would have dared suggest it at the time, there would never be any looking back.
Player of the Season
This is arguably the greatest team in Liverpool’s history, a side who have set the standard all season on course to a club-record 99-point total. Every player has played an integral part in the journey to success.
Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson are two contenders at the forefront of those battling it out for Liverpool’s Player of the Season, continuing to contribute heavily in the final third as Trent broke his own assist record from last year alongside a landmark display in one best performances of the season at Leicester while Robertson’s goal in the late turnaround at Villa Park proved equally momentous.
So too Virgil van Dijk, who has been a constant in the middle of the defence, marshalling his teammates and setting the standard across the side.
However, the two that stand out above the rest are Jordan Henderson and Sadio Mane.
Scoring 22 goals and registering 12 assists in 41 starts this season, Mane’s level of consistency during the course of the campaign has been second to none. Indeed, the 28-year-old proved the catalyst for some pivotal moments in Liverpool’s campaign, most notably the last-gasp winner at Villa Park before a brilliant solo goal at Newcastle.
Mohamed Salah has stolen the headlines since he moved to Anfield, but his presence has also helped Mane on the opposite flank. His influence should not be underestimated, having developed an all-round game as a dependable driver and ruthless finisher in Klopp’s attacking trident.
Perhaps the only player that could beat him for the Player of the Season is the captain. Having already won the FWA Player of the Year, he has underpinned Klopp’s side, who look a shadow of their usual selves without his presence at the helm.
Enjoying the best form of his career, his leadership on and off the field has made him a standout figure in 2019/20, helping young players come into the fold.
Transforming from a player once universally derided and proposed in a swap deal for Clint Dempsey to one of the club’s most decorated captain’s in recent history, Henderson’s emotional story, one of determination and perseverance, epitomises all the requisite characteristics of this side; passion, determination, and the relentless pursuit of excellence.
Despite the numerous contenders, Hendo probably just edges it. He is Klopp’s captain, Liverpool’s leader of leaders. There is no one more deserving of holding the Premier League trophy aloft.
Most Improved Player During ‘Project Restart’
While the 3-month break stunted the momentum of several players across the league, the time to reassess and regroup did wonders for others.
One player who falls into that category is Fabinho, who struggled to regain his previous form after returning from an injury lay-off. As immense as Liverpool’s attacking play has been this season, the Brazilian’s presence as a genuine all-rounder in the middle of the park has underpinned Klopp’s side, elevating their game to another level.
Not just a brilliant defensive anchor and firm tackler, his performances since the restart have showcased the creative aspects of his game. Indeed, his affinity for the lofted ball over the top of the defensive line has become custom viewing while long-range strikes, such as his piledriver against Manchester City, have reflected his considerable range of talents.
However, of all the Reds players to benefit most from ‘Project Restart’, Naby Keita tops the list.
While lockdown brought an anguishing wait and sense of unease as to whether Liverpool would be crowned Premier League champions, Keita has undoubtedly benefited from the enforced hiatus. The Guinea had started just three times in the league after an injury-hit season but has since show signs of the player at RB Leipzig; a creative force at the heart of midfield with the energy to adhere to Klopp’s gegenpressing requirements.
Gliding through the midfield, the dynamic maestro’s ability to effortless dribble beyond the opposition has brought a sense of guile and verve. Scoring a stunner against Chelsea before a man-of-the-match display against Newcastle, Keita finished the season in style, offering a glimpse of what’s to come in a Red shirt.
By Leanne Prescott and Dave Comerford