A transcendent and curse-breaking Liverpool title could also have been more

Here’s one way of looking at Liverpool’s 3-1 come-from-behind victory at Newcastle United on the final day of the Premier League season on Sunday: By claiming their 97th, 98th and 99th points with their 32nd victory in 38 games, the new champions beat last year’s club record of 97 points and set a second-best-ever point total in league history.

Here’s another: Before the season was derailed by the pandemic, Liverpool was 27-1-1 in league play and on pace to shatter Manchester City’s 100-point record, set in the 2017-18 campaign. Liverpool’s blistering 2.84 points-per-game gallop put it on pace for 107.4 points for the whole season. But since the three-month layoff, Liverpool has posted a relatively pedestrian five wins, two ties and two losses, for an average of just 1.88 points-per-game. Over an entire season, that would have amounted to only 71.7 points — good for third place, or thereabouts.

This is the footnote in parsing Liverpool’s season. It is inarguably a historic success. A first league title in exactly 30 years, a drought that sometimes felt more like a curse, most acutely so after Steven Gerrard’s famous “it doesn’t slip now” slip-up in 2013-14. A club record in points. All while charming the world with a delightful attacking style, delivered by a generational coach in Jurgen Klopp who has a team of world-beaters in their prime and a full pomp.

Alisson, center, holds the Premier League trophy surrounds by smiling Liverpool teammates and staff.
Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson, center, celebrates with teammates during the Premier League trophy ceremony after their final home match on July 22 at Anfield Stadium. (Paul Ellis, Pool via AP)

Yet this season also could have been a bit more than it was. There is, somehow, a missed opportunity in that points total. Until the pandemic interrupted the season, Klopp’s side had spilled just five points from the 87 available in 29 matches. It was undefeated until Feb. 29.

By finishing with fewer than 100 points, the Reds neglected to make their indisputable mark as the best Premier League side of all time. Instead, it will have to settle for the best in the club’s history. In an empirical sense, anyway. You might quibble about who was better, this season’s Liverpool or the City incarnation from two seasons ago — or indeed last year’s 98-point City juggernaut — but the raw numbers no longer favor Liverpool. Especially when you consider that 2018 City scored 21 more goals — 106 versus 85 — and had a much better goal difference, +79 to +52.

In Europe, meanwhile, Liverpool’s European title defense fizzled in extra-time against Atletico Madrid in the round of 16 on the Champions League. Early exits from the FA Cup and League Cup weren’t entirely unintentional, given the fixture congestion, and victory in the Club World Cup will offer some consolation on that front.

But what is the legacy of this Liverpool team, exactly?

It is in the pantheon of all-time great sides, certainly. But beyond that, it’s hard to make exact determinations.

Liverpool, unlike City last year, which eked out the Reds by a single point, had no strong title challenger. Courtesy of City’s staggering nine league losses, Liverpool was just about home dry on Boxing Day this season. But then that 18-point gap at the top was as much a function of Liverpool’s dominance as a very mild indictment of it. While it’s true that City had a down year and every other big club was either in sharp decline or in some kind of transitional season, that also doesn’t diminish the Reds’ transcendence.

Had Liverpool scrounged up two more points, it might have been remembered slightly differently. Second-best-ever points totals tend not to linger as long in the memory.

But at least, it got three points on Sunday, which took some doing. Because in just the first minute, Newcastle’s Jonjo Shelvey, a former Liverpool player, took a quick free kick in the midfield that sent the ball into the path of Dwight Gayle, who beat Alisson to put the Magpies ahead.

But before halftime, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was dispatched on the right in a flowing Liverpool move. He stood up a high cross that was met by Virgil van Dijk, who sent a looping header over goalkeeper Martin Dubravka.

And at the hour-mark, substitute Divock Origi attempted an optimistic long, low shot that snuck in at the far post to put Reds ahead.

Later on, Sadio Mane cut inside and dispatched a signature curler for the third.

It was a fitting finale to a season that finally broke the spell. A winning finale. Yet also a finale that confirmed that Liverpool posted a points total literally 1 percent worse than City’s two years ago.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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