It’s worth reminding ourselves how forlorn Liverpool’s hope of qualifying for the Champions League looked when they were beaten 1-0 at home to Fulham on March 7. It felt they had spent too long gazing into the abyss of their title defence, and the abyss was gazing back.
They had lost six consecutive home league games, their longest ever such run, and the first team to do so in the Premier League since Huddersfield Town in 2019. A winless Anfield run had extended to eight games - the last time any Liverpool side was so fallible at home, they had finished bottom of the First Division (in 1954).
Most worrying, there seemed no obvious solution because while the primary focus was on Liverpool’s defensive absentees, they had stopped scoring. Excluding penalties and own goals, Liverpool had failed to do so with each of their last 115 shots at Anfield in the Premier League.
Liverpool were ten points behind Leicester City, but the talk was no longer about how to catch them. In an interview with German newspaper Bild, Klopp seemed resigned to his club’s fate.
“I like to be an optimist, but in the league it is almost impossible to qualify,” he said.
Behind-the-scenes, club officials were readying for unknown territory. Never mind missing out on the Champions League and a minimum £50 million in that European bonanza, an even worse scenario beckoned.
“It will be an absolute nightmare if we end up in the bloody Uefa conference league,” confided an Anfield official. No wonder there were some higher up the chain of command trying to start their own European tournament with guaranteed mega-millions.
Yet as the gloom descended, the roots of recovery were already in place.
Why Fabinho was the key to Liverpool’s revival
On the day Liverpool lost to Fulham, midfielder Fabinho was a 76th minute substitute. The cameo was a tentative but critical step in his and Liverpool’s recovery. Although it was barely referenced at the time, Klopp’s side looked better in those 14 minutes than in the previous eight weeks - think of it as Lazarus' first muscle spasm.
The Brazilian’s injury a month earlier had added to Liverpool’s defensive vulnerabilities because he had spent the first half of the season as an emergency centre-back - one of most of the 19 centre-back pairings before Easter - with Klopp calculating he had plenty of midfielders to cover his relocation.
The Fulham loss can be seen as the Liverpool manager’s ‘enough is enough’ moment as he decided there was more to be gained with his number six in his preferred role. Three days after Fulham, Fabinho ran the game in the second leg of the Champions League round of sixteen game against RB Leipzig, and remained there for eight of the last ten Premier League fixtures, starting with an away win at Wolves.
Liverpool failed to win only two of those remaining ten games. It is no coincidence that when points were dropped at home to Newcastle and away to Leeds United, Fabinho was forced back into defence due to an injury to Nat Phillips.
Based on the evidence of Liverpool’s grand finale, Phillips probably would have challenged Diego Llorrente to prevent Leeds’ 87th minute equaliser, and risen above Dwight Gayle to prevent him teeing up Joe Willock’s injury-time strike for Newcastle.
Phillips emerged as an unlikely, heroic figure - first alongside Ozan Kabak and then youngster Rhys Williams. But the stability came from the man just in front of whatever inexperienced duo picked. Fabinho proved to be Liverpool’s most influential player - the gatekeeper and the pivot.
Beyond Anfield, there is suspicion people still do not realise how good the South American is. When he plays in midfield, everyone around him looks better and Liverpool perform like champions.
Welcome to Liverpool Thiago Alcantara. We had been expecting you…
Everyone benefited from Fabinho being restored into midfield. The rookie defenders were protected, and Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson became increasingly confident they could scamper upfield in the knowledge Fabinho and/or Georginio Wijnaldum were covering their tracks.
Then there is Thiago, the playmaker who had spent the first part of his Anfield career injured, only to be introduced in a dysfunctional hybrid role where he was compelled to be a defensive shield as well as link to the front three. Because of that inauspicious start, Thiago’s debut season has been the subject of much revisionism, the slightest critical remark deemed heresy.
He was never that bad in his first few months, but given the hype when he signed it is not contentious or inaccurate to say he was underwhelming. Of course there were mitigating circumstances, but the player and his manager acknowledged some of the criticism was valid. They said it as it was.
“I'm not happy with my performance since I came here,” Thiago said on March 11. “It's been a tough period for all of us because we didn't in our worst nightmares expect we are now in this position in the Premier League.”
Klopp was similarly honest. “It’s not quite clicking, but we will see the best of him,” said the manager. “I don't think we saw it already, but that is not a problem. We are 100 per cent convinced we will because he is a world-class player.”
From there, every minute Thiago spent alongside Fabinho freed him to play ten yards up the pitch and stop dashing back towards his goal to collect reckless yellow cards. It meant Thiago started to resemble last year’s Uefa midfielder of the year.
By the final day against Crystal Palace, the player described as ‘the closest you will see to Xavi Hernandez’ upon his arrival was worthy of that billing. Thiago was sensational in Sunday’s 2-0 win, bending the tempo of the game to his will, passing sharper and quicker and giving the kind of virtuoso performance that put one in mind of prime time Xabi Alonso. As an appetiser for next season, it had the 10,000 crowd salivating, especially as the link-up between Thiago and Roberto Firmino hinted as the start of a flourishing on-field relationship.
Cometh the hour, cometh the leaders
Captain Jordan Henderson missed half the season. Vice-captain James Milner suffered several injuries. The other vice-captain Virgil van Dijk was out from October. Liverpool had to look elsewhere for leaders and found them in Alexander-Arnold, Wijnaldum, Robertson, Thiago, Alisson and, of course, Fabinho.
Alexander-Arnold’s influence grew as the season progressed, most noticeable in those critical away wins over Wolves, Arsenal, Manchester United and West Bromwich Albion, where his set-piece delivery enabled Alisson to score the most memorable Liverpool goal of the season in the 94th minute.
That last gasp contribution piled the pressure on Leicester City and Chelsea, who had by then surrendered their significant points advantage, failing to make hay when Liverpool dropped points to Leeds and Newcastle. It meant they headed into the final games nervous, while Liverpool - who also had Diogo Jota back from injury and Mohamed Salah chasing the golden boot - began their final stretch feeling they had nothing left to lose and carried forward the winning momentum in their last two decisive games.
There had been a feeling at Anfield a month ago that so long as Liverpool were within touching distance of Leicester in the final straight, they had a chance. That was because of the horrendous fixture list for Brendan Rodgers’ side, with trips of Manchester United and Chelsea, and a tricky final day visit of Tottenham Hotspur. The FA Cup Final was always going to be a distraction in Leicester’s top four pursuit, too.
It was not a case of Leicester imploding. They won at Old Trafford and could have dropped points in those other games at any point of the season. So it proved as Liverpool's six point deficit with four games remaining became a two point lead, with Klopp improbably finishing third. Chelsea's unexpected dip was a bonus.
It should be deeply worrying for everyone else that even when so wounded, Liverpool ended the campaign only a few wins from being title challengers.
Ultimately, Klopp will reflect that he oversaw the resurgence by sticking to the tried-and-trusted formula of ensuring as many of his best players were fit and in their best positions at the same time. His faith in his players to deliver once circumstances became more favourable never wavered.
The same can be said of owners Fenway Sports Group, who endured a difficult year but should be commended for strangling at birth any misguided suggestion Klopp was under internal pressure during the team's lowest points. Skill, confidence, and the mishaps of their top four rivals did the rest.