Liverpool and Manchester City played a spectacular match on Sunday, with both teams putting together some breathtaking attacking moves. Referee Michael Oliver probably should have given the Reds two more penalties than he did. A point away to City is a good result for Liverpool. And despite those things, this will be the game’s lasting image.
This season, Adam Lallana has recorded seven goals, seven assists, and numerous other passes to start attacking moves that don’t show up in the box score. But this miss, on the end of some brilliant play — and in a game where Liverpool had an astonishing 13 shots from inside the box — is a microcosm of Liverpool’s season.
Liverpool supporters will argue that, on the balance of their play, they deserve to be higher up the table. They’re probably right. This season, Liverpool has probably put together more decent performances than any team in the league save for Chelsea, but they haven’t always gotten three points out of them.
The Reds are dissimilar to Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, and City in that respect. Those teams have all been a bit more up and down, spectacular or poor. Those sides are unstoppable world-beaters during their best performances and wildly disappointing in most of their losses.
But Liverpool have been a bit different. At no point this season have they been straight-up outplayed, something that reflects very well on Jürgen Klopp. Liverpool match or better their opponents in quality scoring chances created every single week. But they regularly fail to finish them or concede due to individual errors at the back, which doesn’t reflect well on the players.
The good news is that Liverpool are probably a great transfer window away from being an excellent team. With one superstar, a new starting goalkeeper, and some quality depth in, there’s no reason to believe Liverpool won’t challenge for trophies next season.
How impressive that hypothetically great transfer window can be is heavily dependent on how Liverpool close out the campaign. While the Premier League’s TV deal means the Reds will have money to spend no matter what, Champions League is still prestigious, and not being in Champions League will limit Liverpool’s ability to attract stars.
If Liverpool can finish top four, they’re one heck of an intriguing destination. Klopp is a proven coach who has his team playing consistently entertaining soccer, the top talents that will stick around can inspire confidence that the club is going somewhere, and a resurgent Liverpool is a great place for ambitious players to become marketable globally.
Unfortunately, Liverpool have to finish this season with what they’ve already got, which is a handful of genuine stars and a similar number of average players who probably can’t cut it at Champions League level. The teams they have to hold off for top four — Arsenal and Manchester United — don’t look like as much of a cohesive unit as Liverpool do, but have more established game-changing superstars and top goalkeepers. United, Arsenal, Manchester City, and Spurs each have a better chance of turning poor performances into three points than Liverpool do, even though they’re all likely to turn in more poor performances than Liverpool.
The game for the Reds, then, is not screwing up. They can’t afford to slip at the back or miss tap-ins like their rivals can. If they can avoid huge errors and take the gimmes, Liverpool will be well on their way to building their best team in a decade.