Champions League progress came at a cost for Liverpool this season. Not a great one, as they still secured that much-coveted top-four position, but their incredible run to the final is almost certainly why they finished below Manchester United and Tottenham.
That isn’t particularly important, especially if the Reds triumph in Kiev, but it does show the difficulty in being able to compete successfully on both fronts. Tired legs have certainly hampered Liverpool in recent weeks.
It’s tough playing twice a week, every week, for the last couple of months of a grueling season. It takes a heavy toll and you need a big squad to cope with it. You also need luck with injuries, something Liverpool haven’t really had.
Reaching the Champions League final has been a fine achievement by Liverpool, and if they go on to win it will match any accomplishment in the illustrious history of the club — not least because of the swashbuckling style in which they have done it. Like every big club, Liverpool aspire to be reaching the latter stages of the Champions League year in year out, but it cannot be at the cost of results in the Premier League.
That is the next step for Liverpool. They’ve shown they are a match for anybody in Europe and that that style of football suits them perfectly. They are on the right track domestically too, but a future title challenge depends as much on Manchester City coming back to the pack as it does improvement from Jurgen Klopp’s side.
If we regard what City did this year as something of an anomaly (no team had ever reached 100 points before), then reaching 90 points should be the aim for Liverpool next season, as generally if you hit that mark you’ll be champions or very close to it.
That’s 15 points more than Liverpool managed this year, but on closer inspection it shouldn’t be that difficult for them to get there.
The most obvious thing they must do is turn those frustrating draws into wins. Almost all of Liverpool’s draws this season came in games they dominated. They should have comfortably beaten Watford, Burnley, Newcastle, Stoke, West Brom and Everton but somehow contrived to throw points away in a variety of ways. They also lost at relegated Swansea. That’s 15 points straight away. Of course, even the very best teams have disappointing results here and there, but Liverpool had too many of them.
Overall the Reds actually fared better against the “lesser teams” this season than they usually do. They collected 49 points from the bottom 10 teams this season, equaling what they did in 2008-09 and 2013-14, seasons in which they finished runners-up and went within a whisker of the title. This time it was only good enough for the fourth spot, largely because results against the rest of the top five were so poor.
The 4-1 loss at Tottenham was the kind of “off day” any team can have, while the 5-0 thumping by City at the Etihad can be disregarded as the early dismissal of Sadio Mane ruined what was shaping up to be a classic. Besides, Liverpool won their next three meetings with City so there’s no problem there.
Where Liverpool do appear to have an issue is with the more cautious approach of Manchester United and Chelsea. The Reds took just two points from those fixtures. Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte were both able to shackle Liverpool’s free-scoring attack and Klopp will need to come up with something a little different next season.
Adding more quality to the squad would help with all of the above. It would aid rotation when the games start to come thick and fast, but just as significantly it would give Klopp a match-winner or two to come off the bench in close games. Man City can bring Gabriel Jesus and Bernardo Silva on to change a game; Liverpool are relying on Danny Ings and Dominic Solanke.
Klopp now has the finances as well as the gravitas to be able to assemble a squad where the drop-off between starter and replacement is minimal. He has that in some positions already, especially midfield, although long-term injuries to Emre Can, Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain robbed Liverpool of that depth and it has hurt them in recent weeks.
Naby Keita will add more quality to that unit and there may be other arrivals too, particularly with Can seemingly set to depart. Liverpool’s midfield are an underrated bunch. An upgrade isn’t required, but they do need a little more variety in there.
Klopp has excellent players at his disposal, but the sale of Philippe Coutinho in January means there is a lack of “magic” in midfield — someone to add that creative spark in difficult games against stubborn, defensive opponents. If you compare Liverpool with City, that’s the biggest difference. Put the two teams head to head and Liverpool will win more than they lose (three to one this season), not least because their midfield is more than a match for City’s.
Put both teams against sides that just want to sit back and defend, however, and Pep Guardiola’s men have far less trouble dealing with that approach than Liverpool do, even though Klopp has the better forward line. City have Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva to unlock a packed defence, but Liverpool are sorely lacking in that area, which is why reports of a summer swoop for Lyon’s Nabil Fekir make sense.
Liverpool are very close to getting back to where they want to be, but the final step is always the hardest. The exciting thing for supporters is that everything Klopp has done to date suggests he will be able to get there.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN FC’s Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.