Fantasy Soccer Podcast: League Settings for 2021
How Jürgen Klopp did the impossible and saved Liverpool’s season
It is worth remembering how abandoned Liverpool hopes of qualifying for the Champions League looked when they were beaten 1-0 at home to Fulham on March 7th. They felt they had looked too long into the abyss of their title defense, and the abyss was looking back. They had lost six home games in a row, their longest run ever, and the first team in the Premier League since Huddersfield Town in 2019. A winless Anfield run had spanned eight games – the last time a team from Liverpool had this did fallible at home, they had reached the bottom of the First Division (1954). Most worryingly, there seemed to be no obvious solution because while the main focus was on Liverpool’s defensive absenteeism, they had stopped scoring. Without penalties and own goals, Liverpool had failed to do so in each of their last 115 shots at Anfield in the Premier League. Liverpool were ten points behind Leicester City but it was no longer about how to catch them. In an interview with the German newspaper Bild, Klopp seemed to have come to terms with the fate of his club. “I like to be an optimist, but it’s almost impossible to qualify in the league,” he said. Behind the scenes, the club officials prepared for unknown territory. Don’t mind missing out on the Champions League and have at least £ 50m in this European bonanza, an even worse scenario is ahead. “It will be an absolute nightmare when we end up in the bloody UEFA conference league,” said an Anfield official. No wonder some higher up the chain of command tried to start their own European tournament with guaranteed mega-millions. But when the darkness came down, the roots of recovery were already there. Why Fabinho was 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. Though barely mentioned at the time, Klopp’s side looked better in those 14 minutes than it had in the past eight weeks – think Lazarus’ first muscle spasm. The Brazilian’s injury a month ago had added to Liverpool’s defensive weaknesses as he had spent the first half of the season as an emergency center-back – one of most of the 19 center-back pairings before Easter – and Klopp calculated that he had many midfielders to cover his move . The Fulham defeat can be seen as the moment the Liverpool manager “enough is enough” as he decided that there was more to be won with his number six in his favored role. Three days after Fulham, Fabinho played the game in the second leg of the sixteen-time Champions League round against RB Leipzig and stayed there for eight of the last ten Premier League games, starting with an away win at Wolves. Liverpool failed to win only two of the remaining ten games. It is no coincidence that when points were lost at home in Newcastle and away to Leeds United, Fabinho was put back on the defensive due to an injury to Nat Phillips. Based on evidence of Liverpool’s grand final, Phillips would likely have challenged Diego Llorrente to prevent Leeds’ equalization in the 87th minute and rose above Dwight Gayle to keep Joe Willock from blocking Joe Willock’s stoppage-time goal for Newcastle. Phillips turned out to be an unlikely heroic figure – first alongside Ozan Kabak and then with the young Rhys Williams. But the stability came from the man right in front of the inexperienced duo. Fabinho turned out to be Liverpool’s most influential player – the gatekeeper and the pivot. Beyond Anfield, there is a suspicion that people still don’t know how good the South American is. When he plays in midfield, everyone around him looks better and Liverpool act like a champion.