In the biggest games Liverpool FC played this season, and my goodness there were a lot of them, the team actually departed with more trophies than goals. This is not easy to do, but neither is it what any of the elite teams in world soccer would prefer.
On February 22, LFC played Premier League rival Chelsea in the Carabao Cup and the two teams played through regulation and extra time without either producing a goal. The Reds won the trophy in a phenomenal penalty shootout.
On May 14, Liverpool and Chelsea met again at Wembley Stadium in the more prestigious FA Cup, and the two teams played through regulation and extra time without either producing a goal. The Reds won the trophy in a slightly less phenomenal penalty shootout.
And then there was Saturday, in Paris, when LFC faced Real Madrid in the most important annual game in soccer, the UEFA Champions League final, and again the Reds were starved for goals for the entire 90 minutes of regulation. This time, though, their defense cracked just one time and yielded a goal to Madrid’s increasingly spectacular Vinicius Jr. Real Madrid claimed its 14th European Cup with a 1-0 victory as Liverpool trudged toward the finish line of the season as though completing the final yards of a marathon.
That’s 330 minutes of major finals without a goal. There are many reasons for this, but one that Liverpool cannot afford to ignore upon entering the offseason is the need make improvements to its attacking personnel.
Center forward Roberto Firmino made only 10 Premier League starts and two Champions League starts because of injuries and a resulting decline in effectiveness. That led to Sadio Mane generally moving to the middle of manager Jurgen Klopp’s three-man forward line, with midseason acquisition Luis Diaz taking Mane’s spot on the left. It’s hard to argue the team was as potent in the biggest games with that alignment, despite Diaz’s electrifying showings at Wembley.
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As well, there is the problem of creation from the midfield. Thiago Alcantara was mostly brilliant when available, but he played only 25 of 38 Premier League games because of various ailments. He somehow recovered from a hamstring injury suffered only a week before in the final league game prior to play against Madrid, and he was himself for the first 50 minutes or so, but when Liverpool fell behind he was often too far removed from the attack to matter. Klopp subbed him off in the 77th minute, probably 10 minutes too late.
But there was an excuse for that. He only had available Naby Keita, whose four seasons at LFC have shown he isn’t good enough – or, if persistent injuries diminished him – no longer is. Liverpool needs another significant player in that area of the field.
The Reds have done a wonderful job of building an elite squad without profligate spending, but climbing past the likes of Manchester City (Premier League champs) and Madrid (Champions League winners) will require at least two more wise purchases.
COURTOIS. BEAST MODE. 😤 pic.twitter.com/zACTW8ncyM
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) May 28, 2022
A $48 million acquisition from Porto, Diaz was a sensation in many ways after arriving in Liverpool, scoring seven goals in all competitions and providing a persistent threat, but he was largely muted in the final weeks of the season.
It was a curious final game for Liverpool. They were able to essentially erase the attacking portion of the Real Madrid midfield. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric had about as much impact on the game as the thousands of Madrid fans at Stade de France, including tennis superstar Rafael Nadal. The Reds outshot their opponents 24-4 and had seven more shots on target.
The fundamental difference in the game was the extraordinary performance of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who knocked a likely 21st-minute goal from Sadio Mane off the goalpost, “I think the most important one was maybe the one off Mane,” Courtois told CBS Sports about his most important stop, “because if they had scored there, the game looks really different.”
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The Belgium international then executed three beautiful saves against Premier League Golden Boot winner Mohamed Salah. But the element most responsible for separating Liverpool from its seventh European Cup was an attack that faltered in the final month.
Against its foremost opposition over the final four weekends, Liverpool missed a chance to win the Premier League because it could manage only a single goal against Tottenham’s bunkered defense, it was fortunate to win the FA Cup in the shootout against Chelsea, and again it was shut out Saturday.
As the result of reaching the three cup finals, Liverpool played as many games as is possible in an English season. Its two most dynamic scoring threats, Mane and Salah, were even busier because their national teams, Senegal and Egypt, met in the final of the mid-season Africa Cup of Nations. In the season’s final three months, Salah scored only four goals for LFC in all competitions; he had 27 before.
So it was understandable for there to be a sense of exhaustion about the Liverpool squad against Madrid, however diligently Klopp attempted to rotate his squad as the final approached.
It was most obvious Saturday in the dreadful performance of right back Trent Alexander-Arnold, who can be faulted for not reacting to the threat of Vinicius. Alexander-Arnold was even more deficient in attack, though, squandering a majority of LFC’s corner kicks and free kicks with ineffectual deliveries. Left back Andrew Robertson was only slightly better.
“It’s obviously a different kind of success,” Klopp told CBS. “Not the success you want to have. But I have a strong feeling we come again.
“That’s how it is. Because the boys are really competitive. We have an outstanding group together. We will again have an outstanding group together next year, and we go again. Obviously we have to try a bit more often than others, but no problem.”
It’ll have to be a more outstanding group than this one to produce better results. It won’t be easy to manage this when operating frugally, as the Fenway Sports Group does, but it’s probably easier to pull off than failing to score even once over 3 ⅔ crucial games with Mane and Salah on your side.