There was a guard of honour at the end. James Milner was the first to emerge, holding the Carabao Cup, as the players formed a tunnel. Walking through it, carrying the FA Cup, was the departing Divock Origi. Maybe, in its cruel way, it was appropriate that injury denied him an Anfield farewell on the pitch before the final whistle. He was the master of the unlikely and, albeit in improbable fashion, the predictable happened. Manchester City won against Aston Villa. Liverpool finished second.
It has long felt their fate. Some anointed City champions in January. Not Liverpool. They had closed a gap, from 14 points, occasionally drawing ahead due to the vagaries of the fixture list, but they had always been the outsiders. It can suit their mentality. Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel had declared, is the “master of being the underdog” but, in one competition anyway, Liverpool have been.
It was a question of mathematics, rather than semantics, after the first half of the campaign. They finished with 16 wins in 18 matches. They sustained a quadruple bid until the final minutes of their 62nd game of a marathon campaign but, finally, they were denied the Premier League.
“The boys played an incredible season,” Jurgen Klopp. “The whole journey of 21-22 so far is absolutely exceptional.” He had felt reconciled to their fate in the Premier League. A focus on his own game had obscured the reality that City went 2-0 down. “I can imagine it was much worse for the people at home watching on the telly all over the world who were Liverpool fans, when Aston Villa were 2-0 up they were thinking ‘Wow, that could really be,’” Klopp reflected.
In the end, it couldn’t. Liverpool had showed their powers of recovery again, coming from behind for a fourth consecutive league game. Over 90 minutes, they could mount comebacks. Over a season, an extended fightback almost succeeded. “Close but not close enough,” said Klopp.
It is a familiar story. Only two teams in the history of English football have ever accumulated 90 points and not won the league: Klopp’s Liverpool, with 97 in 2019, and Klopp’s Liverpool, with 92 now. “Ninety-two points is crazy with all the games we played,” the German said.
It shows the extent to which he and Pep Guardiola have raised the bar. It is why it is too lazy, too misguided to say Liverpool blew it or bottled it. Klopp has beaten Sir Alex Ferguson’s top points total in three different seasons and won one Premier League. Without Guardiola, he probably would have been champions of England twice more. “Possibly,” he said. “It’s not unlikely.”
But Liverpool have made history when winning silverware and when not. Rewind to 2009 and Rafa Benitez’s team set a record by not becoming champions while only losing two league games. Klopp’s side have surpassed that – second in 2019 after a solitary top-flight defeat – and then equalled that. Only West Ham and Leicester have beaten them.
Perhaps draws cost them, as they did in 2008-09 and 2018-19, and they can rue autumnal matches against Brentford and Brighton when they lost leads, when the defence was less watertight before Virgil van Dijk reached his imperious best.
They have not dropped a point to any of the bottom 16 in 2022. Over the season as a whole, they only dropped 10.
And when they were held at Tottenham and Chelsea over Christmas, it was with Covid-depleted teams. It is unrealistic to expect perfection over a 38-game campaign, but Liverpool came closer than most.
“What I learned about life is that if you stay on track and you keep going, you get the reward,” said a philosophical Klopp. Their rewards may come in the shape of a treble. There was silverware on the Anfield pitch, in the FA Cup and the Carabao Cup, in the Golden Boot and the Golden Glove.
Their excellence was reflected in many a chart. They had the players joint first, fifth and sixth equal for goals; those first, second and with a share of third for assists. They had a goal difference of plus 68, which was 68 better than Manchester United’s. But, after another epic effort, second to Manchester City.