It was, as TV commentator Jim Proudfoot called it, “the most heroic of failures.”
On Sunday, Liverpool were defeated by Manchester City in one of the tightest title races of the Premier League era, pipped by an unmistakably great team that finished the season with 14 consecutive wins. Liverpool’s 97 points – the third-highest total in league history – weren’t enough.
The players wore the disappointment on their faces. When Alisson collected his Golden Glove award, he wouldn’t smile for the cameras. Jurgen Klopp consoled his staff and players with hugs. There were no tears, but the reality stung. Losing, even heroically, still sucked.
Liverpool could yet win the Champions League in June, but even if they finish the season trophyless, this team deserves better than a place on the scrap heap as a castaway runner-up. Maybe the Reds should’ve managed the middle of the season a bit better – they had a four-point lead over City before draws against Leicester City and West Ham wiped it away – but it’s harsh to criticize a club with just one loss to its name.
Think of the fine margins that determined the fate of the title: John Stones’ stunning goal-line clearance against Liverpool in January, City’s winner at Burnley that barely crossed the line, and Vincent Kompany’s outrageous goal from distance that his teammates could scarcely believe.
In the end, Liverpool still bettered 117 of the 120 previous champions. So, is there anything else they could’ve done?
“Not really,” Klopp told Sky Sports.
That’s why supporters welcomed the team bus with flares and flags. That’s why the people at Anfield broke into song as their players made the final passes of the season. That’s why they danced in the squares and streets of Merseyside. That’s why they were proud. They recognized what their club had accomplished.
“When your opponent is City, it’s difficult,” Klopp added. “They couldn’t get rid of us and we couldn’t get rid of them.”
Liverpool breathed life into the title race, turning what would’ve been a procession into an exhilarating sprint to the finish. City were so good because they had to be. The league would’ve been far worse without Liverpool matching City stride for stride.
City supporters tried to mock their rivals on Sunday. “Are you watching Merseyside?” they chanted, demanding respect from their Liverpool counterparts. The more important question is whether the people of east Manchester were watching Liverpool, who closed the gap while their rivals fell away. They were 22 points behind City last season, but finished the 2018-19 campaign just one off the pacesetters.
That’s the most surprising development. City’s standard of excellence is well-known to all, but it’s clear Liverpool are coming for them. That can’t be said for Manchester United or Chelsea or even Tottenham, all of whom are far from the finished article. Liverpool are nearly there.
Not long ago, it was a blessing just to qualify for the Champions League. The ruinous ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett had left Liverpool at ground zero, with debt in the millions and an entire team to overhaul. But Fenway Sports Group assembled a transfer committee and an analytics team, built a new stand, and hired people from the local area to liaise on behalf of the club. Liverpool’s momentum is as real as any trophy City have won this season.
Even so, the general consensus is that trophies are the be-all and end-all of football, the only reason to play, the true barometer of success, and the one way to measure a season. The feeling is that trophies are tangible, real things – something to show off to fans as proof of achievement.
But history doesn’t only remember the winners. Sometimes, history remembers the losers, especially the ones who fail as beautifully as Liverpool did this season. History remembers the spectacular Netherlands side that lost to West Germany in the 1974 World Cup final and the expansive, free-flowing Total Football that captivated the sport. History remembers the brazen Brazilians who dazzled with their feet and danced with the ball before falling to Italy in the 1982 World Cup quarterfinals. History remembers their contributions to the game. Those teams didn’t need a trophy to leave a mark.
Liverpool fans will expect something tangible in the future, but for now, they’re just enjoying the ride. In the context of the Premier League, they’re one of the best teams ever. The greatest title race in league history happened because of them. And they’re not done yet.