When 2021 began for Liverpool, it began in that lurid turquoise away kit at St Mary’s.
Jordan Henderson and Fabinho were the centre-backs, and Southampton won 1-0 as Ralph Hassenhuttl burst into tears on the sidelines.
It was just the second defeat of Liverpool ’s Premier League season, and as they left the south coast that early January night the defending champions were still top of the table, but the sense that something unpleasant was stirring was becoming a very real one.
With Virgil van Dijk having gone down in the October and then Joe Gomez a month later, it was always a stretch to rely on the brittle Joel Matip as the club’s only senior central defender.
He’d gone off as two Anfield points were thrown away to West Brom the day after Boxing Day, and even though the raw Rhys Williams and the rough, rugged but restricted Nat Phillips were around to be called upon, Jurgen Klopp was prizing ability with the ball when it came to selecting his centre-backs, and so Henderson and Fabinho were pressed into service.
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It might have worked had the Reds not been as stretched as they had just been over the previous months, or even if the psychological toll of everything that had gone on and was going one was not about to hit home.
But the downward spiral was calamitous.
Between that Southampton game on January 4 and Fulham at home on March 7 Liverpool played 15 games of football across three competitions, and they lost nine of them.
Six of those losses were at Anfield, all in the Premier League and all after one another. Liverpool didn’t score from open play in those matches, with a Mohamed Salah penalty in a 4-1 defeat to Manchester City the only goal they managed.
You almost have to squint when you look at the numbers now, as a series of records that Klopp’s side had amassed were simply washed away as locked-out fans could do nothing more than stare in disbelief at their screens as the Anfield fortress was stormed when left unguarded.
It was Burnley who ended the 68-game, almost four-year unbeaten home league record when they won in January.
Everton got a first Merseyside derby win at the home of their rivals this century when they won 2-0 in February.
And then when relegation-bound Fulham earned a 1-0 victory in March we were into the realms of the unimaginable. This was eye-wateringly awful stuff.
When West Ham beat Leeds the following day the Reds dropped down to eighth place. But it was just football.
Because in addition to everything else going on in the world, it was when the personal tragedies began to strike which were the moments the bleakness took over.
Klopp lost his mother to Covid-19 in late January and was unable to attend the funeral. Then Alisson Becker’s father tragically passed away in a swimming accident in February.
It was impossible not to feel immense sadness for both men, with football put aside as something of an irrelevance, especially when it was being played in front of no spectators.
But you always have to walk on.
Perhaps in years to come there will be a moment, or an inspirational speech which is credited as the reason for Liverpool getting off the canvas and putting their heads back in the game.
From a team selection point of view then undoubtedly Klopp’s decision to park his misgivings about Phillips’ ability on the ball and trust him in defence certainly stands out.
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He was partnered with January loan arrival Ozan Kabak – a raw defender, but crucially a defender – as clean sheets were kept in three straight wins over Leipzig, Wolves and Arsenal in the three games following the Fulham defeat. A chink of light emerged.
Real Madrid would prove too savvy in the Champions League, but that would be Liverpool’s only defeat in their final 13 games of the season as a battered and bruised side rallied, with their only other stormy weather coming via the grubby power-grab of the European Super League attempt.
As the first of the rebel clubs in action following the earth-shattering announcement, Liverpool got to be the lightning rod for the venom when they went away to Leeds United, but Klopp and James Milner’s powerful words in condemning the idea went a long way towards it collapsing 24 hours later.
Maybe that buoyed Liverpool too, as despite being down in sixth following draws in that game at Leeds and the subsequent one at home to Newcastle, they rallied to win their final five games of the season to end a tumultuous campaign in third.
With Phillips and Williams now the last men standing at the back, there was a routine win over Southampton, a 4-2 success at Old Trafford, a Phillips goal in a win at Burnley and Sadio Mane’s brace to seal Champions League football against Crystal Palace.
Oh yeah, and in between all that the goalkeeper headed a 95th minute winner at West Brom.
Alisson’s goal in May, and everything attached to it both on the field and off, became the great reset button for Liverpool. Suddenly they knew who they were again, and reports of their demise had been greatly exaggerated.
They have sprang into this season with a point to prove, and with Salah every inch the very best footballer on the planet there is a sense of inevitability that they will at least be in the picture when the big prizes are handed out.
While Liverpool can’t control what is going on at Manchester City, they can ensure that Pep Guardiola’s side are once again pursued all the way to the finish line, as the highest-quality tussle English football has perhaps ever seen gears up for another showing.
City have the galaxy of stars, but Liverpool have the best player in Salah. Goals against Guardiola’s men and Watford in October – two of 22 this season by Christmas – outlined just what he can do and what he has been doing all campaign.
There have been the careless results such as draws against Brentford and Brighton, and the solitary defeat at West Ham (the only one in the Premier League since that fateful day against Fulham), but this is back to being the team we recognise, Klopp’s machine who look capable of everything as long as it stays on the rails. The impressive records have returned.
With Van Dijk back, Thiago Alcantara pulling strings in midfield, Diogo Jota an incredibly useful presence in attack and more stars shining then a lot seems possible.
This has been a stark year in Liverpool’s history, going from very, very bad to very good, and there is no reason why 2022 can’t have a silver lining or two.