Holy goalie’s head provides sweet relief for Reds

This is the sixth part in our series charting Jurgen Klopp’s nine seasons at Liverpool from his 2015 arrival to his upcoming departure from Anfield.

Liverpool would usually be in the midst of pre-season preparations in the fourth week of July, but in 2020 they were rounding off a title-winning campaign at that time of year, with the football calendar thrown out of sync by the outbreak of COVID-19.

It meant that the defence of their Premier League crown began less than 50 days after the previous season ended, and even that opening day 4-3 win over Leeds at an empty Anfield came a fortnight after the Reds lost the Community Shield on penalties for the second year in succession, this time to Arsenal.

Unsurprisingly, Jurgen Klopp changed little of the squad which had romped to the title, although Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Nathaniel Clyne all departed. In came Greek left-back Kostas Tsimikas, Wolves forward Diogo Jota and – in what looked a real coup – Thiago Alcantara from Bayern Munich.

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Liverpool began the campaign with three wins, but a horrific fortnight in October provided two major setbacks. The first was a freakish 7-2 defeat away to an Aston Villa side who’d only avoided relegation in the final day three months previously.

The next hammer blow came in the opening minutes of a 2-2 derby draw at Goodison Park when Jordan Pickford’s brutal assault on Virgil van Dijk inflicted an ACL injury which ended the Dutchman’s season. The Everton goalkeeper somehow escaped without so much as a foul being given against him.

To their credit, the Reds responded to those nightmarish events by going unbeaten in the Premier League for the rest of 2020 and, in a welcome contrast to previous campaigns, wrapping up top spot in their Champions League group with a match to spare.

Despite that, Klopp inexplicably fielded a strong team for the final group game away to Midtjylland, a decision which backfired as the prolific Jota picked up an injury which ruled him out for three months.

A relaxation of pandemic restrictions in December allowed for 2,000 fans into Anfield for home wins over Wolves and Tottenham, the latter secured by a last-gasp Bobby Firmino header, and the champions stayed at the Premier League summit for Christmas Day after thumping Crystal Palace 7-0 at Selhurst Park.

Roberto Firmino scores the winning goal during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield on December 16, 2020. (Photo by JON SUPER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Alas, that feast of goals soon turned into a famine, as Liverpool’s next five top-flight matches saw them score only once, and that was in a 1-1 draw at home to lowly West Brom.

The Reds’ cause certainly wasn’t helped by a defensive injury crisis which saw Joe Gomez’s season ended early by a long-term knee problem and Joel Matip suffer several absences throughout the campaign.

The situation was so dire that Jordan Henderson and Fabinho were redeployed to form a makeshift centre-back partnership, while Ben Davies was signed from Preston and Ozan Kabak arrived on loan from Schalke 04.

Ultimately, Klopp trusted in two youngsters in Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams, with that duo teaming up effectively and holding the fort for much of the second half of the season.

When Burnley came to Anfield on 21 January, Liverpool had gone 68 home games unbeaten in the Premier League. Despite a post-Christmas slump, it was still a shock to see Ashley Barnes score the goal which ended that imperious streak, which had endured for nearly four years.

Phil Foden celebrates with Raheem Sterling during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Manchester City at Anfield on February 7, 2021. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

As if that wasn’t freakish enough, the Reds then went and lost their next five home matches in the top flight as Brighton, Manchester City, Everton, Chelsea and Fulham all took advantage of an eerily empty Anfield to pile on the misery for LFC, who’d also exited the FA Cup to Manchester United.

After that defeat to the Cottagers on 7 March, Liverpool sat eighth in the table, with their mission going from retaining their title to simply trying to salvage Champions League qualification.

Aside from the difficulties on the pitch, the squad was also hit by a double tragedy in the opening months of 2021. Klopp’s mother Elisabeth passed away in February, with Jurgen unable to attend the funeral in Germany due to COVID-enforced travel restrictions, and Alisson Becker’s father José Agostinho drowned in Brazil.

For all their troubles domestically, the Reds actually went one step further in Europe than they had the previous season, eliminating RB Leipzig in the Champions League round of 16 before Real Madrid ousted them in the quarter-finals.

By mid-April, three successive league wins showed signs of improvement, but a 1-1 draw at Leeds was overshadowed by Liverpool and five other English clubs signing up to the egregious European Super League, sparking vehement fan protests among supporters of all six Premier League participants, who were eventually shamed into withdrawing from the project.

When Joe Willock scored a stoppage time equaliser for Newcastle at Anfield five days later, hopes of a top-four finish were beginning to slip away for LFC, although wins over Southampton and Man United (the latter was Klopp’s first victory at Old Trafford) preserved the Champions League charge.

Alisson goes up for THAT header! (Photo by Tim Keeton – Pool/Getty Images)

That quest appeared to be faltering once more when the Reds were being held 1-1 by already relegated West Brom at The Hawthorns, until the visitors won a corner in the fifth minute of added time. Incredibly, the man on the end of it was Alisson, who got his head to the ball and diverted it into the Baggies’ net before being engulfed by his jubilant teammates.

It was a poignant moment after the goalkeeper’s family tragedy earlier in the year, and it was followed up by wins over Burnley and Crystal Palace (the latter saw 10,000 fans at Anfield as restrictions were lifted once more) to secure a third-place finish which had seemed highly improbable just two months earlier.

The 2020/21 season had a happy ending, but it was by some distance the toughest of Klopp’s six years at Liverpool up to that point. Injuries, the absence of fans, personal tragedies and the occasional controversy all represented major hurdles to overcome, but the Reds had done enough to ensure that they were back in the Champions League for the following campaign.

In case you’ve missed them, you can check out previous episodes of the series:

2015/16, 2016/17, 2017/18, 2018/19, 2019/20

READ MORE: The evolution of Liverpool’s starting XI under Jurgen Klopp

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