This season won’t go down as the gaffer’s best ever season, but perhaps it should.
NASA Director : This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever experienced.
Gene Kranz : With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.
-Exchange from the film Apollo 13
Apollo 13, the movie, is an incredible cinematic achievement, least of all because it nearly perfectly captures the real life and death struggle of that failed mission to the moon. It’s also a pretty good analogy for Liverpool’s 2020-21 season.
We didn’t achieve the heights that we set out to accomplish. We watched as Manchester City reclaimed their spot atop the Premier League, and as Chelsea lifted the European cup, just as the astronauts aboard Apollo 13 had to watch helplessly as the moon passed by their window.
And just as landing on the moon was “no longer their business” following a catastrophic explosion, so too were major honors for this Liverpool side following their catastrophic injury record. VAR decisions didn’t help matters.
However, sometimes the mission transforms from achieving great things to merely surviving. Liverpool were in survival mode.
NASA engineers had to figure out how to put square carbon filters into a round hole. Jurgen Klopp and the walking wounded Liverpool players had to figure out how to play winning football with Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams at center back. Metaphorically, it’s hard to imagine two players who were more “square pegs,” than those two.
Apollo 13 is brilliant (to speak nothing of the actual heroes who inspired this film). It’s brilliant because you become invested, not in what they could have accomplished, but in their survival. The scene where the astronauts finally make it safely back to earth is one of the most uplifting moments in cinema.
In looking back on the season, Klopp and the players made us care again. Not just about winning shiny things, but about the simple joys of football. About “surviving” to see us playin the Champions League next year. Alisson’s triumphant, game-winning headed goal against West Brom was our “splashdown” moment of the season. I hadn’t celebrated a goal that hard in years.
It was an incredible feat. Not just Alisson’s header, but everything that led to that point. The early successes gave us false hope, but crucially, it also gave us some margin of error for when things took a turn for the worse. And boy, did we need every bit of that margin of error!
When results finally started turning around, it looked like it would be too little, too late. Liverpool needed to go on a 10-game run of title-winning form, and needed to do it in a season where all the breaks were going against us.
It took hard work, ingenuity, and even a touch of good luck. Alisson’s header will live long in our memories, but it was only possible because a controversial—at least according to Sam Allardyce—offside call, disallowing a West Brom goal.
Most importantly of all, it took a man to bring it all together. It took Jurgen Norbert Klopp, The Normal One who is anything but, to keep the faith throughout the squad, train the available players to squeeze every last ounce of talent out of them, and get things back on track.
We’ve seen plenty of managers “lose the dressing room” over the years. Once that magic is gone, it’s nearly impossible to get it back. But it wasn’t impossible for Klopp.
On the sad day when Klopp retires, he’ll be remembered for his triumphs at Dortmund and Liverpool. A few fans, but hardly any pundits, will note his equally impressive job of getting Mainz promoted.
Hardly anyone will remember 2020-21 as anything but a footnote. A disappointing third-placed finish after winning the Champions League and Premier League in back-to-back seasons isn’t necessarily anything to write home about.
We would do well to remember this season, though. Because only an elite manager could right the ship in the way that he did, and to do it with a squad missing as many talented key players as Liverpool.
It was his finest hour at Liverpool.