Liverpool stunned Arsenal with a win at the Emirates Stadium on the opening day of the season back in August. Having lost only one of their first Premier League 10 games, the Reds then went top of the table in early November after a thumping 6-1 victory over Watford.
They had already scored heavily up to then, and at that moment people began to genuinely wonder if Jurgen Klopp would finally deliver Liverpool's first title since 1990.
Fast forward four months and that dream is long since over, for another season at least. Liverpool are 13 points off the pace with less than 10 games left to play and the trophy looks destined to return to Stamford Bridge for the fifth time since the 2004/05 campaign.
When Liverpool held Manchester City to a 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium this weekend, no one was at all surprised. Similarly, a 3-1 home win over Arsenal earlier this month was equally un-dramatic and actually somewhat expected.
As far as games just against the rest of the top six are concerned, there can be no doubt Liverpool have been by far the best team this season.
They've beaten Arsenal home and away, taken four points off Chelsea, four points off Manchester City and four points off Tottenham. They've also twice drawn against Manchester United, with Jose Mourinho specifically employing rigid defensive tactics in order to avoid defeat at Anfield.
In the top six 'mini-league', Liverpool have 20 points from 10 games against their nearest rivals. Others within that group are still left to play each other, but Chelsea only have 13 so far and Arsenal have taken just five points from the biggest games. Liverpool are unbeaten in such fixtures and an average of two points per game is a very impressive return.
Most points in the top six mini league:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 19, 2017
Man City (8)
Man Utd (6)
Arsenal (5) pic.twitter.com/pkCZ1eelS3
That isn't the problem and never has been.
The root cause of Liverpool's ultimately failed title bid can be traced back to the opening month of the season when an emphatic win over Arsenal was immediately followed by a shock defeat against newly promoted Burnley. Just a week later Klopp's Reds had then raised their game again to bag an important point away at Tottenham.
Liverpool have been beaten exclusively in the league this season by clubs currently in the bottom half of the table. To detract from the return of 20 points from 10 games against the top six, they've only taken 19 points from the same number of games against the bottom six clubs.
20 - Liverpool have won 20 points in 10 games vs the top 6 teams this season, but just 19 points in 10 games vs the bottom six clubs. Story. pic.twitter.com/eObywO6M7c— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 19, 2017
Premier League defeats this season have come against Burnley, as already mentioned, Bournemouth, Swansea, Hull and Leicester. The losses against the latter three specifically came as the threat of relegation was looming large for each club. It was a similar story in the FA Cup when Liverpool struggled to beat League Two Plymouth and then were knocked out by Wolves.
The Reds have the most prolific attack in the Premier League. What's more the goals have been spread out across the team with no over reliance on a single individual - as top scorer Sadio Mane has netted fewer than 20% of Liverpool's team goals, with the likes of Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and James Milner all chipping in.
Defensively, there have been significant problems. Liverpool have the leakiest defence in the Premier League's top seven and it has cost them. Rather than just leaking the odd goal in a big win, like beating Watford 6-1 or Hull 5-1, which Klopp found frustrating, it is being carved open by teams who shouldn't be allowed to do it.
The crucial second goal scored by Oumar Niasse when Hull beat Liverpool last month came from a single long ball forward that split the defence. Liverpool had no answers for Fernando Llorente's aerial prowess in the home loss against Swansea in January and then still managed to throw it away and lose after fighting back from two goals down.
Throwing away the 3-1 lead they had with less than 15 minutes of normal time remaining against Bournemouth and is almost unforgivable for a club that has such grand ambitions.
It has been pointed out that Liverpool now have a relatively straightforward run-in as they look to secure a place in the top four and a return to the Champions League - the bare minimum expectation for the season as a whole.
Liverpool's fixture list for the rest of the season is an absolute breeze - which probably means they'll drop points in half of these pic.twitter.com/YWeyFtIeTn— Chris Deeley (@ThatChris1209) March 20, 2017
They're due to play five teams currently in the bottom half and none from the top six, which should still give them the points they need to hold off a Manchester United side in possession of games in hand and suddenly within touching distance once more.
It should be straightforward, but the major flaw that stopped Liverpool mounting a serious title challenge is now threatening their ability to improve at all.
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