It promises to be the hardest question to answer going into next season: just how good are Liverpool? Not as good as when they won 39 of 44 Premier League games clearly, but better than the Europa League places? If so, by how much? Are they victims of cosmic misfortune and a freakish spate of injuries, or do nine league defeats signal the eclipse of an outstanding side?
Perhaps only Jurgen Klopp will know the true answer. Klopp is about to begin his sixth full season in charge with a squad who have gone course and distance, but there is an air of unpredictability around Liverpool. Joe Gomez and Virgil Van Dijk should be back of a full pre-season, and when they return to the team it will put a stop to using midfielders at centre-back. Fabinho has returned to central midfield in recent weeks, prompting a notable improvement, and he should be back in his best position on a full-time basis. That in turn could provide the platform for Thiago Alcantara to dictate games with the ball.
There is a theory that lockdown football is not conducive to Liverpool's high-octane style, leaving Klopp with little choice but to dial back their pressing and make Liverpool a little less scary to play against. In truth, Liverpool were already evolving from the full-throttle high pressing of Klopp's first few seasons to more of a considered, possession style, and relative to the rest of the league they still press quite intensely. Only Manchester City win more high turnovers per 90 minutes than Liverpool's 9.6 while only Chelsea and Leeds United allow the opposition fewer passes per defensive action.
Only City have amassed a higher expected goals tally than Liverpool this season, so they remain an effective attacking force. They have slumped down to sixth for expected goals against this season, though some punishment in this area was to be expected with their first-choice defenders out for the whole season.
Aside from the absence of Gomez and Van Dijk, and the subsequent weakening of midfield when Fabinho was employed there, Liverpool have also suffered from a cold snap in front of goal. Only Burnley, Sheffield United, Fulham and Brighton (of course) have a bigger negative differential between expected goals and goals scored. Liverpool over-performed their expected goals in their title-winning season, so perhaps they were due to be on the wrong side of some natural variance.
One player who typifies this trend is Sadio Mane. The forward has scored 40 league goals across the last two seasons, but just nine this term. His underlying metrics have held steady at around 0.45 xG per 90 minutes in the league, suggesting the Senegalese has been a touch unlucky. Nevertheless, Mane himself recently told French television that this was the "worst season of my career" and revealed he had medical tests to make sure he was eating and training optimally.
One thing for Liverpool to consider is whether their famous front three of Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah can maintain their intensity out of possession while remaining dangerous in front of goal. All three players will be 29 years old by the time next season kicks off. Diogo Jota has been a great purchase and can play across the front line, but Liverpool will still rely on Mane and Salah to score goals in volume to compete with Man City.
In a non-Covid world, Liverpool's buy low sell, high strategy may have seen them sell Salah or Mane to one of the big Spanish clubs and spend the proceeds on more talent in the 22 to 24 range. Barcelona and Real Madrid do not have the financial muscle to make those moves however, and in any case seem to covet Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland. With funds also tight at Liverpool, they might have to manage their star forwards through the end of their peaks towards the down-slide. That might include reducing their work load out of possession.
Such is Liverpool's prowess in the transfer market, their rivals might be happy to see them keep Salah and Mane into their 30s rather than receive the funds to reinvest.