Can Liverpool break their second-place 'curse' in 2019-20?

By Mandeep SangheraBBC Sport
From left to right: Previous Liverpool managers Graeme Souness, Gerard Houllier, Rafael Benitez and Brendan Rodgers
Souness, Houllier, Benitez and Rodgers have each struggled to build on Liverpool's second-place finishes

Liverpool's tally of 97 points last season was the most achieved by a Premier League runner-up and ensured their status as serious contenders for the 2019-20 title.

But the Reds have been here before.

Since their last league triumph in 1990, they have finished second on four other occasions, yet they have never gone on to lift the trophy, instead falling away badly in subsequent seasons.

So why do Liverpool have a history of failing to capitalise when in a position of strength?

BBC Sport examines the 1991-92, 2002-03, 2009-10 and 2014-15 campaigns and looks at whether it will it be different this time around?

Liverpool struggles after second-place finishes

The 1991-92 season

  • Manager: Graeme Souness
  • Final position: 6th (64 points)
  • Points off top: 18
  • Days on top: 0/259
  • Key signings: Rob Jones, Jamie Redknapp, Dean Saunders, Michael Thomas, Mark Walters, Mark Wright
  • Key departures: Gary Ablett, Peter Beardsley, Gary Gillespie, Alan Hansen (retired), Steve McMahon, Steve Staunton
The Liverpool team that won the club's last League title in 1989-90 celebrate victory
The Liverpool team that won the club's last top-flight title in 1989-90 celebrate victory

Having been so dominant in the 1970s and 1980s, the idea of a sixth-placed finish for Liverpool at the start of the 1990s was pretty much unthinkable.

But the departure of Kenny Dalglish meant Graeme Souness was in charge for the 1991-92 season and had the daunting task of replacing a legend, and continuing the success enjoyed by what was fast becoming an ageing squad.

According to one former player, Souness admits now that he rushed the process of reshaping the squad, dispensing too quickly with some of the bigger names and relying too heavily on youth.

"Kenny's and Liverpool's thought process at the time was that, while they were winning titles, let's buy hungry young players," former Liverpool midfielder Don Hutchison said.

"He got myself and Jamie Redknapp, and he had people like Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler, so the next generation was not ready but we were there.

"The thought process at the time was to play reserve-team football and get ready for the first team.

"When Graeme came in he asked the legends - people like Peter Beardsley, Alan Hansen, Steve McMahon, Ronnie Whelan and that sort of player - 'do you want to hang around or do I bring young players in because you are probably not going to play?'

"According to Graeme, I think he rushed it. He got the players out that he thought had been there too long or couldn't do it anymore and he went straight in with us.

"We were 17, 18 and 19 trying to figure out how to win a Premier League title. Brilliant for us, playing every single week, but we didn't know what we were doing, we never had a clue how to go to the title."

Souness' arrivals included striker Dean Saunders for a then-domestic record £2.9m and centre-back Mark Wright for £2.5m.

"The big signings that he made didn't quite work out for him," said former Reds defender and BBC Radio Merseyside summariser Gary Gillespie.

"Recruitment and your buying and selling has always been key, especially when you at top clubs, and Graeme probably got that a bit wrong."

The 2002-03 season

  • Manager: Gerard Houllier
  • Final position: 5th (64 points)
  • Points off top: 19
  • Days on top: 28/268
  • Key signings: Salif Diao, El-Hadji-Diouf, Bruno Cheyrou
  • Key departures: Nick Barmby, Gary McAllister
Former Liverpool strikers Emile Heskey (left) and Nicolas Anelka
Heskey (left) says Liverpool not signing Anelka was "something that we regretted"

Liverpool went into this season having finished second to Arsenal in the top flight in 2001-02, despite manager Gerard Houllier missing five months of the campaign from October to March after undergoing heart surgery.

The Reds were top of the league by four points from the Gunners after 12 games and a strong title challenge looked on the cards.

"Before every season at Liverpool we used to sit down and discuss our aims and aspirations for that season," said former Liverpool striker Emile Heskey, who was the club's record £11m signing when he joined from Leicester City in March 2000.

"What did we want? Every season it was to get closer to that elusive Premier League title," said Heskey.

"We were getting closer and better. We were getting an understanding as a squad as well.

"The momentum was building and we were feeling fairly confident."

However, a defeat by Middlesbrough cut their lead to one point after 13 games and saw their season unravel as it was the start of an 11-match winless run that saw them drop to seventh place and 14 points behind leaders Arsenal after 23 games.

"The thing with my time at Liverpool was consistency," added Heskey. "You look at the Liverpool of now and they have got that consistency, they don't lose games. They lost one game in the league last season.

"We would beat some of the top teams and then go and lose to a bottom-half club."

On the transfer front, Liverpool signed striker El-Hadji Diouf and midfielder Salif Diao, both after impressive 2002 World Cup campaigns with Senegal, but did not turn France striker Nicolas Anelka's loan from Paris St-Germain into a permanent move.

"We had a chance to sign Anelka and we didn't. That was probably something we regretted," said Heskey.

"Diouf came in but when you come from abroad it is very difficult to get going straight away, although he did OK."

He added: "We lost a player here and there and we would try to build back and integrate another player.

"We were constantly trying to fill gaps whereas the current Liverpool side have already filled the gaps and got some really good lads coming through from the academy."

The 2009-10 season

  • Manager: Rafael Benitez
  • Final position: 7th (63 points)
  • Points off top: 23
  • Days on top: 0/268
  • Key signings: Alberto Aquilani, Glen Johnson, Sotiris Kyrgiakos, Maxi Rodriguez
  • Key departures: Xabi Alonso, Alvaro Arbeloa, Andrea Dossena, Sami Hyypia
Former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez and ex-Reds midfielder Xabi Alonso
Benitez (left) sold Alonso to Real Madrid for £30m in the summer of 2009

Rafael Benitez's name is enshrined in Liverpool folklore after he led the Reds to the 2005 Champions League crown but, in his six years as Liverpool manager, he could not deliver the league title.

The closest he came was the second-place in 2009 when his side finished four points behind champions Manchester United.

A year later, the Spaniard and Liverpool, who were owned by Americans Tom Hicks and George Gillett at the time, parted company after a drop to seventh in the Premier League.

"They had possibly over-achieved the year before," said Gillespie. "There was an awful lot of reliance on Steven Gerard and his partnership with Fernando Torres, who became a little bit disgruntled as well.

"The loss of midfielder Xabi Alonso was a major influence in the way Liverpool struggled and centre-back Sami Hyypia, who had been a major part of Liverpool for a number of years, moved on.

"They lost key players in key areas of the pitch and probably didn't quite replace them with like-for-like.

"Midfielder Alberto Aquilani came with a big reputation but never played an awful lot of games. He always seemed to be injured and Sotirios Kyrgiakos came as a replacement for Hyypia and, as much as he was a cult hero, he was never going to be as good.

"They didn't have a great strength in depth."

Liverpool went from scoring 77 goals in 2008-09 to 61 in 2009-10, with a strained relationship between Benitez and the club's board also a cause for concern.

"There was an underlying current of disgruntlement between the manager and board and that doesn't help the people playing on the pitch," added Gillespie.

"As much as players say it shouldn't or doesn't affect them, ultimately it has to have some sort of effect.

"Your work environment is dictated by the people at the top and I think that is a big difference at this moment in time when you look at Liverpool.

"Everything seems to be heading in the right direction from the top down."

The 2014-15 season

  • Manager: Brendan Rodgers
  • Final position: 6th (62 points)
  • Points off top: 25
  • Days on top: 0/282
  • Key signings: Mario Balotelli, Emre Can, Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren, Lazar Markovic, Alberto Moreno, Divock Origi
  • Key departures: Luis Suarez, Daniel Agger, Pepe Reina
Former Liverpool striker Luis Suarez
Suarez scored 31 top-flight goals when Liverpool were second in 2013-14

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers went for quantity in trying to replace the quality of striker Luis Suarez, who moved to Barcelona, as he attempted to reinforce his squad after they had ended up two points behind Manchester City the previous season.

Mario Balotelli, Emre Can, Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren, Lazar Markovic, Alberto Moreno and Divock Origi were all signed during the summer but, instead of pushing on, the Reds endured their worst start to a season since 1964-65.

Rodgers admitted the summer transfer dealings "didn't go quite to plan" as his side went on to finish sixth.

"[The number of signings] emphasised again that Liverpool's strength in depth wasn't there," said Gillespie.

"Brendan probably thought that you can't really replace like-for-like where in hindsight he would've gone out to sign a main striker.

"He tried to cover the loss of Suarez by buying too many players and, to try to embed them into a Liverpool team that were so reliant on Suarez, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge up front, it didn't quite work for them.

"Suarez was a massive part of that team. He was unbelievably good as an individual but, from a team point of view, he was sensational because he did his fair share of defending and working as well.

"When you lose a player of that magnitude, ability and quality then you are always going to struggle and Liverpool found that."

Suarez scored 31 top-flight goals when Liverpool were second in 2013-14 prior to his switch to the Nou Camp, and no player the following season reached double figures for league goals.

"Gerrard finished the following season as leading goalscorer with 13 goals, with nine in the Premier League. That is a big loss for any team," said Gillespie.

The malaise under Rodgers continued at the start of the 2015-16 season and he was sacked with the Reds 10th in the Premier League before the club appointed current boss Jurgen Klopp.

"When you compare both years - 2010 and 2014 - the strength in depth wasn't there. Liverpool didn't have enough good players in key positions of the pitch," added Gillespie.

"Ultimately, that is what costs a manager his job.

"You have to buy the right sort of players to accommodate the people that have moved on and I don't think Liverpool managed to do that, and that is how I see the difference between this year as opposed to the years we are talking about."

Will it be different under Klopp?

Liverpool owner John Henry said during the summer that the club will be "focused" on winning the Premier League this season and he feels "really good" about the campaign.

However, pre-season has not been without its problems for Klopp as his front three of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah have been missing for most of it because of international commitments.

There were also worries over Liverpool's form after three defeats in seven pre-season friendlies, although an improved showing in the Community Shield against Manchester City, who won on penalties after a 1-1 draw, has helped to calm nerves.

On the transfer front, Liverpool may have only signed teenagers Sepp van den Berg and Harvey Elliott as well as back-up keeper Adrian, but there have been no major departures as Klopp has kept together most of last season's squad.

"Liverpool have got a good strength in depth in their squad, in midfield especially, and at the back they have got cover," said former Reds midfielder Danny Murphy.

"In Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joe Gomez they have got two new signings in many respects because of how much of last season they missed.

"What you could argue is that the left-back area needs some cover. Andy Robertson is a wonderful player but can he play every game at that intensity again?

"Also, what I would say is that to stay on the same level, and maybe even to move forward, one big one [signing] would make a big difference. You need the ability to keep the front three on their toes."

He added: "I always say the difference between want and need is that need is if you don't have a choice. If you want something you have a choice.

"I think they have got a choice, but I think by getting in someone of quality who can be competitive with those three, and at times Xherdan Shaqiri and Divock Origi, it will give them the opportunity to maybe lessen the load which could make a massive difference in the title race.

"It means they are not thinking 'oh I hope he stays fit', 'I hope he's all right', or resting players to try and manage their fitness levels."

Liverpool won their first trophy under Klopp, who took over in October 2015, with victory in last season's Champions League and Murphy feels that can work in their favour.

"What it allows is a group of players to play with more freedom because the stigma of not winning a trophy can weigh heavy," he said.

"Also, now that Liverpool have won the Champions League, they might just think 'let's put our eggs in one basket' [and focus on the Premier League].

"Have Liverpool progressed under Jurgen Klopp? Yes. Are they competing at the top of the Premier League and elite European football? Yes, they are.

"That is all part of the progression for the football club.

"The stadium has been refurbished and developed, the squad is in a healthy position and they have won a massive trophy.

"There are so many positives for them to go on and achieve more success."

Additional reporting by Chris Bevan

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