It’s been an odd season for Liverpool fans so far and though the manager, players, fans and owners appear united in propelling this great club to further glories and we’ve seen clear steps made towards that achievement, there is still a tinge of disappointment about this season.
Why the Glum Faces?
That disappointment must largely be down to not fully understanding Jurgen Klopp’s process and just how difficult a project he took on in trying to rejuvenate the fortunes of this Anfield club. In his first season in charge of Borussia Dortmund, he finished the Bundesliga in sixth and then fifth place, before becoming champions in both 2010 and 2011. He faced that same challenges he now faces, in that Liverpool are not among the rich elite clubs and must rely on training and development of players in order to compete with the top clubs and he might once again find it difficult to hold on to players when big money offers come in.
Arriving at Anfield, Klopp also faced the challenge of overhauling a very unbalanced squad and it’s been a difficult process of extracting the dead wood and moving on players who had potential but were never going to be good enough for a side with aspirations of winning a title. Combined with that challenging aspect of management is the sheer competitiveness of the Premier League and although the constant announcements about the Premier League being the most competitive in the world can be argued, there’s no doubt that it is extremely competitive. In the Bundesliga Klopp simply had to beat Bayern Munich and he was a title winner, no easy task, yet in the Premier League, there are far more clubs with genuine title ambitions that must be dispatched before you can hold the trophy aloft.
You can see the competitive nature of the league clearly this season, as although Chelsea appear to be running away with it, all the talk is of a top six and all those six teams began the year with plenty of reasons to be optimistic about becoming champions in May. Outside of the top six is no joke either as the cash available to Premier League clubs has made some teams full of great players all hoping to put themselves in the shop window for a move to a bigger club. With Burnley up next at Anfield, you can understand why Liverpool are at odds of just 1/4 with Oddschecker to beat the team with one of the worst away records in the country; there really are no easy games.
Klopp didn’t help the situation by reaching two cup finals last season because as always, it’s the hope that kills you. In taking Liverpool to the League Cup and UEFA Europa League finals it was inevitable that most fans would start to believe that this was a side ready to take on the trials of a Premier League title run, but it simply wasn’t the case. As much as we all enjoyed last season’s cup runs, particularly that epic quarter final against Klopp’s old club, they did raise expectation levels and the reality is Klopp is doing just fine and we should be content to allow him to carry on in his task of making steady improvements. That’s not to say that everything the manager has done has been perfect, it’s reasonable to question certain decisions and there are a few things that need to happen to ensure that we are on a path of progressive improvement.
We were talking about a possible return for Loris Karius against Spurs, but in the end, Simon Mignolet retained his place and has now featured between the sticks for twelve consecutive games in the Premier League. He remains the same keeper that wasn’t good enough before and crossing our fingers and hoping he doesn’t have another howler just isn’t a smart game plan. The weaknesses remain, and although he can appear great with some fine saves on occasion, these don’t make up for the mistakes and he seems destined to always cost Liverpool points. At the time of writing, he has a 6.60 rating on WhoScored.com and that’s a large gap compared to Liverpool’s top rated players, Roberto Firmino on 7.56 and Saido Mane on 7.54. Indeed Mignolet is the worst rated regular started and although you can argue the merits of awarding players ratings out of ten each game, it’s clear that he’s simply not operating at the same level as his teammates. It’s unfortunate that Liverpool crashed out of the FA Cup so early, as Karius getting some game time could only be a good thing and his performances could have meant a return to Premier League action. With neither Mignolet or Karius consistently impressing as shot-stoppers, it’s clear that Liverpool have two good keepers when what they need is one excellent keeper, which is what all their title rivals possess. Therefore now is the time to identify a keeper and start making the noises that ensure he is quickly recruited and able to complete a preseason, it’s the obvious hole in the team that necessitates a quick and decisive investment.
Defending has obviously been an issue this season and seeing Mamadou Sakho putting in commanding performances to turn around the fortunes of Crystal Palace is a little disconcerting when Lucas Leiva is our backup centre-back. No criticism can be laid at the door of Lucas, who has been a magnificent servant to the club and although he’s put in some commendable shifts in defence, clearly isn’t suited to the role. No blame can really be associated to Klopp, as although we can’t know for certain what happened between him and Sakho, we can deduct that as a manager he had to make a call of either maintaining player standards of acceptable behaviour or keeping a player breaking the rules, he made the right choice to conserve his values. Sakho was a popular member of the team and could be a great addition if only the defender could swallow some pride and try everything to get back in Klopp’s good books again. If Sakho were to return most Liverpool fans would be happy with our defensive options with James Milner continuing on the left and Alberto Moreno providing cover or a different option further up the pitch. In the centre, we’d have Joel Matip with either Dejan Lovren or Sakho with Ragnar Klavan and Joseph Gomez as back-ups. While on the right we’ve got Nathaniel Clyne and the emerging Trent Alexander-Arnold. On paper, that’s a good defence and with a solid keeper and a productive preseason should be enough to challenge.
Much has been made of Liverpool’s record against the other top six teams and beating your title rivals is a good way to get a paw on the trophy, but it’s not enough. Consistently beating the teams in the lower half of the league is required of champions and Liverpool have fallen short in doing this and must adapt to throw out wins against the Premier league’s lesser lights. The theory that opposition managers have worked Klopp out is a little disrespectful, but it’s clear that some tweaking is required against those teams that simply soak-up all of Liverpool’s pressure and then hit on the break or at set pieces to take all the points. There are many options to consider when playing against these teams, but one of the most encouraged is a switch to three at the back. While that might simply be people proposing a solution that worked for Chelsea and in reality for Liverpool it might present more problems in terms of the fluency of Liverpool’s attack, but it’s worth a consideration. There are many other possible options to break down these ‘park the bus’ teams without getting caught on the break and while it’s fun to put your two cents in, we should all have faith in Klopp to find a solution that makes The Reds a fearsome outfit for those near the top and near the bottom of the table.
Still, lots of football to be played and the race for Champions League places appears to be going down to the wire so there’s still much to look forward to this season. Yet, there’s no harm looking to the future and although we can’t really conceive what the other top clubs will do, we can be confident that Klopp’s Liverpool project will progress agreeably with just a little fine-tuning.