Thanks for this guest piece by Tom Hodge! Find him on Twitter @TomHodg3
(Views not necessarily shared by EOTK editorial)
Although a firm lover of Jurgen Klopp and everything he has done for Liverpool FC already, Liverpool’s progress under him has been substantial but not miraculous. Reinstalling the club with the “never-say-die” attitude which characterised successful periods earlier in our history and having a strong starting eleven (in which many individuals, like Lallana, have reached new heights) have enabled us to finish (deservingly) in the top 4-ahead of teams like Manchester United and Arsenal who, indisputably, had stronger squads than Liverpool. Paradoxically, although deserving of this Champions League spot, there was a notable element of fortune, as despite the early success and initial hype which led many to dub Liverpool as title contenders, bad luck with injuries and form at the beginning of 2017 (due in part to Mane’s departure to AFCON) almost left irreparable damage. If Liverpool had games in Europe who knows where they could have ended up. Consequently, this element of luck makes it all the more necessary for Liverpool to utilise this early success to make substantial long term progress, so that top 4 becomes the standard rather than the exception.
Liverpool must ensure this in two ways prior to the start of the Premier League. Firstly they must win their Champions League qualifier. Sure, this shouldn’t be too difficult given the seeding system currently in place, but this is a game over two legs that Liverpool must win and will hope to comfortably in order to get the season off right, as well as reassure the fans and the team that they are really able to compete at the top level and go beyond the group stages. The reason why competing in the Champions League is important goes without saying: Liverpool’s history in Europe, what it means to the fans and, significantly, what doors it can open in the increasingly competitive transfer market.
The second area in which Liverpool must improve prior to the 12th of August when Liverpool go to Watford? Transfers. Klopp needs to sign the right type of player so that they: seamlessly slide into the squad, perfectly fit his system and ensure there is an instant impact, otherwise Liverpool are in danger of another season like that in 2015/16 in which the extra games, lack of squad depth and ultimately absence of world-class quality resulted in Liverpool tailing off and Rodger’s success in 2013/14 being deemed “a one-off”.
For this I feel there needs to be an emphasis on quality, whilst also having an appreciation for the need for quantity. Liverpool need to have at least two capable players to play in every position. At the moment, left-back, centre-back and arguably holding midfielder are not fitting with this philosophy. What is all the more worrying is Liverpool’s apparent lack of movement in terms of trying to bring in capable left-backs. Alberto Moreno’s exit appears to be a certainty and James Milner is unfortunately, despite his decent attempts, not a left back. That begs the question, why are we not going all out for one currently? Vague connections to Faouzi Ghoulam of Napoli and Andrew Robertson and Kieran Tierney of Hull and Celtic respectively are not, in my opinion, the proven calibre of player to be bought unless a more capable left-back is brought in also. Players like Benjamin Mendy, Jonas Hector or even Marvin Plattenhardt are the level we can attract and are what we need to prioritise in order to form a strong defence, as even if Liverpool do sign a centre-back like Virgil Van Dijk (which is looking less and less likely given Liverpool’s blunder), the left-back position will still be an area of weakness which opposition teams could (and probably should) look to exploit.
Although Liverpool’s attack did themselves justice in the 2016/17 season, with three players scoring more than ten league goals, Klopp has decided to reinforce by recruiting the speedy Mohamed Salah from Serie A’s runners up- A.S Roma. With 15 goals and 13 assists in the league last year, it is possible to assume that surrounded by the likes of Mane, Coutinho and Firmino these numbers could even improve. Here however lies the problem- if everyone is fit, how does Klopp include all these attacking options whilst ensuring we have a strong midfield which will not be overrun by strong opposition? If Liverpool were to line up with Firmino as striker (which seems likely given he has taken the #9 shirt) and then Mane on the left, Salah on the right and Coutinho from midfield, this only leaves two midfield spaces. Although such a speedy and agile attack could mean we become one of the biggest counter-attacking threats in world football, I question whether the team would be too weak physically to compete with teams like Chelsea, Spurs and City, which could mean the midfield gets dominated. Therefore four key components of this midfield couple must be: physicality, stamina, defensive work and ability on the ball. Quite a lot to ask for! That is not to say we do not have players able to take up these roles- Henderson, Wijnaldum, Emre Can and Lallana all arguably display varying degrees of each of these skills, however given the form of each of these players in the last season (Henderson was a pivotal player before his injuries) it seems harsh to drop any one of them for the starting eleven.
If Henderson is fit I think he has to start. He is the stand-out leader in the group and captain of the football club and I feel Klopp appreciates what he brings to the side- with this only justified by his form early on in the season which saw him overrun a Kanté and Matic midfield at Stamford Bridge and cap it off with a 25 yard screamer. That leaves one space to compete for and, with the potential addition of Naby Keita from RB Leipzig, it goes without saying that competition will be intense from the beginning-something that can only be a good thing long term.
Having so many options does however allow a degree of flexibility, something I am sure Klopp has looked at, especially considering Henderson’s recurrent heel problem which meant he missed a lot of last season. Whether Klopp decides to partner Henderson with the more physical and defensive Emre Can or the more technical and agile Wijnaldum or Lallana is up for debate and could potentially be dependent on the opposition. If Liverpool were to come up against Real Madrid or Barcelona I assume Klopp would favour midfield stability over attacking flair, but it will be interesting to see what side he decides to field for home games against “weaker” opposition- a scenario Liverpool frequently struggled with over the course of last season as teams sat in and Liverpool failed to have the speed and penetration to break them down. Could this mean calmness on the ball and the ability to play an incisive pass is favoured over more defensive minded players? Who knows, but with Salah and Mané already set to miss some of the season due to the African Cup of Nations and talent like Ben Woodburn coming through the ranks, 2017/18 is set up to be an intriguing but exciting season for Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool fans.