Premier League preview: Can Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool buck the second-season syndrome?
Considering Liverpool’s track record of falling apart after one good season, a top-four finish in the league along with a deep run in the Champions League should be sufficient for this season to be filed under ‘progress’.
Where the club stood in May
Liverpool showed progress last season, the club’s first full one under manager Jurgen Klopp, by finishing in fourth place and thus qualifying for the Champions League (qualifying stages) for only the second time in eight years.
Come end of May, though, the shortcomings that needed to be addressed in the transfer window were evident. Even in a season without European football, the Reds squad was stretched and needed depth in all departments. Injury to even one key first-choice player like Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane and Jordan Henderson weakened the attack significantly. Thus, both a forward player and a central midfielder were required to boost the ranks.
But the more pressing need was to strengthen the defence. Throughout the season, Reds’ sensational attacking play was neutralised by shoddy defending. Liverpool needed a central defender to replace or compete with Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip while a left-back was also the need of the hour. James Milner, a makeshift left-back, had played in that position all of last season.
A summer marred by misses
Winger Mohamed Salah joined from AS Roma as an addition in attack and Andy Robertson was signed from Hull City to end the search for a left-back. Dominic Solanke, a 19-year-old striker who starred in England’s FIFA Under-20 World Cup triumph this summer with four goals, was also roped in from Chelsea and earmarked for the future (though his excellent preseason performances may earn him appearances this season).
So far so good.
However, at the time of writing, the club appears to have failed in landing its biggest two targets: Southampton centre-back Virgil van Dijk, whose transfer has proven to be an extraordinary failure, and RB Leipzig midfielder Naby Keita, whose club refuses to budge even after multiple bids. This is in contrast to last year, when Liverpool’s preparations had been much smoother with all the main transfer targets wrapped up before the last week of July (some were signed even prior to the window).
In Van Dijk’s case, the club embarrassed itself by allegedly approaching the defender illegally, forcing Southampton to lodge a complaint with the league which then led to the Merseyside club issuing a public apology for its actions. Liverpool and transfer troubles? An old bond. In 2012, the club was forced to apologise to Fulham for tapping-up Clint Dempsey while in April this year, the club was handed a ban on registering academy players.
On the bright side, no key player has departed in this window although reports coming out of Spain have suggested that Coutinho is firmly on Barcelona’s radar after the Catalan club lost Neymar in astonishing fashion. Among the renowned players, only Lucas Leiva, who was past his sell-by date, exited the club this summer after 10 years at Anfield.
Bucking the second-season syndrome?
When Liverpool finished the league in second position in 2009 and 2014 and qualified for the Champions League, the club finished the following season in seventh and sixth places respectively. It’s a worrying trend that wasn’t helped with the departures of key players, Xabi Alonso in 2009 and Luis Suarez in 2014. This is why keeping hold of Coutinho is vital for the club. A season of progress must be consolidated both on and off the pitch.
In fact, during the 2014/15 campaign, Brendan Rodgers, the Reds manager at the time, sacrificed Champions League matches to focus on the league, which was a rather humiliating prospect for a club of Liverpool’s stature. The club will hope to have a squad strong enough to cope on all fronts this time around.
Champions League is back at Anfield!
Only Real Madrid (12 titles) and AC Milan (7) have won the European Cup more times than Liverpool with five titles (Barcelona and Bayern Munich too have five each). To be competing in Europe’s elite competition should be a bare minimum for a club of such European pedigree though the increasingly difficult level of competition in England has meant that all top English clubs have missed out on qualifying for this competition at least once in the recent years.
Klopp’s men have drawn German club Hoffenheim, who had beaten Bayern in April and finished fourth in Bundesliga last year, in the play-off stages starting next week. It’s likely to be a nervy two-legged affair but with the second leg at Anfield, with the aura of countless famous European nights, the Reds have an advantage and remain hot favourites to win the tie.
Should Liverpool qualify for the group stages, it’ll be interesting to see how, with a highly intense style of play that is prone to result in higher than usual fatigue, will the players cope with a string of midweek and weekend fixtures.
Missing the 20-goal-a-season forward?
Liverpool’s attacking line-up is frighteningly good on paper. With Salah and Mane flying on the wings, Coutinho and Lallana (who is ruled out for three months due to injury) pulling the strings from the middle and Robert Firmino using his clever movement upfront, Liverpool promises to wreak havoc on opponents again.
But do the Reds have a proper goalscorer? Firmino isn’t one yet, though his cleverness and creativity upfront makes him invaluable. Daniel Sturridge could be considered a 20-goal striker, if he remains fit, but he’ll likely be playing second fiddle to Firmino. Divock Origi’s form dipped last season and Danny Ings is returning from missing almost the entire last season while Solanke is only 19.
Unlike their rivals, who have Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United), Alvaro Morata (Chelsea), Harry Kane (Tottenham) and Alexandre Lacazette (Arsenal), Liverpool lack an instinctive goalscorer. Are the Reds too dependent on goals from several sources?
Dodgy defending, a style problem?
According to Statsbomb, Liverpool’s defensive numbers were rather unusual last season. Klopp’s men were only second to Manchester City in shot-suppression statistics. Liverpool allowed only 8.1 non-penalty shots on goal by opponents as per Objective Football but the Reds had the highest “expected goals per shot” (likelihood of a shot ending up in the net) figure in the league as well.
This means that Liverpool did not concede many chances in games but the chances they did concede were dangerous, high-quality ones giving opponents a greater chance to score from.
This is a result of Liverpool’s pressing style under Klopp which tries to snuff out attacks higher up the pitch but when the pressing trap is beaten by opponents, they have wide spaces to exploit and a shortage of Liverpool shirts to defend.
There’s no doubt Liverpool needs a better central defender than mistake-prone Lovren and Matip but there’s a case for the team to defend better as a unit too. It should naturally improve, to whatever extent, in Klopp’s second full season.
The Brazilian playmaker is priceless for Klopp, for the manager doesn’t have another player like him in the team. His artistry on the ball remains the key to unlocking lesser teams, which pose Klopp’s Liverpool major problems by sitting deep to defend and starving the flamboyant Reds of any space to do their magic.
If Coutinho departs for Barcelona late in the transfer window, it will nullify a lot of the team’s preparations this summer. It’ll be a major blow. This is a team built around the Brazilian.
On the other hand, Liverpool’s record against their closest rivals was excellent last season: an unbeaten season with five wins and five draws. In matches against the top teams, Klopp’s men found spaces to attack into and were lethal in doing so. This is also why the Reds are a good shout to be the dark horses in this year’s Champions League: they might just be more comfortable playing Real Madrid at the Bernabeu than Watford at Vicarage Road!
Player to watch out for
Sadio Mane, last season’s Liverpool Player of the Year, is still the player to watch out for. With 13 goals, Mane made an instant impact in his debut season. His absence from the side in January, when he went away to represent Senegal in the African Cup Of Nations, coincided with the Reds’ mid-season dip in form. His end-of-season injury too nearly damaged Liverpool’s top-four prospects for good.
A pacey Salah’s presence is an issue for Mane but it could go in two directions. It could either free up the Senegalese more, since the opposition will have both flanks to contend with, or, as the preseason suggested, it could force Mane on to the left flank where he would be more predictable (he barely has a left foot).
Young prospects to watch out for
Solanke, aged 19, had an impressive preseason and might have put himself in the fray ahead of Origi in the striking order. Midfielder Marko Grujic, 21, may feature more this season after a good preseason along with 17-year-old Ben Woodburn, an intelligent midfielder who is one of Klopp’s favourites.
Trent Alexander-Arnold, meanwhile, is set to start the opening matches at right back in the absence of the injured Nathaniel Clyne. He was named Liverpool’s Young Player of the Year last season.
Considering Liverpool’s track record of falling apart after one good season, a top-four finish in the league along with a deep run in the Champions League should be sufficient for this season to be filed under ‘progress’. A trophy would be an added bonus.
Subscribe to Moneycontrol Pro at ₹499 for the first year. Use code PRO499. Limited period offer. *T&C apply
The injured men will return, as will the fans, and eventually the goals. Liverpool have a lot to look forward to, just not this Premier League season.
If a Premier League team wants the inside track on an opponent’s injury status ahead of a game, there’s an online resource it can increasingly lean on to get crucial information. The Fantasy Premier League football competition.
Mount's first half goal was enough to see off lacklustre Liverpool and extended Chelsea's impressive renaissance under new boss Thomas Tuchel.