Is this finally going to be Liverpool’s season?
Last season, with no European distractions, Liverpool put together a solid domestic campaign that, at some point, saw them cruising in second place and looking like the only side capable of challenging Antonio Conte’s Chelsea.
But it was not to be as hopes of a first Premier League title faded after three defeats in the first two months of 2017 to bottom-half sides Swansea, Hull City and Leicester. The Reds even played out a morale-depleting draw against Sunderland but recovered to finish the campaign with an impressive 76 points tally to qualify for the Champions League for the first time since the 2014/15 season.
The prospect of European adventures returning on Tuesday or Wednesday nights is tantalisingly close, providing Liverpool get past the tough hurdle that is in the form of German Bundesliga side Hoffenheim. But as Jürgen Klopp enters his second full season with the squad, it looks set to be the German’s most challenging campaign so far, considering the fact that the honeymoon period has ended.
Liverpool have improved under Klopp in his two-and-a-half seasons at the club, with the highpoint being the team’s high-pressing style that forces opponents to deploy long balls. But his main challenge is the Achilles heel of last season; an inability to put away low-ranking teams.
There was an obvious lack of know-how to break down teams that literally parked the bus. Hopefully, that would change with the addition of Mohammed Salah.
The Prince of Egypt
The summer arrival from Italy’s AS Roma has made what was an already powerful forward line much more formidable with his great pace and ability to make intelligent runs, much to the chagrin of his markers. The Egypt international has already shown signs that he is gelling well with Liverpool’s predatory forwards from last season, and has managed to push to the left wing Sadio Mane whose duties at last January’s Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal and injury over the latter half of the season contributed to Liverpool’s inability to maintain their push for the title.
Salah has impressed in pre-season with his speed, work rate and finishing. And the prospect of Salah and Mane terrorising Premier League defences from all angles and feeding off the intelligent awareness of Roberto Firmino is enough to get Liverpool fans excited.
Equally comfortable on the left, the Egyptian ensures Liverpool will not be as reliant on Mane for pace and gives Philippe Coutinho licence to dictate play from a deeper position.
Liverpool finished last season playing a 4-4-2 diamond formation, with Emre Can and Adam Lallana at the base and tip, respectively, and Coutinho and Giorginio Wijnaldum on the sides. But Klopp prefers a 4-3-3, and the arrival of Salah and Mane’s switch to the left will see Coutinho move into the midfield.
That all adds up to an electric front three of Salah, Mane and Firmino, with Coutinho providing the ammunition from deep.
The Coutinho factor
Coutinho has the ability to take players on and create chances and is the only player on Klopp’s roster with the capability to transform Liverpool’s attack from good to great.
But all that depends on whether Liverpool are able to keep hold of the diminutive Brazilian who has emerged as the top transfer target for a Barcelona side keen to find a replacement for Neymar who left the Spanish giants for French side PSG for a world record €222 million transfer fee.
In Coutinho, Salah, Mane, Firmino, Daniel Sturridge, Dominic Solanke, Divock Origi and Danny Ings, Liverpool have a formidable range of forwards, but that is not the case when it comes to the backline.
Klopp’s teams, judging from his time at Mainz and Borussia Dortmund, can play defensively sound football but striking that balance has been tricky for him at Anfield.
“Our biggest challenge is to be stronger defensively as a team, to be more concentrated, more focused in situations,” Klopp said this summer. “We know what the problem is.”
The German said the same last season, too, but set pieces and counterattacks continued to cost Liverpool dearly.
Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip finished the season as the starting centre-back pairing, with Ragnar Klavan and the now departed Lucas Leiva, a midfielder, the only backups.
Liverpool are keen to address this weakness by signing Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk, but it remains to be seen whether the Reds can persuade the Saints to sell the Dutchman who recently handed in a transfer request.
Liverpool’s backline wasn’t really terrible last season, as they ranked fifth in goals against. However, they enjoyed the benefit of playing only once a week and crashed out of the FA Cup early on.
Nevertheless, there were noticeable weaknesses, such as the absence of a natural left-back after Klopp opted to deploy the right-footed James Milner as a left fullback.
But competition for Milner’s place at left-back has arrived in the form of Andy Robertson, an initial £8m signing from Hull City, while teenager Trent Alexander-Arnold appears primed to put pressure on Nathaniel Clyne for the starting right-back spot.
But if van Dijk, or someone else, isn’t brought in, Liverpool fans should be prepared for another season of brilliant attacking undermined by the usual dose of messy defending to prevent them from seriously challenging for the title.