Liverpool Season Preview: can they win it?

Since Jurgen Klopp took over, Liverpool have put in numerous ‘blockbuster’ performances that make people believe they’re on the verge of something special. Is the next step is to move up a gear in terms of consistency? Stuart Quigley gives us the lowdown.

Consistency in all it’s forms (no pun intended). Sometimes everything clicks and we look ready to take on the world but too many times last season we’ve taken that for granted. Especially at 1-0. At the end of the season where we had to dog out certain away games then that’s understandable. Some would even argue that we found our consistency and doggedness the hard way in that period. On the flipside, that Crystal Palace game at Anfield nearly broke me. We went from being all out attack who could beat anyone at home to a team that could do Stoke and West Brom away but had no idea how to win on our own turf. If we could take all the parts of that season and weld together the positives, we’d be formidable. Ultimately Liverpool’s worst opponent will always be Liverpool.

You average 2.3 goals per game when Sadio Mane starts, a better record than any professional team in England. What made him so important to the team?

Hardcore Saints fans could possibly tell me otherwise but Mane stepped up a level entirely last season in my opinion. I knew we’d be getting a player with pace and an eye for a goal but there were questions over his consistency and ability to kick on. There is no doubting him now though.

The whole thing about Liverpool last season became about how well we press. Especially in the higher profile games. This was usually led at the front and more often than not Firmino was the instigator. Alongside that you have Coutinho who everyone knows now can link the play and score himself. It wasn’t that Mane was the third in line in terms of our own patterns of play or even how opposition teams played us but he was the ball. Whether it was Firmino winning it back or a defence splitting pass being played, Mane was the target. He had the skill to control whatever was sent his way and the pace to chase down whatever was played into space. At our best it’s too hard to keep track of that many threats. Irrespective of form, a good attack will always beat a good defence.

You’ve signed Mohamed Salah, who can play on either wing while Philippe Coutinho has impressed in a similar role to Adam Lallana. Do you expect to be less reliant on individuals this year?

When we had Gerrard we were a one man team. When we had Suarez we were a one man team. I’ve even heard alternate versions whereby Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres were part of a one man team even if they were playing with Gerrard (likewise Stevie with Suarez). Sturridge has had that on his shoulders in recent years, with everyone waiting for him to come back and then we’ll be great again. And we were. Until we weren’t.

I’m not sure if this is more or less than any other club but Liverpool is powered by individualism. We attach ourselves to someone for their uniqueness whether they’re a player or a manager. The fact is that even when we have loads of great players (and we’ve had teams with loads and loads of great players) it’s only ever one or two that get the focus.

I do quite being an all around attacking threat than simply having one. You don’t necessarily know for certain who is going to score but there are always goals in the offing. Salah is going to be an incredible example of a single player who adds so much to a team simply by being more of the same. Death by a thousand cuts (inside).

You finished May with four straight clean sheets. Particularly at set pieces, are you hopeful of defensive improvements?

Before I state the following, let me say that I cannot wait for the day where we concede a corner or free kick around the penalty area and my brain doesn’t immediately start swearing. Imagine Klopp feels the same. That being said, I’ve always thought the solution to this had nothing to do with the problem itself. Stop giving away possession or free kicks in dumb areas.

Even though we’ve supposedly got this terrible defence that can be pierced at will, we don’t concede that many from open play. When teams plan to play us, set pieces may be their only option. We could defend twenty of them well and concede the twenty first and the narrative is always going to be “oh here we go again”. Ultimately we’re going to concede goals and we’re going to not like it. It’s the reactions to these things that need drastic improvement.

At the time of writing you’re hoping to sign centre-back Virgil Van Dijk and midfielder Naby Keita. What would they bring to the side?

Oh how to write a paragraph or ten on what Naby Keita would have done for this Liverpool side. It’s not so much that I know the Leipzig midfielder inside and out or have been a Bundesliga anorak over the last twelve months. What I know is this. Klopp wanted him. He appears to have an unreal ability to go past players, score goals and prevent attacks from forming. Off the field too he would have brought a real excitement I haven’t felt with a signing for a while. A real statement of intent. Maybe next year. Or he goes to Bayern and this whole saga was pointless. I know where my money is.

Speaking of money, Virgil Van Dijk has at time of writing issued a transfer request. It’s quite amazing that given the player reportedly is so desperate to join us he’s actually gone and said it to Southampton and still I hold out little hope of getting him. Without wanting to sound too harsh on one of our own, what we get from Van Dijk is what we were supposed to be getting from Lovren. Dejan has improved over the years but we’re at a point now where too many people (perhaps even including some in the squad) are waiting for the next mistake. Securing VVD gives us security in defence as well as peace of mind. Which is why it’s going to be not so hilarious to see him in Chelsea blue.

Nathaniel Clyne had a dip in form in the second half of last season. Is Trent Alexander-Arnold good enough to push him?

Absolutely. This is a lad who has said that he won’t consider himself done until he’s got the armband. I really like that kind of attitude. His ascension through the ranks has been a relatively quick one and given the tendency at international level to be selected after even a short spell of success I would put no-one off the long shot that he makes the World Cup squad next year either. Not least of all in this scenario he would have had to already unseated Clyne in the Liverpool team first.

It’s not so much that Clyne’s form dipped or he’s become a worse player, or even that he’s going through a bad period of form but rather the way we play; he (along with Milner) at times can be the weak line. If the fullbacks aren’t going to press forward massively, it’s not going to work. They’ll get tonnes of the ball and just cut inside twenty five yards from goal. Which is why they keep getting the ball. Clyne isn’t finished by a long way and the circumstances of this season with all the different games in different contexts may really help him. The competition too could really spur him on.

You’ve signed left-back Andrew Robertson from Hull. Would you have preferred to sign somebody of a European pedigree to replace James Milner?

Despite coming from a less than high profile background (sorry Hull), I really like Robertson. Saw some real promise and good performances from him in 14-15 and I am very intrigued to see how he’ll develop. Up until recently, I had been of the belief that Klopp rated Milner so much that there would be no replacing him regardless of what anyone else thought but there have been a couple of rumblings in preseason that this might not exactly be the case and Milner may indeed be moved into midfield.

Good effective fullbacks are pivotal to winning tight games and while I appreciate the need to move on from Milner’s solidity, I don’t want to go too cavalier immediately (especially given how wide open we are generally). Also, given the nature of the other areas we need to strengthen and I understand why we’re not lobbing money at anything that’s ever even considered playing full back ala Man City. Robertson will be a fine addition and if everything goes well there’s a chance he can kick on and be the long term solution we need.

Georginio Wijnaldum and Emre Can had decent seasons last year. Are they better with the defensive protection of Jordan Henderson behind them?

Jordan Henderson’s contribution as a whole adds so much to the team that quite frankly everyone looks better with him there. Not sure if he’ll ever quite get the recognition he deserves for how good a passer he is mind.

As for Gini and Emre (as well as the midfield conundrum as a whole), it’s sometimes difficult to balance the line up without Jordan as individually they can fulfil two of the three roles Jurgen wants but it often then impacts who plays alongside them as they’re sometimes shoehorned into a role they’re not comfortable with. Can and Wijnaldum can play the defensive role but it then impacts on their ability to effect the game higher up the pitch (both in terms of passes or runs through a side or scoring itself). Someone like Henderson alongside them who can dictate the tempo and switch the play is perfect to allow them to push further up without inhibiting them or exposing them (well too much anyway!)

What with Coutinho and Henderson appearing to be pencilled in as optimum defensive and attacking midfielders, what may end up happening is a rotation of the two. Gini will play more but with the multitude of games (especially those that require a bit more bustle than hustle) Emre will still get his chance to shine.

Liverpool aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the Premier League season as a whole?

Premier League football is as fun as it’s ever been because it’s as open as it’s ever been. Leicester and Chelsea both won their titles relatively comfortably (which makes the achievements of the former even more impressive) but within all that there’s an infinite set of scenarios that had to play out. No one manager dominates like Ferguson – or even Wenger way back when – and no one team can stay on top for more than a year; the competition at the top is that good. For me Man City and Spurs are certs to finish in the top four but everyone else has a season where they finish 1st and one where they finish 6th. The joy is in finding out.

Relegation will prove as strange as ever. Think Stoke could find themselves in the mix given their stagnation in recent seasons. Swansea have flirted with going down enough recently that the Championship may take them on a date and as for the promoted sides, I look forward to them being inexplicably hard to beat at Anfield!

Where will you finish?

Third. I hate this prediction. Who dreams about not finishing first? Who can bring themselves to get massively excited about it? [insert Arsenal joke here]. For me it’s all about how close we get to first. If we can’t do it then I’d like to get close. Have matches of real consequence in May. If we’d signed VVD and Keita then I’d be saying the kind of things that Liverpool fans always get ridiculed for saying. As it is, I think our squad is about par from last year (we still need players, even if they aren’t from Southampton) and while European football could prove a problem I’m confident in Klopp.

The Football Lab’s Verdict

We saw flashes of what Liverpool can do last season and Salah’s arrival should reduce their dependence on Mane. If they keep Coutinho and tighten up at set pieces, the Reds could become serious title contenders.  2nd