Liverpool Season Preview: is this their year?

With the 2018-19 Premier League season coming up, The Football Lab spoke to Liverpool fan Stuart Quigley ( @sqstudios ) – check out his excellent podcast The Beer Mat.

Last season saw Liverpool reach their first Champions League Final in 11 years and with one of the youngest squads in the competition. How fondly will that 2017-18 campaign be remembered?

It’s remarkable really. I vividly remember the forlorn chase for Van Dijk last summer and Phil Coutinho lashing in a transfer request the day before the season started. At the time you wondered whether it would undo all the hard work we’d seen put in trying to get back into the Champions League in the first place. It’s funny now also looking back at how many chances Salah had in those early games and how it looked like he might not have the killer instinct that we needed. How things change.

Watching us in the group stages scoring goals for fun was almost a novelty. It wasn’t the hardest of groups and we were glad to be back in the big time. Then came Porto and a feeling that carried us right the way through to the final. The first halves at Anfield against Man City and Roma were as complete a footballing experience as you can get, both on and off the pitch. What happened in the final will probably hurt more as time goes on, opportunities like that don’t come along that often. The season as a whole though feels like it was the perfect springboard to success, where we – hopefully – look back in a few years and go “this is where it all started”.

That front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane was great to watch from a neutral perspective. For a fan, they must have been a joy to behold?

It’s an absolute privilege to watch them play, not only for the goals and the footballing highlights that they create on a weekly basis but for how much they all appear to enjoy playing with each other. They’re all so very clinical and unselfish which is not something you can say for most high level forwards and the interplay between them is just phenomenal. There’s something to be said for counter attacks where you can feel like a goal is coming and we haven’t even crossed the half way line yet. Individually Salah got most of the praise last season and earned every single bit of it but Firmino was in the top ten Premier League scorers as well and Mane might be the most underrated of the three. It’s certainly a good problem to have if your Klopp and Liverpool but there is more to this trio than the mercurial talent of Mo Salah, to the point where we might see a bit more of an even spread of goals this season. Either that or Salah breaks 50 league goals and Harry Kane spontaneously combusts.

Surprisingly, you still failed to score against each of the relegated sides. Would it be unfair on Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnalum and James Milner to suggest you needed something extra in midfield on the rare occasions when that front three weren’t on-song?

Everything about goalscoring is about being greedy. Forwards do it with taking chances rather than playing an easy pass. Fans do it when it comes to victories, we always want to be winning by more, to the point where if you’re 2-0 up on the half hour and the game ends that way, it can feel like an anticlimax. So in that regard it’s a little harsh to say that while Salah, Mane and Firmino scored 57 goals (more than fourteen whole teams managed) we could still do with some more from midfield, but it’s actually true. James Milner is having a wonderful renaissance in his career but it’s unlikely he’ll be playing more than he did last year. Gini Wijnaldum in amongst all the really good aspects of last year was actually a little disappointing. Having finally broken his away goal duck (in a Champions League semi final no less) and with the other midfield additions, I am hopeful he can contribute as well as he did in his first year.

Henderson feels like the odd man out here in terms of the idea that with the transfers made over the summer, Klopp may be reducing his role and/or even giving the armband to Van Dijk. Personally I don’t see that and while it’s true that his goalscoring numbers for a player of his ability should be better, I think he’s come on so much over the last few years as seen by his performances for England in Russia.

Fabinho is an all-action ball-winner, Naby Keita loves to drive forward from deep and playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri should thrive with more runners around him. Could those three be the missing pieces of the jigsaw?

They certainly add an extra dynamic to a midfield that functioned spectacularly well – especially in Europe – but as I said it could be a little one dimensional at times. Fabinho and Keita are a perfect addition of both steel and guile, something that we’re very much going to need when the bottom ten & Man United come to Anfield and play everyone behind the ball. Shaqiri on the other hand was an odd one for me. The price was a steal for a player with his qualities and age (it ridiculous how long he’s bene around and he’s only 26). I wasn’t sure however whether he was consistent enough or even the kind of Klopp style player who would press and put a shift in when things weren’t going for him. I’m more than happy to be proven wrong and it already seems like he’s fit in well in the dressing room. He’s going to be given more of a free role and perhaps without the level of responsibility he had at Stoke in terms of creating and scoring maybe that will in turn allow him to express himself better.

Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson put in loads of lung-busting runs from full-back last season. Have the fans taken them?

Trent has a massive advantage in addition to the natural ability and mentality that saw him take a massive leap last season. He’s a scouser. He’s sat in the Kop and everyone knows it’s that little bit more of a bonus for fans to have someone local come through and make it through to the first team. That being said, it’s very easy for fans to become attached to players that really put a shift in and when Trent came up against Leroy Sane in the Champions League and it really showed everyone that he’s going to be a very important part of this Liverpool side. Andy Robertson on the other hand has basically been adopted by the Kop. Everyone points back to the game against Man City at Anfield in the league and that run but in truth after a slow start he was putting in those types of performances all season. If you look at his interactions with the squad on social media as well, you can tell that he’s endeared himself to his teammates just as well as he has the fanbase.

Virgil Van Djik appeared to influence the defence after joining in January. Do you see Dejan Lovren as the first choice centre-back partner?

I’d rather his first choice long term partner was somebody currently not at the club, but that’s more to do with the shall we say infamous history of everyone there at the moment. Lovren has come on leaps and bounds since Van Dijk came in and it’s worth saying that given his performance against Spurs at Wembley last year he’s done well to come back at all, I for one thought he was finished. Matip plays when fit but that’s nowhere near enough and injury wise he isn’t reliable enough to call upon consistently. The one I would be keeping an eye on is Joe Gomez. Klopp has come out in the past and said he’d be playing there in the future and will almost certainly start there against West Ham this weekend. It’s likely that Lovren will be the go to option more often than not but given how high the ceiling is for Gomez he might be able to give Klopp some selection headaches.

You’ve added arguably the best available goalkeeper in the world in Alisson. Could you have the best number one since Pepe Reina?

In fairness there really isn’t much competition for that. Mignolet had runs of form but is ultimately far too inconsistent and everybody knows what happened with Karius. It was really good to see him get a warm reception coming on against Torino at Anfield the other day but I can’t help but feel that maybe some of that is based on the fact that we brought Alisson in. For all the talk and genuine excitement of what he can add to the team in terms of build up play – and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a couple of assists this year if teams leave space in behind – I’m much more interested in having someone who keeps the ball out of the net more often than not. For too long we’ve been in need of a commanding goalkeeper and it does indeed look like we’ve got one for years to come.

Rhian Brewster has signed a new deal this summer while Rafael Camacho and Curtis Jones have apparently impressed in pre-season. Do you see either of those youngsters getting their chance?

Outside of the league cup it would be difficult for me to say that either of those will get much of a chance but Klopp is definitely not averse to giving youth team players opportunities and the season itself is going to be a long one so there may well be times when they’ll have their shot, however limited it might seem at the time. Never say never in terms of academy players breaking through, as I didn’t expect Trent to have such an impact last season. Camacho and Jones have looked especially impressive in pre season and managing to retain Brewster is a huge bonus for us. When the time comes, they’re going to have to be ready.

Reds aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the Premier League season as a whole? How do you rate your competitors?

Man City are a force to be reckoned with and comfortably the team to beat. If Guardiola has them clicking early, a lot of heads will drop collectively around the league as I think everyone is expecting them to drop off somewhat, maybe in terms of points even if not in terms of performances. Conversely, Jose Mourinho and Manchester United are doing a wonderful job of making everyone else think that they’re in real trouble this year. The quality around the squad is unquestionable but the attitude around Old Trafford is – much like the manager’s approach to games – incredibly negative. They could be in real trouble this year if Mourinho continues his one man campaign to get sacked or die trying.

Spurs are also a massive concern in terms of not adding to a team whose first eleven can match anyone but have always struggled for depth. Harry Kane looked to have rushed his return to fitness at the back end of last year while chasing Salah for the golden boot and it showed with his performances in the latter stages of the world cup. They’re going to have to be really lucky with injuries if they are to maintain another season in the top for. Arsenal meanwhile have a huge weight lifted off their shoulders in the form of Arsene Wenger not being an issue anymore. It feels weird to contemplate him not being on the touchline but a breath of fresh air has been needed for sometime. They’ve bought well this summer and if they get going early could really surprise a few people.

Chelsea are the team I’m most uncertain about, moreso because their record in recent years swings from being terrible to amazing and I’d rather they aren’t brilliant again this year. Sarri comes in with a good reputation and they’ve made some good additions to the squad but I wonder if the sheer amount of work needed to do in terms of transferring over his playing style might be just a season too soon in terms of them challenging for major honours again.

Where will you finish?

First. I’ve never felt quite so optimistic and genuinely excited at going into a season and with all the additions we’ve made (although I would have liked another attacking player) it’s very clear that we’re going into the campaign more equipped than certainly I can ever remember. Trying to bridge the gap between ourselves and Manchester City this season is going to be an incredible challenge but one I think we’ve been preparing for quite some time. The squad seems happier than it has in some time and the connection with the fans is as good as it can be. Last year we were within touching distance of glory, this year hopefully we get both hands on not just a trophy but the trophy.

The Football Lab’s Verdict

Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane inspired Liverpool to the Champions League final last season, but they needed extra touches of quality from deeper areas on rare occasions when the trio weren’t at their defence-dazzling best; the tenacious Fabinho, the dynamic Naby Keita and the classic Xherdan Shaqiri fit the bill. In Alisson Becker, the Reds now have a world-class goalkeeper and with super-motivator Jurgen Klopp in charge, this could be the year they pick up their first title for 29 years. 1st