Article by Paul Hemming – Follow @pdjhem
This really could be Liverpool’s year. This is not something that should be said lightly. It’s become a punchline. Said all too often about Liverpool sides that just aren’t up to it. But this year’s different. The Reds are set-up to compete on all fronts against all comers. Let’s look at why.
Loris Karius was going to be a big problem this season. Everywhere he went there’d be scrutiny. Every successful catch the subject of mock cheering from opposition fans (and frankly some of his own). Klopp gave him many extra chances but after his recent performance against Tranmere, it seems enough was enough. The much-maligned FSG splashed out to shatter the fee paid for Ederson just last summer.
Even if Alisson cannot justify the hype, simply being solid would be a massive upgrade. Dejan Lovren for example is much better when the players around him are playing well. The Croat certainly doesn’t need to be worrying about his ‘keeper’s next error.
Alisson will certainly pass the ball more successfully than his predecessors. The Brazilian possesses excellent reflexes and distribution. His performance in Ukraine against Shakhtar was sensational and a big part of why Roma were able to squeak through. Big tick.
Virgil Van Dijk receives an awful lot of the credit for Liverpool’s defensive improvements. And he should. Inspiring composure and leadership, the Dutchman made a big difference.
However, as shown above, the backline was already sturdier than we might realise. Of the 38 goals conceded in total, the Reds conceded a massive sixteen in the opening nine games. Largely a result of getting walloped by Tottenham and Manchester City.
Thereafter they allowed a stingy 22 in the remaining 29 matches. The best record in the league.
With eight months and a full pre-season to fine-tune the back four, we can likely look forward to further improvements. Not to mention a bolstering of options with the return of Clyne and the continued development of Trent Alexander-Arnold. (And maybe Rafa Camacho?)
This is where the board, Michael Edwards, Klopp, the mascot and whoever else deserve immense credit. Liverpool’s midfield last year was simply put, not good enough. There was nowhere near enough creativity and in particular too few players comfortable receiving the ball in tight spaces. Not to mention those who passed backwards and sideways over the Irish sea.
Naby Keita would try to nutmeg an angry alligator in an elevator. The former Leipzig man is blessed. He has everything. Forget good, think world-class. Think top-ten player. Given a couple more seasons seasoning.
While Fabinho, nowhere near as flashy as his counterpart, is an incredibly smart player. You’ll rarely find him out of position. He uses the ball well without reducing himself to regurgitating it five-yards sideways. Mesh all this with incredible athleticism and you’ve got a hell of a player.
Again we can add to this the additional benefit of returnees from injury. Lallana among them. Not always the best final-third decision maker, he does move intelligently in a way few of his midfield compatriots do (see his link-up play with Mane and Salah on Saturday for example).
Weld all of this with Jordan Henderson’s continued strides under Klopp, the exciting Curtis Jones and the ultra-reliable James Milner, and once again you have to put a big tick next to the box marked ‘midfield’.
Not too much that people don’t already know here. Liverpool can claim the best front-three in the country. Maybe in football. All are match-winners in their own right. All are unselfish. All are versatile. While the combination of Mohammed Salah and Roberto Firmino is one of the most seamless in football. They’re made for each other.
Xherdan Shaqiri’s been added. Which is a risk but probably one worth taking given the fee. The Swiss is certainly superior to Ings and Solanke. Probably Sturridge too at this stage and certainly less injury-prone. None of which is saying too much, you might argue. Point being it’s an improvement over last season.
However, and this is a big however, last season’s starting front-three were remarkably healthy. It’s hard to remember a point in the season where any one was out for even a few weeks. And when Sadio Mane was struggling prior to Christmas, Liverpool could call on Coutinho to fill in. Whether Shaqiri is up to that sort of level and responsibility is debatable.
Therefore if the Reds are to seriously compete for trophies on all fronts this term, they need a fourth. Nabil Fekir would be perfect. Able to supplement the midfield or give respite to a forward. And this is where the last piece of investment needs to be placed to really push over the edge.