26th May 2018
Liverpool’s players take to the platform in the middle of the Olympic Stadium in Kyiv, each walking in line collecting their runners-up medals and wondering what might have been. Having been on the cusp of greatness, the cusp of history, the Champions League trophy looms in the background as a not so subtle reminder to the previous 90 minutes.
Out of all these men, 51-year-old Jurgen Klopp is the only one that truly knows how this feels and unfortunately for him; he knows this feeling all too well. Five years prior, at the helm of Borussia Dortmund, Klopp watched his side dominate the first half hour of the match, only to slowly unravel as each minute ticked over – eventually being put to the sword by Arjen Robben in the final moments of normal time.
An opportunity missed, as Dortmund have failed to reach these same heights since, especially following the departure of Klopp. Then again, the German has carried a similar burden with him – for all the heralding and praise he’s been given by Liverpool fans and the media alike since arriving in October 2015; there are no trophies, only subjective success.
Three finals during his time at the club have shown true progression, paired with exciting, full-blooded football, it’s certainly been an entertaining time to be a Liverpool fan but ultimately football is a business, driven by physical success. Hence I pose the question, going into this season, the Premier League title is in sight and Jurgen Klopp might well be asking himself; is it Now or Never?
With that introduction out of the way, this isn’t a Klopp hit-piece so you can lower those pitchforks momentarily. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone that believes that Klopp isn’t the right man for the job; the progress is there to see. Look at the league finishes (back-to-back Top Four finishes for the first time in nine years), the individual players’ improvement and the recruitment – the answers are right in front of you.
Game Changing Recruitment
First let’s start with the recruitment, which has been the highlight of the summer and laid down a marker for the rest of the teams in the league. Backed by FSG and a transfer kitty built by smart outgoings, Klopp had the funds at his disposal to go out and buy some of the best available players on the market. Bolstering the midfield with Fabinho very early doors, it was a signing that nobody really saw coming, with the Brazilian being followed by Manchester United, Atletico Madrid and PSG for an extended period of time.
Joined by Naby Keita, who was signed last summer but is finally arriving on Merseyside this season – Liverpool arguably have the best midfield in the league on paper. The addition of Xherdan Shaqiri presented real value (that bicycle kick alone looked like £13m) and gave Liverpool attacking depth that will be much needed should they attempt to compete on all fronts.
The real problem area was the goalkeeper, Loris Karius cost Liverpool Europe’s greatest prize and while we stood by him at the time – it was evident to everyone that he needed replacing by a top class keeper. Klopp quite clearly agreed, smashing the goalkeeping transfer record previously held by Gianluigi Buffon to bring in Alisson Becker of Roma. The Brazilian was the standout keeper in Serie A last season, able to sweep from the back and make game-winning saves, £67m is expensive, but it could be the difference with Liverpool chasing a first league title in 28 years.
Last Season – Lessons Learnt and Defensive Progression
Plenty is the short answer. It’s easy to focus in on the end of the season, with that final engraved into our memories for the rest of time but there were other lessons learnt throughout the season when it comes to first-team selection. Andy Robertson replaced Alberto Moreno as the starting left-back after the Spaniard succumbed to injury, Trent Alexander-Arnold announced himself as one of the most promising youngsters in world football, Milner staked his claim in midfield and Emre Can’s performances began to dwindle as a move away took his eye off the ball.
Mohamed Salah shone brighter than any other player on the planet, making his second transition to English football with ease – scoring 44 goals and totalling 16 assists in 52 games (across all competitions) the Egyptian was an instant success and represented tremendous value at just £35m. Liverpool were hardly reliant on him either, with Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane also contributing plenty going forward.
Klopp had learnt the importance of rotation throughout the season, not just during the busy winter months and how to be more reserved to get the best out of his defenders, particularly after the arrival of Virgil Van Dijk in January. In the same defensive ballpark as Spurs (36 goals against), Chelsea (38) and the over-achieving Burnley (39), this showed a huge progression from the previous season where the Reds leaked goals.
Looking Ahead – A Strong Start Needed
Liverpool’s opening six fixtures present an opportunity for momentum to be built, starting with West Ham, Crystal Palace, Brighton and Leicester – before Spurs and Southampton round off the six. Last season, Liverpool picked up 11 points out of a possible 18, losing heavily 5-0 to Manchester City and dropping points against Watford and Burnley.
Should Liverpool come flying out of the blocks with at least 15 points, they’ll have the confidence to face Chelsea and Manchester City who follow suit. The Champions League draw is hard to predict, Liverpool could play a European titan in between these opening games which would change everything.
Ultimately this is purely theoretical and it’s almost impossible to predict how the start of the season will play out – the main takeaway is that it’s an exciting time for Liverpool fans everywhere. So strap yourself in for another heart-pounding, exhilarating season of Liverpool football; because this one could make history…