We Liverpool fans are an optimistic lot. It is difficult to find a more optimistic creature in the world than a Liverpool fan during the pre-season. As soon as a few transfers have been signed and a few pre-season friendlies won, most Reds fans start wondering, some more publicly than others, “Is this finally going to be our season?”.
The levels of optimism may swing a bit – waning in the summer of 2010 when Roy Hodgson had been appointed manager, and shooting up incredibly since the appointment of Jurgen Klopp.
This pre-season is no different. The Reds have not been defeated in regulation time in eight friendlies this summer. The only defeat came as a result of a penalty shootout against Athletico Madrid in Munich in the second of two matches played on two consecutive days. In other matches, Liverpool have beaten teams such as Bayern Munich, Leicester City and Athletic Bilbao. Existing stars of the team, new signings and promising youngsters have shone alike in these friendlies leaving the fans highly expectant, despite a few dark clouds gathering on the horizon (more about them later).
It is difficult to find fault with the fans for this. In Klopp’s first press conference 22 months ago, he had mentioned that he would like to target some silverware (or was it the title?) in his first four seasons at Anfield. 2017-18 is his second full season. It can be argued that he has sorted a couple of areas that needed addressing during the last season. Last summer he had added one super quick winger to his team, this summer he has added another. He has even bought a specialist left-back. So, Liverpool fans are justified in raising their expectations above the fourth position finish that their team achieved last season.
However, Klopp is yet to address one or two deficient areas from the last season and he is likely to lose one of his top players to Barcelona. Despite these adversities, perhaps due to the team’s performances in the pre-season, the excitement and expectations of the Anfield faithful are palpable.
When Liverpool made their first signing early in the summer – that of Dominic Solanke on a free transfer (almost) from Chelsea, I had termed it as “underwhelming”. But the youngster seems to have decided to prove me wrong. He went on to win the Under-20 World Cup with England, scoring seven goals and then showed great scoring form in the friendlies for Liverpool. The kind of goal scoring form he has shown makes me, and perhaps a lot of others, rethink our opinion of him. Unless Sturridge returns from his latest injury in quick time, Solanke has shown enough promise to be in contention for a starting spot ahead of the misfiring Divock Origi.
My call on Liverpool’s second signing of the summer – Mohammed Salah was more upbeat and he has lived up to mine and other Reds supporters’ expectations. He has already shown signs that he is gelling well with Liverpool’s marauding forwards from last season. While he has pushed Sadio Mane to the left wing, he has ensured that the quality on the right side has not dipped in the friendlies at least. He also has a point to prove after an unsuccessful stint in the Premier League under Mourinho at Chelsea.
While Andrew Robertson from Hull might not seem to be the high-caliber left-back purchase that the Liverpool fans were waiting for, he certainly seems capable enough to take the mantle of left-back from Milner and release him for other duties elsewhere. Robertson has also shown in the friendlies that he can contribute very well both in defence, as well as in attack.
Pre-season friendlies are not supposed to mean much, but they are all that we have to calibrate our expectations from the new signings. All three of Liverpool’s signings have impressed during friendlies this pre-season.
How Are They Expected to Line Up?
Jurgen Klopp loves to play a 4-3-3 and nothing thus far this summer suggests that he is going to change that this season. Klopp can be expected to start with Simon Mignolet in the goal due to the great form in which he ended the last season. But both Lorius Karius and Danny Ward featured in the friendlies and will be very helpful in rotation
Central defence is one of the areas that Klopp is yet to address, but it is possible that the Virgil van Dijk transfer saga ends in Liverpool’s favour. Even without the Dutchman, Klopp has a good centre-back option in the form of a now fit Joe Gomez. But VVD is worth the chase considering that Dejan Lovren’s troubles do not seem to be ending any time soon and Mamadou Sakho is still out of favour. Full-back positions are well stocked at least on paper with Flanagan back in contention and Robertson’s signing. But Nathaniel Clyne might not be able to get fit in time for the start of the season, which means an opportunity for Alexander-Arnold Trent or Flanagan will open up. If Alberto Moreno is not sold, and going by Klopp’s quotes he won’t be, then the left-back position is secured between him, Robertson, and Milner.
In the midfield, Klopp has several options on paper but two of those options seem bleak at the time of writing this. Adam Lallana has been sidelined for a “significant amount of time” and Coutinho is being wooed by Barcelona. While a midfield of Milner, Emre Can, Gini Wijnaldum, and Henderson does not seem bad, Liverpool need replenishment in this area. Hence the chase for Naby Keita, although his quality would mean that one of the incumbent three would become a rotation option.
On the wings, Salah and Mane will provide the pace but here as well Liverpool need a bit of replenishment, unless the plan is to use Ryan Kent and Ben Woodburn as the rotation options for domestic cups at least. Of course, a fit Sturridge and Roberto Firmino can also be deployed on the wings. To lead the line, Klopp has a number of options including Sturridge, Firmino, Origi and Solanke.
How Do They Start the Season?
Liverpool have been handed a much kinder start to this season than their start last season. This season they start with Watford (A), Crystal Palace (H), Arsenal (H), Manchester City (A), and Burnley (H). Last season, their first five games included Arsenal, Spurs, Leicester, and Chelsea. It is an easier start on paper but Klopp can be happy if the Reds get 10 points in the first five matches, which they did last season. This would especially be a great start as the Reds also need to negotiate a tough play-off against Hoffenheim, along with this seemingly easy start to the League.
An easier start also means that the tougher fixtures could be bundled up together in winter or during the run-in, both of which seem daunting prospects.
So, as a Liverpool fan, what would I consider to be a successful season for Liverpool? Wearing my objective analyst hat, I would say, at least some silverware on the domestic front, along with at least a top-four finish can be considered acceptable. On the European front, Klopp’s team have to overcome Hoffenheim first, post which, may be a run up to the last sixteen or last eight would seem acceptable.
But putting on my fan hat for once, I don’t think anything less than the league title and a good European run would count. Getting back up on the perch is the only way this can count as “Liverpool’s year”.