International Break: Squad Assessment Part I

Last week I wrote about what Jürgen Klopp might be doing during the international break, pondering whether or not he’d be planning how to get his front three firing again or coming up with ways to better use his squad moving forward in order to avoid exhaustion. Over the weekend we received reports that Mohamed Salah was returning from his time with Egypt because of an injury picked up during one of the matches, with Virgil van Dijk also returning early from Holland due to a recurrence of the rib strain he suffered a couple of weeks ago. With James Milner already out for a month or so thanks to a hamstring issue that flared during out match against Manchester City, it certainly seems as though that squad is going to be turned to sooner rather than later. The games come thick and fast after the Premier League resumes hostilities at the weekend, so this isn’t the time for the manager to be unsure of the players that he can trust to take on his instructions and carry out his tactical plans.

The natural question to ask, therefore, is ‘what does Liverpool’s squad look like?’ We all know that the first eleven is a very decent looking outfit, but how does each section of the team look when you break it down? Is there one part of the side that is better stocked than another, or is the balance now better than it’s been for a long time? If we suffered a long-term injury in different positions would we be able to absorb it relatively painlessly, or would we be left rocking and reeling in a similar manner to when Mo Salah went off in the Champions League final and we had no way to threaten Real Madrid? Obviously all of what follows is simply my personal opinion and I’m not the sort of supporter who thinks my word is gospel. You might well disagree with my take on things and that’s entirely fair; you might consider putting your opposing thoughts in the comments section or dropping me a line on Twitter. Not everyone has to agree with each other all of the time, but as long as we can be polite and civil then it’s worth sharing our opinions every now and then. Here I’ve written about the goalkeepers and defence, with the attack and midfield coming later in the week.

The Goalkeepers

I really dislike it when people talk about ‘the defence’ as simply the players in the defence. The goalkeeper is a crucial part of any defensive setup and managers will often change the way that their defence works precisely because of how the goalkeeper plays football. Whilst many will never forgive Loris Karius for what happened in the Champions League final, there’s no denying that the defensive line was able to play much higher up the pitch when he was in goal because of his desire to act as a sweeper-keeper. The same is true of Alisson Becker, with the Brazilian shot-stopper also far more accomplished than his German counterpart and therefore much more trusted than him. The problem we’ve currently got is that the substitute goalkeeper is someone that not only doesn’t play in a similar style to Alisson but that seemingly everyone, from supporters through to his defensive teammates, have had enough of. It’s not that Simon Mignolet is a bad goalkeeper, it’s just that he’s not a great one and the entire defensive setup needs to change to accommodate him.

The goalkeeping position is, therefore, one of strength when it comes to the first-choice but one that needs improving when you look at the bench. Personally, given that we know exactly what to expect from Simon Mignolet after his five years or so at the club, I’d prefer it if the manager turned to one of his youth goalkeepers when the FA Cup gets underway in January. I think Jürgen Klopp needs to know whether or not he should be buying a new goalkeeper in the next transfer window, so there’s no point in continuing to play the Belgian when we’ll learn nothing from it and he wants to leave in search of first-team football anyway. Might Kamil Grabara or Caoimhin Kelleher have what it takes to put themselves to the top of the list and save us spending any money on a second-choice goalkeeper? It’s surely going to be worthwhile to find out one way or another. As I say, I don’t think that Mignolet is a bad goalkeeper but I do think that his style of play means that we’ll either have to ask the defence to change the way it plays when he’s in net or else ask him to play in a style that isn’t natural to him, neither of which seem like sensible options.

The Centre-Backs

As the summer transfer window came towards its conclusion I wrote about how I thought that the manager was missing a trick in not buying a more reliable centre-back. At the time Joe Gomez was entirely untested in the position and had been caught out a worrying number of times when playing as a full-back, whilst both of Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip had shown themselves to be unreliable when it came to fitness. A couple of pre-season performances from Nathaniel Phillips in which he looked half-decent meant that some supporters were saying he could step up if either of them were out injured, but that never struck me as a particularly sensible solution. I’ve been as delighted as everyone else to see just how wrong I was about Joe Gomez in the central defensive role, with the former Charlton man looking even more assured than Virgil van Dijk at times so far this season. He looks like the real deal and it’s thrilling to consider how much he might develop over the coming years. The partnership that he’s achieved so quickly with the Dutchman means that our defence, previously an area of ridicule, is now one of the strongest aspects of the team.

I’m writing this before England’s match against Spain, however, so it’s possible that his name could yet be added to the list of those that have picked up tweaks during the international break. Regardless, the twenty-one-year-old has played so well that Dejan Lovren, a World Cup finalist, will have to work hard to find himself back in the first-team any time soon. He did just that against Manchester City, of course, and whilst both he and Gomez played well, you could see what we lost in an attacking sense by not having Trent Alexander-Arnold in the right-back slot. I also still think that I’m right in terms of Matip and Lovren not being reliable enough in terms of their fitness. The Croatian in particular is prone to disappear for lengths of time because of some random tweak or cold or something, so I would be worried about how much I could rely on him if I was the manager. As for Matip, he’s not only not the most reliable of players in terms of fitness but he’s also just not that good a player… If Gomez and van Dijk both picked up injuries, which isn’t out of the realms of the possible, and we needed to turn to a Lovren-Matip partnership then I would be hoping we don’t play any of our rivals during their time together.

The Full-Backs

If centre-back is an area of the pitch where we’ve got talent in the first-team but a drop-off in terms of those that might come in to replace them then that’s as nothing compared to our full-backs. I think that Andy Robertson has quietly had a bit of a poor start to the season, putting in a couple of four or five out of ten performances rather than his usual bear minimum of a seven. That said, he’s still far better than Alberto Moreno both in terms of his overall quality and also the style of football that he offers us. The Spaniard is another one with a very specific set of skills that can simultaneously suit one team but not another. I can well understand, for example, why Barcelona are being linked with him. That doesn’t mean, however, that I think we should be keeping hold of him, given that his rash style of tackling looks like it might give away a penalty or dangerous free-kick at any moment, whilst his lack of positional awareness and dependence on his own pace mean that other teams have all sorts of joy down our left when he’s in the starting lineup. Rumours that Moreno will leave in the summer and be replaced in the squad by the Academy graduate Adam Lewis should therefore be greeted with joy by pretty much everyone.

Would an Academy graduate be good enough to come in if Robertson was out injured for a prolonged period of time? In the past my opinion on that would have been ‘no’ and I’d have wanted the manager to head out and spend some money on a replacement, but then I’ve been fortunate enough to watch Trent Alexander-Arnold come in to replace Nathaniel Clyne and keep the England man out of the team, so my opinion on such things has shifted. I think that the manager’s decision to rest Alexander-Arnold for the City game was the correct one, though I didn’t enjoy shifting Joe Gomez into the right-back slot to accommodate him and hope that’s not something that we see very often moving forward. The problem is that Clyne offers us very little going forward from the right-back slot and looks every inch a talented but limited defender when he comes into the side instead of Trent. As a result, I would like to see us go shopping for a right-back who can offer as much going forward as the twenty-year-old and save us from using Fabinho as a right-back whilst the manager is trying to get him to understand what he wants from him as a midfielder.

Later in the week, the midfield and attack

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