This summer has seen Liverpool’s rivals go crazy in the transfer market, with Manchester City building a really exciting and pacy team for Pep Guardiola to work with, Chelsea spending huge sums on hard-working players that will tick Antonio Conte’s boxes and United doing what José Mourinho always does and trying to buy the title.
Liverpool haven’t been quiet, as such, but once again the Red half of Merseyside have shunned the opportunity to splash the cash in a major way and instead opted to strengthen the areas that need it in a targeted manner. Whether it’s the right approach remains to be seen, but there can be little question that Jürgen Klopp is getting what he wants this summer. Given that the singings definitely seem to be his ideas and that he’s recently signed a new long-term contract, it seems extremely unlikely that he’d have tied himself to the club if he felt the owners weren’t giving him what he wants.
It looks as if, barring a new left-back, Liverpool’s business is as good as done for this window. There will be some more outgoings, but we pretty much know who they will be so we don’t need to concern ourselves with talking about them. Klopp favours a team dynamic over a group of talented individuals, so with less than two weeks to the start of the new season now seems like a good time to have a look at the team that Jürgen’s built.
I’ll start by having a look at the defensive unit, including the goalkeepers, defenders and some of the more defensively minded midfielders. This time next week, as we gear up to the start of Liverpool’s title-winning campaign, I’ll round things off by looking at the attacking options.
Mignolet & Karius
’What about Alex Manninger?’, some of you may be shouting. What about him? He’s a third-choice stopper who has primarily been brought in to help out/hopefully replace John Achterberg. I’m mostly interested in the players that will be starting matches for the Reds and I’m not sure Manninger fits into that bracket. Thankfully…
The signing of Loris Karius from Mainz allowed more than a few Liverpool fans, myself included, to breathe a sigh of relief. Simon Mignolet might be a really nice bloke, but he’s not a very good goalkeeper. Aside from being drop-dead gorgeous, Karius was also considered to be the second-best number one in the Bundesliga last season. He was behind only Manuel Neuer, which is not bad going at all.
In our pre-season games so far his positioning has been so high up the pitch that the defence has almost been on the halfway line. He seems to radiate cool and calm, meaning that the defence has in turn been able to relax a little bit, safe in the knowledge that if they mess up he will be able to help them out. Comparing that to Mignolet is like looking at night and day. He doesn’t push up, can’t pass the ball and seems to cause mass confusion in the ranks of his defence.
All of the tension that I felt dissipate at the signing of Karius returned last week, therefore, when news emerged that he’d broken a finger and would be out for eight to ten weeks. I fully expect him to be our number one when he’s recovered from his injury, however, and as much as I dislike Migs I must admit he’s not a bad number two in case things like this happen. Long-term I’d like Mignolet to move on and Danny Ward to come in as Karius’ number two, but for now we’re strong in the goalkeeping department.
Clyne, Moreno & Milner?
The weakest part of the Liverpool team right now is definitely the full-backs. Nathaniel Clyne is the epitome of a Rolls Royce of a footballer, rarely injured and always performing at a decent level. Yes I’d like him to offer more in attack, but ultimately his primary job is to defend and he’s Mr. Reliable in that department.
On the other flank we go from Mr. Reliable to Mr. Robin Reliant. Alberto Moreno obviously offers something that gets Klopp excited as the German seemingly has no intention of replacing him this summer. As much as he can often be a brainless wonder, he does have youth on his side and I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on that front. Hopefully Klopp can help him develop into a top-class defender in the coming months.
The real weakness at the back comes in the form of cover for the two of them. With Jon Flanagan almost certain to head out to Burnley on loan it appears as though James Milner will be asked to cover both positions, which is weird. Connor Randall and Trent Alexander-Arnold have both been used during pre-season and it’s possible that Klopp likes what he’s seen, but heading into the season with no specialist, experienced cover of the full-back slots doesn’t fill me with confidence. At least one more signing here, please.
Sakho, Matip, Lovren & Klavan
Presuming that all four of them are still on Merseyside at the end of August, Liverpool’s central defence has good strength in depth. It’s certainly not a given, though, especially when you consider the recent episode involving Mamadou Sakho being sent home from America for being a bit of a div.
Dejan Lovren’s renaissance as a Liverpool player has been incredible, although it’s less impressive when you realise just how much of a difference to everyone else’s game having Martin Skrtel on the pitch made. Hopefully the Croatian international continues to be the impressive centre-back he became once Klopp took over from Rodgers and maintains the high-level of performance that we saw from him during the second-half of last season. Oh, and no more ridiculous shots from miles out like you tried against Dortmund, hey Dejan?
Joel Matip was declared by Bild to be the third-best centre-back in the Bundesliga last season. Not easy considering the typically organised nature of German football. Some seem to have been thrown by the fact that we signed him on a free transfer, but for my money he’s going to be an excellent addition to the squad. A lot of the defence is about relationships, so it will be interesting to see who Klopp starts with against Arsenal. If Matip and Lovren click, though, things could be very interesting indeed.
Another brilliant squad player is Ragnar Klavan. Klopp himself was surprised by the suggestion from some that Klavan will only get into the Liverpool side if others are injured. “Wait until you see him play”, the German said. Well the Estonian has played a couple of pre-season games in the absence of Matip and Sakho and he’s looked mightily impressive indeed. A no-nonsense defender who wants to do everything to keep a clean sheet first and foremost, he could be our Wes Morgan or Robert Huth. The sort of player we’ve needed for some time.
Finally there’s Sakho. When he’s on-form he’s an excellent defender. His passing range is incredible and he’s not given enough credit for his defensive ability. The problem is when he’s out of form he’s erratic, to say the least. There is definitely a situation where I can see Sakho being moved on, especially if his head’s still not in the right place after his ban and his missing out on the Europa League and European Championship finals. Klavern’s performances in pre-season lead me to believe that, right now, Sakho is our fourth-choice defender.
An honourable mention should perhaps go to Joe Gomez here, too. The youngster looked impressive when playing at left-back before his injury last season. He’s a central defender at heart, however, and it’s easy enough to imagine Klopp giving him a runout there if he returns from his latest fitness set-back in good form. This seems even more likely if Sakho does depart Merseyside either before this window shuts or in January.
The Defensively Minded Midfielders
Leiva, Stewart, Henderson, Can, Grujic & Wijnaldum
The last part of this blog is all about the defensively minded midfield options that Jürgen Klopp has available to him. You’ll note that I haven’t referred to them as defensive midfielders. This is for a number of reasons, not least of which is that only Lucas Leiva and Kevin Stewart really fulfil this role in an out-and-out sense and they’re unlikely to play all that often.
Lucas is, depending on your opinion of his ability, either a great survivor or a footballing cockroach. Time and time again it has appeared as though he’s on his way out of Anfield only for him to still be at the club when the window has slammed shut. He’s now one of our longest serving players and is apparently a great lad to have around the dressing room. I can’t see a place for him in a full-throttle Klopp side, though, so I would be amazed if he’s still here in September. If he is it’s likely because he’ll be used as our fifth-choice defender.
Kevin Stewart isn’t a bad player by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s not good enough to be starting week-in, week-out as our main defensive midfielder. That Klopp hasn’t made any efforts to buy one, however, suggests to me that the manager is only rarely going to use a formation that requires one. Stewart might get regular game-time in the cups, but other than that I think he’ll be the very definition of a squad player.
In the past Klopp has favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation, utilising two midfielders in a pivot in front of the defence. It’s not clear whether or not that will be his plan for next season, especially as we’ve regularly played 4-3-3 so far this pre-season. In an interview with The Anfield Wrap the manager suggested that’s more because of the players he’s had available than anything else, though.
This could be a vital season for Jordan Henderson. The Liverpool captain was hampered by injury last season but looks much freer in his movements so far in pre-season. Many Reds fans seem to forget just how good he was in the 2013-2014 campaign, to the extent that Rodgers said that his dismissal against Man City was when he realised that the title was gone. A fully fit Hendo busting a gut from box to box will be a sight to see.
Likewise Emre Can needs to continue his development during the coming months. He went missing too often at the start of last season, but looked exceptional towards the end of the season. His performance against Villarreal in the Europa League demonstrated extreme maturity as he virtually ran the game from the middle of the park. Him and Henderson in a pivot, taking it in turns to burst forward, will be exciting if they click.
Georginio Wijnaldum has come in for a not-insignificant transfer fee and will be hoping to prove his worth for the club. Where exactly he’ll play will be an interesting question for Klopp to answer. The player himself has said that number 10 is his preferred position, bursting into the box and supporting attacks. But he’s got a great engine and the manager might want him to use it to link the defence and the attack. He scored eleven goals for a terrible Newcastle side last season so I expect him to be on the end of more than a couple of swift counter-attacks this time around.
Last but not least comes new-boy Marko Grujic. Signed from Red Star Belgrade for just over £5 million, many thought that the Serbian would be a good squad player for the future. All of the usual pre-season qualifications are in place, but he’s looked really impressive when he’s started so far. He’s a man-mountain of a player who will add real physicality to the team. He said in an interview recently that he plays in the same position as Matic, so that’s interesting. I imagine he’ll come off the bench a lot for the first few months as he gets to grips with the reality of English football, but I expect him to play a big part in our title-winning campaign.
Our midfield is really strong if you accept that Klopp wants legs, effort and energy more than he wants a dedicated defensive midfielder. Pivots, box-to-box players and pressing is the order of the day.
Next time: A look at the attack…