Let’s be honest, a 1-0 win over Tranmere doesn’t tell us much. Most Merseysiders might have a soft spot for the Wirral-based club, but they’re not even in the Football League any more so they were never really going to put up much of a fight. Aside from the match, though, much has been going on at Liverpool Football Club.
It is now just over eight weeks since the end of the 2015-2016 Premier League season and just under four weeks until the start of the 2016-2017 campaign. It seems like a good time, then, to check in and see how the club’s pre-season preparations are going. How’s the squad looking? What’s going on behind the scenes? Are we ready to mount a challenge on the Premier League title? I’ve had a look.
The Playing Squad
There are many, many things that influence how a football club plays and copes with the demands of a Premier League season, but there’s little question that one of the key components to any degree of success is the squad that will take to the field. With more than a few signings already done and dusted, what state is Jürgen Klopp’s squad in and what other changes can we expect to see in the coming weeks?
As I have discussed in greater detail in my transfer rumour blogs of late, Liverpool have quietly done exactly what we need them to do so far this transfer window. It’s true that the likes of Manchester City and Manchester United have been bringing in big names that sound scary and worrying, but the Reds have decided against the method of big names in favour of fortifying the positions that need to be fortified.
Leicester City burst the bubble of modern football when they won the league title last season. They showed everyone that you can achieve incredible things if you have a team that can work together rather than a side filled with talented individuals. If any set of supporters should be excited by that right now then it’s Liverpool fans. We have a manager who believes in exactly that quality from his team, combined with owners who prefer building a collective to buying in world-class superstars.
At the end of last season it was abundantly clear that we needed a new goalkeeper who could play on the front foot and instil confidence in his defence. Loris Karius was one of the Bundesliga’s hottest prospects and seems to tick exactly those boxes. I’m not happy that John Achterberg’s still at the club, but you feel as though one more dodgy season will be enough for him to be shown the door. Goalkeeper needed, goalkeeper sorted.
It was also evident that the defence needed work. With Martin Skrtel long past his best and Kolo Toure turning 60, Liverpool’s backline needed severe improvement and the arrival of Joel Matip should give us exactly that. If Joe Gomez has recovered from his ACL injury in the manner that seems to be suggested then he’s a young prospect that we can turn to in cup games, too. Add the return from Jon Flanagan from injury to that list and the possible arrival of another left-back and you’ve got reasons to feel happy about things at the back. Defence needed tweaking, defence has been tweaked.
Klopp’s teams of the past have depended on one thing that last season’s Liverpool team simply didn’t have: pace. The arrival of Sadio Mané gives us not only some speed on the flank but also the ability to finish. The return of Lazar Markovic from his loan spell adds to the sense of a quick transition being possible, with his youth meaning he could develop well under Klopp’s tutelage. Danny Ings is no slouch and Daniel Sturridge is getting his speed back with every day that he puts his injury problems behind him. I expect another quick player to be signed before the end of August, too. Speed required, speed attained.
The middle of the park is the one area that still needs work, but I’m not too worried about that. Presuming that Klopp plays with one striker, as he seems to favour, you’re looking at five positions to be filled by any one of Coutinho, Firmino, Henderson, Lallana, Mané, Milner, Can, Markovic and the newly signed Marko Grujic, to say nothing of youngsters like Ojo and Branagan who have started knocking on the door of the first team dressing room recently. I do think we’ll get one more in here, too, and that will be the icing on the proverbial cake, perhaps named Zielinski? Options wanted, options available.
When you look at our attack we haven’t brought anyone in, but the return of Ings from injury, the lack of fitness problems for Sturridge since Klopp managed him perfectly last season and the emergence of Divock Origi as a genuine option up front means we’re hardly lacking up top. Firmino and Mané can also play as the striker if needs be, too, so Klopp has got plenty of choices as far as lads who can score the goals are concerned. I’m not convinced that we’ll bring anyone else in attacking-wise, but I’m also not sure we need it. I think Ings will prove to be the breakout player of the season.
In the wake of the game against Tranmere Jürgen Klopp said the following:
Klopp: “We had 20 players at the game, we had 3 or 4 at home & 14 still on holiday, so that’s 38 & 100% too much. We’ll see (transfers).”
— Viktor Fagerström (@ViktorFagerLFC) July 8, 2016
Obviously you can’t take everything said by a football manager literally, but “100% too much” suggests that the manager wants a nice, tightly-knit squad of 19 or so players. If that’s the case, who is that makes the cut and who is likely to be on their way out of Melwood in the coming weeks?
Presuming about two players for each position I would guess the main squad not including youth players that the German is thinking about looks a little bit like this:
- Goalkeepers – Karius, Mignolet
- Defenders – Clyne, Flanagan, Gomez, Lovren, Matip, Sakho, Moreno
- Midfielders – Lallana, Mané, Firmino, Can, Grujic, Coutinho, Milner, Henderson
- Attackers – Sturridge, Ings, Origi
That’s actually a squad of twenty, and considering I think we’ll also bring in another left back and another midfielder, it might mean that one or two of the names in that list will be making way. Those not in the list, though, are the more interesting ones to think about.
Today it was confirmed that Danny Ward will be heading off to Huddersfield on a season-long loan, having signed a new five-year contract with the Reds. That tells me that Klopp sees him as a long-term number two and would like him to spend a bit of time working with his best mate David Wagner. It allows us time to sell Mignolet whilst the Scot develops his game before coming in to understudy Karius.
Skrtel is as good as gone, as is Adam Bogdan. His appearance against Tranmere had ‘shop window’ written all over it. Andre Wisdom, Tiago Ilori, Brad Smith and Connor Randall will all either be allowed to leave if an offer comes in or thought of as youth prospects for at least one more season.
We know that Ibe could be on his way to Bournemouth if he can agree personal terms, though he seems to be holding out to see if anyone else comes in for him. Either way I’d be amazed if he’s still in the squad next season. Joe Allen is another one who hasn’t quite made the grade at Anfield and will be on his way before the summer is up. Luis Alberto is wanted by teams in Spain and won’t really be missed, with Lucas Leiva one of the more interesting midfield cases. I’m of the opinion that he’ll be used as defensive cover more than a midfield general in the future.
I’m also not totally convinced that all three of Lucas, Milner and Henderson will still be in the squad on August 13th. I think Henderson is the ideal Klopp player when he’s fully fit, but I’m not sure whether his fitness issues will ever completely fix themselves, whilst Milner and Lucas both take the squad’s speed from average to slow when they’re on the pitch. It feels a bit like Klopp has tried to make-do-and-mend with all three of them, rather than been blown away by what they offer.
Christian Benteke and Mario Balotelli were both, in very different ways, experiments that just didn’t pay off for Liverpool. Balotelli was always going to be a gamble, but I don’t think anyone could have guessed just how appalling his attitude would be during his time with the Reds. Benteke seems to have a much better attitude and has actually performed well on the pitch, but again was never really going to fit with our style of play, especially when Klopp took over the reigns.
The Backroom Staff
With the playing squad as good as sorted, the other really important bit of work tends to go on behind the scenes. The signing up of Klopp to a new contract not only gives the club a sense of security and long-term stability, but it also shows that the German is well and truly in charge now. He’ll live by the sword and, as the saying goes, die by it. His assistants have also signed a new six-year deal so on that front we’re all good.
Two other really important signings this summer could also prove to be Andreas Kornmayer, the former Bayern Munich fitness coach, and the German champion’s nutritionist Mona Nemmer. Klopp is famed for wanting his squad to be ultra-fit and was reportedly disgusted with the shape of everyone when he arrived in October last year, so these two should ensure that the entire first team is in tip-top condition for the first game of the season or else not picked to play.
Elsewhere the imminent departure of Ian Ayre from the role of general admin dog’s body is an interesting one. The Harley-riding fan of the club who somehow seems to have made his way up through the ranks of Liverpool’s hierarchy isn’t leaving until May 2017, but it’s difficult to envisage a world in which he isn’t gradually replaced in the coming months in everything but ceremonial status.
Right now, then, things are looking reasonably optimistic. Of course you should never under-estimate the ability of Liverpool Football Club to shoot themselves in the foot before standing on a rake and falling off the edge of a cliff. Whenever some sense of normality seems to be returning, someone somewhere decides to do something a little bit cray-cray. This weekend that came in the form of announcing the sale of the seats from The Main Stand for £200 to season ticket holders and £225 for everyone else.
I’m not against the club making money and I’m a lot less furious about commercial deals and so on than some of the footballing purists, but this idea seems stupid beyond belief. I could go into my reasons why, but Ian Salmon has written an excellent piece for The Anfield Wrap that says it much more coherently than I ever could. Sufficed to say, though, the club have got this one wrong. If only there were a series of excellent fan-led websites or blogs that could give them advice on such issues, or even a Supporter’s Committee that they could talk to…
So there you go. Some supporters might be throwing their toys out the pram about the Reds not signing any ‘big names’, but I’m quietly confident about things heading into the remaining pre-season matches. Will we be ready for Arsenal? Time will tell…