There is a brief moment, after the final final whistle has blown for the season, when everything seems calm. All league games have been played and every team’s position has been decided once and for all. Personally a feel a sense of relief, knowing there’s no football to stress me out for at least a couple of months. The feeling doesn’t last long, though. Soon I’m itching to head back to Anfield, to soak up the atmosphere and cheer on the Reds. Suddenly August seems like an absolute age away and I have no idea how I’m going to fill my summer. In recent years us Liverpool supporters have enjoyed the turmoil of wondering who will be managing us the following season and that, at least, takes up a bit of time.
Is it the new season, yet?? 😮#withdrawalsymptoms
— ^_^ (@drjimmy12) May 22, 2017
This year we’re in what feels like a new and interesting situation. The manager’s position is more than secure, there are no serious rumours about our best player leaving us and the campaign has been a relative success, so we don’t even need to pontificate about where it all went wrong. Naturally, with no competitive football to entertain us, most fans turn their thoughts to transfers and how the team can be improved. Which positions are fine? Which ones need strengthening? Does everyone tend to agree, or is there some debate over the answers to those questions? There’s no doubt that this will be an ongoing conversation as the summer progresses, but to begin with I’ve decided to split this into two articles. I’ve started by looking at the backline…
I’ve long been a critic of Simon Mignolet, but even I have to admit that he’s improved beyond all measure over the last couple of months. As more than a few people have pointed out, had we signed him at the start of the season then we wouldn’t be even slightly concerned about looking for a new goalkeeper this summer. The problem, of course, is that we didn’t sign him this summer. Rather we signed him ahead of the 2013-2014 season and our goals against column ever since then has read 50, 48, 50, 42. This season has seen a verifiable improvement, yet we’ve still conceded more than 42 goals just twice in fourteen years before we signed him.
Few supporters would say that Liverpool’s defence is solid. Every time an opposition side has a corner, set-piece or long throw we seem to go into panic mode. Teams don’t have to work hard to score against us and 42 goals stretched out over a 38 game season essentially means that we start every game at least a goal down. Obviously it doesn’t actually work like that, but that’s the mean. At Borussia Dortmund Jürgen Klopp won the Bundesliga twice and both times he did so on the back of a solid defence, conceding 22 and then 25 goals. If we are to have serious pretensions at winning the Premier League then we need to tighten up considerably at the back.
Now I’m not laying all of that at the door of the goalkeeper. After all, he’s been playing behind the likes of Martin Skrtel, Glen Johnson and Dejan Lovren during his Liverpool career. The problem is that we need a defensive leader. Some teams get that from their goalkeeper, with the likes of Peter Schmeichel and Petr Cech being decidedly vocal when they were winning everything there was to win with Manchester United and Chelsea. Other teams get that leadership from a strong defender, the best example from close to home being Jamie Carragher for us. Wherever it comes from, we need it.
There are still plenty of Liverpool supporters, myself included, that would like us to sign a new goalkeeper this summer. Simon Mignolet’s improvement has been excellent, but would any of us be surprised if he feel apart again next season? He’s done it in the previous four, so history isn’t on his side. If that were to happen, where do we go next? There’s an argument that sometimes players just get used to losing or, in this case, conceding goals. Moving him on might be best if we can find a suitable replacement. That replacement would need to be strong, reliable and, most importantly, a very good communicator.
There are strong rumours that Liverpool are hoping to sign Virgil van Dijk from Southampton this summer and that the owners are willing to spend the money to do it. Would he solve all of our defensive problems? He’s missed most of this season through injury, so can we be sure that he’d actually be fit enough to play 38 league games? I just don’t know, but the last thing we need is another defender who isn’t fit enough to start regularly. Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren each missed big chunks of the last campaign and we suffered terribly as a result. Chopping and changing the defence is a surefire way to lead to uncertainty and confusion in the one area where you need clarity and strong leadership.
— Kieran Kater (@kierannkater98) May 25, 2017
I’ve mentioned before that I believe this Liverpool defence would benefit immensely if everyone’s position was shifted. Dejan Lovren should not be our first-choice centre-back. He should be a third-choice central defender who comes in for cup games, games against weaker opposition in the league if we’ve played in the Champions League during the week or if one of our other defenders gets injured. Shifting him down also shifts down Ragnar Klavan, should the Estonian end up staying past this summer. Klavan as a fourth-choice defender is not a bad option at all; the problem is that he started far too many games last season and was soon found out.
Matip looks to be a solid addition to the team, but I’m not sure that he’s really that much of a leader. There seem to be big issues between him and Lovren at times, with neither player willing to take the lead on being in charge of the defensive line. Has that been van Dijk’s job at Southampton? If we’re not going to upgrade the goalkeeper – and none of the rumours are suggesting that we will be – then a vocal defensive leader is a crucial addition to the centre of our backline. Barring a complete collapse in the Champions League qualifiers, there will be plenty of top-level football to be played next season. On that basis, a player shouldn’t be worried that he won’t get much game time. We need to use that as the biggest sell we’ve got to bring in the best players we can.
Perhaps the most tricky position to decide upon in this Liverpool team is that of fullback. Nathaniel Clyne can justifiably feel as though he’s had a good season, having played more games than any other outfield player and yet also having not been booked. The issue is that he offers us virtually nothing going forward, to such an extent that opposition sides seem to genuinely be willing to just let him have the ball. Now on the one hand a defender’s job is to defend, but on the other the system that Jürgen Klopp adopts is such that the fullbacks get a lot of time and space on the ball. If a player doesn’t know what to do with that time and space, are they much use?The development of Trent Alexander-Arnold over the course of the season saw some supporters calling for him to start over Clyne. I can see where they’re coming from and I definitely think that he will be a right-back for us in the future, but I don’t think it’s yet. Look back on the game against Manchester United, when Trent came in because of an injury to Clyne. He did really well up against Anthony Martial but he had to be guided through pretty much every moment of the game and offered strong protection from his midfield. We can’t do that every week, especially considering the midfield’s main job next season will be to support the attack as much as possible.
So what does Klopp do? Sign a new right-back to replace a perfectly decent one? Or would that be something of a waste of what I imagine are at least slightly limited funds? Bringing a new first-choice right-back in would also limit Alexander-Arnold’s opportunities in that position in the future and that’s something the manager has said in the past that he’s loathe to do. It’s one thing ‘limiting’ the opportunities of a generic youth player, but it’s another to cut off the path of a player who could easily turn into a world-beater and is also a local lad to boot. On top of all of that, there’s no obvious improvement to Clyne that guarantees you defensive solidity as well as attacking prowess.
If Clyne is a conundrum on one side of the defence then it’s as nothing when compared to James Milner over on the other side. The former Manchester City man is a midfielder by choice and has made clear numerous times that he’s been playing left-back because he’s been asked to, even though he doesn’t enjoy it. At the start of the last campaign, when Jürgen Klopp moved him to left-back and we all thought it would be nothing more than a stopgap solution, he surprised us all. For a while he looked like the best left-back in the league and it seemed like our problems with that position had been solved.
As the season wore on, however, Milner looked something of a liability. Opposition teams realised that if they crowded him out and put him onto his left foot then he was limited in what he could do. The problem that Klopp had was that the alternative was Alberto Moreno, a semi-decent footballer who could have been excellent if only he had half a brain. Instead he proved himself to be, frankly, a moron who had no sense of positioning and was often more of a hindrance to the defence than a help. I also think that the manager wanted to try to get Milner into the team because of his experience and intelligence, but didn’t trust him to be able to operate in our quick-moving midfield; it was left-back or nowhere for ‘Milly’.
The rumours are that we are likely to sign Ryan Sessegnon from Fulham and in one sense that seems like a bit of a silly idea. After all, he’s still only a teenager and it would likely mean that we’ll all have to watch Milner for another year. Yet the youngster has started 25 league games for Fulham in a Championship that is full of big, beefy blokes who like to kick you about. He’s been remarkably impressive and looks as though he could go the same was as Gareth Bale. Getting him in now and using him regularly could be just what we need. The fact that Milner’s rumoured to be on a lot of money and teams are unlikely to be keen to pay that for a 31-year-old means he’s probably not going anywhere. Sessegnon and Trent could be the future of our defence, but that might mean we need to stick with the present for a little bit longer.
Next time I’ll look at our midfield and attacking options and where we need to upgrade them.