Last week I wrote a post about the different parts of the defence we need to strengthen. If you haven’t read that yet then you may want to give it a look. I followed it up with a piece that reviewed the 2016-2017 season in general, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the campaign as I saw it. Again, that’s worth a read if you’re wondering why I’ve reached the conclusions I’ve reached regarding the areas of our team that I think Klopp needs to address heading into the transfer window. I’ll be writing my first transfer rumours piece on Monday, so that’s stuff that’s worth thinking about.
Now I’m going to have a look at our midfield and attack, pondering the ways in which Klopp might want to strengthen both of those areas moving forward. It’s worth bearing in mind that James Milner is now, in my head at least, a left-back. I’d be amazed if Klopp uses him in the midfield again. As always with these sorts of pieces, all of this is entirely personal. You might read what I have to say about Gini Wijnaldum, Adam Lallana or Emre Can and completely disagree. That’s the way these things work and always have. The main point in all of it is that all any of us want is for Liverpool Football Club to be the most successful it can possibly be.
This is one of the areas that I think Jürgen Klopp needs to do his most work in the summer window. His starting point will likely be a very long and honest conversation with his medical staff regarding his captain. Can Jordan Henderson play a full season next year? The former Sunderland man made thirty-two appearances in all competitions in 2016-2017, just one more than in the 2015-2016 campaign. When you consider that we played 47 times this year and 63 times last time out, that’s a pretty disappointing number of times that the captain of the club has been able to make it onto the pitch.
Unlike some, I’m a big fan of Henderson. I think he offers a huge amount to the team, not least of which is the ability to set the tempo and get the game moving in a way that is vitally important when dealing with teams that like to play the low block. As the season wore on I think Emre Can grew in stature, making himself a vital part of Klopp’s midfield. He plays the role in an entirely different way to Hendo, making himself something of a wrecking ball and loving ‘the fight’. The German can’t dictate the pace as well as his English counterpart, however, instead having to go with the flow more. Games when we have to set the pace ourselves were the ones we missed the captain in the most.
Does the manager think he can rely on his captain enough next season? If not then it’s vitally important we bring in someone who can do that role, with Naby Keita the most common link. Of course, the reality is that our squad depth in that department isn’t good enough, so even if Hendo can be relied upon we still beed to bring someone else in. It’s a really tricky role to play, marshalling the defence at the same time as helping the attack. We know from Klopp’s own statements on the matter that he doesn’t really believe in the need for a defensive midfielder. With Lucas Leiva and Kevin Stewart both rumoured to be departing this summer, someone else to replace Henderson when injured, unfit or fatigued is crucial.
One of the other really interesting things concerning the midfield is the formation Klopp is likely to want to play most often and the players he plans to use in said formation. Philippe Coutinho was devastating when used deeper against both West Ham and Middlesbrough in the last games of the season, so will the manager look to use him there more often? If so, what does that mean for the overall shape of the team? If everyone was fit then a likely starting XI would see Henderson, Lallana, Coutinho and one of Can or Wijnaldum sit in the middle of the park. Add someone like Keita into that mix and you’ve suddenly got strength in depth in there.
Strength in depth was, arguably, not the biggest weakness we had in the middle of the park last season. Remove Henderson from the equation and you can still look to Can, Wijnaldum, Lallana, Leiva and others. However if you remove Henderson, Lallana and Coutinho, as happened at various points throughout the campaign, and there are definitely some issues that spring up. Given that we are almost certainly going to be in the Champions League as well as the FA Cup, League Cup and hopefully a league title challenge, Klopp has to plan for a large number of games and assume that at least one of his midfielders will be missing for a third of them.
A lot of the conversation around this position really revolves around which players you consider to be attacking midfielders. Is Lallana one? Coutinho was before the last two games, but will he be used as one next time out? How about Roberto Firmino? Klopp was predominantly using him as an attacker, but he certainly arrived under the banner of attacking midfielder. Gini Wijnaldum arrived as a number ten but was immediately shifted further back by the manager, so what are we classing him as? There’s also the question of Marko Grujic and where Klopp sees him playing next term. The Serbian international’s Liverpool career has been stifled by injuries, though in truth he was unlikely to start that many games last season even if he’d been fit. Still, where does Klopp see him playing, if at all?
One of Liverpool’s strengths as an attacking unit is the manner in which players are able to interchange and, when the side is at its best, there is a real flow to our attacking work. Even so, there’s an argument that they only truly attacking midfield we have in the side that is being used in such a manner is Sadio Mané. The Senegalese winger has made an incredible impact in his Liverpool career so far; so much so, in fact, that many people blamed our collapse in January on his absence at the African Cup of Nations. One truth of players, especially quick ones, is that they will miss games through injury. Mané’s injury at the end of the season might have been something of a freak accident, but we saw exactly how much our attacking play is stemmed without him during two periods of the campaign.
Of all the various positions on the pitch, then, this is the one that is most desperately in need of back up. We simply cannot go into the next season without more options like Mané in our squad. The extent to which we looked decidedly one-paced when he was missing should really have worried the manager. It was so bad that more than a few people were calling for Alberto Moreno to start matches, in spite of the fact that the left-back is more of a clown than a footballer. We need pace, we need attacking flare and we need it as soon as possible. Klopp knows that, of course, which is why we’ve been linked with the likes of Julian Brandt and Christian Pulisic in the past.
It’s not outrageous to suggest that we’ve been at our best under Klopp when hitting people on the break. From midfielders pressing the opposition into giving up the ball through to our players closing down the other side’s defence, we’ve been brilliant when we’ve turned possession over quickly. If Klopp sees this as a way home against the top sides or mid-table teams away from home then he absolutely needs to ensure there’s enough pace in the final third to do it. Mané is so much more than simply a player who can run quickly, of course. He’s got skill, strength and a will to win that we’ve been missing arguably since the days of Luis Suarez. He’s not as good as the Uruguayan but he’s nearly as influential. Let’s bring in some players to help him out.
Another player who has earned comparisons with our former number 9 is Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian had a tough start to his Liverpool career, probably used in the wrong position under Brendan Rodgers before damaging his back. Sufficed to say he’s more than made up for that since, causing opposition defences nightmares with his constant movement and harassment of them in tight areas. Combine that with the fact that he was reportedly going through some personal issues at times during the campaign – having his house broken into and getting done for drink driving – and you can see how he can become even better as his Anfield career wears on.
Much like Mané, the Brazilian forward isn’t anywhere near as good as Luis Suarez was. Many people forget, though, that Luis Suarez wasn’t Luis Suarez when he first arrived in England. Firmino is an entirely different type of player but I have to say I’m glad he signed for us rather than Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal. The issue that Klopp has got is that the Brazilian is at his best when he’s playing through the middle. We unquestionably lose something from his game when he’s played out wide to accommodate a striker like Divock Origi.
When it comes to the Belgian, I don’t envy Klopp and the decision he’s going to have to make. Towards the end of the 2015-2016 campaign, just before the Everton coward all but ended his season with a disgraceful tackle, Origi looked like he could develop into a world beater. With seven goals and three assists in twenty appearances last season his numbers haven’t been too bad, but we haven’t looked anywhere near as cohesive an attacking unit when he’s been in the team. He added goals, but not much more beside. He was probably best when playing alongside Daniel Sturridge in a two-up-top type scenario, but that’s not a formation I can envisage the manager turning to all that often.
The question then becomes, if Firmino doesn’t play as well when he’s pushed wide to accommodate Origi and Origi doesn’t offer enough to start regularly, should we keep him? The player himself is reportedly happy to return to France if he isn’t going to get many starts with us, so the manager has a tough call to make. I can’t see Klopp being willing to let both Sturridge and Origi go, given that he’ll then have to replace two attacking players at a time when he could do with bringing two more in, never mind letting two leave. The decision, perhaps, comes down to whether or not the German trusts the number of games he’s going to be able to get out of Sturridge.
The signing of Dominic Solanke looks like a good one for the future, but might Klopp be considering using the nineteen-year-old former Chelsea striker as his ‘new’ Origi? A young player who he can develop and fit into the team? He’ll know he can’t get more than twenty or so games out of Sturridge, but he’ll also be aware that Origi has stifled our attacking play. Does he believe that he’ll be able to mould Origi further, or will he think that’s he done as much as he can with the youngster and he’s never quite going to ‘get it’? Time will tell, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Klopp will be considering strengthening this department by at least another body, perhaps two.