Ok, I’ll be honest. Saying Liverpool will win the Premier League in the forthcoming 2016-2017 season might be a headline grabbing title that I’ve decided to employ in the hope of attracting more readers to this page. But it’s only a slight exaggeration of my actual feelings. A less disingenuous title might be ‘Why Liverpool Might Win The League’, or ‘Why Liverpool Can Win The League’, but it all amounts to pretty much the same point.
I’ve been genuinely puzzled by the lack of excitement emanating from Liverpool supporters this summer. Perhaps it’s a slightly jaded attitude brought about by years of near misses and disappointing league campaigns. It could be that the age of social media has made people reluctant to say that ‘this could be our year’, lest fans of other clubs say ‘there go the deluded Liverpool fans again’ and retweet the statement in eleven months time.
The presence of José Mourinho in the Manchester United dugout, Pep Guardiola at Manchester City and Antonio Conte at Stamford Bridge might also have made some Liverpool fans think twice about the chance of a long-awaited league title. For my money this seems a strange reaction. All three managers play with a distinct system that it takes time to learn. They’ll be bringing some players from previous clubs with them to their new homes, but not an entire squad. There’s no guarantee that their new teams will click immediately into place.
Add to that the fact that, for Guardiola and Conte at least, it’s an entirely different league from any that they’ve managed in before and I’m far from convinced that either of them will be runaway successes at the first time of asking. All three of them are excellent managers, but one thing that Reds fans seem to be forgetting is that Klopp is a pretty good manager too. He hasn’t rocked up at Anfield with an attitude of thinking that scraping into the top four is a massive achievement. He is a winner and he wants to breed a team of winners. Unlike the above three managers our German boss has also had the best part of a season to work with his players and assess the squad’s weaknesses.
Let’s start with that squad, shall we? By the end of the 2015-2016 campaign pretty much everyone with more than merely a passing interest in Liverpool Football Club could have told you that the club needed the following: A new goalkeeper, a new central defender or two, at least one more midfielder, additional pace and an increased goal-threat. Oh, and a new left-back.
At the time of writing Jürgen Klopp has addressed the weaknesses in every department from last season with the one exception of left-back. Even there, though, he seems to be keen to bring in competition for Alberto Moreno rather than to replace him outright. Though most Liverpool fans would disagree with the manager’s assessment of the player, he obviously sees something in the Spaniard that he feels he can train and develop. Yes he’s defensively poor at times, but is concentration something that you can teach to a player who is blessed with recovery pace and a decent tackle? Perhaps.
Loris Karius might not be the messiah, exactly, but he was considered one of the best goalkeeping prospects in the Bundesliga last season. Whatever he develops into under the…watchful eye of John Achterberg, there can be little doubt that his signing is an astute one that could develop into an excellent one if he continues along the same trajectory that he’s already on.
Liverpool supporters seem to be disappointed with the signing of Joel Matip, seemingly based on the fact that we got him on a free transfer rather than paying £20 million plus for him. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that Bild considered him to be the third best centre-back in the German top-flight last year. Equally most people think that Ragnar Klavan is coming in as a fourth-choice centre-back behind Sakho, Lovren and Matip, but Klopp himself said, “Wait until you see him play and then say he needs to wait for others to get injured to deserve to play”.
Marko Grujic is considered by most to be a prospect for the future and it’s certainly true that he’s unlikely to come straight into the first time. The Premier League is different from the Croation top-flight, of course, and pre-season is often an indication of very little, but he certainly looks like an excellent young player who I won’t mind seeing in a Red shirt from time to time in the coming months.
Then come the two players signed from English teams and, yes, one of them saw our Southampton loyalty card getting stamped once more. Both Sadio Mané and Georginio Wijnaldum kill two very nasty birds with one stone as far as Liverpool’s concerned: Pace and goal-scoring ability. Their eleven goals last year meant that they were joint-third in goalscoring midfielders, with both of them netting more times than any Liverpool player did in the Premier League last season. There are question marks over them both for some, but their commitment to the club and the cause can’t be questioned considering they will have known of Klopp’s love of battering players into fitness submission before they signed on the dotted line for the Reds.
One of the criticism’s aimed at FSG’s transfer strategy and the recruitment of players for the first-team in the past might be just about ready to come good. For years Liverpool fans have complained that we’ve been too busy trying to sign ‘potential’ rather than players for the starting XI. Youngsters full of promise have been brought in and we’ve been forced to watch them do what young players do: Play inconsistently.
Now, however, that young squad isn’t quite as young any more. In fact, the majority of Liverpool’s first-team are heading into their prime, with a few younger players there to bolster the ranks and a couple of older heads around to keep them focussed when the time is right. Players such as Coutinho, Firmino, Henderson, Mané, Wijnaldum and, should he stay fit, Daniel Sturridge are hitting just the right age as we head into this forthcoming campaign. Although it’s a big ‘if’, should they all click together it could be a sight to see next season.
Everyone Plays Everyone Twice
Liverpool may not have as strong a team as Manchester United. Manchester City might have more strength in depth than us. Chelsea might be a more formidable, organised side under Antonio Conte. Yet we only have to play the three of those teams twice each and one of those games is at Anfield. The league isn’t won or lost because of your ability to beat the top teams alone, else Sunderland would have been champions at least twice in recent years.
The arrival of Ronald Koeman at Everton certainly makes them a slightly more disquieting opposition than in recent history, but I’m by no means convinced that he is a flawless appointment who is bound to succeed at Goodison Park. Yes Mauricio Pochettino has got Spurs playing strong football, but they actually notched up less points last season that AvB did during his ‘disastrous’ spell at White Hart Lane. Plus they’ve got the added conundrum of Champions League football to content with, as have Leicester City.
What Liverpool need to do, then, is beat all of the bottom ten to twelve sides as often as possible. Win a few of the games against the traditional ‘big four’ on top of that and we’ll be in a very healthy position indeed as far as our tilt for the title is concerned. Klopp himself has said that he was disappointed about Liverpool’s inability to kill teams off last year despite dominating them for large periods of the game. It’s why he believes our two new attacking recruits will be so important in the forthcoming campaign. Beat the dross, be near the top. That should be our mantra moving forward.
I’ve never quite been able to get my head around why people are so concerned with how strong other teams are. Of course it matters if Arsenal or West Ham have a squad with immense depth in quality as it gives them an increased chance of winning more games by rotating their players during a lengthy campaign. But if Liverpool also have a strong squad then they can do exactly the same thing. The only time the comparative strength of another club’s players matters is when the teams to head-to-head. The rest of the time we need to be able to beat the likes of Crystal Palace, West Brom and Stoke City just as much as the Manchester clubs and London’s tricky triumvirate.
The Amount Of Games
Which brings us nice and neatly to the number of games Liverpool have got to play next season. Unlike last year we don’t need to worry about an excessive number of European games in far-flung destinations. We might also be able to avoid numerous irritating replays in the FA and League Cups.
The reports emanating out of America on Liverpool’s pre-season tour suggest that Klopp will not be looking to use one set of players for the league and a different group in the cups. Instead, Andreas Kornmayer is prepping them to be one of if not the fittest team in the league. Pep Ljinders was overheard shouting ‘Win the fitness, win everything’ at the players during an open training session.
With fewer games to play than in previous years there’s little doubt that Liverpool have the ability to take the bull by the proverbial this season. United, City, Arsenal, Tottenham, West Ham and Leicester City all have European campaigns to be worrying about, whereas Liverpool do not. Chelsea are the only other team with the ability to concentrate solely on the league, but Conte’s system is about being well-drilled defensively first and foremost and ready to go on the attack second.
The last time Liverpool had nothing to worry about but the league was in 2013-2014 and we all know what happened then. We’re missing the mercurial talents of Suarez this time around, of course, but we’re also not a one-team man any more. If Sturridge gets injured or fails to deliver than Coutinho can step up to the plate. If he isn’t on the ball then his Brazilian compatriot Roberto Firmino might be able to offer us something. If Firmino isn’t firing on all cylinders then Mané or Wijnaldum are ready and waiting. Klopp believes in the team, not individuals. That could be vital heading into the new season.
Leicester City Won The League
Liverpool fans are often mocked for a constant belief that ‘this could be our year’. I honestly don’t care what other fans say about our club. The only team whose fans can take the mickey with any sense of self-worth is Manchester United and even they should be embarrassed about the fact that we’ve still won more major trophies than them despite not winning the league for over twenty-five years.
Liverpool supporters have seen things that other sets of fans could only dream of and we should be ashamed of aspiring for greatness. The difference between fourth and first isn’t likely to be that great this year, so we may as well aim for the top as to hope we can scrape into the Champions League positions.
When people talk of Leicester City’s winning of the league last season it’s referred to as a ‘once in a lifetime achievement’. The suggestion is that we won’t see a team other than the usual big ones win the league again without a huge injection of cash. Yet people genuinely thought you couldn’t run a mile faster than four minutes until Roger Bannister did exactly that in 1954. Within a year 24 more people achieved it.
The limits to your ability to succeed are so often made by you alone. Everyone said Leicester couldn’t win the league, but they did. Everyone’s saying we can’t either. We’ll see.