Liverpool fans will resist uttering the infamous three words which have plagued so many promising starts to Premier League campaigns, but optimism is rightly high around Anfield that if not quite at Manchester City’s level, are certainly the best-placed team in England to challenge the holders.
Jurgen Klopp’s defined philosophy, a settled squad with no significant departures and some impressive arrivals addressing obvious issues coupled with their run to the Champions League final has given rise to the notion that this could be a special campaign for the Reds.
But issues still remain if the German is to progress Liverpool from being an excellent attacking side into an all-round unit who can be credible and consistent challengers to City in the Premier League.
Our friends at Football Whispers look at the remaining pieces of the puzzle for Klopp.
Defence wins you championships
Signing Alisson, however expensive the price, certainly ticks one large box for Klopp based on last season where they were surviving game-to-game on two goalkeepers in Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius who were never far away from their next mistake.
They were also much improved defensively in the second half of the season, with Virgil van Dijk proving money well spent, while the additions of Fabinho and Naby Keita should provide added ballast in front of the back four.
However, despite claims to the contrary from the man himself, Dejan Lovren remains a flawed centre-back, prone to be being caught too high up the field and lapses in concentration, Joel Matip is strong in the air but can look sluggish against smaller, quicker attackers while Joe Gomez needs to produce significant step in quality to reach the level of being Van Dijk’s partner.
That’s not to say any are bad per se, but for a team playing on the front foot and prone to leaving themselves vulnerable at the back, at their current abilities don’t guarantee title-winning security.
Clyne versus Alexander Arnold
Outside of central defence and midfield, the biggest selection conundrum for Klopp is at right-back where despite having the same situation as 12 months ago, in possessing an England international in the position, the identity of the player has changed.
This time last year, Trent Alexander-Arnold was barely known outside of Melwood while Nathaniel Clyne was seemingly one of the more reliable and safe bets in Klopp’s XI. Injuries and the form of the teenager have now flipped that narrative completely.
In Alexander-Arnold he has a prodigious and exciting attacking full-back, perfect for his high-octane brand of football but in Clyne the more experienced and reliable defensive presence.
Alexander-Arnold is the man in possession of the shirt with Clyne in reserve, and while that’s an excellent position to be in, from a depth point of view, sooner or later it could cause problems with neither content acting as deputy.
At their best, with Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah in full flow, Liverpool are arguably the most entertaining team on the planet to watch. The speed, movement and patterns those three create is a marriage of old-school attacking freedom and modern-day pace.
Klopp won’t alter from his gegenpress and the temptation, given their European success, may be even to be more outwardly expansive in their offensive play, especially with the belief Fabinho and Keita will make them defensively more solid.
But gradually, as it showed last season, teams get wise to it; don’t defend a high line, maintain possession in higher areas of the field and don’t commit too many forward etc. Sometimes, Salah, Mane and Firmino are just that good but there are counter-measures.
Klopp has to find a Plan B and his summer signings imply that, with moves to a midfield diamond or a flatter 4-4-2 but ideas need to be implemented and for Liverpool to sustain a challenge, he and his players need to adapt quickly.
Sticking with Sturridge
Through it all – injuries, poor form, commitment questions – Klopp has stuck by Daniel Sturridge, knowing what a brilliant goalscorer he is. But it’s four years since we last saw that exact player produce a significant body of work and this season surely represents his last chance.
Sturridge has looked very good in pre-season, even pushing for a starting role but how much can he and his body be trusted? He’s suffered 15 individual injuries in the last five years, as per transfermarkt.com, and given he turns 29 in September, it will be impressive if that run of problems suddenly stops.
Klopp’s faith is admirable but by installing Sturridge as one of his first two centre-forwards, alongside Firmino, with a lack of options behind them, a reoccurrence of the England’s striker’s injury problems could leave them looking short in that area.
The Karius conundrum
One aspect of what to do with Karius has been solved by the arrival of Alisson who, barring a disastrous start to life in the Premier League, will be Liverpool’s No.1 for 2018/19. However, incidents in pre-season have shown it’s a problem still festering.
Mistakes against Tranmere and Borussia Dortmund have highlighted how low his confidence still is, while the signing of Alisson, however necessary it was, won’t have helped restore it.
Klopp knows Karius is a talented keeper who should improve, while he must also feel a duty of care to his countryman, but so deep are the scars of Kiev and Madrid, however he is dealt with at Liverpool, the focus and pressure may just be too constricting for his development to continue at Anfield.
Does Klopp keep him as his No.2? If that, then what sort of gamble is it, if and when he’s required to play. Or does he loan the German out? If that happens, does that alienate him for good? And can he trust Simon Mignolet? There is no obvious answer.
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by Tom Bodell