Jack Hallows analyses Liverpool’s squad and discusses whether Jürgen Klopp was truly prepared for the Reds to have been in with a shout at Champions League football and even the title at any point this season.
Think back to the start of the season. Yep, all the way back to August. I’ll give you a minute. There yet? Good. What was your prediction for Liverpool Football Club’s season? Not your hopes, your honest to God prediction. Mine was that we would be in with a shot at one of the domestic cups and likely finish fifth – just outside the top four – and that if we managed to get a Champions League place I’d be ecstatic.
This was on the day of the Arsenal game, just before kick off. I’d evaluated our squad, our pre-season showings, our style of play and the potential lineups we would have available and come to my conclusions. We certainly weren’t good enough for the title yet and we would do well to get top four when competing against United, City, Spurs, Arsenal and Chelsea. Granted, I picked United as title winners in my prediction and look how they’re doing but let’s not go there.
“Where are you going with this Jack?” You may be wondering. Well, my point to raise here is that Jürgen Klopp was not prepared for Liverpool to be in the title race at any point this season and likely not prepared for a full on Champions League place assault. Klopp spoke at length in all his pre-season press conferences about patience, building from the bottom and sculpting a team and an identity that he could then kick on with and win trophies with. This season is his first full season in charge and it was meant to be a year where he began his proper reshaping of this football club. He may have appeared nonchalant when questioned about the title during the months of October or November but I guarantee you he was as pleasantly surprised as the rest of us.
We signed a number of ‘Klopp players’ in the summer window, with Mane, Wijnaldum and Matip in particular so far looking every part a gegenpressing compatible type of player. In fact, I would go as far as to say that a starting XI of Karius, Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Milner, Henderson, Lallana, Wijnaldum, Mané, Firmino and Coutinho is very close to an ideal Jürgen Klopp team. Sub out Lovren for a better centre back and Milner for a proper left back and you’re probably as close as you’re going to get. However, aside from that XI, there are a number of players still at the club who just don’t fit.
Daniel Sturridge isn’t a Jürgen Klopp forward, no matter how hard he tries or how talented he is. He’s a goalscoring machine on his day but he doesn’t press, his movement is all wrong for our style of football and his reliance on ball to feet slows everything down. Frustratingly, for all his promise, Origi is becoming a similar problem. Then there’s the likes of Lucas, Klavan and Moreno who, to be brutal, just aren’t good enough to win you silverware.
There’s a reason pundits called us a dark horse when we began the season in such flying form. Nobody expected it. We weren’t quite Leicester but let’s be real here… We’ve had one single top four finish in our previous seven seasons. We weren’t expected to come out all guns blazing, blowing away Arsenal, Chelsea, Leicester and anyone else who stood in our way in the process. We were expected to do okay, scrape into the Europa League places and then continue to improve over the course of the next season or two before having a chance of returning to the summit of the league.
That’s no reflection on Jürgen Klopp at all, more so on the players he has available to him. Let’s not forget, he’s only had one summer window so far with which to mould a squad in his image. Winter of 2016 doesn’t really count due to the fact he was still acclimatising to his position at Liverpool and Winter 2017, well, as much as reinforcements were needed, the right player was obviously just not readily available for a realistic price tag.
Klopp’s squad depth just hasn’t been enough to launch a realistic and maintainable title charge. I know that last season Leicester rarely had to change from their starting XI and this season it’s been a very similar story for leaders Chelsea but we’ve not had that luxury. Injuries have befallen key players at key times with the likes of Matip, Coutinho, Lallana and Henderson all missing crucial matches with injuries and of course, Sadio Mane has only just returned from four weeks away at the African Cup of Nations.
Liverpool’s first choice starting XI is admittedly very good. We press well as a unit, the players look on the same wavelength, we score goals and there’s a genuine balance between creativity and solidity in the midfield. However, take out just one or two of that first choice starting XI and things just start to go wrong. Drop out Firmino and the Reds lose their main pressing weapon up front, take out Mane and we suddenly have no pace, lose Lallana and the midfield loses creativity, lose Henderson and there’s little to no protection for the back four. I could go down almost each and every individual player – the goalkeepers being exempt – and list a problem with them dropping out.
While of course, winning a trophy this season would’ve been nice and I, like any of you was left genuinely seething at our recent results, we just haven’t been equipped to launch a proper assault on the title this season. Klopp’s squad doesn’t have the depth of the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs or United and the Reds bad luck with injuries throughout the season has hindered their progress.
Of course, there’s every chance we miraculously recover this week and win a large percentage of our games left over the course of the season. However, it looks more than likely that it’s going to be a tough grind over the next couple of months. All we can do is get behind the team and remember that if we do indeed finish in the Champions League places then that is a success. No one expected us to do this well at the start of the season, so let’s take the tagline of overachievers and run with it. Let’s accept it and use it to our advantage and let’s finish in those Champions League places. Come on you Redmen.