Premier League 2016-17 season preview No9: Liverpool

Liverpool fans before the match

Guardian writers’ predicted position: 6th (NB: this is not necessarily Andy Hunter’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)

Last season’s position: 8th

Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 9-1

Time has not healed the pain of defeat in the Europa League final for Jürgen Klopp. “It was long ago but it still feels bad,” he admitted recently. A second-half collapse against Sevilla changed the complexion of a relentless campaign but not the sense that something is stirring at Anfield under a manager convinced Liverpool will be “a challenger” this season.

That collective 45-minute freeze in Basel cost Liverpool a ninth major European trophy plus the bonus of Champions League qualification. It also confirmed there was a limit to Liverpool’s capabilities despite their charismatic coach extolling the virtues of his players at every opportunity. That may prove the case this season but with the squad attuned to his methods, weaknesses addressed and the Premier League wide open, Klopp is right to expect significant improvement following his eight-month crash course in English football and first pre-season in charge.

In defined terms of Premier League points and positions, Liverpool continued a downward trajectory last season after luring one of the biggest managerial names out of his sabbatical. Senior figures at Fenway Sports Group, the club’s owners, were adamant Liverpool possessed a top-four squad that was underachieving when they sacked Brendan Rodgers in October. Finishing eighth with 60 points, after Rodgers went on borrowed time the previous season due to a sixth-placed finish and 62 points, was not what they had in mind when Klopp beamed into Anfield. Yet FSG awarded the former Borussia Dortmund coach a six-year contract extension long before the anniversary of his first 12 months in charge. The decision reflects its contentment with Klopp and vice-versa. Initial results in the Premier League do not accurately gauge his impact.

Liverpool graphic

Liverpool rediscovered the cup final habit in Klopp’s debut campaign, although defeats in both the Europa League and League Cup reinforced their reputation as nearly-men. “This will be the first of many finals we will have together,” Klopp told his deflated players after the penalty shootout loss to Manchester City. He is acutely aware his record of five consecutive cup final defeats will shape the narrative of the next one but at least he has the track record to convince there will be a next one.

The manager navigated a way through injury crises, relied on academy graduates and called on fringe players en route to Wembley and St Jakob Park. The pursuit of every available trophy undoubtedly hindered progress in the Premier League as injuries increased along with the workload. Klopp clocked up 52 matches in his first eight months in English football and never failed to hide his astonishment at the demands. It was a legitimate explanation for Liverpool’s inconsistency, not an excuse.

Arguably a bigger achievement than bringing cohesion to the team was restoring belief and unity at a club where despondency had taken root after the 2014 title near-miss. There was widespread ridicule when Klopp led manic celebrations of a 95th-minute equaliser at home to West Bromwich Albion in December. But the message of never accepting defeat and fighting until the last was embraced by players and supporters alike, and never better demonstrated than in the unforgettable Europa League quarter-final comeback against Dortmund.

Liverpool graphic

There is no European football for Liverpool to savour this term and that should focus minds on repairing the six-point gap that separated the teams in fourth and eighth last time out. Rodgers was castigated in 2013 for claiming Liverpool would benefit without Europe for one season only. He was vindicated during the season that followed as the club went closer than ever to winning the Premier League.

Now, as in 2013-14, a lack of midweek distractions can work in Liverpool’s favour and may prove a greater advantage given the high-energy, high-intensity game that Klopp demands and his devotion to detail on the training ground. Now, as then, Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea are starting over again with a new manager. One of them, Antonio Conte, has remarked: “Jürgen Klopp worked already for nine months with this team and it’s very important for him and Liverpool to understand each other. It’s important to work and have the time to transfer your methods and ideas of football. Liverpool are one of seven or eight teams that can fight at the end to win the title. I’m sure of this. Liverpool have a good team, good manager, good football, high intensity, good organisation.”

However, unlike their last campaign without European football, Liverpool are not blessed with a world-class talent such as Luis Suárez who can instil fear in the most disciplined of defences.

The biggest-name signing at Anfield so far is the one on Klopp’s new contract but consternation over a lack of stellar arrivals seems misplaced. When automatic entry to the Champions League disappeared with defeat by Sevilla on 18 May so did the power to pull several transfer targets over the line, Mario Götze chief among them. The Liverpool manager was confident of a reunion with the World Cup winner until being unable to offer European football, and Borussia Mönchengladbach resisted interest in Mahmoud Dahoud having sold another midfielder, Granit Xhaka, to Arsenal.

Fortunately for team building and spirit at Anfield, Klopp does not share the preoccupation with individual names. It was the collective that enabled Dortmund to win two Bundesliga titles under him and it is how Liverpool’s manager envisages competing against the wealth on offer in Manchester and London. It was for that reason Mamadou Sakho was sent home early from the pre-season tour of the United States having reported late for the flight out, a team meeting and a rehabilitation session. Unity is key.

“If you bring one player in for £100m or whatever and he gets injured then it all goes through the chimney,” said Klopp on the subject of this summer’s ludicrous transfer market. “The day that this is football, I’m not in a job any more, because the game is about playing together. Other clubs can go out and spend more money and collect top players, yes. Do I have to do it differently to that? Actually, I want to do it differently. I would even do it differently if I could spend that money. If I spend money it is because I am trying to build a real team. You can win championships, you can win titles, but maybe there is a manner in which you want it. It is about how it is.”

Liverpool’s reputation in the transfer market is in jeopardy this summer. Not only have they avoided losing a key player for the first time in three years but they have secured what their manager identified as priorities. Klopp has acquired much-needed pace up front in Sadio Mané, physical presence and composure in midfield with Marko Grujic – though patience will be required with a 20-year-old entering his first season in England – tapped into his Bundesliga background to sign two international central defenders for a combined £4.2m (the price of Ragnar Klavan; Joël Matip was a free) and improved his goalkeeping options with Loris Karius. Left-back and central midfield remain areas of concern although Georginio Wijnaldum can address the latter should the £25m recruit discover the consistency that eluded him at Newcastle United.

Karius, a former Mainz goalkeeper, looked in position to start the Premier League opener at Arsenal before breaking his hand in the pre-season defeat by Chelsea. The 23-year-old’s misfortune – he could be out until October – grants a reprieve to Simon Mignolet while Sakho, Matip, Joe Gomez and Ovie Ejaria, a promising midfielder promoted from the under-21s, have suffered untimely injuries during pre-season.

Fitness is another area where Klopp expects improvement. He capitalised on the managerial change at Bayern Munich to bring their fitness coach Andreas Kornmayer and nutritionist Mona Nemmer to Anfield and has put players through triple training sessions. “It’s a lot more intense,” was Daniel Sturridge’s verdict on pre-season. “Probably the most intense I’ve ever experienced at any club.”

Liverpool will need to be sharp for a start that includes Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester City and Chelsea in the first five matches. Klopp relished the thought of pre-season training long before last season ended, convinced it would produce a vast improvement from a settled core of players. Despite his claims to the contrary, there may be further arrivals, particularly if Christian Benteke, Lucas Leiva, Lazar Markovic and Jon Flanagan have exited before the transfer deadline.

“This is my squad now, this time it is my team,” Klopp has said. “There are probably no players here any more I don’t want. There are no signings I didn’t want, we have not sold anyone I didn’t want to.” It is a long time since a Liverpool manager expressed that sentiment. It will be an interesting ride.

Powered by article was written by Andy Hunter, for The Guardian on Friday 5th August 2016 08.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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