Premier League Preview: Liverpool

Liverpool were a really funny team in 2016-17. It was a rare year with no European competition at Anfield, so Liverpool could focus exclusively on domestic duties. Their lack of squad depth proved to be a huge problem, with many of their big-name players missing time at various points of the season due to injury or international duty. Despite those personnel issues, Jürgen Klopp managed to guide Liverpool to the semifinals of the EFL Cup and, more importantly, back into the Champions League; they have a two-legged playoff coming up against German side Hoffenheim to reach the competition’s group stage. Klopp has Liverpool heading back in the right direction, but this is still a flawed team with very little depth. The addition of Mohamed Salah brings another exciting, attacking player into the mix, but Liverpool’s defensive issues haven’t gone away. Can James Milner really be their starting left back for another full season? They did bring in Andrew Robertson from relegated Hull City; he and Alberto Moreno provide depth at that position, but I’m not sure Klopp will trust either of them with regular minutes.

No one played up or down to the level of their competition more than Liverpool in 2016-17. Against the rest of England’s top seven teams, they didn’t lose, while picking up some impressive wins along the way: Chelsea (away), Spurs (home), Manchester City (home), Arsenal (home and away), and Everton (home and away). But it was Liverpool’s problems against the bottom half of the table that prevented a serious title challenge. Their six league losses last year came against the likes of Hull (away), Burnley (away), Swansea (home), Crystal Palace (home), Leicester (away), and Bournemouth (away). They can’t expect to go unbeaten against the big boys once again, so Liverpool will have to pick up more wins against the teams that, on paper, they’re supposed to beat.

2016-17 Record & Finish
22-10-6 (W-D-L), 76 points, 4th in the Premier League
+36 GD (78 GF, 42 GA)

Manager
Jürgen Klopp – 2nd full season with Liverpool

klopp

Ins and Outs
Andrew Robertson (£7.65 million from Hull City)
Mohamed Salah (£35.7 million from AS Roma)
Dominic Solanke (free from Chelsea)

Lucas Leiva (£4.85 million to Lazio)
Alexander Manninger (retired)
Connor Randall (on loan to Heart of Midlothian)
Kevin Stewart (£3.83 million to Hull City)
Andre Wisdom (£1.96 million to Derby County)

X-factor
James Milner

milner

There are other, more high-profile players about whom I could write here: Philippe Coutinho, who could very well be on his way to Barcelona now; Sadio Mané, with no African Cup of Nations duty this season, but who could be prone to injury; Roberto Firmino, who has been good but not great leading the line for Liverpool; Daniel Sturridge, who has fallen out of favor with Klopp and has trouble staying healthy himself; and the list could go on and on. But I would argue no one was more important to Liverpool’s success than Milner last season. After Alberto Moreno lost Klopp’s trust last August, Milner, a midfielder by trade, stepped in and played a more than capable left back all season. He served as team captain when Jordan Henderson was out injured, a.k.a. most of the time. Milner also scored seven goals – all penalties, took most of Liverpool’s corners, and provided calm, steady leadership for a club that plays a frenetic, high-pressing style. It was truly an impressive season for a man on the wrong side of 30 who was playing out of position. Can he replicate that again this year? Liverpool haven’t made any defensive signings besides inking Robertson from Hull, and with European duty this year, Milner will likely see regular time at left back yet again. The competition in Europe will be tougher, and most of the teams around Liverpool in England have improved quite a bit. Milner will, once again, have to overproduce for Klopp for Liverpool to perform well again in 2017-18.

Best Case Scenario
It’s a repeat of Liverpool’s 2013-14 season but with a happier ending. They came so close to bringing a title back to Anfield, only to see it slip through their fingers at the very end. That was Luis Suárez’s last year with Liverpool before moving on to Barcelona, and what a year he had. Now, four years later, it’s Philippe Coutinho who’s rumored to be on his way to Barcelona. Klopp needs to convince him to stay for one more year, with this group of players, so they can go all out for the Premier League title. They’re not going to seriously compete for the Champions League, but Liverpool should do better than their last appearance in the competition when they crashed out in the group stage. Liverpool have more than enough attacking talent to win the league this year. If the back line can collectively elevate their game, with a stable center back pairing of Joël Matip and Dejan Lovren, and if either Simon Mignolet or Loris Karius can seize the number one goalkeeper job, Liverpool can be a more consistent team week in and week out, especially against teams in the bottom half of the league. If the stars stay healthy, Liverpool can make their first legitimate, season-long run at the title in four years.

Worst Case Scenario
Liverpool lose Coutinho this summer. Their defensive issues don’t get solved, and neither of their goalkeepers can hold down the position for a full season. Results continue to be inconsistent against lesser opposition, both in England and in Europe. It ends up with Liverpool taking a step back after finishing fourth this year. They drop as low as sixth or seventh, fail to win any silverware, and fail to get out of their group in the Champions League. If so, the pressure will mount on Klopp and the current group of players, and big changes would not be far off on the horizon. As bad as all that would be, Liverpool supporters would be absolutely sick to their stomachs if they drop below Everton in the final Premier League table. The red half of Liverpool has owned Merseyside for decades now, but significant injuries and/or poor performances could signal a big change in the northwest this year.

PC10

If I were in charge for a day…
What would I do? Besides change the name of the Kop to the Copps? I would sell Sturridge and Emre Can, and reinvest that money to fortify the defense with another center back and a left back. I’d try to bring in a creative, attacking midfield playmaker as well. Additionally, I’d move Milner from left back to defensive midfield, either by himself or as part of a holding midfield partnership with Jordan Henderson. A couple young players looked good in the rare moments they saw the field in 2016-17: defender Trent Alexander-Arnold and midfielder Ben Woodburn. I’d see what they can do on a more consistent basis. By moving some players around and out the door, that would help cover some of this team’s biggest weaknesses. They’re still a couple players away from being serious title contenders in my mind, but these moves would bring them a lot closer.

Keeping in mind that Adam Lallana is out until at least October, here’s how I would line up against Watford next Saturday:

Mignolet; Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Robertson; Henderson, Milner; Mané, Salah, Coutinho; Firmino

Liverpool head to the hornets’ nest that is Vicarage Road to kick off their season in one week’s time. They came away with a 1-0 win at Watford back in May, with Emre Can scoring one of the goals of the season in first-half stoppage time. Here’s how Liverpool’s schedule looks for the first two months of the season:

Aug. 12 – at Watford
Aug. 19 – vs. Crystal Palace
Aug. 27 – vs. Arsenal
Sept. 9 – at Manchester City
Sept. 16 – vs. Burnley
Sept. 23 – at Leicester
Oct. 1 – at Newcastle

Tomorrow, we turn our eyes back to Manchester and the Noisy Neighbors’ half of the city. Pep Guardiola’s Citizens had a turbulent 2016-17 season, his first year in charge, but he’s spent big money this summer in the hopes that Manchester City can compete for titles domestically and in Europe. But have they truly solved their defensive problems?

As always, thanks for reading. Come on you Reds!

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