A Misunderstanding: What Liverpool Need Is Health Not Depth

A Misunderstanding: What Liverpool Need Is Health Not Depth

It is been almost two years ago since Jurgen Klopp sat at a podium and gave this response prior to a game at Old Trafford:

“I don’t think there are a lot of teams who would love to play against us at the moment….Manchester United is the only one that wants to play us…We have to make sure that is a misunderstanding”

It was easy to see his point at the time. This, after all was a Liverpool team that had started the season with eight consecutive wins – having finished the previous season with nine straight wins, 97 points and the European Cup – and would go on to stroll to a first title in 30 years.

Yet, that statement feels just as pertinent today after three rounds of the 2021/22 Premier League season. Liverpool are clearly in a different position than they were that evening nearly two years ago.

Liverpool title defence fizzled out last season amidst an unprecedented injury crisis, and even though they somehow rallied to finish in third place, their 69- point tally was a significant drop off from the heights of the two previous seasons. It’s easy then to count them out of this season’s title race – just as many pundits have been quick to do – and it’s easy to point to a quiet transfer season as justification for that conclusion.

Easy, but not right. To borrow Klopp’s words from two years ago, Liverpool will have to show why this is a misunderstanding.

This after all is a Liverpool team that, just a little over 12 months ago, was celebrating a much-deserved Premier League title on the Kop. Sure, twelve months is a long time in football and even the best of teams can see form suddenly fall off a cliff. Liverpool certainly looked that way at times last season – even with the caveat of the mother of all injury crises – especially during that horrible run of six consecutive home defeats.

But my confidence in this Liverpool team has much more to it than the nostalgic memories of a memorable title win.

For starters, there’s the season ending run that ensured Liverpool will return to the Champions League for a fifth consecutive season. With ten games of the season left, it seemed an impossible task. Not only were Leicester and Chelsea sitting pretty in the top four, other pretenders – Tottenham, West Ham, Everton – were all better positioned than the 8th placed Reds.

Klopp’s team would finish with an unbeaten run that included 8 wins, taking 26 points of a possible 30 to leapfrog into third place. It was a run that showed glimpses of Liverpool at its ruthless attacking best, but often, a team with novice centre backs (no disrespect, they did a fine job) had to dig deep and call on grit, determination, and fight to get the job done.

Last minute goals conceded against Leeds and Newcastle denied them a perfect ten-win run, but Liverpool needed last minute winners too – notably against Aston Villa and West Brom. They never lost their desire. Every season tells its own story of course, but Liverpool’s unbeaten start – early days yet – means they now have the Premier League’s longest unbeaten run (13).

Then there’s the squad. It’s easy, after the troubles of last season, to expect the worst again and fret that Liverpool haven’t quite done enough in the transfer market to add adequate depth. There’s some merit to that, especially with Xerdan Shaqiri and the uber-reliable Gini Wijnaldum departing Anfield this summer. But take a minute and take stock, and it’s clear to see that this is the strongest Liverpool squad we’ve seen since Klopp gave his “doubters to believers” speech at Anfield almost six years ago.

That’s no hyperbole. Liverpool’s problem area last season was central defence, where injuries to Virgil Van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip left a decimated field. All three are back fit again – fingers crossed – joined by the 21-year-old Ibrahim Konate, signed from RB Leipzig in June. Yes, injuries can still happen, but beyond having four top class centre backs – and a couple of young back ups – what else is there to do?

Last season saw the arrivals of left back Kostas Tsimikas, midfielder Thiago Alcantara and striker Diogo Jota. It’s fair to say all three had a troubled first season – as if to underline the fact that new signings can get injured too. Thiago and Jota did at least show what they can contribute to this team last season, but it’s only taken till the first two games of this season for Tsimikas to show what an outstanding cover he can be for Andy Robertson.

Think about that: the thought of Robertson missing a game has been panic-inducing for the past two seasons; but there were loud questions about why he’d been preferred to Tsimikas against Chelsea last week!

In midfield, Harvey Elliott’s rapid ascent to first team starter should ease some of the anxiety about losing two senior players and the sketchy fitness records of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita. Yes, he’s only 18 and inexperienced, but he plays with a maturity and confidence well beyond his years and has clearly earned the trust of the boss.

Yet, in some ways, Liverpool already have what some of these transfers have been made to provide. Chelsea for instance have splashed close to £100m on Lukaku, in a bid to add to their team what Liverpool already have in Salah: a consistent goal scorer.

Perhaps Liverpool could use a new face in midfield – a bit more quality would certainly ease some of the angst – but they’re not lacking in numbers as it is. After three matches this season, we’ve seen Henderson, Fabinho, Thiago, Keita all start on the bench at various times, and Curtis Jones hasn’t played a single minute yet.

Upfront, Jota’s addition to the usual suspects makes for one of the Premier League’s best attacking quartets – despite Mane and Firmino slumping relatively of late. Salah came within a goal of another Golden Boot last season and has two from three games already this season. Ditto Jota, who has now scored 15 goals in his first 30 games for Liverpool. It’s the kind of proficiency not seen since Salah’s record breaking first season.

The Reds Skipper Jordan Henderson

I have heard of clamoring for even more depth in attack, which is all well and good, but we’re talking 5th and 6th choice forwards here, guys you only hope to see briefly in an emergency. Does that really call for an improvement on Takumi Minamino? No other squad in the Premier League boasts two Golden Boot winners and another currently scoring at an elite level.

Still, Liverpool’s transfer business leaves room for some discomfort, especially when compared to the activity of their title rivals. It’s easy to look at the new arrivals – brand new shiny things – at Chelsea, Man City and Man Utd and conclude that Liverpool have been left behind. Chelsea certainly look stronger with Lukaku and Saul joining up; Ronaldo, Raphael Varane and Jason Sancho add star quality to Man United; and Jack Grealish adds another creative weapon to champions Man City.

Yet, in some ways, Liverpool already have what some of these transfers have been made to provide. Chelsea for instance have splashed close to £100m on Lukaku, in a bid to add to their team what Liverpool already have in Salah: a consistent goal scorer.

Had Timo Werner lived up to expectations last season, would Chelsea have spent so much on the big Belgian? It’s the same reason Man United will pay Ronaldo £500,000 per week for the next two years – and the same reason Man City were willing to part with north of £100m to pry Harry Kane out of Daniel Levy’s grasp. In the same vein, if Varane can add to Man United anything close to what van Dijk has given to Liverpool over the last three and a half years he would go down as one heck of a signing.

Two other factors make it unwise to dismiss Liverpool’s title aspirations this season:

The first is the chemistry entrenched by the continuity this team has enjoyed over the past three years. For all the clamor for big stars, football remains a team game, and cohesion and harmony are still of the utmost importance. Of the eleven Liverpool players that started against Chelsea last week, ten also started the Champions League final in 2019 – the exception being Elliott, in place of the departed Wijnaldum.

Two years ago, at the start of what would prove a successful race to the title, I wrote of Klopp’s trust in his team’s cohesion and how it could be the key to the title:

“It’s that familiarity, that collective development – that chemistry – that took this team to great heights last season, and it’s what Klopp will be betting on again this season.”

Rather than add more new faces, Liverpool have spent this summer tying several of its key players down with extended contracts. It seems Klopp is betting on chemistry yet again.

The second, and most important factor is the continued stewardship of Jurgen Klopp. The 54-year-old German remains one of the best managers in the game – his track record speaks for itself – and his charisma, intelligence, and ability to build teams stronger than the sum of their parts has been key to taking Liverpool to the heights they’ve reached on his watch.

The way he has built this Liverpool team over his six-year tenure – piece by piece, adding a few carefully picked transfers at a time, bringing through and improving from within – should only fill Kopites with confidence for the season ahead.

As last season proved though, there is one thing that can wreck even the best laid plans: injuries. It’s the one thing this Liverpool squad would have to avoid for any chance of success this season.

I am not talking about usual, run of the mill injury setbacks – one player or the other missing a few games here and there. That will happen, and most squads are equipped to cope with that. Contrary to the narrative in some quarters, Liverpool certainly had these types of injuries in 2019/20, when they lost Alisson for the first eight weeks, lost Naby Keita for three months, lost Fabinho for two months, and even lost both Mane and Salah for three matches apiece. Their centre backs weren’t injury free that year either; Gomez, Dejan Lovren and Matip were all missing for spells, but crucially, at different times.

I am talking about another full-blown injury crisis, with season ending, long term injuries to key players – like we saw last season. I am talking about the type of injury crisis that would so decimate one position that a team must resort to 5th and 6th options in key positions for long spells or for season defining games – like we saw last season.

That would be devastating for almost any Premier League squad, and more so for one with title aspirations. For Liverpool, it could well prove the difference between success and falling short. Klopp’s team will be hoping for a return to the run of the mill – at worst – this season.

Liverpool may not have the deepest squad in the league, but it is talented, cohesive, hungry, and deep enough to challenge at the top of the table. It’s not a squad in desperate need of more depth; what it needs above all else is good health.

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