Jurgen Klopp will be banking on his team’s continuous development as Liverpool shun the summer transfer market
How do you top a 97-point Premier League campaign and a successful Champions League run? By maintaining the status quo, seems to be the answer from Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.
After a summer that has seen the Reds add only a couple of teenagers and a back-up goalkeeper to its squad, Liverpool kick off the 2019-20 with pretty much the same players that lost just once in the Premier League and brought home the club’s 6th European Cup last season. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it……right?
Many Liverpool fans think that’s wrong. Many consider this a lost opportunity. Certainly in this age of transfer season mania – an age in which “winning the transfer season” is a thing – conventional wisdom suggests that the newly crowned European champions would be one of the biggest actors in the market. What better time to attract prime talent and add to an already decent squad than when at the top of the pile? Or is it just a good time to keep the team together and “take the next step” as a group?
Liverpool have certainly done the latter, but there’s no question that Klopp’s squad could use some reinforcement in certain areas – cover at full back and attack at least. However, Klopp has never been one for conventional wisdom. This after all, is the manager that played James Milner at left back for a whole season, rather than buy an alternative to Alberto Moreno; the manager that waited six months to sign Virgil Van Dijk when all “common sense” suggested it would be wise to pursue a “plan B”. He’s the guy who picked raw, teenaged Trent Alexander-Arnold at right-back, instead of buying an experienced back-up for the injured Nathaniel Clyne two years ago. How about Firmino at centre forward? Jordan Henderson at number six? Yeah. Same guy.
None of those were easy decisions, they all went against conventional wisdom and involved some risk. Yet, they’ve all turned out to be right decisions. Liverpool’s decision to buck the transfer trend this summer isn’t an easy call either, and there’s a risk it might go wrong, yet after watching Klopp – and Director of Football Michael Edwards – meticulously and intelligently build this team over the past four years, it’s hard not to give them the benefit of the doubt.
If the last couple of years are anything to go by, Liverpool are hardly transfer spendthrifts. They’ve spent big – and wisely – when it’s been called for. If anything, they will kick off the season with one of the strongest squads in the league as a result of an excellent transfer record capped last summer (when they were the biggest spenders) by the arrival of goalkeeper Alisson and midfielders Naby Keita, Fabinho and Xerdan Shaqiri for a total of about £180m.
In truth, there are no obvious gaps to fill in Klopp’s starting XI. Alisson won the Premier League Golden Glove last season, while Virgil van Dijk was voted PFA Player of the Year and both full backs were included in the PFA team of the year. Up front, Mo Salah and Sadio Mane shared the Golden Boot (with Arsenal’s Pierre Aubameyang). The midfield is often criticized for lacking creativity, yet the graft and solidity of the likes of Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and James Milner makes it possible for the full backs to wreak havoc and helps make this team function like a well-oiled machine. Even so, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain returning and Keita and Shaqiri more settled, the midfield should offer a lot more creative variety this season.
The main concern really is that there are doubts about the depth of quality in Klopp’s squad and fears that injury to key starters would cause a quantifiable dip in performance. The fact that defending champions Manchester City, despite boasting an already star-studded squad, continue to bring in new faces makes for a stark contrast for many fans.
A difficult pre-season brought some of this to bear, especially with Salah, Firmino and Mane returning late from international duty. Watching Divock Origi toil away with a cast of promising youngsters – Ryan Kent, Harry Wilson, Rhian Brewster – didn’t exactly boost confidence.
But Sunday’s Community Shield clash with Manchester City should allay some of those depth concerns. Liverpool made five second half changes at Wembley on Sunday – with neither Mane nor Milner involved – without any discernible dip in performance. If anything, they got even stronger as the game wore on and were unlucky not to win in regulation time.
Besides, depth isn’t only about sitting big name, expensive stars on the bench, City style; let’s not forget that this Liverpool team beat Barcelona 4-0 in May – without Salah, without Firmino, and without Keita. Football is still a team game and Klopp is a master at making the whole better than the sum of its parts – even with unsung heroes like Origi and Wijnaldum.
What those two performances had in common was the familiarity of the players to Klopp’s system and to one another – even if there were some kinks to work out early in the Wembley game. In both games, they played with clarity and coherence – like a team accustomed to playing together. Little wonder: all sixteen players that played at Wembley have been together at Liverpool for at least one year.
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.
They will be contenders again.