Liverpool’s season was ultimately one of what if. Satisfaction and delight at sealing a top four finish and securing a Champions League play-off undoubtedly, but a lingering frustration about how the league campaign could have been even better had results against the so-called ‘lesser’ teams materialised differently.
The Reds managed the seemingly impossible of completing the season undefeated against the league’s top 8, taking 28 points in the 14 games contested against such opposition. Against the other teams making up the final top four, Liverpool took 12 points in the 6 fixtures against Chelsea, Spurs and Man City – topping the ‘mini-league’ that in other seasons has determined the final Premier League winners. Had a Liverpool fan been in a coma for the duration of the 16/17 season and woken to see only our results versus the top 8, they would probably think that we were champions.
In this context, some of the gloss on the Champions League play-off securement is lessened, particularly when considered that results against Burnley, Bournemouth, Hull and Swansea prevented the Reds from seriously contesting the title. However, when viewed in a different light, such results are not as surprising as they first seem; disappointing of course, but perhaps a reflection of the lack of depth in the squad.
On paper, Liverpool probably had the sixth best squad in the league. An excellent starting 11, capable of beating any other, as demonstrated with home and away victories over Arsenal, Anfield wins against Spurs and Man City and an impressive collecting of the points at Stamford Bridge. However, the wider squad was a little anaemic, with the substitutes bench consisting of quality youngsters, but lacking match experience and premier league know-how. When this is considered, a fourth-place finish was probably an overachievement, and massive credit must be given to Jürgen Klopp for getting the absolute most out of a thin squad and relatively small pool of players. Finishing the season in a higher position than Manchester United and Arsenal is testament to the managerial quality Klopp possesses.
Liverpool’s inconsistent and seemingly paradoxical results this season actually make sense when the limitations of the squad are considered. Victories versus the teams in the top 8 were probably aided by these teams taking the game to Liverpool and opening up the pitch (with the exemption of Manchester United). Such openness suits Liverpool’s creative players and narrow front three, providing space to exploit in front of the oppositions goal. Whereas poor results against teams from the other half of the division were, at least in part, due to the visible lack of space created by the defensive organisation of such teams. Deep-lying, central blocks proved a real nuisance to Liverpool this season, particularly due to the fact that the vast majority of Liverpool’s creative play comes through the middle of the pitch; no coincidence then that our worst spell of the season coincided with Sadio Mané’s absence due to his participation at the Afcon in Gabon, with the Senegalese talisman easily the reds most potent threat from a wide position.
When the Reds face top teams who open up the pitch, the presence of our full-backs, pressed high up the flanks, provides a width which complements the narrowness of the front three. But against a deep-lying central block, such width is not damaging enough: Clyne provides a good attacking threat and delivers a dangerous cross, but rarely gets in behind his opposition full-back due the nature of his position; James Milner is inhibited in hitting the by-line due to his natural tendency to turn onto his right foot. At times Adam Lallana was utilised in wide areas, but, again, he naturally wants to be influencing the play from a central position. Such observations make the recent recruitment of Mohamed Salah a particularly impressive scope – the prospect of the Eygptian occupying one flank whilst Mané occupies the other is an exciting one and I expect our results against deep-lying teams to improve with the acquisition of his services.
Much criticism was laid at Liverpool’s defence this season, but I feel that the number of goals conceded was more a reflection of the team’s style of play rather than a chronic problem with our defenders. A Jürgen Klopp team plays with a high defensive line, and is always on the front foot looking to press and defend from the front. In a fast-paced league like the Premier League this can often leave defensive gaps for the opposition to exploit. The current back-four – Clyne, Matip, Lovern, Milner – are a capable unit and would concede fewer goals in Spain or Italy where the tempo is slower. Nonetheless, in order to properly contest the title, Klopp must find a way to concede fewer goals that reconciles with his distinctive game-plan. The answer may well be Virgil Van Dijck: first and foremost because he is an excellent defender, but also because it would provide Klopp with the quality required to play a back three, most probably of Lovern, Matip and Van Dijck. Three central defenders would provide the freedom for one to play in a sweeper-type role whilst allowing the other two to man-mark. A sweeper would help to neutralise the space that is often left in our defensive third due to our high-intensity playing style. Klopp flirted with this system a little in the season past, utilising Matip, Lovern and Ragnar Klavan, who, I should add, made a solid contribution in his debut season and I’m sure if he had joined the reds earlier in his career would have been a regular first-team player.
In addition to Van Dijk, there has been much speculation linking RB Leipzig midfielder Naby Keïta to Anfield and whilst his services would be an excellent addition to the squad, I am relaxed about the prospect given the performances displayed by Gini Wijnaldum in the 16/17 season. In many ways, he was something of an unsung hero in our midfield, controlling the tempo with his short passes and bridging defence to attack as the anchorman. Similarly to Lallana, Gini is excellent at taking the ball on the half-turn and altering the entire dynamic of play, a much needed attribute in a Jürgen Klopp team that constantly looks to turn defence into attack. The composed dutchman was player of the season for me.
Looking forward to next season, hopefully we will have sealed a place in the Champions League proper, and, if so, I expect the reds to perform better than the last time we graced Europe’s most prestigious competition. The squad has been together for a more considerable period than the team that competed in 14/15 which contained a bundle of new recruits. In addition to competing in the Champions League proper, I believe a realistic aim would be to secure another top four finish – last season cannot just be a one-off, we have to defend our position and establish ourselves as one of the best outfits in the country. I have little doubt that Liverpool can continue to compete with the top teams in the league, and with the correct acquisitions to bolster the squad, who knows, perhaps Klopp could make us dream once again.