08 August 2017

Liverpool Season Preview 2017-18

Liverpool should be entering this season on a high.

Liverpool took 76 points last season, 16 more than the season before, their second-highest points total since the Rafa Benitez era.

Liverpool finished fourth last season, in an incredibly difficult league, and will be in the Champions League proper this season if they get past Hoffenheim in the playoffs later this month.

Liverpool's underlying statistics suggest they absolutely merited that fourth-place finish last season. They were one of the league's best attacks, one which should be even better this season. Of course, they were also too often terrifying in defense despite strong shot suppression numbers.

Liverpool stormed through preseason, scoring 16 and conceding just three, never once playing what we'd guess as the first-choice XI when real football actually begins. They were technically unbeaten, only losing to Atletico Madrid in the Audi Cup final on penalties, and also won the Premier League Asia Trophy. The highlight was a 3-0 thumping of Bayern Munich on Bayern Munich's own ground, and yes, it's preseason, but it's also still further proof that this Liverpool side is quite good against other quite good sides. Not that that was anywhere near the top on our list of concerns.

But Liverpool doesn't seem to be entering the season on a high. At least not according to the majority of Liverpool supporters who populate the internet. Because, as per usual, the sky is falling.

Everyone Loves Transfer Windows

With the season starting in just four days, Liverpool have added just three players. One exceptionally talented attacker, one defensive signing in a necessary position, and one surprisingly promising young striker.

But Liverpool have also missed out on two of their top three targets, at least so far. RB Leipzig refuses to consider selling Naby Keita, despite Liverpool reportedly offering something in the region of double the club's record transfer fee. Virgil van Dijk remains a possibility considering his transfer request on Monday, but even if it happens – and that's still a rather substantial if – it's a deal that should have been done more than a month ago, and seemingly would have been had Liverpool not maladroitly attempted to tap him up.

Had Liverpool already signed those two players, this would be a very different preview.

And it appears that if Liverpool can't get those two targets, Liverpool are happy to keep their money in the bank and go with the squad they have.

At this point last season, Liverpool had brought in seven players and sold ten. So far, Liverpool have added just three – as well as Flanagan and Ward returning from loan – and have sold just three, with Randall already loaned, Ojo likely to be, and Manninger having retired. It's not quite three in, three out, as those coming in are almost certain to play a lot more minutes than the three departing, and play in different positions. Also, I had honestly forgotten that Andre Wisdom was still technically a Liverpool player.

The lack of turnover is not a bad thing. Liverpool added seven players in the summer of 2016. Liverpool added seven players in the summer of 2015. Liverpool added nine players in the summer of 2014. There has been an insane amount of change over the last few years. Last season's Liverpool was one of their best in the last decade, and a bit of stability isn't unwarranted.

18 of Liverpool's 27 most-likely squad players have or will have debuted within the last three seasons, including six of Saturday's likely starting XI. Liverpool's longest serving player had played just 50 games, and probably won't add many to that total this season. Jordan Henderson's the only player with more than 200 appearances for the club. Lucas Leiva, just sold this summer, had more than twice as many Liverpool appearances than every other player bar Henderson, Coutinho, and Mignolet. That will probably still be the case next season, too.

And this is still a fairly young team; last season, only Southampton and Tottenham had a younger average age. It's a Liverpool side that's just now entering its peak years.

There are two players older than 30 in this squad: Ragnar Klavan and James Milner. Both Mignolet and Lallana will turn 30 late in the season.

It is time for this team to settle. And prove what they can do in the prime of their careers.

That said, there's always room for improvement, and a couple of positions in need of upgrading. And we all remember how a title challenge turned into a race for top four during the winter because of injuries, absences, squad depth, and fixture congestion.

Squad Depth

Yes, midfield and wide forward might be understaffed. Probably are understaffed. Liverpool have a lot of players capable of playing in these positions, but they're potentially needed in other areas, and better in other areas. If both Mané and Salah miss out, Firmino's moved wide or Coutinho's moved forward. Sturridge, Origi, and Ings can all work from wider positions if absolutely necessary, but it's certainly not ideal. If both Henderson and Can miss out, Liverpool are reliant on Wijnaldum or Milner dropping deeper. Which, again, certainly doesn't seem ideal.

Incidentally, two of the three players sold this summer were holding midfielders, with one of those two also starting ten matches (six in the league, four in the cups) at center-back.

And center-back remains my biggest concern. By some distance. Maybe there's still hope for Virgil van Dijk, and he'd be an outstanding addition, but I remain convinced that Liverpool need someone, anyone. Liverpool currently have just four players capable of playing center-back. Matip's great. But the other three are the oldest player in the squad, a 20-year-old with 10 Liverpool appearances (the majority at right-back) who's missed big chunks of the last two seasons with injury, and Dejan Lovren.

Dejan Lovren has missed at least nine league games, if not more, in all three of his Liverpool seasons. Somehow, he has the exact amount of appearances as Alberto Moreno, having signed in the same summer, with Moreno barely even getting to look at the pitch last season.

P.S. – this is not license to start talking about Mamadou Sakho as if "Mamadou Sakho, Liverpool player" is a concept based anywhere near reality. You're just gonna get yourself all worked up for no reason.

We're already seeing some of these concerns bear out. Lallana's out for two or three months, Clyne apparently for a couple of weeks, and Henderson, Coutinho, and Sturridge all missed the last friendly with minor issues. And while, yes, preseason, the starting XI was a bit frightening: Mignolet; Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Lovren, Moreno; Grujic, Can, Milner; Salah, Origi, Firmino. The team looks a bit better when adding Wijnaldum and Mané – who came on in the second half – but it's barely August and we're already fretting over injuries and depth.

That's not the best sign.

At a minimum, Liverpool are playing 48 games this season. 38 in the league, eight in Europe (two qualifiers and six in the group stage, whether it's in the Champions League or Europa League), and one in each domestic cup. And that's highly unlikely. You'd except Liverpool to win at least a couple of domestic cup matches, and at least get to the first knockout stage of the Europa League, whether by losing in the CL playoff round and progressing through the EL group stage or by finishing third in their Champions League group.

Liverpool played 47 matches last season.

Formation and First-Choice XI

We're pretty sure what formation Liverpool will be playing in the majority of those 48+ matches. The same formation we saw in almost every match last season, the same we saw in almost every moment this preseason.

And Liverpool have a very, very strong first XI. From basically front-to-back.

When everyone's fit, the attack is beyond reproach. I'll put it up against anyone in the league. Even Manchester City. Even Chelsea. The midfield's got a bit of everything: creativity, passing, tackling, dribbling, and players capable of scoring from both inside and outside of the box. Yes, the defense remains concerning. Lovren and Matip each have their issues, but were good together last season when they actually had a consistent run of games. Left-back is up for grabs – Milner will probably be first up, but I expect Robertson to make the position his own as the season goes on, and those two plus a rehabilitated Moreno should be enough cover. Similar can be said for the goalkeeping position. In theory, Karius has the most tools and the most room to grow, but there can and probably will be brain farts, and we can't forget how crucial Mignolet was in last season's run-in.

When there are more than a few players absent, well, *gulps, tugs collar*. But, to be fair, that's the case for almost every side in the division.

With five strikers on the books – as long as Sturridge and Ings are healthy, as long as Solanke and Origi continue to progress – a 4-4-2 formation seems a reasonable alternative if the squad becomes stretched.

Either way, Liverpool are going to attack. Liverpool are going to press. Liverpool are very much built for both of these traits. Liverpool are going to make it hard for the opposition to get shots, and hopefully Liverpool will make it harder for the opposition to get goals. Practice may well eventually make perfect.

Liverpool will have a lot of possession against 13 or so teams in the league, and will need to be better at breaking them down. Mo Salah should absolutely help with that, Coutinho in midfield should absolutely help with that. Liverpool will look to counter, thrust, and absolutely dagger the other five or six, just as they did last season.

To a certain extent, we know – and the opposition knows – what we're getting with Liverpool.

Oh, yeah, there are other teams too

And it's not as if the opposition's stood still. Chelsea have added Morata, Bakayoko, and Rüdiger, ostensibly an improvement in attack, midfield, and defense to last season's title winners. City have added Mendy, Walker, Bernardo Silva, Ederson, and Danilo, rebuilding the full-back position, fixing the weak spot in goal, and adding yet another attacking midfielder. Arsenal now have Lacazette. United now have Lukaku, as well as Matic and Lindelof, three more orcs for Mourinho's horde. Everton spent their Lukaku money on Pickford, Klassen, Michael Keane, and Sandro, and are still making cooing noises at The Gylfi. Only Tottenham haven't added anyone, yet, and it's not as if that team needs much work.

The Top 6, Top 7 if we're being charitable, gets stronger and stronger every season. But matches against their peers aren't where Liverpool have struggled. Sides that already gave Liverpool issues last season will be better too. Leicester added Iheanacho. Bournemouth added Ake, Begovic, and Defoe – two of whom scored against Liverpool last season. West Ham's got Arnautovic, Chicharito, and Joe Hart. Etc, etc, etc.

And there will be no easy stretches of games next season, whether it's the Champions League play-off followed by Arsenal and City in the next month; a back-to-back against United and Tottenham with Europe sandwiched in-between in October; a festive schedule against bottom-half sides, but with two matches against teams who beat Liverpool last season; or a trip to Chelsea in May with hopefully all still to play for.

I would appreciate the Premier League not being this good of a league.

In conclusion, Libya is a land of, wait, I made this joke last season

But the sky is not falling. And the internet being reactionary should be news to no one.

Sure, there are some genuine fears and complaints. But the complaints and fears aside, warranted or unwarranted, Liverpool do have a lot to be optimistic about. Liverpool were really good at times last season, and Liverpool still have all the players responsible for it. Mohamed Salah is one of the best signings any side's made this summer.

And Liverpool still have Jürgen Klopp, one of the best managers in the world, whose Dortmund team made the leap from fifth to first in Klopp's third season. Dortmund's goals scored total rose by 13 that campaign, and goals conceded total dropped by 20 – and that was with adding only one defender, a right-back, in that summer window.

This Liverpool side is a settled side, one that should be entering its peak years, with a settled style.

Everything may not be as perfect as we'd like it. This summer hasn't been wholly ideal. But the sky is not falling. And this should still be a very good team that has a very good season.


김연호 said...

PC, EC, JH are all ball players. 3 mid system needs GW(instead of EC).

nate said...

Can's fine in that role. Able to shuttle between the lines, carry the ball forward, make late runs into the box.

김연호 said...

Yes, and he is tall(important). But when PC and JH start, simple pass and covering space of GW will be more important. I think EC wants to be a center of game and team. That will make him inefficient when PC and JH in middle.

Ryan McKain said...

I can't wait for your witty analysis this year. You're always my first post-game read.

Anonymous said...

Great preview. Cuts thru the dross, hype and hysteria.
Thank you again and looking forward to another year reading your writing.


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