07 August 2018

Liverpool Season Preview 2018-19

I hate optimism. It makes me nervous.

Last season's run to the Champions League final. Last season's underlying statistics. This summer's additions.

They're all good. Really good. Even preseason, for what little that's worth, has been good as it winds into the real campaign: 2-1 City, 4-1 United, 5-0 Napoli.

And it makes me nervous.

Like last summer, there haven't been many ins and outs. Naby Keïta, signed a year ago, finally a Liverpool player. Fabinho, a more orthodox defensive midfielder to both spell Henderson and allow him to play further forward, but one who'll also need time to adjust to the Premier League. Alisson, the top class keeper we've been screaming about for years. And Xherdan Shaqiri, necessary depth across any of the attacking positions.

Like last summer, they're expensive tweaks rather than the wholesale changes we saw in 2014-15, 2015-16, and 2016-17. Incremental but important improvement to a side that was already damned fun and damned good.

Keïta for Emre Can and Alisson for Ward isn't like-for-like – thankfully! – but Liverpool have positionally replaced those who've departed.

And others are bound to depart as well. Liverpool have already loaned Woodburn, Wilson, Ejaria, and Kent. Ings, Ojo, Origi, Grujic, Mignolet, Markovic, and Chirivella seem likely to leave this week, whether via sale or loan. Ten of those 11 players, not counting Mignolet, combined for all of 529 minutes played for Liverpool last season, the vast majority by Ings.

I'd feel better about the midfield with Oxlade-Chamberlain fit, ruled out for the entire season. I'd feel better about the front three with just one more player in depth, even if it were Woodburn or Wilson – both loaned out because they desperately need playing time at this stage of their career. All of the strikers can play wide *if need be* but I'd very much prefer they weren't. Markovic, Ings, Ojo, etc. – still with the club for now – are obviously not counted because you read the same rumors I read, although I certainly wouldn't be mad if Ojo stayed with the club this season.

Because, as much as I'd like to, I find it hard to believe that Liverpool's front three will be as available as they were last season.

Good lord that front three was good last season. And I really hope they'll be as good next season. But just as importantly, good lord that front three was almost always available last season. And I really hope that they'll be next season.

They could be! But then one could get seriously injured and then does everything fall to hell?

Salah, Firmino, and Mané were unsurprisingly Liverpool's top three scorers last season. 91 goals in all competitions between them. Woof. More than most Liverpool seasons in recent years. Fourth, fifth, and sixth top-scorers? Coutinho, Emre Can, and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Sold, left on a free transfer, out for the season. There's another 23 goals between them. Seventh-top scorer was a three-way tie between Sturridge, Alexander-Arnold, and Own Goals. With three each.

Can Keïta, Sturridge, Shaqiri, Lallana, Fabinho pick that up? Can Sturridge and Lallana stay anywhere near fit? Will Henderson score more playing further forward, with Fabinho as the deepest midfielder?

Shaqiri will absolutely help in that regard, and is a much-needed game-changer off the bench. Naby Keïta scored eight and nine in his last two seasons at RB Leipzig, in a side that scored a lot less than last season's Liverpool. Sturridge has *gulps, tugs collar* looked fantastic so far in preseason. Lallana, even with "normal" injuries, will be around more this season, versatile enough to play anywhere in the front five.

So, maybe. But it's still maybe.

Regardless, this is one hell of a squad, especially when the preferred XI are all available. It might well be the best Liverpool squad I can remember, in more than a decade of doing this. In all three areas of the pitch: that front three; a constantly improving defense after adding Virgil van Dijk and now featuring the world's most expensive goalkeeper; and if everyone settles, an well-balanced and surprisingly deep midfield.

And this squad is exactly the right age to reach its potential.

The nine Liverpool players who played the most league minutes last season are all between 24 and 29 years old. Salah, Firmino, and Mané are 26, exactly at what should be the apex of their powers. Fabinho's 24, Keïta's 23, Alisson's 25, and Shaqiri's 26. Only Milner – for whom age truly is just a number – Lallana, and Klavan are over 30.

We've been talking about how a young Liverpool have potential for three seasons. Now is when that gets proven.

And not only is the squad the right age, it's mostly a settled squad.

Sure, only two of Liverpool's most-likely 25 players have made more than 150 appearances for the club. Only two were with the club before the 2014-15 season.

But 16 of the 25 were either signed or promoted from the Academy by Jürgen Klopp. Eight of the 11 players in the "first-choice" side are Klopp signings or promotions – all except for Jordan Henderson, Dejan Lovren, and Roberto Firmino; the first two have absolutely earned their spots and the latter is probably the most Jürgen Klopp player to ever play.

This group has grown together, this group will continue to grow together. This group is already good, and looks as if its gotten even better.

But what Liverpool does or has done isn't all that matters.

Manchester City remains the league's leviathan, curb-stomping almost all-comers last season. Most points, most wins, most goals, etc. etc. in a single campaign. All they've lost is Yaya Toure and a couple of back-up goalkeepers. They've added a club record signing in Riyad Mahrez. They remain terrifyingly good. It's still their league to lose.

Chelsea and Arsenal, under new management, will both be very different sides this season. That may help Liverpool, as both go through a period of adjustment. That may threaten Liverpool, as Chelsea bounce back after a disappointing campaign, as Chelsea always seems to do; as Arsenal push forward after a few seasons of Late Wenger Malaise. Neither will have Champions League football this season, and we've seen how that can help domestically, although the Europa League can be a detriment depending on how it's handled.

Tottenham have stood still, but that's still a very good and young and experienced squad standing still, albeit one that's moving into a new stadium – meaning they will be a lot of away matches to start the campaign – and one that'll seemingly struggle with World Cup fatigue more than any other in England. If Tottenham still start well enough, look out. If not, it could be a long season playing catch-up.

It feels like it's gonna be very Third Season Jose Mourinho for Manchester United, but you can never count that lot out, especially since Liverpool haven't beaten them in a match that counts since 2013-14.

And while the rest of league's spent some money, Liverpool were very good against the rest of the league last season, with only one loss to a side outside the top five. Whether that's a high-water mark or a trend which continues remains to be seen.

It also ain't gonna be the easiest start to the season.

Liverpool will play four matches against top-six rivals in the first 11 games. Three of those four are away from home: Tottenham, Chelsea, and Arsenal, with the other against Manchester City. Comparable fixtures in both September and November are worrisome, with Liverpool only taking nine of an available 21 points in those matches last season.

If Liverpool similarly struggle in those matches, we could be done here before 2019 depending on what others do. But if Liverpool improve on last season's comparable performances, look out. All things considered, Liverpool have gotten off lightly from the World Cup, with only Lovren and Henderson yet to feature in preseason, which should definitely help at the start. Aside from the New Years' Day game at Manchester City, it's not a bad festive period. It's certainly looks a reasonable close-season run-in. There are points on the table, clear ways to improve upon the totals from last season.

Can Liverpool win the league this season? Probably not. But maybe! Honestly.

We've got reason to be optimistic.

Liverpool have that front three. They're the right age. They've added some outstanding players this summer, and have only lost Coutinho – who Liverpool did fine without for half a season – and Emre Can. They were an incredibly fun side last season that looks to be even more fun in this one.

Liverpool have the talent. More than any other Liverpool side in recent memory.

But so do five other sides in England, especially the one who just won the dang thing.

What you do obviously matters. And Liverpool have seemingly done what they've needed to this summer, building upon a truly enjoyable team from last season. As has thankfully happened in every year since Jürgen Klopp became manager.

But it ain't only up to Liverpool.


Vercingetora said...

Shaqiri looks well suited to fill the Coutinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Fekir void. What are your thoughts on excluding him from that position?

Anonymous said...

We've got Arsenal 2 days before Man City during the festive period so I'd say it's tough.

sbjensen said...

Wonderful. Brilliant. I've missed your writing.

One minor correction: "Liverpool haven't beaten them in a match that counts since 2013-14." That statement is true, IF you add the word "league" in front of "match." We did knock Man United out of the Europa League in Klopp's first season.

Thanks for the work, as ever.


A G said...

Nice write-up as usual, the Reds will surely be fun. The fixture list overall doesn't look too bad but you're right playing 4 of the top 6 sides within 11 games could have a massive influence. Klopp must know it too and has us looking ready to go from Day 1, we could be in a fantastic position after that first Arsenal game. I can't wait to watch the Reds play in anger again.

World Cup a) relative lack fatigue will hopefully show up in our favour over the festive period. b) an equally relative lack of time for others (especially European teams) to prepare how to handle playing against us.

Thanks for these and good luck for the new season! Look forward to reading plenty of great posts as always, with even more goal events to keep you busy and us all entertained!