Top 4 is the best the Reds can hope to achieve this season, having been knocked out of both cup competitions and too far to catch Antonio Conte’s imperious Chelsea side. The month of January 2017 will always be remembered as the period that undid the brilliant work from the first six months of the season. It really was a make-or-break month, and ultimately January proved to break Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
Weaknesses – known but previously shunted with the Reds’ blistering early season form – were cruelly exposed, while the perceived strength in depth this year wilted under pressure – with chief culprit Daniel Sturridge unable to deliver in Sadio Mané’s absence.
Assuming the Reds achieve their minimum target this year of Champions League qualification, here are five positions (in order of importance) which Klopp simply have to strengthen if he is to have a better chance at silverware next season.
Winger – Pace, pace, pace
If there’s one thing that Mané has brought to the club, it isn’t just his goals or assists. Mané’s pace has exposed the glaring lack of pace within this Liverpool side. Aside from the Senegalese, perhaps only Divock Origi and Sheyi Ojo have decent acceleration in attacking areas – and even then they either don’t based their game on pace or are still too raw to suitably replace Mané’s pace.
Look at the top teams, they have at least two really quick offensive players. The champions-in-waiting have at least three: Pedro, Willian and Victor Moses. Manchester City have three: Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and new boy Gabriel Jesus. Manchester United have Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. Arsenal have Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi. All these quick, agile players in or around the first 12 to 13 picks for their respective managers.
Ideally, two quick wingers or forwards will be signed, but fans would certainly settle for one now. The usual suspects of Julian Brandt, Christian Pulisic and Alexandre Lacazette are being bandied around, and someone in their ilk will do well to share the dynamic, direct threat with Mané.
Left-back – Specialist left-footer
James Milner has done brilliantly filling in at left-back this season, with his positional awareness, overlaps and inside movements helping the Reds go forward. Yet there are times, through no fault to Milner, the Reds have lacked width in their attack. With Liverpool’s left-back coming inside, there was no one on the left stretching the opponents back four and midfield laterally.
It has been easy to park the bus against the Reds this year, and one reason would definitely be the lack of width. With Klopp still not trusting Alberto Moreno to consistently perform in defence, it would be wise to invest in a proper, first-choice left-back. Basically, a left-footed clone of Nathaniel Clyne.
This wouldn’t be the end for Milner though. His experience and title-winning knowhow will be crucial for Klopp’s relatively young dressing room. With loyal servant Lucas Leiva likely to end his Anfield tenure at the end of this season, Milner could fill the Brazilian’s role – both as an experienced old head and versatile squad member – able to fill in at both full-back positions and in midfield, when need be.
Defensive Midfield – Bedrock of title successes
Last summer, N’Golo Kante (Chelsea), Victor Wanyama (Spurs) and Idrissa Gueye (Everton) moved clubs. In hindsight, had Liverpool moved for either trio, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest they would have been closer to Chelsea right now. It’s good to know that skipper Jordan Henderson have proven himself in that No.6 role, but title-winning sides need specialists in the most specialised of positions.
Title-winning United sides of Alex Ferguson’s later years had peak Michael Carrick, their city rivals relying on Nigel De Jong and then Fernandinho for their two title successes, Leicester City heavily depended on Kante (as this season has proved), while Chelsea used to rely on Claude Makelele, more recently Nemanja Matic and Kante.
In the Reds’ two most recent title tilts, Javier Mascherano was the rock in Rafa Benitez’s midfield, while a converted Steven Gerrard almost dictated Brendan Rodgers’ side to title success from a deep-lying position. Current first pick No.6 Henderson is a bit of both, but he is neither a defensive, hard tackling specialist nor a truly visionary and creative playmaker. Henderson will likely improve into the latter, so Klopp should attempt to find a (close to) world-class No.6 and provide the foundation for his swashbuckling Liverpool side.
This could free up Henderson and allow him to return to his previous box-to-box role. With Emre Can left to learn from and deputise of this new No.6, it will then be up to Henderson, Adam Lallana, Giorgino Wijnaldum and perhaps even Roberto Firmino to rotate within the one to two remaining midfield spots.
Striker – Sturridge’s replacement
As great a forward Sturridge is on the pitch, he is rarely on it, while this season has proved he’s ill-fitted for Klopp’s style – no matter how hard he tries. As a supporting cast, Origi, Danny Ings and Firmino are great, but as yet, they do not provide enough goals.
Although the goals have been shared among the team this year, having a top, powerful striker to lead the line wouldn’t go amiss, someone to nick an undeserving winner against highly defensive teams. Arsenal used to win titles with Thierry Henry, Chelsea got by with a certain Didier Drogba and then Diego Costa, United won with Ruud van Nistelrooy, Robin van Persie and then-world class Wayne Rooney, while City will thank Sergio Aguero for their title successes.
The Reds used to have Michael Owen, Fernando Torres, and then Luis Suarez during their three title tilts of the modern era, but in the last few years – with Sturridge constantly missing – Liverpool have relied on a specialist winger and an attacking midfielder by trade as their first choice No.9. Firmino has done well up top, however his finishing has still much room for improvement. He could turn into Liverpool’s next Suarez, but till then, a new (close to) world class forward is needed.
Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Inaki Williams could provide that added pace and power sorely lacking up front.
Centre-back – Mix of quality and promise
Yes, a new goalkeeper is not on this list; Loris Karius will come good, while Danny Ward should return from his loan spell as Klopp’s No.2. Instead, a centre-back will be required, assuming Mamadou Sakho doesn’t prove himself at Crystal Palace and leaves Anfield.
Lucas will leave and Ragnar Klavan should leave – the latter fifth choice at best. If Liverpool are to challenge for titles, Klopp can only afford to have Dejan Lovren as third choice, at best. Joel Matip needs a new partner, and if that isn’t Sakho, Klopp will need to go shopping.
With up-and-coming and now-fit Joe Gomez waiting in the wings as fourth pick, the Reds’ central defence really only need one more to complete a quality quartet.