Ok, the dream summer has not happened, understandably – but it’s not all doom and gloom for the Reds. The new signings thus far have strengthened not only the squad but, more importantly, enhanced the first XI.
As compared to last season when Jurgen Klopp only really trusted his first choice starting line-up and a couple of other bench players, the German manager now have several interesting options to choose from every time he sits down to pick his starting XI.
Right up top, he has further improved an already devastating Liverpool attack, providing more width and pace in the form of Mohammad Salah. His signing was easily justified with the Reds’ poor showing from New Year’s Day right up till the start of March.
Klopp hopes Salah can help make more of a difference in the tighter games against more defensive sides. What’s more, Klopp now has four really strong options to choose from for his three up top – Salah, Brazilian duo Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino, and last year’s signing of the summer Sadio Mané.
He will be that bit less reliant on Daniel Sturridge or Divock Origi to fill in, in view of their limitations as side or wing forwards.
What happens up top would also have some effect on Klopp’s midfield trio. Skipper Jordan Henderson is likely his first pick as the No.6, and if Salah, Mané and Firmino emerge as Klopp’s preferred trio up front, it is very unlikely Coutinho drops out of the side. The Brazilian playmaker will be one of the two remaining central midfield spots.
Last season’s first choice duo Adam Lallana and Giorgino Wijnaldum will have to battle it out for the remaining midfield spot. Both did well last year but for all their industry, did not give the Reds enough creative flair from midfield. Waiting in the wings are also Emre Can and the better-settled Marko Grujic, with versatile youngster Ben Woodburn too hoping for a chance in midfield.
These abundance of options in midfield even provide Klopp with options to use Can or Wijnaldum in place of Henderson as the Reds’ midfield pivot.
Solving the drought of early 2017
Some of last year’s problems also look to be resolved by Klopp’s non-marquee signings.
The dream was for Monaco’s raiding left-back Benjamin Mendy to join for a record fee and solve Liverpool’s left-back problems for the best part of the next decade. Alas, that did not materialise and Mendy is now at Manchester City.
Instead, Klopp turned to Andy Robertson of Hull. Though he suffered relegation, one plus Robertson has over Mendy is his Premier League experience – which would mean that bit less time to settle in. The Scottish international is unlikely to be first choice immediately, but at least he provides a more trusted option for Klopp, one that Alberto Moreno evidently could not provide.
In the more strategic, tactical battles against the Premier League’s elites, Klopp will likely turn to his trusted lieutenant James Milner. In the games against deep-lying opposition, which Liverpool found so difficult to break down in the second half of last season, Klopp can now use a left-footed left-back he trusts to provide more width and a different angle of delivery, without fear of the eccentricity Moreno used to bring.
This also helps solve Klopp’s problem of a plan B. Whereas last year’s 4-4-2 diamond was not given proper width from the full-back positions, Klopp can now enhance his plan B by deploying Robertson at left-back, and possibly even Trent Alexander-Arnold as a more offensive option on the right. This would bring more balance to Klopp’s 4-4-2 diamond and greater attacking impetus for his plan B.
Another of last season’s problems was multiple injuries up top. This was further exacerbated by yet another season-ending injury to Danny Ings, who Klopp counted on as a significant option he could turn to when he was preparing his team at the start of last season.
Without Ings and with Sturridge’s never-ending injury woes, Klopp only had Origi and a then-raw Woodburn in reserve. It was only going to be a matter of time before the likes of Coutinho and Mané picked up their own injuries, while the latter also went to AFCON in January.
This left Firmino to fill in on the left and right wing, where he was definitely less effective than as a harassing centre forward. Origi’s five in five in late 2016 was a false dawn as he suffered from an over-reliance on him in early 2017.
Klopp has certainly learned his lesson by bringing in Chelsea’s young upstart Dominic Solanke. The under-20 World Cup winner may not be ready yet to start week-in week-out, but he is at the age where he is too good for the U-23s and is close to making the first-team match-day squad on a regular basis. In essence, Solanke is now battling with Ings and Origi for one of the two back-up striker spots on the bench, the other which is assumably held by a fit Sturridge.
If Ings suffers another long-term (and probably Anfield career-ending) injury, or Origi isn’t performing up to scratch, or even Sturridge continues his injury problems, Klopp will be ready to turn to Solanke, who should be primed and ready, to step up and fill in where necessary.
Strengthened from outside and in
With other young back-up options improving after a year with the first-team, the Reds’ squad has strengthen from the inside as well. Some supporters feel Alexander-Arnold could even usurp Nathaniel Clyne’s right-back position soon, while the aforementioned Woodburn could make a greater impact from midfield this season.
Joe Gomez will also hope he remains fit for the majority of the season, especially if Virgil van Dijk does not end up at Anfield. If VVD doesn’t sign, Gomez will probably be 4th choice and be given the cup games. If VVD does sign, Ragnar Klavan will be 4th pick with Gomez out on loan.
In either case, the Reds should have a strong quartet of central defenders. The only difference is if the Reds have two surefire first picks (in Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren) and two back-ups (in Gomez and Klavan), or three strong options (in Matip, Lovren and VVD) to choose two from and one back-up (in Klavan).
What this all means is the increased options all over the field for Klopp, in terms of personnel, style, strategic approach, and more. Of course, adding VVD – and possibly Naby Keita at the last minute – will enhance the quality of the options available to Klopp.
But for now, his signings added on to his current batch will give him greater room for tactical manoeuvres next season as he hopes to sustain a season-long challenge for the Holy Grail, remain in the top four and get to the knockout stages of the Champions League.