Liverpool season preview: The Mighty Reds’ rebuild that never was
With the Premier League season set to kick-off in less than a week, the nervous excitement that often accompanies fans, has dissipated into anxiety and an underlying sense of frustration among Liverpool fans. What was meant to be a positive rebuild that replaced an ageing midfield with a core of vibrant and ambitious individuals, has instead resulted in six outgoings and only two new signings. Vinay Patel uncovers why Liverpool’s season may be as underwhelming as their transfer window.
New blood and unwelcome surprises
Despite the emotional farewell the departing six shared with Anfield, including vice captain James Milner and their number nine, Roberto Firmino, the month of June was full of hope and ambition. Echoed by the signing of Brighton’s World Cup winner, Alexis Mac Allister, for an initial fee of £35 million, it also highlighted the gravitational pull the club still had in spite of missing out on Champions League qualification. The month was bookended with an agreement to sign attacking midfielder Domonik Szoboszlai from RB Leipzig, upon triggering his £60 million release clause. With Mac Allister’s versatility and Szoboszlai’s creativity, the Reds were a defensive lynchpin away from potentially challenging for the title once more.
The early days of July displayed a similar sentiment to that of June, as Liverpool looked to sign at least one more midfielder, resulting in a bloated list of supposedly linked players. One credible name however, was Southampton’s Romeo Lavia. The Belgian was one of the shining lights in a miserable campaign for the relegated Saints, Lavia’s athleticism and technical ability made him an ideal understudy for a declining Fabinho. Despite Southampton’s steep asking price of £50 million, Liverpool were confident of striking a deal for a lower fee. No such deal has been made at the time of writing.
As the days went by in July, so did the audacious transfer activity of the Saudi Pro League and it was Liverpool’s turn to be the deer in headlights. Steven Gerrard’s Al-Ettifaq turned the head of the Reds captain Jordan Henderson and Nuno’s Al-Ittihad did the same for Fabinho. Liverpool were suddenly faced with a future without a recognised no. 6, their captain of eight years and Thiago Alcantara being their only senior midfielder over the age of 25. As both Henderson and Fabinho left the club, Liverpool’s rebuild was well and truly up in flames. Jurgen Klopp expressed his desire for Henderson to stay at the club, while succumbing to the fact that Fabinho was no longer his ‘hoover’ in midfield. To say that he was caught off-guard by their departure, is a severe understatement and Klopp once again has his work cut out for the upcoming season.
Heroic goalkeeping and harrowing defending
While the whole squad is supposedly undergoing a rebuild, the goalkeeping department has remained rather stable. Alisson has displayed time and again why he is the Reds’ number one and their Player of the Season, quite literally saving the side following a season of countless defensive mishaps. Caoimhin Kelleher remains one of the most reliable backup goalkeepers in the league, with Adrian staying on for another season.
Toward the end of last season, Klopp experimented with a brand new system that included a back three when in possession, consisting of Andrew Robertson, new appointed captain Virgil van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate. While van Dijk will most likely relish his new role as captain, he will also look to improve on a sub-par season by his high standards. When fit, Konate looks at home when covering the right channel and was arguably the Reds’ best defender last season, despite facing spells on the side-lines.
Robertson has had to adjust to his new role as a left-sided centre back and while no one doubts his defensive ability, the general consensus among Liverpool fans is that he is wasted so far down the pitch. He is much more effective hugging the left side of the opposition’s box, forming a deadly partnership with fellow full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold, which was critical to the Reds’ success. As Joel Matip looks to be past his best and Joe Gomez being of sub-standard quality, there has been clamour for a left-sided centre back. Initial interest in Euro U-21 winner Levi Colwill however, quickly subsided after the 20 year-old penned a new six-year deal with Chelsea.
The all too familiar defensive frailties re-emerged in Liverpool’s recent pre-season friendly in a defeat Bayern Munich, with Alisson yet again sparing the already rosy red blushes of his defenders. With Robertson out of position, Konate’s injury record and lacklustre defensive cover, the Reds’ defence are already in murky waters ahead of their season opener against Chelsea.
Inverting Trent and a midfield vacuum without a hoover
You may have noticed that one of Liverpool’s regular defenders was left out of the list. This is because Trent Alexander-Arnold has been enjoying his new role as an inverted full-back in Klopp’s new 3-2-2-3 formation. Having experimented as an out and out no.6 in some pre-season games, the expectation is that Alexander-Arnold will invert into a deep lying playmaker when in possession and a right back on the defensive transition. His new role was of pivotal importance in the Reds’ seven game winning streak that spearheaded an unlikely top 4 charge.
However, with the departure of Fabinho, Liverpool lack an established no. 6 to partner Alexander-Arnold. While Mac Allister often played in that position during his time at Brighton, most feel he is better utilised as a number 8, alongside fellow arrival Szoboszlai. Curtis Jones has also experimented in the role but both players lack the skillset to be the ‘lighthouse’ that Fabinho was to Klopp for so many years.
While Liverpool were handed a transfer boost for Lavia, after he was an unused substitute in Southampton’s season opener against Sheffield Wednesday, the growing pains that he will most likely experience during the transitional period cannot go unnoticed. With only one Premier League season under his belt, at the age of twenty, he lacks the experience offered by many other players linked to the club. One could argue that it is unfair for such a young player to be given the responsibility of being the potential spine of the Reds’ midfield for the foreseeable future. Another, more experienced holding midfielder is necessary. While academy graduate Stefan Bajcetic is another option, like Lavia, the club would run the risk of stunting their growth should either of them be the starting no.6.
While the likes of Harvey Elliott, Curtis Jones and Thiago Alcantara will all have a role to play this season, the latter will be wary that his current contract expires next summer. When fit, the Spanish maestro can arguably be considered one of the best midfielders in the league but injuries have plagued his Liverpool career. Nonetheless, Thiago will have a huge role to play in the squad, as he is now one of the club’s most senior players and will be expected to lead by example. Jones will hope to bring his end of season and Euro U-21 form back to Anfield, as he vies for a spot in the starting XI. Elliott’s attacking prowess should not go unnoticed, as his versatility allows him to play on the right side of a front three, or as an attacking midfielder, often linking up with Mo Salah on the right flank. It is safe to say that both academy graduates will not be short of minutes this season.
Redemption, rigour and renewal
At the end of storm, there’s a golden sky… is something that can be pertained to Liverpool’s plethora of attacking options. In spite of Firmino’s exit, the Reds possess five quality forwards that comfortably cover all three positions. The Reds’ record Premier League goal scorer Salah will be a nailed on starter on the right side, potentially accompanied by Darwin Nunez down the middle. Nunez seems to have acclimated to his surroundings and will feel he has a lot to prove after an underwhelming first season on Merseyside. After netting four times in pre-season playing as a striker, the Uruguayan could be one to watch this season. An alternative is Cody Gakpo, who is able to play the Firmino-esque role of a false nine, one that earned him a starting spot in last season’s run in. On the left, Luis Diaz will look to recuperate the electric form he brought on his arrival, with his dynamism offering something different to the direct approach of former Red Sadio Mane. Last but certainly not least is Diogo Jota. Able to play across the front three, Jota’s instinct in front of goal is second to none among the forwards and he will be another player hoping for an injury free campaign.
So how will the Reds fare this season? Perhaps we will see a return to the premature days of heavy metal football, or we might witness a fluid 3-2-2-3 with Lavia and Alexander-Arnold holding down the midfield. One thing is certain however, Liverpool’s thin squad will struggle with the swift turnover of Europa League Thursdays to Premier League weekends. In a season where the big six are strengthening, alongside the likes of Newcastle, Brighton and Aston Villa, the league will be more competitive than ever. Liverpool do not yet possess the personnel or squad depth for a title charge and so will have to settle for a brutal race that will end with the Reds clinching Champions League qualification. However, where the Reds might find some joy is in the Europa League and going all the way would secure UCL qualification regardless of their league standing. Tickets to Dublin anyone?