Part Three: The Squad
Liverpool are heading into the season with their strongest squad of the Premier League era. They have the world record signing at centre half and in goal; they have maybe the game’s best false nine and the league’s top scorer; they have talented fullbacks and midfield depth. Liverpool have an awful lot. In all of that, who do you expect to be this season’s standouts? And who are you worried might stumble?
I expect a lot of people—maybe not at TLO but generally—will pick members of last season’s front three to drop off, but I don’t think that happens. The balance might shift, but if anything I expect between them that Salah and Mané and Frimino will score more this season than last thanks to the arrival of Naby Keïta and Fabinho to shore things up behind them. Though speaking of Fabinho, I do think a few be disappointed when he isn’t hitting worldies into the top corner every week, but that’s more an issue with some people having odd ideas about what a holding midfielder should be doing.
On the worries side, I think after being the Swiss army knife of midfield—not necessarily first choice for any role but good enough at all of them that he racked up a boatload of minutes—those new midfield arrivals aalong with James Milner’s robotically unstoppable late-career renaissance spells trouble for Gini Wijnaldum, and as much as I love the player he was before his injury struggles, watching Adam Lallana in pre-season I’m worried his legs have gone.
I was informed yesterday by an Arsenal-supporting friend that Liverpool currently have the best squad in the League, and who am I to argue with that ? I’m incredibly excited about this squad, that’s for sure. Firmino, Salah, and Mané are already magical to watch, and with the addition of Keïta and Fabinho to that mix? I expect fireworks. I’m also holding out (like a fool) for this to be the season we celebrate the Daniel Sturridge Return Tour. We’ll see how fast my dreams get crushed.
I’m a bit worried about our squad and injuries in general, mostly because I don’t know how else to live. I’m also on the Will-Dejan-Lovren-Finally-Show-Us-Some-Consistency boat here.
I think that we are going to have a damn good year with plenty of standouts. My hope is that the front three of Salah, Firmino, and Mane continue to set the world on fire. I’d also love for Alisson to prove himself the answer to our decade of goalkeeper problems. And please, oh please, let this be the season when Daniel Sturridge body keeps its tenuous hold on fitness long enough for him to get a good run of games in.
In terms of stumbles, I think I need at least another season to convince me that Good Dejan Lovren is here to stay. I’ve just been burned too many times. It will also be interesting to see if an aging James Milner can match his excellent output from last season this time around. The relative lightness of our midfield depth makes me worried, especially with the recent news that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is set to miss the whole season.
Keïta and Mané will be absolute rock stars this year. I’ve been critical of Mané in the past but his evolving role in the squad as he moves more centrally has him set to really put the full range of his talents on devastating display. I also see Trent Alexander-Arnold making another big step up this season, possibly even seeing more time in positions higher up the pitch.
On the flip side, although I don’t expect him to struggle in his transition from Monaco to the Premier League quite as much as Chelsea’s Tiémoué Bakayoko did last season, one gets the sense that Fabinho will take some time to fully acclimate to the expansive role Klopp expects his #6 to perform in the squad. The availability of Jordan Henderson will be key to the Brazilian’s easing in process.
While I think new midfield additions Keita and Fabinho will impress, I wouldn’t be shocked to see captain Jordan Henderson have a surprisingly good year. Assuming that he moves back to more of a box-to-box role, I could see him greatly improving on his goal and assist tally from recent seasons with late runs into the box. Hendo remains a very talented footballer, one who hasn’t always been able to showcase his talents because of his position or the need to cover for the limitations of others around him. I’m hoping this season will be the one where we get to see what he’s fully capable of.
As for potential stumbles, I could see either or both of our fullbacks struggling this season. Robertson and Alexander-Arnold had stand-out campaigns last year, but can they replicate it? I hope so, but both are still young, and both have been targeted with success in the past.
AJ: I think the standouts this coming season will likely be our front three and Naby Keita. I’m just very, very excited to have a player of Naby’s calibre in our midfield and I think that his presence will go a long way to making us much more solid both on and off the ball. His ability dispossess and then carry the ball upfield is going to wreak havoc on the opposition. I only wish he’d been available for us last season.
In terms of worries, my fears are centred on being a bit light when it comes to unlocking stubborn defences and in terms of like-for-like rotation options for our front three. But I do sense that it’s less about like-for-like and more about deploying different players in differing roles depending on opposition. Front to back, our team is not just the strongest in my time as a fan when considering the nominal Best XI, but also in terms of depth. In the centre of the park, especially, only three of Naby, Fabinho, Shaqiri, Lallana, Gini, Hendo, and Milner will start. Worries about the players available as the creative engine in any 3 aside, that’s a glut of talent and I feel very good looking at that list. Hopefully we’ll be able to get some good rotation through the other competitions and maybe bring some silverware back home.
Our midfield is good. As mentioned in past instalments, I do have some doubts regarding our creativity in central areas, particularly against opponents that sit deep, but we are going to utterly gobble teams up in midfield this year. Naby is an absolute bundle of ball recoveries and progression, while Fabinho’s Lanky Lucas routine will provide stability. Both men cover immense amounts of ground, and you can buttress that with Henderson or Wijnaldum for control, add Milner for further pressing madness, or supplement with Shaqiri or Lallana to generate offence. It’s flexible enough to be adaptive without losing its fundamental essence.
Our frontline will undoubtedly score bucketloads once again, and this could be our best defensive season since Rafa, but we are going to thoroughly dominate the midfield this year.
This is the kind of prediction that could haunt me for years to come but I’m going to stick my neck on the line and say it: I think this can be a breakout season for Dominic Solanke. His underlying numbers are ridiculous in a small sample size, and but for some unfortunate finishing (which really isn’t as indicative of skill as people think) we could have been talking about one of the more exciting young players in the league last year. Watch this space. Or screenshot this and show me it on Twitter in six months when he hasn’t done anything all season.
On the downside, one wonders if time might have finally run out for James Milner. He did an admirable job last season, but the years will catch up to him eventually, and now could be the start of a decline for him. I’m also not entirely sure what Gini Wijnaldum is going to offer in a new midfield built around Fabinho and Keita, but that’s a relatively nice problem to have.
I don’t even know where to start with our squad. There’s so much talent there that it’s hard to expect anyone to have anything less than a stellar season. And none of us expected last year to turn out the way it did with Salah and Chambo and Andy Robertson flying like they did. And with the exception of Chambo, I expect them all to do roughly the same, especially now that we’ve only strengthened the squad. I generally keep my expectations of new signings pretty low so I’m ready to be pleasantly surprised by Naby and Fabinho, just like I already have been by Shaqiri. If I’m being honest, I think Shaqiri might have his standout season this year, if only because he’s finally surrounded by a team on his level after toiling in Stoke.
Disappointments are inevitable and I’m bracing myself for the drop off in form from any one of them. How can they possibly maintain this level of skill, with more games than ever? The ones that are probably going to be the most unlikely to maintain their previous forms are going to be the ones that are being relegated to the squad so I honestly don’t see how Gini, Lallana, and Milner make it off the bench barring an injury or two. And for Gini and Lallana in particular, players that depend on a good run of games to maintain their form, I don’t see how they’ll keep up what we know and love about them.
Why can’t Salah go again? Other than your typical football pessimism (are we still making “One Season Wonder” jokes about Harry Kane?), there’s no reason to believe Salah can’t have a similar season. I’ll even do you one better and give you a reason why he will do it again: he has unfinished business. We all remember how the Champions League Final ended for him. His World Cup was a major letdown, in part due to him not being fit and in part due to the drama surrounding him and his FA. I’ll point to the first 60 seconds of his preseason debut, in which he scores, as proof that he’s ready to do it again.
Aside from the obvious picks for having a standout season, I genuinely believe in the rehabilitation of Daniel Sturridge. Look, he’s probably never going to be that Daniel Sturridge again. But this Liverpool doesn’t need that Daniel Sturridge. If this Liverpool get 40% to 50% of that Sturridge, then I think that’s a standout season. Don’t get hurt, Danny. Please, don’t get hurt.
My biggest worry is the overwhelming dreadful “what if?” that we ask when we ask “what if Bobby Firmino is out for 6-8 weeks?” Granted, I think we’re more prepared for injuries to anyone in our First XI than we ever have, but taking Firmino out for anything more than a rest on the bench could slow down Liverpool in a Premier League season that will not slow down. Taking Firmino out means Liverpool has to change at least 2-3 positions, which in turn would change the way Liverpool plays. I don’t want to see that happen.