Part Three: Player Predictions
Even without major signings, Liverpool head into 2019-20 with their strongest squad in the Premier League era, one boasting arguably the league’s top goalkeeper, its top fullbacks on both sides, and its best pair of wingers—along with the world’s best centre half. In amongst all that talent, we wanted to know who The Liverpool Offside staff think will stand out—and who they think might fail to meet expectations.
These days, it feels a bit as though at least half of Liverpool’s starting eleven can make a case for being world class, so there are a lot of obvious potential standouts to choose from. Virgil van Dijk, Alisson, Mo Salah. They’re all going to be up there for player of the season. Again. Along with the likes of Firmino and Mané and Robertson. I’m picking Naby Keïta, though. Because it’s been two years Liverpool fans have been waiting on him, and I think a lot of people have started to forget—or maybe never really were in on—just how good he was leading up to the summer Liverpool signed him.
He was the best midfielder in the Bundesliga before Liverpool did that delayed deal with Red Bull Leipzig. His numbers on the ball looked like Adreas Iniesta in his prime and his numbers off it looked like N’Golo Kante. If he can stay fit—which, given his injury history before last season, he really should be able to—and having now had a year to get adjusted, I’m expecting him to end the season firmly in that world class category. On the other side, though—and speaking of players with injury histories—I’m a touch worried Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is going to struggle to rediscover his pre-injury form.
It could be a sentiment grounded more in hope than reason, but this is going to be the season that Naby Keïta shows everyone what the fuss was all about. Klopp recently revealed that the ex-RB Leipzig dynamo had arrived at Anfield last summer carrying an injury, which of course led to further knocks dispersed throughout the season to effectively rob the Guinean of crucial momentum. However, flashes of true, maybe even elite, quality shone through in many of his subdued displays last campaign. How Keïta fits alongside the returning Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain—with whom he shares some stylistic similarities—and Fabinho in what is presumably the first choice midfield will be fascinating to observe. That challenge, along with the process of Klopp unlocking the potential of a player who embodies the idea of a “box-to-box” midfielder more than any Red since arguably peak Steven Gerrard, could be the crucial answer to the question of how one improves a 97-point Champions League-winning squad.
Elsewhere, I suspect that Joël Matip might keep his place ahead of Joe Gomez as first choice partner to Virgil Van Dijk. It is notable that, save for a slight adjustment wobble upon being suddenly thrust back into the starting lineup, the dropoff in defensive performance from Gomez to Matip following the young Englishman’s injury in December was virtually nonexistent. Furthermore, the Cameroonian is decidedly more progressive and comfortable on the ball than Gomez, willing to attempt searching forward passes and step up into midfield with the ball when play is stagnant, all traits that dovetail well with Van Dijk’s preference to hang back as the last man. Coupled with Gomez’s discouraging injury record and current position as second in the right back depth chart due to the injury to Nathanial Clyne could suggest a brief plateau to the 22-year-old’s upward trajectory this season.
Can we all just stop and say a prayer to the deity or our choice for the sustained health and fitness of Joe Gomez? For years, Gomez has been on the precipice of greatness but has been hindered by an inability to make it through a season without a major injury setback. It’s clear that Klopp sees him as Van Dijk’s ideal partner, and we got a taste of how good the duo looked together in the first half of last season. If he can remain fit, we may be ending the season saying that Liverpool have the world’s two best center-backs.
As for disappointments, I think that we might have already hit the ceiling with Joel Matip. I’d be happy to be proven wrong, but I believe the best that we can expect from him is to stay exactly the same, a capable, six or seven out of ten defender.
It’s kind of crazy to think about players like Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino still being underrated outside of Liverpool (and I hope it stays this way). Naby Keïta and his immense potential, though, is the one I expect to make a huge jump and become a household name. He’s had a year to get settled, and we saw flashes of his pressing and creativity on the ball at the end of last season. I just love watching the way he just floats past challenges, always with his head up looking for the next angle or pass. I think he provides that missing piece of the midfield that will really jumpstart the attack and decrease the reliance on the fullbacks.
As for who fails to meet expectations, I’ll go with Dejan Lovren failing to meet his own lofty expectations as Best Defender In The World™. He’s a player who might well start on most teams, but he’s currently fourth on the depth chart for Jürgen. Joe Gomez is a legitimate world class talent if he can stay healthy, and Joel Matip saw an incredible run of form during the home stretch last season, and where does that leave Dejan? Hopefully being bezzies with Mo is enough to keep him content.
In a world where Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain can stay fit for the season and continuously build on positive performances, I think we could see something special from him. Naby Keïta is the same. He’s bound to contribute more to the first team this season given his injury and settling issues last time out. But I haven’t got any lofty expectations for him in my head. I think he’ll do well, I’m just predicting Ox will be the player everyone gets excited about this year outside of the front three. That’s my prerogative.
I can’t say that I think there will be a big underachiever. I don’t expect Adam Lallana to do more than support the first team but that’s a fairly common opinion. Dejan Lovren always seems to play better than expected because we expect him to make costly mistakes. And I expect that to continue.
In thinking about the players that have the biggest upside, it’s hard to look past Trent Alexander-Arnold and Naby Keïta. Starting with Trent, I know what you’re thinking: “But Zach, he already set a record for most assists by a defender!” Yup. I made the mistake of doubting our fullbacks last year, a mistake I’m not keen on making again. I think he could be even better this year, as evidenced by his incredible final stretch of the season. Of his 12 Premier League assists, 9 (NINE!) of came in the last 11 matches, including his hat trick of assists against Watford. And that’s without getting into his role in the heroics against Barcelona. Somehow he’s still just 20 years old. With another year of experience, another year of Klopp tutelage, we could see improvements on both sides of the ball.
Keïta, on the other hand, is almost self-explanatory. His talent, and the role that he can play in a Jürgen Klopp set up, is clear for the world to see. Give him a clean bill of health, and a consistent run of games, and he will terrify opponents.
As for players that likely won’t live up to their billing, I hate to say it for the man who 100% needs a statue outside of Anfield, but it’s Divock Origi. It’s hard to think of a bit-part player having a bigger impact over one season than Big Divock. Beating Everton in the best way the Ev has ever been beaten. Keeping Liverpool in the title race against Newcastle. Starting and finishing the comeback against Barcelona. And of course, wrapping up the European Cup. And it’s these huge moments which will shade whatever he does this season. We already know he’s not good enough to push our front three for a starting spot, and he’ll face competition for time with up-and-comer Rhian Brewster. This is all to say that anything we can reasonably expect from him will likely fail to live up to the heights he hit last year.
My Naby Keïta shrine needs new videos to go in it. I think it’s going to get it this season. I’m also incredibly excited about what we’re going to see in the Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk partnership. Gomez looks fit. Virgil continues to be perfect. We’re about to see the best CB pair in the league step out onto the field in red.
I don’t want to think about whose seasons are going to fall short because it’s a depressing enough world we live in without having to picture Joel Matip’s sad face.
As has been said, this squad is so stacked with players that we could reasonably argue are world class, that it’s a bit of a grab bag. Pick one, and you’re likely to land on a player who will impress. That being said, and it’s likely no surprise, my pick for player most likely to impress is Naby The Admiral Keita (no, I will not stop trying to make that happen). I love Naby. I love the idea of a do-it-all, super classy midfield general. I love the idea of a guy with so many tools in his locker that feeding him the ball and letting him go is the only thing that makes sense. I love the idea of a Pocket Prince doing big things. In short, I love the idea of Naby Keïta.
Now, he’s had a rough go of it, but we all saw that he’d finally started to sort out the system and his role right before being hit by the injury bug. I expect he’s going to pick up where he left off, though, and that we’ll soon (hopefully) be singing songs to him. Perhaps a sea shanty. Or one to the tune of In the Navy cause, c’mon, that’d be too perfect.
As for more likely to disappoint, I think it’s Rhian Brewster, though not for the reasons you think. I am an avowed fan of Brewster who (in the last one of these roundtables, in fact) am super excited to see what he can bring.
But given Klopp’s own words, I just sense that we won’t see that much of the young forward. At least, not enough to merit all of the internal excitement. So, I guess, this is me trying to temper that excitement and be realistic in my expectations. Cause, right now, my mind’s got him as a cross between Ibra and Mbappe and that’s not fair at all.
I think this is a make it or break it type season for two Liverpool players in particular: Naby Keïta and Joe Gomez. Both have had flashes of world class talent, but both have failed to be consistent contributors to the starting XI due to various injuries. They also might have the highest ceilings in terms of potential out of anyone in the team. I’m expecting big things from those two this season.
Keïta brings something to the middle of the pitch that no one else in the squad can bring. His tenacity to win the ball back and progress up the field is a joy to watch when it’s on. I think it’s taken him a little longer to adapt to England than we expected, but 2019-20 should be the year of Naby.
Gomez, on the other hand, has been around a while. He’s just had rotten luck with serious injuries. Gomez needs to stay fit to reach his potential. It’s really that simple. If he can stay healthy, I fully expect him and Virgil van Dijk to create the best CB pairing in the country, and maybe even on the continent.