Premier League 2017-18 preview No10: Liverpool | Andy Hunter
Jrgen Klopps Liverpool are attuned now to his methods but whether they have the defensive quality for a shot at the title may be clearer when the transfer window closes
Guardian writers predicted position 5th (NB: this is not necessarily Andy Hunters prediction but the average of our writers tips)
Last seasons position 4th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker) 12-1
It is an infuriating trait of the Premier League era for Liverpool that a season of genuine progress often precedes a reversal but Jrgen Klopp is convinced the cycle will be broken. The extra demands of Europe and a patient, high-risk transfer strategy that has yet to pay off provide counter arguments to the Liverpool managers belief. They should not distract from what is at Klopps disposal, however. Consistency, he has insisted, will ensure Liverpool do not merely flirt with a title challenge this season. Many, though not all, of the pieces are in place.
As was the case last summer, before he guided Liverpool back into the top four for the only second time in eight seasons, Klopp has been unperturbed by the external anxieties that surround the clubs transfer business when compared with rivals in the top six. Tottenham Hotspur are, of course, the notable exception. At this point in the window the anxiety is understandable. The final steps Klopp had envisaged for the coming campaign have proved the most difficult to take.
RB Leipzig have been as good as their repeated word that Naby Keta is not for sale despite Liverpool submitting club record offers of 57m and 66m for the midfielder and his openness to the move. Interest in Kylian Mbapp has unfolded how Anfield officials always suspected it would: with Real Madrid lining up a staggering offer for the Monaco forward. And there was the aborted move for Virgil van Dijk, a setback that established the tone of a difficult window for Liverpool and showed Klopp that even the briefest visit to Blackpool where he allegedly tapped-up Southamptons team captain can have damaging repercussions.
Liverpools interest in the commanding Holland international is not over despite publicly withdrawing from the race for the 60m-rated defender when Southampton reported them to the Premier League over an illegal approach. A preliminary investigation ended without charge because of a lack of evidence and Liverpool will return for Van Dijk should Southampton indicate they will part with their wantaway centre-half. The pursuit of Keta is expected to be parked under next summer when his 55m release clause kicks in. Add into the mix Barcelonas interest in Philippe Coutinho and a sense of unease is legitimate, although there are still four weeks for Van Dijk to arrive, others to follow and what has already taken shape at Anfield this summer signals improvement ahead.
Liverpool have the will and the money to sign van Dijk and Keta but not a way to break the resolve of Southampton and Leipzig respectively. That was always the inherent risk in Klopp targeting a few top-class upgrades to elevate Liverpool from fourth into title contention, rather than the wholesale changes that have characterised recent summers in L4. He has also been reluctant to consider alternatives as the waiting game over van Dijk demonstrates. The success of that approach will be revealed once the transfer window closes and Champions League commitments arrive for a squad that benefited from a European-free season last time out, providing the play-offs are navigated successfully later this month.
For a manager who craves consistency and prizes stability, however, the existing foundations are more important, and encouraging, than what is currently out of reach. Klopp has a settled squad attuned to his methods, no disruption to contend with and an improved luxury of options in the final third. Liverpool would relish an opportunity in the Champions League against opponents who, like Bayern Munich in the Audi Cup on Tuesday, are more open to attack than many in the Premier League.
The pursuit of quality over quantity is another indication of recent progress at Anfield. Liverpool possess a squad fit for Champions League qualification, one that finished above Arsenal and Manchester United last season and produced some exhilarating performances when emerging as Chelseas closest challengers before Christmas. Title pretensions evaporated at the turn of the year when Liverpool, to use their managers argument, lacked the depth to deal with a hectic fixture schedule, a run to the League Cup semi-finals, injuries and Sadio Mans departure to the Africa Cup of Nations. The squad needs strengthening in central midfield and central defence but it has undoubtedly improved.
Reinforcement so far has mainly centred on Liverpools strongest department, attack, where Mohamed Salah has joined for a club record 36.9m from AS Roma and Dominic Solanke has arrived in search of greater opportunity than he found at Chelsea. A tribunal will decide the compensation fee payable on a striker who starred in Englands triumphant Under-20s World Cup campaign and has shown in pre-season that his involvement will not be confined to the under-23s team, as Klopp initially suggested.
Salah has shone in pre-season, three years after rejecting a proposed 8m move to Liverpool in favour of an ill-fated spell at Stamford Bridge. The Egypt international has played on the right of Klopps forward line, with Man working his way back to full fitness, and his speed, work rate and end product have all impressed. The prospect of Salah and Man terrorising defences from all angles and feeding off the intelligent awareness of Roberto Firmino, is tantalising for Klopp. Make other teams crazy with the qualities we have, the manager has said. Equally comfortable on the left, Salah ensures Liverpool will not be as reliant on Man for pace and gives Coutinho licence to dictate play from a deeper position. The Anfield club are adamant the Brazil international will not be sold this summer despite continued interest from a Neymar-less Barcelona.
In Coutinho, Salah, Man, Firmino, Daniel Sturridge who had earned Klopps approval with his sharpness this summer only to suffer a thigh injury while scoring in the 3-0 defeat of Bayern Solanke, Divock Origi and the fit-again Danny Ings, Liverpool boast a formidable range of strikers. They will be needed. Klopps side frequently faced, and toiled against, opponents who sat back en masse and played on the counterattack last season. It was not only a recurring theme at Anfield, with teams prepared to concede ground at home to combat Klopps style. Jordan Hendersons ability to stretch and switch the play was missed after he suffered another debilitating foot injury. Liverpools captain can ill-afford a repeat while their manager requires more throughout central midfield, as the Keta quest indicates.
Klopp has identified where improvement will be necessary for his team to make an impact in Europe and satisfy the clubs desperate craving for a first league title since 1990. Our biggest challenge is to be stronger defensively as a team, to be more concentrated, more focused in situations, he said this summer. We know what the problem is. He said the same last season, too, but set pieces and counterattacks continued to cost Liverpool.