Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp can rest easy as his rivals clamor for one last signing in the final 48 hours of the transfer window. The Reds wrapped up their business by the end of July, adding Naby Keita, Fabinho, Xherdan Shaqiri, and Alisson to a side that reached the Champions League final last season.
“We are really back among the top clubs in Europe,” Klopp told the Liverpool Echo’s James Pearce. “That’s a big achievement.”
With world-class players now at his disposal and a high-pressing system that’s paying dividends, Klopp should believe a Premier League title is within reach.
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No other team in the English top flight have the ability to push Manchester City all the way until the end. Jose Mourinho’s negative tactics continue to hold back Manchester United, while Tottenham persist with the status quo. Chelsea and Arsenal, meanwhile, need time to adapt to their new managers’ philosophies.
For the first time in years, there are no asterisks beside Liverpool in the standings. They’re not in a state of flux or lacking funds. Klopp’s players, for the most part, already know to execute his Gegenpressing, and he can count on a few more talented players to do it.
Alisson will not only offer a more reliable presence in goal than the error-prone Loris Karius, he will give his teammates an option at the back. He’ll relieve pressure with a cheeky flick or two, dribble his way out of trouble, and kick-start rapid moves that lead to goal-scoring chances. Imagine his long balls to the wings, with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane latching on and beating their man on the break. It’s a perfect match.
When either player needs a break, Shaqiri can come in and do the job. The feisty Swiss international has a nice repertoire of his own – see his spectacular overhead kick against United in July – and the capacity to take on defenders. Klopp said he has the “right amount of arrogance,” a nod to Shaqiri’s match-winning ability in the direst of situations. He’s an excellent player to have off the bench, especially on the rare days Liverpool appear out of ideas.
The midfield, however, will see the greatest uptick in form. With all due respect to James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum – two tireless servants who’ve followed every one of Klopp’s orders – Keita and Fabinho will bring more energy and skill to the middle of the park. Keita’s runs up the pitch will become a common sight at Anfield, so too Fabinho’s tidy tackling and aerial supremacy. They have the potential to form a fantastic two-way understanding, Keita playing as a more transitional No. 8 while Fabinho does the dirty work in central areas.
Considering how much he likes to dribble and carry the ball forward, Keita should provide the biggest push. The former RB Leipzig midfielder finished second in the Bundesliga last season with 67 take-ons, constantly looking forward and taking space whenever chance showed itself. It’s that positive movement that will help Liverpool break through defensive blocks of four, which is something they struggled to do in 2017-18. It’s against the smaller sides that Liverpool tend to lose points, not necessarily the top six. Keita can resolve those frustrating situations by driving through the middle and offering a new dimension.
Fabinho will also show his best attributes when Liverpool are in distress. They’ve never looked entirely comfortable in those back-and-forth contests, always at risk of blowing a lead. For every blowout in Porto there’s a near calamity in Seville. But Fabinho has the ability to seize control when his teammates need a breather. He’s essentially the equalizer that keeps matches from becoming too frenetic.
More of the same
Some of Liverpool’s best parts are already in place. Goals will never be a problem so long as Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Mane are on the pitch. The trio scored 91 goals in all competitions last campaign, and there’s no indication they’ll slow down.
Liverpool fans can expect the same exhilarating play that attracted so much attention in the previous 12 months. They’ll press, they’ll run, they’ll play quick linear passes and move from goal to goal in 15 seconds. These are the staples of Klopp’s football, and they remain unchanged. Liverpool will benefit from that continuity.
The fitness levels look good as well. A whirlwind preseason tour that’s taken them from Tranmere and New Jersey to Dublin and back to Liverpool has yielded seven wins out of nine matches, including a 5-0 shellacking of Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli. Unlike most managers, Klopp fed his best players with a significant dose of preseason minutes, and they’ve picked up right where they left off, making quick exchanges and fluid movements with relative ease.
Their strength remains, of course, on the counter-attack. Liverpool need only a few touches to do damage, especially when one of the front three is charging down the pitch with impunity. It’s one of the most frightening scenes in all of football. And when they lose possession, they’ll continue to chase the ball until they get it back.
It’s not just up to the attackers. Much like the second half of last season, central defenders Dejan Lovren and Virgil van Dijk will have to work in unison to maintain a high line and keep the opposition at bay. They’ve got to keep forcing the opponent into difficult positions and decisions, harrying them in crucial areas of the pitch.
If they stay true to themselves and mix the new with the old, Liverpool have every reason to believe they can challenge City for a first-ever Premier League title.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)