How The Perfect Liverpool Squad Should Look Next Season
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Another season has been and gone, but unlike so many at Liverpool since they decided to stop winning everything, 2016/17 has left us with a feeling of great warmth.
The Reds’ title challenge may have fizzled out after a very promising first four months, but sealing Champions League qualification has to be seen as a huge positive.
It is very easy for Liverpool fans to have a sense of entitlement, given the club’s incredible history both domestically and in Europe, but top-four finishes have come at a premium of late.
Sunday’s 3-0 victory over Middlesbrough ensured Jurgen Klopp’s side qualified for Europe’s greatest club competition for only the second time since 2008/09, which given the resources of their rivals, was a commendable effort.
One thing that became painfully clear throughout the season, however, was that Liverpool’s lack of squad depth proved to be a major achilles heel.
Having to make do without the likes of Joel Matip, Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane for large chunks was bad enough, but their replacements were just not of the desired quality.
With Klopp having to juggle two major competitions next season, it is crucial that Liverpool have their most formidable-looking group of players since Gerard Houllier’s treble-winning team of 2000/01.
So how would the perfect Reds squad look?
It proved to be a strange season in the goalkeeping department at Anfield, but one that ended up feeling more positive than many would have predicted.
Simon Mignolet’s form in the second-half of the campaign was very encouraging – his year as a whole was good, in fairness – with the Belgian looking a far more confident, influential ‘keeper. At 29, you wonder if the Belgian is now approaching his peak years.
Loris Karius endured a sticky time of things in his first season as a Red, but he remains a player of great potential. A few errors here and there should not spell the end for the former Mainz man.
Prior to Mignolet’s vast improvement, supporters were crying out for a new first-choice signing between the sticks, but he and Karius are likely to both be there in 2017/18. It may be a risk, but perhaps one worth taking.
There’s also Danny Ward, who has enjoyed an excellent season for Championship play-off finalists Huddersfield Town.
As has seemingly been the case since Rafa Benitez departed at the start of the 2010s, Liverpool’s defence was a clear weakness in 2016/17.
It is apparent that a number of reinforcements are required to cure the Reds’ leaky back-line, with certain regulars becoming squad players from now on.
Nathaniel Clyne, despite his faults, is a very solid right-back who is likely to retain his place, but Trent Alexander-Arnold could really run him close next year.
The 18-year-old is a phenomenal young talent, and his fearlessness, athleticism and maturity make him one of the most exciting academy prospects in many years.
A truly top class centre-back is imperative, with Matip the partner for him. Virgil van Dijk is the dream, but there are many strong candidates throughout Europe, including Kalidou Koulibaly, Stefan de Vrij and Jonathan Tah.
Dejan Lovren is neither good enough to start or as bad as some of his critics claim, so a role as a fringe player next season makes sense. His injury problems only further highlight the need for him to be replaced in the team.
It could be argued that another centre-back wouldn’t do any harm, with Lovren becoming fourth-choice – Michael Keane, for example – but the Croatian and Ragnar Klavan can both do a job when called upon. There is also Joe Gomez, who will hopefully find another gear.
At left-back, James Milner has to be replaced, despite some impressive performances in a completely new role. He no longer has the legs to burst up and down the left flank, and his crossing and defensive expertise both flatter to deceive.
Fulham’s Ryan Sessegnon appears to be Klopp’s preferred choice to come in, but at 17, he surely won’t be seen as a regular week in, week out. It would be good to see Sessegnon and a more established left-back such as Ryan Bertrand come in, with Milner becoming a versatile squad player.
Not too many tweaks are called for in midfield, with Liverpool already containing a rich blend of talent in the middle of the park.
Jordan Henderson is a key man if fit, but the captain’s continued injury problems are now genuinely becoming a cause for concern. He cannot be trusted to complete an entire season injury-free.
Emre Can remains another important figure, and his performances in the final weeks of 2016/17 showed what he is capable of. He should go up a further gear next season. The same applies to Gini Wijnaldum, who settled in beautifully at Anfield and has the ability to be even more influential, in time.
Adam Lallana has improved more than any other Liverpool player, and he is another who remains an integral member of the squad moving forward. Marko Grujic will hope for a less injury-ravaged season.
The Reds need to be in a situation where players like Can, Wijnaldum and Lallana may find themselves on the substitutes’ bench, though, outlining the new-found squad depth.
With Lucas Leiva likely to depart, and no longer good enough to be featuring prominently, another midfielder is needed.
RB Leipzig’s Naby Keita is reportedly the top target, and he would be a magnificent signing if Klopp can get it sorte. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is another who has been strongly linked – bringing him in as well would do absolutely no harm, especially given his versatility.
When Liverpool were at the peak of their powers between September and December, their attack was an absolute joy to watch.
Their fluency, inventiveness and ruthlessness tore teams to shreds – no team in the country looked as devastating in the final third.
That old issue of a lack of depth once again came back to haunt the Reds, though, and whenever any of the brilliant trio of Coutinho, Mane and Firmino were missing, Liverpool didn’t look the same side.
A couple of reinforcements are needed, in order to share the workload next season and ensure extra quality in attack.
Mane’s absence at the Africa Cup of Nations and through injury hurt the Reds more than anything, with Liverpool lacking someone of the Senegalese’s ilk.
A player with similar pace, directness and end product has to be brought in, with Bayer Leverkusen’s Julian Brandt a potentially perfect acquisition.
That could also allow Coutinho to play in a deeper midfield role – his best position – giving Klopp even more options in the process.
With Daniel Sturridge and Danny Ings’ futures up in the air, and Divock Origi still incredibly raw, a fit, reliable goalscorer also must come in.
Firmino did a fantastic job leading the line, and may still start the majority of games next season, but a more lethal alternative can do no harm. You only have to look at the likes of Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to see how priceless deadly finishers can be, especially when games are tight.
Youngsters such as Ben Woodburn, Harry Wilson and Rhian Brewster need to keep developing in the U23s, rather than be rushed into the first-team.
We have seen Liverpool make a mess of things all too often after productive seasons, but with Klopp at the helm and lots of money to spend, this summer promises to be a memorable one.
The lure of playing Champions League football under the German could entice some top players to move to Anfield, and it is vital that six or seven new faces come in.
The goalkeeping situation looks good enough for now – hopefully that isn’t too knee-jerk because of Mignolet’s form – but a minimum of one top centre-back and left-back must make the move to Merseyside.
Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain would be very good purchases in midfield, or players of a similar style, while a Mane-esque speedster and a consistent goalscorer are also required.
Liverpool cannot afford to be in a position next season when injuries have destroyed their title hopes and Champions League chances, or the relentless playing style of Klopp has taken its toll on the legs of a small squad.
There are plenty of funds available and top players out there – this simply must be a summer to kick on and reach that next level.
Klopp is the man to do it – sit back and enjoy the next couple of months.