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It may only be the start of June, but already transfer rumours have started, and talk of next season will only intensify.
Frankly, we could all just do with a breather after such a stressful last 12 months at Anfield. The various discussions over which players are potentially moving to Anfield will be non-stop in the coming weeks and months, which is bound to cause of mix of happiness, anger and frustration. Rather than Jurgen Klopp signing an array of world-renowned, first-team regulars, the priority for the German has to be building Liverpool’s best squad for almost 20 years. It has been a constant achilles heel for an unacceptably long time now, with starting lineups often strong but backup options nowhere near good enough.
There has been one Reds squad that has stood out from the norm in the Premier League era: Gerard Houllier’s treble-winners at the beginning of the century.
Everywhere you looked during that success-filled season, there were different options all over the pitch. It started with a fruitful summer of spending: Markus Babbel and Gary McAllister both arrived on free transfers, from Bayern Munich and Coventry City, respectively, adding great experience and class to the team. Christian Ziege brought quality to the defence, Igor Biscan and Nick Barmby guaranteed versatility in midfield – oh how those Everton fans fumed when Liverpool snatched him away – and Jari Litmanen was a shrewd buy from Barcelona. Bernard Diomede, Gregory Vignal and Daniel Sjolund were less successful buys, but Houllier had strengthened a squad already full of wonderful talent.
Admittedly, Sander Westerveld was far from a world-beater in goal, with Pegguy Arphexad a weak incoming deputy, but the Dutchman was still a safe pair hands that season. Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz had established themselves as arguably the best centre-back pairing in the country, while a maturing Jamie Carragher’s ability to play at full-back or centrally made him a very useful player. Rigobert Song, Stephen Wright, Vegard Heggem and even the much-maligned Djimi Traore could also do a job on the rare occasions they were called upon, further highlighting the options at Houllier’s disposal.
The midfield had a perfect blend of youth, experienced, flair and discipline. Whether it was young and emerging Englishmen such as Steven Gerrard and Danny Murphy, ice cool figures like Didi Hamann and McAllister, or effective, attack-minded midfielders in Patrik Berger, Vladimir Smicer and Barmby, Liverpool had all bases covered.
Whatever the match situation, whoever the opponent, you always felt Houllier could switch things up at will.
The wonderful depth didn’t end there, though, with Liverpool possessing a forward line any team would have been delighted with. Michael Owen was one of Europe’s finest strikers at the time, Robbie Fowler still had magic in his boots, despite being past his best, while Emile Heskey was an unselfish brute of a player who was a vital member of the team. Let’s not forget Litmanen either, who in terms of pure natural footballing ability and being easy on the eye, remains one of Liverpool’s best players of the last two decades. He only featured 11 times in 2000/01, but just having such an illustrious name around made a difference.
We all know what happened during that memorable season, as the Reds sealed a historic UEFA Cup, FA Cup and League Cup treble, as well as qualifying for the Champions League for the first time since it changed its name, in 1992. In total, there were 63 matches across four different competitions for Houllier’s men – an absurd number, when you consider Liverpool only played 47 this season – and the only reason they prevailed was because of the squad the Frenchman had assembled.
Injuries never once threatened to derail Liverpool’s season, as was the case in 2016/17 and on so many other occasions, and Houllier had so many choices that he could keep players fresh during a relentless run of fixtures.
2000/01 remains Liverpool’s most successful campaign since the good old days – hopefully that’s about to change.
If Liverpool are to compete on four fronts next season, building a squad of similar depth and quality is exactly what Klopp must achieve.
The 49-year-old is the perfect man to do this, and all things point towards him knowing exactly who he needs to take his side to the next level.
As mentioned, there aren’t enormous changes to make to what is generally considered Klopp’s first-choice starting XI – centre-back, left-back, central midfield and a forward, at a push – but he needs to be able to rely on 20 to 25 players throughout the course of a whole season. Liverpool cannot be in a situation where Klopp is having to play a significantly weakened team in a Premier League or Champions League game, in order to avoid tiredness. Every lineup he names must be strong.
Every summer arrives with a fresh wave of optimism, but the positivity this time around feels more justified than ever.
With Champions League football achieved, assuming the qualifier is hurdled in August, and lots of money to spend, there is no excuse for Klopp not fine-tuning his squad before the start of next season.
Hopefully, Liverpool get somewhere close to the 63 games Houllier’s Reds played in 2000/01 – they won’t if they don’t have a similarly quality-laden squad.