Strengthening of the Spine: Klopp's long-term project coming to fruition
Jurgen Klopp’s first game vs Spurs (Oct 2015): Mignolet; Clyne, Skrtel, Sakho, Moreno; Lucas, Can, Milner, Coutinho, Lallana, Origi.
Bench: Toure, Allen, Ibe, Bogdan, Randall, Sinclair, Teixeira
Jurgen Klopp’s latest game vs Burnley (Jan 2018): Mignolet; Alexander-Arnold, Klavan, Lovren, Gomez; Can, Wijnaldum, Chamberlain; Lallana, Mane, Solanke.
Bench: Karius, Matip, Robertson, Milner, Woodburn, Ings, Firmino.
What a difference two years make.
Recording their first win of 2018, Liverpool secured an injury-time winner in the most dramatic fashion to win 2-1. Bear in mind this was also a team without some star names – Philippe Coutinho and Mo Salah weren’t in the squad after picking up knocks while internationals Jordan Henderson, Daniel Sturridge and Nathaniel Clyne remained out.
We’ve got the unplayable ‘Fab Four’ in attack with Salah, Firmino, Coutinho and Mane combining for approximately 27 goals and 19 assists in 21 Premier League games. That’s a truly staggering statistic, with the quartet producing some real moments of magic to terrorise opposition defences with flair, flexibility and verve.
Yet, attacking has never been the problem for Liverpool. In the 2013/14 season, we had the infamous ‘SAS’ combination of Sturridge and Suarez, lighting up the league and bringing us oh so close to the title.
This season, even with the brilliance of the Fab Four, there is a harsh truth that the defence and midfield aren’t of the same standard as the rest of the side. Klopp’s identified and is now addressing the true weaknesses of the team to strengthen the spine.
Liverpool’s summer window was dominated by a three-point checklist. Bringing in an attacker to relieve the pressure on Sadio Mane in the shape of Mohamed Salah; securing an all-round, box-to-box creative genius in midfield via RB Leipzig’s Naby Keita and finally finding an answer to the defensive issues that have plagued The Reds for so long. Van Dijk was earmarked as the solution, with the club completing a world-record £75million deal.
The three aforementioned signings mark a real statement of intent from the club and an indication of a meticulously thought out recruitment strategy to strengthen the spine of the team. Liverpool are on a clear and upward trajectory, improving game-to-game as Klopp’s long-term vision begins to take shape.
A quintessential midfielder, Keita is amongst the elite in his position, blessed with flair in the final third while showing diligence in his defensive duties. Having an impact at both ends of the pitch, the 22-year-old represents a marked improvement on Liverpool’s current midfield and will undoubtedly help form a formidable starting eleven for 2018/19.
Then there’s centre back. Liverpool haven’t had an authoritative leader at the back since the days of Sami Hyppia and Jamie Carragher but might just have one now. At the time of writing, The Reds have let 25 league goals in so far this season largely due to a string of individual errors.
Van Dijk’s arrival will help fix those issues though, with the Dutchman proving himself to be a reliable figure at Southampton.
Yet, there are further decisions to be made. Liverpool are undeniably behind both Manchester clubs, Spurs and Chelsea in the goalkeeping department.
Simon Mignolet isn’t of the required quality for a title-challenging team, having made some serious blunders this season. After the Arsenal game, he’d conceded the same amount of goals (23) as he has made saves in the Premier League this season. That says all you need to know.
Klopp’s long-term project hasn’t yet been realised but Liverpool are building a phenomenal spine, addressing their weaknesses and improving week-to-week.
Add a world-class goalkeeper and a defensive midfielder to replace Emre Can, possibly even another midfield recruit such as Leon Goretzka with Coutinho already one foot out the door.
Do that and this will be a formidable eleven with the necessary depth to mount a very real challenge domestically and in Europe.