Believe it or not, we are now less than nine days away from the start of Liverpool’s 2018/19 season. The close of the transfer window is a week away. August 4th is expected to be the last warm-up for the starters as the Reds face Napoli in Dublin. They then face Torino on the 7th at Anfield in what should be a final run-out for squad players.
AND IT BEGINS
The season begins on Merseyside against West Ham on August 11th. With Palace away and Brighton at Anfield making up the remainder of the August schedule, the Reds have to be expecting 9 points in the month. The preseason has been businesslike from Liverpool both on and off the pitch. The team has added talent seemingly with ease with massive upgrades at goalkeeper, midfield and their attacking depth while other top-six clubs have had their struggles. With the staggered return of players coming back from the World Cup, the Reds have gained momentum as the preseason has progressed, culminating with a 4-1 victory over Man United in front of 100,000 at the University of Michigan.
With some senior players only returning to the club now, what team should we expect to see against the Hammers next Saturday? Jurgen Klopp has confirmed that record goalkeeper signing, Alisson Becker will play against Napoli and will start the season. We know record (it feels good to write “record” so often about Liverpool) centre-back signing, Virgil van Dijk will, of course, anchor the back line. Andy Robertson now owns the left-back position. But, the other half of the defence is murkier.
At centre-back, the choice is between young Joe Gomez and Ragnar Klavan, with the Estonian likely to get the call. Gomez has received praise from the manager over the preseason but is still not being used exclusively at centre-back, a spot where he desperately needs experience before being a full-time starter for Liverpool. That has to tell you he’s not going to start over the dependable Klavan. Expect to see plenty of slightly awkward step-overs from Raggy in the opener.
Left-back is ultimately going to be Trent Alexander-Arnold’s position to lose, but coming back from World Cup duty, he won’t start the first weekend. Liverpool are blessed with four, count ‘em, four options on the right side. Jurgen Klopp could go with the aforementioned Gomez. He could pick the veteran, Nathaniel Clyne, or the 18-year-old Portuguese winger, Rafael Camacho. Whoever gets the nod against Napoli should provide a big clue here. Camacho would be a bold choice, but Liverpool do have a manager carrying cajones grades and the teenager has outclassed Gomez and Clyne if he’s viewing it with a neutral eye. The caveat is that Liverpool have gone largely unchallenged in the preseason, even against United so it isn’t clear how Camacho could handle West Ham who do have assembled a respectable attack. Watch for Camacho, but expect Clyne.
THE ELUSIVE EIGHT
In midfield, the incredible Naby Keita is back in training and will be ready for the season. Some have suggested that Fabinho would be eased into the Premier League. That’s not happening. Henderson won’t be ready for West Ham and also, Fabinho is a massive, talented man. The other eight, the advanced eight is the spot that we have reserved in our hearts for Nabil Fekir, but in the end, it’s going to be a decision between James Milner, Adam Lallana and Gini Wijnaldum. Expect Champions League assist king, James Milner to get the start. Curtis Jones would be in the mix based purely from preseason performances, but he’ll be targeted for League Cup action as his next step.
Mo Salah and Sadio Mané look ready to absolutely terrorise the Premier League. They’ll start on the wings. In the middle, Bobby Firmino is still working his way back from World Cup action. Who will take the final spot in the middle of the attack? The choice will be between Firmino’s young deputy, Dom Solanke, meme master, Xherdan Shaqiri, and Daniel Sturridge. It’s an interesting one because Solanke allows Liverpool to be at their pressing best, but obviously, he has problems putting goals away. Sturridge’s newfound role as a playmaker would give the Reds all that Firmino does and maybe more from an attacking standpoint, but the press would not be the same. Shaqiri would leave Liverpool with a Lilliputian front line, though it would be exciting. At the end of the day, the temptation to bring Sturridge out of the Anfield tunnel has to be too great.
NINETY IS THE NUMBER
West Ham will not be a pushover. They are undefeated in the preseason, the only blemish a 2-2 draw against Preston North End. Having added Yarmolenko and Felipe Anderson to Arnautovic in attack, whoever Jurgen Klopp selects will have their hands full. The opening match will be key in that the target has to be at least 90 points if the Reds are to challenge for the league. Though the Hammers present a challenge, the Reds have to show they’re at another level even without Firmino, Lovren and Trent. A decisive win while rivals are still shuffling line-ups would be great for the club from a psychological standpoint. Stumbles against teams like this are what held Liverpool to 75 points and a fourth-place finish in the last campaign. The work put in from the groundskeepers to the sporting director deserves more than that this season. This could be the best squad Liverpool have assembled in a generation. A flying start in August would have everyone believing that… this is our year.