The Premier League season starts in just a few days. And the spectre of the World Cup still hangs over the Premier League’s top six. This was a World Cup in which the Premier League’s top teams all had plenty of players not just participating but going the distance – and certain teams will benefit from that.
Liverpool need to be one of the beneficiaries.
It’s expected that Roberto Firmino and his Brazilian teammate Alisson Becker will start against West Ham, with Sadio Mané and Mo Salah returning early to guarantee their fitness ahead of the clash. Liverpool’s two new midfielders, Naby Keita and Fabinho both sat out the tournament, as did star central defender Virgil Van Dijk. Gini Wijnaldum, James Milner, Andy Robertson and Daniel Sturridge all also stayed at home, with Trent Alexander-Arnold getting minimal minutes and Xherdan Shaqiri’s Switzerland crashing out at the Last 16 stage.
As such, the only two players who started the Champions League final for Liverpool that will take some time to recover from their World Cup exploits are Jordan Henderson and Dejan Lovren. Both are important players to the club, but neither would be described as key players, and both can be eased back in.
Compare that to the most extreme example at the other end of the spectrum – Spurs. Tottenham had Hugo Lloris, Kieran Trippier, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Danny Rose, Eric Dier, Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Moussa Dembele all playing right until the end of the World Cup – with Davidson Sanchez and Christian Eriksen still not fit after their Last-16 runs and various niggles since.
This gives Liverpool a huge advantage over Spurs and one that they need to ensure that they make the most of in the early weeks of the season. But it’s not just Spurs of course. Two of Chelsea’s key players: Eden Hazard and N’golo Kante were amongst those playing until the last stages of the tournament, with Willian, Giroud and Cahill amongst others still missing.
Man United are also missing several of their most important players and certainly their most expensive ones. Pogba and Lukaku both made the final weekend of the tournament, as did their English contingent – Marcus Rashford, Ashley Young, Phil Jones and Jesse Lingard. United also have injury worries of their own – Valencia and Matic amongst their starters who aren’t fit – and of course, there’s the Martial debacle.
Champions Man City also have their own issues, although they shrugged them off emphatically against Chelsea. John Stones, Kyle Walker and Raheem Sterling were key fixtures for England, whilst star man Kevin De Bruyne and Vincent Kompany helped Belgium’s semi-final charge. City, of course, have depth and strength, boosted by Aguero, Otamendi, David Silva, Fernandinho and Jesus going home early and Sane not going at all.
The bad news for City is that they’re playing Arsenal on the opening day, and the Gunners aren’t missing too many key players from the World Cup, unlike Chelsea, United and Spurs who all have relatively nice starts in comparison – Huddersfield, Leicester and Newcastle respectively.
But back to the Reds. For better or worse, Liverpool have been very lucky in terms of their key players returning from World Cup duty. And that means that the pressure will be on them to make sure that they make the most of that in the early stages of the season. The only area of Liverpool’s squad that has been hurt in pre-season is centre-back, with Lovren a big miss following injuries to Klavan and Matip. But even there, Van Dijk looks ready to marshall the back-line, with Brazilian duo Alisson and Fabinho in front and behind him.
If Liverpool’s XI against West Ham is something like: Alisson, Clyne, Van Dijk, Gomez, Robertson, Fabinho, Keita, Wijnaldum/Milner, Salah, Firmino, Mane, then the Reds are in a really good place to get off to a flier. They are the only genuine title challenger who are unlikely to be missing at least one of their most important players – and even if Firmino doesn’t start then Xherdan Shaqiri will. Conversely, their three main rivals – Chelsea, United and City – will all be missing their most important players.
How long it takes the top six to return to full strength remains up for debate, and it won’t be clear for a few weeks which teams are in better shape to start the season strongly. But the key point is that Liverpool have a head-start on their rivals, and that makes a fast start important.
In Olli Emmerson’s piece on how to win the league, he wrote that 23 points is the average points secured in the first ten games by title winners in the last eight seasons. Liverpool play Spurs, City and Chelsea inside those first ten games, and whilst it’s too much to hope that the World Cup will still have crippled City and Chelsea by the time we play them, we could certainly benefit from Spurs’ extensive World Cup participation. Moreover, we need to make sure that we take advantage of the potential stumbling blocks for our rivals in those first ten games.
If nothing else, Liverpool cannot have the excuse of the World Cup in the same way, when we compare them to their rivals. These are the starting XIs from each of the top six’s last game of pre-season (in Chelsea’s case I used the Community Shield rather than against Lyon):
Liverpool: Alisson, Trent, VVD, Phillips, Moreno, Fabinho, Keita, Gini, Mo, Bobby, Mane
Man City: Bravo, Walker, Stones, Aguero, Laporte, Sane, Bernardo, Mendy, Fernandinho, Mahrez, Foden
Chelsea: Caballero, Azpilicueta, Rudiger, David Luiz, Alonso, Jorginho, Barkley, Fabregas, Pedro, Morata, Hudson-Odoi
United: De Gea, Darmian, Bailly Lindelof, Shaw, Herrera, Fred, Andreas Perreira, Mata, Alexis Sanchez, Rashford (Both Herrera and Bailly came off injured)
Spurs: Vorm, Aurier, Eyoma, Davies, Georgiou, Amos, Skipp, Marsh, Nkoudou, Lucas Moura, Son
Arsenal: Leno, Lichtsteiner, Holding, Chambers, Maitland-Niles, Nelson, Xhaka, Torreira, Iwobi, Lacazette, Nketiah
So we can see that whilst Chelsea and City have been able to rush back some of their key players, all of the top six have been missing key individuals in their sides in pre-season. How long this will be crippling them remains to be seen, but Liverpool have an opportunity.
It’s one that they need to take advantage of.