Challenging On All Fronts – Unexpected Surprises in Liverpool’s Season
Title Challenge and Squad Depth
There were a couple of things I didn’t expect in August. The first was a title challenge. Looking at the players Jurgen Klopp had available to him in the summer, the group didn’t appear to have the necessary depth.
Which brings us to the second unexpected bonus: this squad. Approaching the end of January, it’s become clear that the manager has the manpower not only to go head-to-head with Manchester City but also to compete for trophies on more than one front.
There were doubts that Klopp’s system could operate properly if Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson faced extended spells on the sidelines. Throw in an injury to Kostas Tsimikas and the loss of Joel Matip for the season and it could have been a defensive crisis on par with that dark winter of 2021.
Dominik Szoboszlai has been hardly missed. A year ago, Stefan Bajcetic was emerging as the midfield’s biggest hope. Today, there’s no need to rush the 19-year-old back from injury or burden him with too many expectations. We’ve reached the “who cares?” point with Thiago, sadly.
The attack has functioned well enough for us not to be counting the minutes until Mo Salah returns and Wataru Endo may come to curse the day he jetted off to join Japan.
There are so many men that have stepped up but Joe Gomez deserves a special mention. The 26-year-old had reached the point where he was almost written off. Klopp never quite lost faith with Gomez but the Englishman had slipped down the list of options. There were points when he could have moved on but it’s just as well he didn’t. He’s a one-man plug for any hole in the defence.
It’s hard for players who have been internationals to slide down the pecking order. Being overtaken by younger colleagues is painful. Some players resent being asked to perform a role different to their favoured position. Not Gomez. He’s done every job asked of him.
There have been times he’s looked uncomfortable at full back – on both sides. But he’s never been over-run and he’s improved by the week. His composure is impressive. People are beginning to ask whether he’s better out wide than in a central position.
The return of Alexander-Arnold and Robertson will push him back to the margins but Gomez has underlined his value over the past few weeks. He doesn’t stand out like some but he does the heavy lifting that frequently goes unnoticed. Long may it continue.
Academy Success and Future Prospects
The sense of security this squad has provided is in no small part due to the success of the academy. This week, the kids spanked Arsenal 7-1 in the FA Youth Cup (Arsenal, of course, thought they had the better of much of the game *this may not be true but if Arteta was doing the analysis…*
Liverpool U18’s 7-1 Arsenal U18! 🔥 https://t.co/zUAdTHF7Bn
— Boss Liverpool Goals (@BossLFCgoals) January 20, 2024
All the age-group sides play the same system as the first team. I’ve always been a bit skeptical about that, believing that managers should build around the players’ strengths rather than forcing individuals into roles that don’t suit them.
However, it’s certainly working. Conor Bradley and co have been completely unfazed by the step-up in class. They know what’s expected of them and what to expect from their team-mates. The system is working. It bodes well for the future.
Craven Cottage – Confronting Challenges Beyond the Pitch
The Fulham fans booed Harvey Elliott relentlessly. His answer was to go search out the ball at every possible opportunity. The 20-year-old is absolutely fearless. He fits right in.
They’ve got some mentality, this team. From the youngest to the eldest.
Outside Craven Cottage I was involved in an unpleasant incident. Fulham fans are among some of the best in the country, but there’s always exceptions.
One knob responded to getting beat by a superior team by shouting” “Scouse scum killed 60 at Heysel.” He probably didn’t expect someone like me to be in earshot.
I told him it was 39 and if he was going to weaponise the death of innocent people because Fulham lost a match, he should at least have the respect to know how many were killed.
His response? Screaming. “You murdered Italians.” Again, I put him right and told him about the Belgians, the French victims and the Irishman. His mate, embarrassed, touched my arm and mumbled, “Sorry.”
To finish, he called me a murderer and told me to fuck off back to Liverpool. I’ve probably lived in London longer than him. I wish I’d thought of that at the time.
I did have murder in my heart, to be honest, when I looked into his stupid face. Still, I don’t think it’s right to walk away from these situations. You have to front these idiots or the lies go unchallenged. The dead deserve better – and so do Liverpool fans of the future, who should not be called names for events that happened nearly 40 years ago.
Ah, well. At least we’ve got Chelsea in the final. There’ll be none of this nonsense from them… Oh, hang on…
Looking Ahead: FA Cup and the Return of Salah
The great thing about the way things have worked out is that the FA Cup fourth round tie against Norwich City doesn’t feel like a burden. It’s not an extra match we can do without. It’s an opportunity to ease the injured players back in and get them sharper before the league game against Chelsea next Wednesday.
I like competing on all fronts. This is how you know you’re having a great season.
Salah has been remarkably injury free over the course of his Liverpool career. His hamstring strain doesn’t really affect us – he would have been with Egypt anyway – and there is an upside. He’s back on Merseyside and doesn’t have the pressure he’d be under in the Ivory Coast.
One thing nags away, though. He’s 31. You start to worry when someone who’s been so robust gets a strain like this at his age. Let’s hope it’s a one-off.
No one in football takes better care of himself that Salah. That should stand him in good stead. Bodies that have been put under so much stress over the years can unravel quickly, though.
Let’s hope it’s a one-off and not a turning point. Salah in full flow is one of the finest sights in football. We need to see plenty more of him.