International breaks may frustrate the majority of fans these days, but the time away from club football allows the opportunity to assess how your team is faring so far this season.
For Liverpool, the opening months have included some wonderful highs and a few woeful lows. Their topsy-turvy form has been a cause of frustration, yet they’ve still only lost three times in 18 games.
During the gap between Premier League games, Bleacher Report decided to assess the early going and, in the process, set out aims for Jurgen Klopp‘s squad to achieve the rest of the way.
We’ve picked six targets, all well within the realms of possibility, that they can hit before next May.
1. Finish in the top four
This one hasn’t changed from the start. Understandably, there is a desire from supporters to see year-on-year progression. By finishing fourth last season, Liverpool raised the bar and increased expectations.
Klopp‘s charisma and general positivity gives you reason to believe the club is on an upward curve. Yet anyone who had ideas of a title tilt was thinking a little too far ahead. The new recruits in the summer transfer window were rightly welcomed but never looked enough to move the team to the next level.
In contrast, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United spent heavily. Mohamed Salah was the only starter added by Klopp, albeit an attempt to bring in Virgil van Dijk was badly botched by the club.
The addition of midweek UEFA Champions League fixtures to the schedule led some to worry about whether Liverpool could maintain their top-four status, never mind make a push to finish further up the standings.
Then there were the memories of the last time the Reds competed in Europe’s top-tier club competition. Having gone so close to winning the league in 2013/14, they slipped all the way down to sixth the following campaign and never made it out of their Champions League group.
It is imperative history isn’t repeated. Even though there’s been a worrying lack of consistency to Liverpool’s league form (they’re yet to win three in a row domestically this season), they still sit only four points behind second-placed United.
This group of players are capable of producing scintillating performances on any given day. What is crucial, though, is making sure they develop the key habit of grinding out results when not at their peak, particularly on the road. If they can do that, they can secure a top-four finish again.
2. Make a statement in Europe
Having fought so hard to get into the UEFA Champions, both last season in the Premier League and also in their two-legged play-off against Hoffenheim in August, Liverpool made a shaky start in Group E.
After a kind draw had raised the prospect of reaching the knockout stages, they let slip a winning position against Sevilla in their home opener before somehow failing to win away in Spartak Moscow when they dominated from start to finish.
A tally of two points after as many matches was worrying, yet back-to-back fixtures over Maribor helped right the ship. A combined 10-0 aggregate score against the Slovenians has Liverpool sitting pretty at the top of the table. While Sevilla away next will be tricky, beating Spartak at home should be enough to progress to the next round.
But Klopp will not just be content to make it to the last 16. This is a coach who took his previous club all the way to a Champions League final—he relishes the chance to take on Europe’s heavyweights.
While a repeat of Borussia Dortmund‘s run to the 2013 showpiece seems unlikely for Liverpool, there is no reason to believe they cannot claim a big scalp or two before their run comes to an end.
Klopp was at the helm for the last famous European night at Anfield. The Europa League comeback against Dortmund in April 2016, when Dejan Lovren scored in injury time to secure a place in the semi-finals, was a reminder of how special the atmosphere can get inside the famous stadium.
Liverpool’s Champions League experience this season shouldn’t just be about lining the club’s pockets—it’s also about making a statement that the club are back where they belong.
3. Tighten up at the back
This feels like a target so distant NASA don’t have a telescope strong enough to spot it. Of course, Klopp is not the first Liverpool manager to be plagued by questions about a supposedly leaky backline.
The Reds haven’t had a reputation for being defensively sound since Rafa Benitez’s days in charge. They’ve conceded 40 or more goals in the last seven straight Premier League seasons, while 17 have already nestled in their net in this campaign (and we’re only 11 games in, too).
Yet the numbers don’t truly highlight the underlying problem.
It’s not that Liverpool cannot defend full stop, it’s just they seem to occasionally forget how to do it. As Chris Bascombe wrote in The Telegraph: “Those suggesting Liverpool’s defence is consistently awful are palpably wrong. The problem is they are occasionally horrific, and nightmares linger.”
Fans could wipe away the memory of the 5-0 loss at Manchester City due to playing over 50 minutes with 10 men, but the harrowing 4-1 loss at Tottenham Hotspur led to a few sleepless nights in the aftermath. Some still wake in a cold sweat after a horrible flashback to Harry Kane’s opener at Wembley Stadium.
“The only way to fix it is to stay strong and work on it. That’s what we’ll do. We have to show a reaction,” Klopp said after the Spurs debacle, per Matt Barlow of the Daily Mail.
Since that game at Wembley, Liverpool have won three straight by a combined 10-1 score. Unable to sign new personnel until January 2018, Klopp has instead tweaked the team’s setup. Notably against West Ham United last time out, he switched to a 4-4-2 system that included two deep-lying central midfielders.
The manager can only do so much, though; those on the field have to be smart in the heat of battle (I’m looking at you, Dejan) and also be switched on in key moments, particularly at set-piece situations.
4. Get up for the FA cup
Despite a proud history of winning trophies, Liverpool haven’t picked up any silverware since 2012.
With that in mind, the FA Cup should be a priority in 2018. The Premier League crown already appears out of reach, the Champions League always looked a long shot and the Carabao Cup run ended far too early.
Klopp has previously used the famous competition to blood some of the club’s promising youngsters. For the third-round tie against Plymouth Argyle last season, he fielded a starting lineup with an average age of 21 years and 296 days.
In his two years in charge, the Reds have fallen in the fourth round. On both occasions, Klopp could point to mitigating circumstances—Liverpool were in the midst of an injury crisis in 2016, while last season they prioritised league points and a League Cup semi-final with Southampton (which didn’t go well).
You expect the manager may again see the FA Cup as an opportunity to rest and rotate, and much will depend on the luck of the draw.
But there’s no reason to believe the squad cannot cope with the task of fighting on multiple fronts. Klopp has lost two cup finals since taking charge, hopefully he can make it third time lucky at Wembley next May.
5. Finish with a 20+ goalscorer
In the 2013/14 season, the prolific Luis Suarez bagged 31 league goals for Liverpool. In the three years since the Uruguayan ran amok against Premier League defences up and down the country, the club’s top scorers in the competition have managed a combined total of 32.
Steven Gerrard topped the charts with nine the year after Suarez left, Roberto Firmino just reached double figures in 2015/16, while Coutinho and Sadio Mane split the honour with 13 apiece last season.
There’s nothing wrong with sharing around the scoring duties, and the current squad contains plenty of players who can contribute in the final third. Neighbours Everton are a shiny, struggling example of how badly things can go when you become overreliant on one man to provide the majority of your goals.
Having said that, the strongest teams tend to have someone who scores 20 or more in a campaign. Chelsea (Diego Costa with 20), Tottenham (Harry Kane with 29) and Manchester City (Sergio Aguero with 20) all had a player reach that target in 2016/17.
Goal-getters can help paper over cracks. Liverpool need to improve defensively, yet the best way to ease the pressure on the back four is by building a lead at the other end. The goal conceded against West Ham was poor, for example, but lapses don’t tend to be highlighted when you’ve scored four at the other end.
Firmino—Liverpool’s leading man up top—does many things well but isn’t prolific. While Daniel Sturridge is a better finisher, the England international lacks the work rate and mobility that Klopp wants from his centre forward.
Instead, Salah looks the most likely to break through the 20-goal barrier. The Egyptian has been a revelation since his arrival from AS Roma, reaching double figures in all competitions already.
He’s scored seven in the Premier League, five of them coming on the road. If Salah‘s finishing had been a little more clinical—and his penalty against Huddersfield Town hadn’t been saved—he’d surely be in double figures already.
Per BBC Sport, the former Chelsea player’s 12-goal tally in his first 17 games in all competitions means he’s had a better start to life at Anfield than the aforementioned Suarez, as well as Fernando Torres.
Salah‘s electric speed and smart runs, often from out to in, suggest that, provided there are no fitness issues, Liverpool possess a player who can be in the running to win the Premier League’s Golden Boot.
6. Make key decisions over personnel
The beauty of Klopp‘s team is that it is exactly that—a team. While some players are more important than others, the system can cope with key absences. Remember, both Coutinho and Mane missed chunks of the previous season, yet a top-four berth was still secured on the final Sunday.
For certain individuals, the next few months will be crucial to working out their long-term futures on Merseyside. Here is a quartet who, despite featuring regularly, Liverpool must decide what to do with:
Emre Can—The midfielder’s contract situation continues to drag on. For whatever reason, the two sides have yet to agree a new deal…and now the clock is seriously ticking. Per Paul Hetherington of the Daily Star, the German could end up moving to Manchester City next summer on a free transfer.
Philippe Coutinho—Liverpool swatted away Barcelona’s interest in the last window, standing firm in the face of heavy pressure from both the Liga club and the player’s representatives to hold on to their prized asset. The Brazilian has got on with his job since, yet speculation continues to persist in the background.
Dejan Lovren—The failed attempt to sign Van Dijk in the summer shows Klopp wants an upgrade at the back. Lovren‘s dire display against Tottenham was seen as the last straw for many, though he will still be needed this season. After that? Who knows. It would help the Croatian’s cause if he could get fully fit.
Simon Mignolet—The Belgian goalkeeper won’t ever convince some he’s up to the job. For every stretch of good games he has, it always feels like a mistake is around the corner. Could Loris Karius‘ appearances in the Champions League be a precursor to him taking over as No. 1 on a permanent basis?
Klopp is a players’ coach, you only have to see how he interacts with them after games to appreciate that, but he won’t allow sentiment to cloud his decision-making. If the German feels a player isn’t fully committed or up to the task, he will not hesitate to make a change.
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