No excuses. That’s the line coming out of Anfield from the coach’s office at the moment, and it’s a rare one given the political machinations at Liverpool in the recent past. Ahead of the new season, though, Jurgen Klopp has been bullish about his current squad.
“This is my squad now, this time it is my team,” he told reporters after a friendly match last month.
Klopp had eight months to identify where he needed to strengthen the squad; so it was no surprise that a goalkeeper has come in to put pressure on Simon Mignolet (although Loris Karius is already injured and will miss eight weeks); nor that Joel Matip (free from Schalke) and the experienced Ragnar Klavan will boost options at center back.
No, the surprise is that despite the arrivals of Sadio Mane (£35 million, and a player who was on its radar when he cost £10 million from Red Bull Salzburg) and Georginio Wijnaldum (£25 million), there are still some gaping deficiencies.
Alberto Moreno had a night to forget in the Europa League final against Sevilla last May, and was widely tipped to be replaced in the summer. Yet Moreno is slated to start at left back this season with James Milner his de facto backup (Joe Gomez is still injured).
Klopp’s other headache is less to do with the creative part of his side, where Roberto Firmino, Adam Lallana, and Philippe Coutinho will compete with the Mane and Wijnaldum for places, but how he solves his striker conundrum. Mario Balotelli and Christian Benteke are still not sold, and it seems bizarre that Liverpool is holding out for £32 million for Benteke after a season in which he scored only nine league goals–and it's even more bizarre that the Reds might get it.
Both will probably be off before the end of the month, which will leave Klopp to choose between Divock Origi, Danny Ings and Daniel Sturridge as his first-choice forward. Klopp’s relationship with the latter always seems strained, and this week the coach said he had “no idea” if Sturridge would be fit for next week’s opener against Arsenal. If Liverpool is to mount a top-four challenge, it needs one of those three to hit the 20-goal mark this season.
Klopp has looked to improve his team’s fitness by hiring specialist coach Andreas Kornmayer from Bayern Munich. Chances of avoiding injury are enhanced by Liverpool having no European football this season.
For all the feel-good factor that Klopp brought to the club, not to mention two cup final appearances–it lost the League Cup final to Manchester City on penalties and bowed out in the Europe League final to Sevilla despite having a lead–Liverpool’s final league position was eighth, two points and two places below Brendan Rodgers’s last season in charge. Nevertheless, Klopp has given the club belief and ambition, for which he was rewarded with a contract extension in the summer.
The next step is for Liverpool to mount a challenge for the top four. Last weekend’s performance against Barcelona, which it beat 4-0 at Wembley, suggests this might be achievable–though unlike previous seasons, this should be the year when other teams also get their act together to make it more competitive at the top.
More importantly is that the Reds get off to a decent start against top-four rivals Arsenal and then Spurs in their opening two matches. Klopp will want to build momentum as soon as possible, and not get to the end of the month with dropped points and headaches in attack and at left back on his mind. Those two problem positions might prove the difference between a top-four finish and a top-six one this season.