Jurgen Klopp is the only manager in the world who has a positive head-to-head record against Pep Guardiola. Liverpool beat Manchester City three times last season. And yet Liverpool also finished 25 points behind City. That’s why there is both hope on Merseyside that Liverpool can present a serious challenge to Guardiola’s team this season, and also an element of caution.
What’s certainly true is that the club has done all it could to back the manager, signing four players at a cost of $220m. Whatever fears there were about the direction the club was taking when Philippe Coutinho was sold last January have surely evaporated now. And when Jose Mourinho sneers about the amount Liverpool has spent, it should be remembered that $185m was raised by that sale. It’s true that almost half of it was spent on Virgil van Dijk, but still, Liverpool’s net spend over the past 12 months has been far from outrageous (and the fact Mourinho has chosen to focus on it perhaps suggests what a threat he thinks Liverpool will pose).
It’s not just the quality of the players brought in that has led to the sense of positivity; it’s that all seem to answer a specific need. Most vital is the goalkeeper Alisson. Liverpool’s problems in goal were highlighted by Loris Karius’s two errors in the Champions League final but this is no knee-jerk signing. Alisson is somebody they had been tracking for at least a year, and to land him when the likes of Real Madrid were also purportedly considering a bid represents something of a coup. His capacity to play with his feet, as Ederson, the man he kept out of Brazil’s World Cup squad, did so successfully at City last season, means he should be ideal to operate behind Liverpool’s high defensive line.
One of Liverpool’s major problems last season, and a reason it ended up gathering a point fewer than it had managed the season before, was its lack of depth, especially in midfield, as it tried to manage campaigns in both the Premier League and the Champions League. After Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain suffered a serious knee injury, one that will cause him to miss the whole of this season as well, Liverpool was essentially left with just three first-choice midfielders: James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum.
Emre Can, who struggled with injuries for much of the last campaign, has left, but in have come Naby Keita and Fabinho. Both are used to playing a high tempo, dynamic game, both are young and with something to prove and, in as much as any transfer can be judged before the league season has begun, both look like exactly like the sort of players Liverpool needs to add depth and flexibility to the midfield.
The fourth senior signing is of a different nature. Xherdan Shaqiri was available for $15.5m after Stoke City’s relegation. At that price, he seemed a useful backup option for Liverpool’s devastating attacking trio. Many question Shaqiri’s attitude last season, but his stats were very good, and his direct and muscular style fits the Klopp model. So impressive has he been in preseason that it may be that the Switzerland international becomes more of a regular in the first team than anybody had expected.
Liverpool’s preseason has been excellent. Although it lost to Dortmund, it has since beaten both Manchester City and Manchester United before thrashing Napoli 5-0 in Dublin on Saturday—all of it without a number of first-choice players. It’s always dangerous to read too much into preseason, and this year, just after a World Cup, perhaps even more than usual, but Liverpool’s performances have stoked optimism even further.
Klopp is well aware of the expectation. “I cannot give guarantees here but I understand,” he said. “First of all, we have to play the football that gives us an opportunity to win something. We cannot talk about winning something before we start the season. Football is not like cycling so we have lost a lot of things. The other day I put on a session and had to stop it and start again. I was: ‘Four players, one row, that’s how we defend.’ It’s not that the boys wanted to do it a different way but there’s a big change at this moment—new players coming in from another club, players in after a long time out; you are starting new more or less.”
But so is everybody else, and the signs of the past week have been highly encouraging. Liverpool does not have the resources of City, either in terms of wealth or players, but it does look the club most likely to challenge this season.