Fine margins are what decide title races. Had the ball crossed the line by a further 11.7 millimetres in Liverpool’s game at Manchester City last season, then the title may well have ended up on Merseyside.
Luck plays a part in a title success, and all managers must gamble at some stage. Some things are beyond their control – such as the injury to Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson, arriving less than 40 minutes into the new season.
The severity of Alisson’s layoff isn’t confirmed, but reports over the weekend suggest he will miss at least five Premier Leagues, plus potentially the opening Champions League match next month.
It meant a debut for goalkeeper Adrian just four days after joining the club. The Spaniard was making his first appearance in the Premier League since May 2018 and will now be the man to start for the European Champions in the coming weeks.
It was a gamble, then, for Liverpool to not sign Adrian – despite a deal being in place – earlier in the summer in order to maximise the price they would get when Simon Mignolet eventually departed, something that seemed inevitable despite claims on the contrary from Klopp.
Mignolet played more minutes in pre-season for Liverpool than any other player, but that could have been Adrian instead had he been signed sooner and given time to acclimatise to new surroundings and teammates.
So it was a gamble to keep Adrian waiting while forcing the best price for Mignolet. That gamble, though, is understandable, as the feeling was that Alisson was the least likely player to be injured.
What many supporters see as Liverpool and Klopp’s major gamble has been the decision not to reinforce from a position of power. “Nobody should think that we did not look,” explained Klopp ahead of their opening game against Norwich on Friday night.
“Around 90% of our people are with us with the transfer policy,” believes the Reds’ boss. “Ten percent maybe not, but they are on social media – they are constantly worried.”
One of those in the 10% is Jamie Carragher, who told Sky Sports pre-match of his concerns over Liverpool’s squad depth, saying: “If Liverpool get injuries, injuries that last six to eight weeks, I think it will cause them a problem and it may tell at the end of the season.“
A prophetic claim from the former Reds’ defender, with Alisson’s injury expected to keep him sidelined for exactly that timeframe.
That Liverpool’s subs bench had no full-backs on it perhaps served to highlight Carragher – and many supporters’ – concerns. James Milner should expect to be putting in a shift at both right and left-back this season at some stage, but he turns 34 in January and certainly doesn’t offer anywhere near the dynamism of Trent Alexander-Arnold or Andy Robertson on the flanks.
Joe Gomez has started the season alongside Virgil van Dijk at centre-back, but he too should expect to be shifted out to full-back at times this season. Injury to Gomez last winter meant Liverpool lost their regular centre-back and back-up right-back.
But perhaps the biggest gamble is further forward, where Klopp has opted not to replace Daniel Sturridge. Instead, more will be expected from Divock Origi, and teenager Rhian Brewster will get an opportunity at some stage.
Last season, Liverpool’s prolific front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino missed just six Premier League games between them. Whether that’s sustainable is questionable, especially with the extra commitments this campaign with the FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar in mid-December.
Xherdan Shaqiri, too, will need to be more involved than he was in the second half of last season. To date, Klopp has been reluctant to play the Swiss while using a 4-3-3 formation, but that is something that will have to happen this season.
Beyond that, the options are slim. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is now seen very much as a midfielder, rather than a wide forward, and the same too for Adam Lallana. Seeing either of those in the front three would likely mean something has gone wrong with injuries.
Klopp, though, has his reasons for wanting a small, tight-knit squad. The manager believes that having a smaller group of players means less unrest among the group and that the close bonds within his squad have been a key part of their success so far.
The evidence is there to suggest he is correct, too. There have been no players publicly discussing their unhappiness at not being involved.
And, in the case of a player such as Milner, the fact that he is deputy in several positions means he will get more playing time than if he were only considered for one role, and thus that means he retains better overall match fitness.
The problem arises when an injury hits, such as for the Community Shield when Milner wasn’t available and there was no full-back cover in the squad.
Klopp also believes that a settled squad is what brings long-term success to a club, citing Barcelona’s dominant side of the recent past, and Manchester United’s class of ’92, arguing: “Big teams stay together for a number of years.”
That is why the manager has more than once this summer reiterated that keeping players and signing new contracts have been Liverpool’s ‘transfers’. It is a valid point, but for supporters who are so keen to ensure the club build on recent success it’s a point that is difficult to accept.
The last three times Liverpool have finished in the top two (2002, 2009 and 2014), they went on to finish outside of the top four the following season. That isn’t going to happen this season, and indeed reaching 97 points again like last season seems unlikely. The concern, then, is that should the title not be delivered and a 30-year wait ended, some will always point back to the lack of signings in the summer.
It’s a gamble, for sure, but Klopp will know that and he is the man best-placed to make the decision.
Ultimately, injuries will make or break Liverpool’s season. If the title ends up at Anfield, head of fitness Andres Kornmayer, who arrived from Bayern Munich in 2016, will have played a bigger role than many will realise.
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