It’s a week since Liverpool ended their 30-year drought to become Champions of England at last, but already attention has turned to how Jurgen Klopp’s side could retain their crown as Premier League winners.
“I have heard people say it is only a real thing if we twice in a row,” said Klopp this week. “But that is really funny - that is obviously an English thing!”
Doing so proves that it isn’t a one-off season ala Blackburn Rovers or Leicester City, but given that Liverpool collected a record 97 points for a team that didn’t win the title last season and could yet end this campaign with the most points by any side in English football history, they have little prove to anyone.
Nonetheless, while it won’t be the expectation it will, of course, be the aim for everyone inside Anfield.
“People may expect us to win the league again,” says Klopp. “That is possible but when I think of next year I don’t think about winning it again. That doesn’t mean we don’t want it, only there are a lot of steps to go between now and then.”
So what are those steps the boss speaks about?
To win consecutive titles requires consistency, something Liverpool have proven with just two defeats in their last 70 league games. It also requires determination and focus, something Liverpool have proven in abundance by bouncing back from the 2018 Champions League final defeat to win it 12 months later, and from last season’s 2nd-place finish to win it 13 months later in record time.
For Liverpool, then, the steps aren’t necessarily obvious.
Klopp has used 24 players in the Premier League so far this season, with three of them (Neco Williams, Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones) only from the bench. It’s a small, close-knit squad.
Adam Lallana will be leaving when his contract expires, Xherdan Shaqiri - who has just one league start this season - will be following him. Dejan Lovren - whose two starts of 2020 so far are a 2-2 draw at Shrewsbury Town and a 3-0 defeat at Watford - is likely to follow them.
Beyond that, further departures are highly unlikely. Klopp’s squad will remain very similar.
According to some, Liverpool had planned to strengthen from a position of power - something the Reds very much did during their dominant decades of the 1970s and '80s, adding starting-quality players no matter the silverware that had been collected that May. Two high-calibre signings were wanted, with Timo Werner being one of them; which would have added much-needed depth to their attack while also looking at a long-term strategy.
However, the coronavirus pandemic has put a serious spanner in those plans and “unprecedented operating losses”, in the words of chief executive Peter Moore, means the situation is being analysed and any such big signings are shelved for 12 months.
Instead, it will be another relatively quiet summer for Liverpool - although probably not as quiet as last summer when the only first-team arrival was free signing Adrian, plus youngsters Sepp van den Berg and Harvey Elliott.
Klopp still wants a young, versatile defender who can ideally operate at both left-back and centre-back, providing back-up to Andy Robertson and effectively replacing Lovren at the same time. An attacker who can play on the left remains the other priority, but it will have to be a youngster rather than a Werner or Jadon Sancho-type signing, for now.
Replacing Lallana in the squad will be Curtis Jones, with the teenage Scouser impressing in his Cup outings this season and now expected to get more playing time in Liverpool’s remaining seven fixtures - which arrive in a space of 24 days.
Shaqiri’s replacement has already been signed, with Takumi Minamino arriving in January - a month that would have seen Shaqiri depart had an offer arrived that met Liverpool’s valuation. Minamino though will be more of a backup for Roberto Firmino as the Reds’ No.9, with Firmino, one of Liverpool’s most-used players under Klopp, perhaps showing signs this season that he needs to be rested more going forward.
Lovren could be replaced by Ki-Jana Hoever, another teenager who is set to get minutes over the final weeks of the season, especially owing to Joel Matip being ruled out for the rest of the campaign.
And, while not a replacement, Neco Williams will get his first Premier League start before the campaign is out and is expected to provide an excellent deputy to Trent Alexander-Arnold next season. Similarly, Elliott will be involved more in 2020/21 as he matures and develops under the guidance of Klopp and his coaching team.
Those five players - Jones, Minamino, Hoever, Elliott and Williams - will play bigger parts next season.
The improvements from within
“The most important [thing] is development,” explained Klopp in his first week as Liverpool manager back in October 2015.
Developments saw players such as Lallana, Lovren, Divock Origi and even Alberto Moreno improve in the early years of Klopp’s tenure on Merseyside. More recently, it’s been the progress of Jordan Henderson, Robertson, Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and practically every player Klopp has worked with in the last two seasons.
Klopp believes he is only two years into the development of this squad, and while he’d have preferred to have added to it this summer, he will see the opportunity to develop from within. Take Naby Keita as the prime example. The Guinean arrived with high expectations two years ago, a then-record signing inheriting the No.8 shirt from Steven Gerrard.
Those expectations have not been yet so far, but the belief within Melwood is that the 25-year-old is now set to shine. A solid run from now to the end of the season could prove that.
And the potential for returns?
Without the effects of the pandemic, it’s unlikely that any of Liverpool’s loaned players would be part of Klopp’s squad next season. But things have changed, and an opportunity could arrive for two players in particular: Harry Wilson and Rhian Brewster.
Perhaps surprisingly, Wilson is the less likely of the two to be part of Klopp’s plans. The 23-year-old has shone on occasion at Bournemouth, but doesn’t appear to be a player who fits into Klopp’s system. He isn’t fast enough to replicate Mane or Salah out wide and isn’t robust enough to play in a more central role.
Brewster, meanwhile, would have been set for another loan without the pandemic and the impact that’s had on not signing, for example, Werner. Now, he could force his way into Klopp’s thinking with a strong finish to the season at Swansea and the correct application in training during the ‘pre-season’.
Liverpool haven’t retained the title since 1983/84 - when Kenny Dalglish won the domestic double in his first season as player-manager.
Whether Klopp’s squad can win it again could depend much on the outcome of Man City’s appeal of their European ban, the result of which is expected in July from the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Should that ban be held, then either City will be stronger next year for having no European football and therefore a focus on domestic competition, or they’ll be weakened significantly should star players not wish to remain at the club.
Already, Pep Guardiola’s side are losing David Silva, while Sergio Aguero, at age 32, is another star player well past his best. Leroy Sane’s leaving, Fernandinho’s now 35, Nicolas Otamendi is Nicolas Otamendi and goalkeeper Ederson’s better with his feet than his hands.
Chelsea could push for a challenge should the additions of Hakim Ziyech and Werner prove successful, but they’ll need to address other areas of their team too and Liverpool fans know too well that it’s extremely difficult to go from finishing outside the top two to winning the title – the only time that’s happened in recent times was Leicester. The same, then, applies to Manchester United.
Klopp’s Liverpool, even without signings this summer, are well placed to retain the Premier League next season and will begin the campaign as favourites. His players will be motivated to do so so that they can celebrate properly with their supporters.
And doing so would put them back level with Manchester United on 20 league titles – therefore well and truly back on their perch.
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