This preview appears in the August 2021 edition of FourFourTwo.
It’s tempting to compare Liverpool’s 2020-21 to Icarus flying too close to the sun; a hubristic tale of a squad ending the club’s 30-year title drought and getting giddy at their own soaring magnificence.
Yet anyone who sat through the harrowing, listless losses to Burnley and Fulham, which bookended a stretch of six straight home defeats, will point to a fragile group of players, bereft of confidence and unable to recall a counter-pressing philosophy that had once been near-automatic. The 4-1 reverse to Manchester City within that dismal run resembled the siege of Troy rather than a football match.
Jurgen Klopp’s heavy-metal footballers finished 30 points worse off than in their title win. While losing Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez early to season-ending injuries was undeniably unlucky, relying on Joel Matip’s banjo-string muscles to pick up the slack left cover woefully thin. Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams (total Reds appearances prior to 2020/21: one) ended the campaign as Klopp’s most regular centre-back partnership. He tried 20 in all. But Van Dijk, Gomez and Matip are all expected to return for the restart or thereabouts, while Ibrahima Konaté, a highly-rated France Under-21 international, joins from RB Leipzig.
Consistency of selection in defence will have a butterfly effect on midfield matters. Although Fabinho deputised admirably at centre-back, the Brazilian is Klopp’s best front-foot midfielder, leading the counter-press and looking to pass forward quickly. He was either absent or in defence for those six successive home defeats, but anchored the midfield in each of the eight wins from Liverpool’s final 10 matches. Trent Alexander-Arnold returned to his assist-making best in that period, safe in the knowledge Fabinho was there to cover.
A fabled front three is now the city’s new Fab Four. Diogo Jota’s percussive brilliance should push Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané to rediscover their best form; Mohamed Salah, fresh from becoming the first Liverpool player to record a third consecutive 20-goal league season, should just keep on trucking.
That late-season surge to secure third place suggests the Reds have located at least part of their mojo. Now, they must pray that the supporters – upon whom they so clearly rely for inspiration and drive – are back in some form to avoid their wings melting any further. The crowdless sterility of lockdown football really doesn’t suit Klopp’s team.
The five-point plan
1 Make Thiago the hub
Though Klopp will miss PSG’s Georginio Wijnaldum and his near-constant availability, the gurning German can count on the acclimatised Thiago: a footballing Picasso, central to Liverpool’s fine end to the season. This could also be a breakthrough season for the Scouse precocity of Curtis Jones.
2 Maintain momentum
In 2019/20’s title win, the Reds drew three times, while nearly half of their wins were by a single goal. Last term, they finished level on nine occasions and secured just seven victories by the odd goal. Having topped the table in December after a 7-0 shellacking of Crystal Palace, they couldn’t arrest a worrying decline from January to March – turning draws back into wins should help to keep their momentum on track.
3 Always remember who you are
Issuing Compulsory Purchase Orders to residents around Anfield, trying to raise season ticket prices and putting loyal staff on furlough at the start of the pandemic was already bad enough. The brazen Super League power-grab was beyond the pale. Giving a seat on the board to the Spirit of Shankly supporters’ union is a step in the right direction, but a message to Liverpool’s suits: think less about the money, more about the fans. You need them.
Here it is... Alisson's remarkable header deep into injury-time that handed Liverpool an incredible 2-1 victory over West Brom! 🇧🇷 ⚽📺 Reaction on Sky Sports PL📲 Download the @SkySports app!📱 Follow #WBALIV reaction: https://t.co/4Ko9z3MRwQ pic.twitter.com/AJmXwiXuvnMay 16, 2021
4 Trust the process
Liverpool had the league’s most shots last season, and only four fewer shots on target than Manchester City, so they’re still creating chances. They just didn’t take them. In winning the title, they outscored their xG by nine, resulting in 24 more points than their chances might have delivered. They must remember what it is to be ruthless upfront.
5 Ali up?
“I thought he could be a nuisance, but I wasn’t expecting that!” laughed Reds goalkeeping coach John Achterberg following Alisson’s crucial match-winner at West Bromwich Albion in May. Only six Liverpool players scored more than the Brazilian gloveman in 2020-21 – why not let him loose if he’s that good with his bonce?
FFT verdict: 3rd
Big Virg is back, and so is the Kop, now Klopp must reawaken his mentality monsters to go again.
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