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What next for Liverpool after 'phantom' season?

Liverpool
(Image credit: PA)

"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

The 2020/21 season took place (practically) without fans in attendance to see it, so did it really happen? That unique sound of thousands of seats lifting up en-masse as your team thunders down the pitch and fans get to their feet was gone for a complete season.

If ever there was an asterisk season it was the 2020/21 season, a full campaign played in pandemic conditions. Even the players began to admit how playing in front of empty stadiums had taken its toll. The football was not football as we know it, for players, fans or anyone else.

For Liverpool, the domino effect of injuries, no fans and a myriad of other rare circumstances combined to create a nightmare campaign - but a nightmare that they summoned the ability to wake from and end without any damage done.

A third-place finish would have been seen as a disappointment 12 months ago, but as the season came to a conclusion it was a case of relief it was over and finally time to re-stock and take a break.

To achieve Champions League qualification means that the 2020/21 season can be left in the past and never to be thought of again. Crucially, it did not end with ramifications from being out of Europe’s elite. 

So where now, what next after a ‘phantom’ season?

1. Take a break

Typically, Liverpool’s players have been given six weeks ‘off’ in the summer but this year Jurgen Klopp has afforded his players seven weeks from the end of the season to returning to pre-season on July 12. It’s a wise move after what has been a physically and mentally exhausting year, coming off the back of three intense seasons prior to that as the Reds sought silverware.

With Virgil van Dijk not taking part in the Euros and Trent Alexander-Arnold injured, Liverpool only have seven players at the tournament - of which, three of them (Neco Williams, Xherdan Shaqiri and Harry Wilson) are not key players. So just four first-team players at the Euros. It will be key that they - Jordan Henderson, Andy Robertson, Thiago and Diogo Jota - are also given seven weeks between the end of their International duty and a return to pre-season.

Meanwhile, the Brazilian trio of Alisson, Fabinho and Roberto Firmino are in Copa America action (should the tournament actually go ahead) and Mo Salah could be at the Olympics (again, should the tournament go ahead and he is selected by Egypt, which seems likely).

But Klopp will have a strong squad when the players return to Kirkby next month and more training time is always the German’s preference.

2. New faces

Ibrahima Konate

(Image credit: PA)

One of those taking part on the first day back will be new signing Ibrahima Konate. Liverpool moved quickly to bring in the centre-back from RB Leipzig, activating his release clause to get their first transfer completed and a major box ticked for the summer.

A midfielder is also wanted at Anfield after Gini Wijnaldum’s departure. Suggestions that Liverpool won’t replace a player who appeared in 75 of Liverpool’s last 76 Premier League games seem far-fetched. Yves Bissouma and Youri Tielemans are linked are certainly on a list of candidates and offer proven quality in England in a similar manner to Sadio Mane when the Reds signed him from Southampton

A forward is also wanted to add depth to the Reds’ attack, but that could depend on outgoings. There is interest in Jadon Sancho, but his arrival would require somebody else leaving first. If nobody leaves, then a more versatile attacker for a lower price is more likely.

Diogo Jota could be set for a more central role next season as the No.9 more often, and with Harvey Elliott certain to get a chance in pre-season at least, Liverpool’s attack will be strengthened.

3. Trim the squad

Sporting director Michael Edwards has done some impressive business with outgoings, but last summer saw the pandemic-hit transfer window backfire somewhat. Liverpool knocked back a £12 million bid from Burnley for Welsh winger Harry Wilson and he ended up on loan to Championship side Cardiff - which was harsh on a player who had spent the season before on loan to Bournemouth in the top flight. 

Edwards and Liverpool might need to be a bit more realistic with their valuations this summer for the likes of Wilson, Marko Grujic, Shaqiri and Divock Origi - all of whom are certainly available to offers. 

4. Potential tactical developments

Thiago Alcantara

(Image credit: Future)

The signing of Thiago should have allowed Liverpool to alter their style last season, but the Spaniard being injured in his full debut and then sidelined for almost half the campaign largely put paid to any such plans.

Add in that the centre-back injury crisis meant that Alexander-Arnold and Robertson weren’t rotated and stability was sought from a tactical perspective and Klopp had to go back to what his squad knew best - especially with less training time.

This summer though should see a new tactical development at Anfield. Assistant Pepijn Lijnders had hinted at such before the 2019/20 season had even finished - noting that teams had begun to shut down the Reds’ full backs and that more control would be needed centrally. Hence Thiago.

A change to 4-2-3-1 shouldn’t be discounted, with Thiago alongside Fabinho proving very effective at times as Liverpool ended the campaign with eight wins from their last 10 league games.

5. Integrate and rotate

Liverpool signed two players last season who never started a league game between them: Ben Davies and Kostas Tsimikas. 

Whether Davies remains at the club beyond this summer isn’t clear - either way, Liverpool will make a healthy profit on a player valued at around £5 million and was signed for £500k.

But for Tsimikas, a full pre-season will be valuable and the Greek being a proper option as a backup to Robertson will aid Liverpool next season. Robertson, especially due to his importance with Scotland, needs more rotation.

Similarly, Neco Williams will get valuable experience at the Euros with Wales and should then be considered a more reliable deputy to Alexander-Arnold.

Fewer injuries would mean Jota can play a bigger part in attack, meaning more rotation there too.

Liverpool can move on from last season with optimism and positivity, but first they must collectively enjoy the mental and physical downtime before re-grouping and going again.

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