2017-18 club preview: Liverpool

Banking on a risky transfer strategy

Philippe Coutinho celebrating one of his 13 league goals last season. His uncertain future amid interest from Barcelona has added to the unease surrounding Liverpool's transfer business this summer.
Philippe Coutinho celebrating one of his 13 league goals last season. His uncertain future amid interest from Barcelona has added to the unease surrounding Liverpool's transfer business this summer.PHOTO: REUTERS

Reds boast strong attack but need to strengthen central midfield and defence

LONDON • It is an infuriating trait of the Premier League era for Liverpool that a season of genuine progress often precedes a reversal but Jurgen Klopp is convinced the cycle will be broken.

The extra demands of Europe and a patient, high-risk transfer strategy that has yet to pay off provide counter-arguments to the Liverpool manager's belief.

But they should not overshadow what is at Klopp's disposal. Consistency, he has insisted, will ensure Liverpool do not merely flirt with a title challenge this season.

As was the case last summer, before he guided Liverpool back into the top four for only the second time in eight seasons, Klopp has been unperturbed by the external anxieties that surround the club's transfer business.

At this point in the window, the anxiety is understandable. The final steps the German had envisaged for the coming campaign have proved the most difficult to take.

RB Leipzig have been as good as their repeated word that Naby Keita is not for sale despite Liverpool submitting club-record offers of £57 million (S$101.15 million) and £66 million for the midfielder.

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And there was the "aborted" move for Virgil van Dijk, a setback that established the tone of a difficult window for the Reds.

Although Klopp has said that he is happy with his defensive options, Liverpool's interest in the commanding van Dijk is reportedly not over, especially after the Dutchman submitted a transfer request on Monday. This follows the Merseyside club's withdrawal from the race for the £60 million-rated defender when Southampton reported them to the Premier League over an illegal approach.

  • TRANSFERS

  • IN

    • Andrew Robertson (Hull): £10 million (S$17.75 million)

    • Mohamed Salah (Roma): £36.9m

    • Dominic Solanke (Chelsea): Free

    OUT

    • Ryan Fulton (Hamilton Academical): Free

    • Lucas Leiva (Lazio): £5m

    • Kevin Stewart (Hull): Undisclosed

    • Andre Wisdom (Derby): Undisclosed

    • Kevin Stewart (Hull): £4m

    KEY FIXTURES

    Aug 27: Arsenal (home)

    Sept 9: Man City (away)

    Oct 14: Man United (h)

    Oct 21: Tottenham (a)

    Nov 25: Chelsea (h)

    Dec 9: Everton (h)

    Dec 23: Arsenal (a)

    Jan 13: Man City (h)

    Feb 3: Tottenham (h)

    March 10: Man United (a)

    April 7: Everton (a)

    May 5: Chelsea (a)

The problem at Anfield this season is unlikely to be scoring goals but stopping them, which is why van Dijk is crucial, to shore up a defence that seemed to wobble every time a cross came in. Their defensive woes were partly due to injury, with first-choice pairing Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren seldom available to play together. Keeping both fit may still prove a challenge.

Add to the mix Barcelona's interest in Philippe Coutinho and a sense of unease surrounding Liverpool's transfer business is legitimate. Klopp has also been reluctant to consider alternatives, as demonstrated by the waiting game over van Dijk and Keita.

The success of that approach will be revealed once the transfer window closes and Champions League commitments arrive for a squad that benefited from a European-free season last time out.

For a manager who craves consistency and stability, however, the foundations are more important than what is out of reach.

Klopp has a settled squad attuned to his methods and a luxury of options in the final third. Although the team need strengthening in central midfield and central defence, it has undoubtedly improved.

Reinforcements so far have mainly centred on Liverpool's attack, where Mohamed Salah has joined for a club record £36.9 million from Roma and Dominic Solanke has arrived in search of greater opportunity than he found at Chelsea.

Salah has shone in pre-season, playing on the right of Klopp's forward line, with Sadio Mane working his way back to full fitness, and his speed, work rate and end product have been impressive.

The prospect of Salah and Mane terrorising defences from all angles and feeding off the intelligent awareness of Roberto Firmino is tantalising. In Coutinho (if he stays), Salah, Mane, Firmino, Daniel Sturridge, Solanke, Divock Origi and the fit-again Danny Ings, Liverpool boast a formidable range of strikers.

Klopp's side frequently faced, and toiled against, opponents who sat back en masse and played on the counter-attack last season. It was not only a recurring theme at Anfield, with teams prepared to concede ground at home to combat Klopp's style. Jordan Henderson's ability to stretch and switch the play was missed after he suffered another injury. Liverpool's captain can ill-afford a repeat while their manager requires more throughout central midfield.

"Our biggest challenge is to be stronger defensively as a team, to be more concentrated, more focused in situations," Klopp said.

Injuries, a major factor in January's downturn according to the manager, would have an impact on a squad facing a more demanding workload this season. Liverpool must also show greater mental resilience under pressure.

But they are blessed with pace, attacking prowess, stability and a balanced squad. Whether they will have the required quality in central midfield and defence, however, may rest on breaking the resolve of Leipzig and Southampton.

THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2017, with the headline 'Banking on a risky transfer strategy'. Print Edition | Subscribe