THE SLEEPING GIANTS: LIVERPOOL

Season of reckoning

Sadio Mane (left) celebrating with his team-mates during their 4-0 dispatching of Barcelona in a friendly. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp will be counting on the Senegalese forward, another recruit from Southampton to provide his forward line with so
Sadio Mane (left) celebrating with his team-mates during their 4-0 dispatching of Barcelona in a friendly. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp will be counting on the Senegalese forward, another recruit from Southampton to provide his forward line with some added fire-power. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE

Honeymoon over as Klopp embarks on first full campaign with team shaped in his image

The 2016-17 English Premier League season starts on Saturday.

The Straits Times begins the countdown by taking a look at the storylines that will shape the new season.

LONDON • Liverpool had a typical, underachieving 2015-16 English Premier League season: Eighth place, 60 points, two Cup final losses, and no European qualification.

Such an underwhelming record would have put any Reds manager on borrowed time. Yet, last month, the club owners awarded manager Jurgen Klopp a six-year contract extension long before the anniversary of his first 12 months in charge, with hardly any mutterings of disapproval among the fan base.

Clearly, the decision reflects the club's contentment with the German, and vice versa, ahead of his first full season in charge.

Initial results in the Premier League do not accurately gauge his impact, even though Liverpool rediscovered the Cup final habit in Klopp's debut campaign, reaching both the League Cup and Europa League finals.

He clocked up 52 matches in his first eight months in English football and never failed to hide his astonishment at the demands.

Yet, arguably a bigger achievement than bringing cohesion to the team was restoring belief and unity at a club where despondency had taken root after the 2013-14 title near-miss.

There was widespread ridicule when Klopp led manic celebrations of a 95th-minute equaliser at home to West Bromwich in December. However, the message of never accepting defeat and fighting until the last was embraced by players and supporters alike.

It also means a refusal to bring in big names in the off-season simply for a quick boost to their results. When automatic entry to the Champions League disappeared with the Europa League final loss to Sevilla in May, so did the power to pull several transfer targets like German forward Mario Gotze over the line.

Yet Klopp is not preoccupied with making big-money signings.

"If you bring one player in for £100 million (S$176 million) and he gets injured, then it all goes through the chimney," he said, in a veiled reference to Manchester United's reported record bid for Juventus' Paul Pogba.

"The day that this is football, I'm not in a job any more, because the game is about playing together."

Still, he has acquired much-needed pace up front in Sadio Mane, and physical presence and composure in midfield with Marko Grujic.

He has tapped into his Bundesliga background to sign two international central defenders, Ragnar Klavan and Joel Matip, for a combined £4.2 million and improved his goalkeeping options with Loris Karius.

Left-back and central midfield remain areas of concern, although Georginio Wijnaldum can address the latter should the £25 million recruit discover the consistency that eluded him at Newcastle.

Liverpool will need to be sharp for a start that includes Arsenal, Tottenham, Leicester and Chelsea in the first five matches. They did look hungry and sharp in a high-profile friendly with Barcelona on Saturday, thrashing the off-colour Spanish champions 4-0 at Wembley.

"This is my squad now. This time, it is my team," Klopp said.

"There are probably no players here any more I don't want. There are no signings I didn't want, we have not sold anyone I didn't want to."

It is a long time since a Liverpool manager expressed that sentiment. This season will be an interesting ride.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2016, with the headline 'Season of reckoning'. Print Edition | Subscribe