Jurgen Klopp addresses his Liverpool squad during their pre-season tour of the United States (Getty Images)Liverpool’s defeat in the Champions League final to Real Madrid in Ukraine could have been the big ‘what if?’ moment in Jurgen Klopp’s Merseyside tenure.
After the loss and everything which surrounded it – from the Reds losing control in midfield late on to Lloris Karius’ inexplicable mistakes and Sergio Ramos’ perceived man-handling of Mohamed Salah – there was some concern that those issues could hang over the side in the build-up to the new campaign.
But the club’s American owners saw through all of that noise. They saw a manager who took a team with a midfield of James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Giorginio Wijnaldum to within a whisker of winning the big one. Relative success which was achieved mainly thanks to innovative tactics married with astute transfer dealings the summer before.
The trust Klopp built last season saw Fenway Sports Group back him with a £170m outlay on transfers to take that extra step. The Reds now boast the most expensive goalkeeper, defender and defensive midfielder in world football.
Fair to say, Liverpool ‘won’ the transfer window, but now the German tactician has some big decisions to make to get his team into a position to win that elusive first Premier League title.
Who partners Virgil van Dijk?
One of Joel Matip or Joe Gomez are likely to start against West Ham on August 12 (Getty Images)Liverpool’s season turned around when the Dutchman swapped St Mary’s for Anfield in the January window for a cool £75m. Before his arrival it was inconceivable Liverpool could be perceived as Manchester City’s biggest threat to retaining their title ahead of the new campaign.
His assured performances and calming influence turned a side leaking goals at an alarming rate to one which had something that resembled a top-class defence. But for all his good work he had Dejan Lovren lurking beside him, keeping fans on edge of their seats for all the wrong reasons.
A run to the World Cup final with Croatia would suggest he’s done enough to command a place in Klopp’s XI, but he would still be considered the weakest-link in Liverpool’s default strongest line-up by fans, pundits and probably (secretly) Klopp himself.
His excursions in Russia mean one of Joe Gomez or Joel Matip will get a chance to deputise against West Ham in the Reds’ opening fixture. If one of those two manage to hit the ground running, Lovren’s place in the team long-term could be under considerable threat. The rise of Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold last season have shown Klopp is anything but averse to putting his faith in an in-form youngster.
Naby Keita and Fabinho’s plus one
Fabinho and Naby Keita train at Melwood during Liverpool’s pre-season preparations (Getty Images)Liverpool’s midfield has been completely transformed. Fabinho will sit at the base of it and play the role with the discipline and passing ability which Emre Can sometimes attempted but rarely pulled off. While Naby Keita is the closest thing the Reds have had to a Steven Gerrard since his retirement – and that’s not a slight on captain Henderson.
But it is the England international who looks like he’ll be worst off. Keita plays in the role Henderson took up when he first arrived at Anfield, while Fabinho takes up the role which he has admirably adapted to in the latter stages of his career. Henderson’s leadership and drive may well see him play in the third slot, but in big games against high-calibre opposition he won’t serve an obvious enough purpose and will likely be left out. The same can be said about James Milner in a midfield three.
With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (the outstanding choice) out for the majority of the season with injury, that leaves Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana. While Wijnaldum has more industry, Lallana offers more sophisticated creativity and, crucially, intelligent pressing.
Milner may well start against West Ham in the role, but Lallana could crowbar his way in as he builds up his fitness following an injury lay-off.
Trust Sturridge’s fitness or Shaqiri’s discipline?
Daniel Sturridge and Xherdan Shaqiri in action for Liverpool in Michigan (Getty Images)In the scenario where Roberto Firmino does not play against West Ham, should Klopp stick the returning Daniel Sturridge down the middle as a like-for-like replacement or shuffle the pack to get new signing Xherdan Shaqiri on the right, with Salah tucking into the central spot?
Sturridge has been brought back into the fold during pre-season but no one could have envisaged him starting for Klopp after his disastrous loan spell at West Brom.
Injury issues aside, filling the shoes of Firmino is an unenviable task for Sturridge. It’s difficult to overstate the influence the Brazilian has on Liverpool’s counter-attacking transitions, he brings out the best in Mane and Salah and there is little to suggest Sturridge can adapt his game enough to do the same.
Shaqiri, meanwhile, could slot into the right flank with chief goalscorer Salah moving infield. On the face of it, it seems a no-brainer, but Klopp’s attacking patterns have worked so perfectly that there is a danger that moving your best player (Salah) out of his preferred role could throw a spanner into the entire system. Surely Salah should be the fixture in the team around which everyone else is arranged?
There’s also the fact that Trent Alexander-Arnold, likely to be deployed at right-back, will have a heck of a lot to do if Shaqiri lives up to those accusing him of not tracking back enough.
Can Liverpool throw caution to the wind with 4-2-2-2 (4-2-4)?
Klopp often leant into playing a three in midfield because of Liverpool’s personnel last season and their lack of mobility. But Keita and Fabinho have enough about them to operate as a double pivot without getting overrun in those situations.
That offers the German manager the mouthwatering prospect of having four detached attackers who can go on and create havoc with little to no defensive responsibilities. The third midfielder slot can go to Shaqiri on the right, Mane can withdraw ever-so slightly into a left-winger role and Salah and Firmino can dove-tail as an unorthodox front two.
Liverpool often bludgeoned opposition teams in the first half hour – think Roma and Manchester City at Anfield in the Champions League. They now have the tools to do the same but with greater effectiveness at both ends of the pitch and that is a genuinely terrifying prospect for anyone coming up against them.