Liverpool 2017-18 Season Preview: Jürgen Klopp's Reds looking to build on last season's progress

Having broken back into the top-four for just the second time this decade last season, Liverpool's 2017-18 campaign must be about consolidating - and building on - their progress.

Jürgen Klopp's side promised a title challenge last term up until injuries and key absences in the festive period derailed their charge and consigned them to a scrappy battle for Champions League qualification come May.

But a fourth-placed finish was eventually achieved, earning them a two-legged tie with Hoffenheim this month to return to the group stages for only the second time in eight years.

It was the manner with which Liverpool swept aside opponents in the first-half of the season which impressed most, re-establishing themselves as one of the most entertaining attacking teams in the country. 

But such form unravelled beyond Christmas and the question now is whether the Reds can repeat their swashbuckling form, prolong it and even improve on it this coming season.

Yet they actually start the season as the team most widely expected to drop out of the top-four, having thus far failed to capitalise upon their return to the Champions League to attract their top targets.

Embed from Getty Images

Reds' summer has not gone to plan so far

Virgil van Dijk and Naby Keïta, the two players most heavily linked with Liverpool since May, remain at Southampton and RB Leipzig after failed attempts to convince the two clubs into business.

Both pursuits have gone different ways, an embarrassing public apology issued after allegedly tapping up centre-back van Dijk while Leipzig have rebuffed multiple bids for midfielder Keïta - including one confirmed Bundesliga record £66 million offer and reported improved bids of £70 million-plus.

The chases of van Dijk and Keïta could yet end with positive outcomes, but having initially spoken of a desire to get all of his summer business done before the start of pre-season - Klopp now takes his team to Watford for the Premier League season opener with only three players signed, only one of which is expected to start.

That one player is of course Mohamed Salah, whose acquisition significantly bolsters a front-line that was already one of the most potent and dangerous in the country last season.

His signing is one of the main reasons for optimism, but the failure to improve elsewhere means the Reds' back-line remains fraught and vulnerable, despite adding Andrew Robertson at left-back.

Embed from Getty Images

Competition too strong for top-four?

Based on the squad that Liverpool start the season with, the prospect of them taking the next step forward appears slim, particularly when faced against what their rivals have done in the market.

Manchester City and Manchester United's massive outlays should see them closely involved in a title challenge, while Arsenal have bought well and managed to keep Alexis Sánchez - for now.

Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur's business has come under more scrutiny, namely the champions' decision to exile Diego Costa and replace him with Álvaro Morata, while Spurs are yet to make a signing.

But those two teams finished 17 and 10 points ahead of Liverpool last season respectively and even if their business (or lack of it in Spurs' case) hasn't seen them taken steps forward, Klopp's side have not done enough to narrow the gap between themselves and the capital clubs.

That is the case with all their top-four rivals, all of whom look to have improved from last season while Liverpool face the prospect of regression. 

They are set to face an arduous final three weeks of the summer window as they look to prevent talismanic playmaker Philippe Coutinho forcing his way to Barcelona in spite of the promise of a grossly-inflated club-record fee.

Were the window to close with Coutinho in Catalonia and neither van Dijk or Keita having signed for Liverpool, the summer of 2017 would be a categorical failure - and that situation is sadly an all-too-possible danger.

The uncertain remaining weeks of August will either see Liverpool once again lose a key player and sustain a huge PR blow in the process or keep Coutinho against his will and hope his form doesn't suffer.

Either situation is one which Liverpool did not see coming this summer, Coutinho having appeared more than happy to stay at the club just two months ago. 

Embed from Getty Images

Despite lack of signings, still obvious reasons for positivity 

But although van Dijk and Keïta aren't Liverpool players and Coutinho is keen to force his way out in an ever-tumultuous summer, there are still reasons to be positive.

First and foremost, Salah's arrival adds to an already-excellent forward line. His arrival eases the burden on Sadio Mané, giving Liverpool two intelligent, lightning-quick, goalscoring wingers that can help open up the defences that they failed miserably to unlock at times last term.

That was their chief downfall last term, with Mané's exit to play in the Africa Cup of Nations in January also damaging. With those two available all season long - barring any injuries - Liverpool will hope to be able to pry open even the meanest of defences.

Do that, and Liverpool promise to be in and around the top-four once again - provided that they learn to balance the demands of the Premier League and Champions League - should they get past Hoffenheim.

Klopp has excellent foundations from which to build upon. Last season was eventually (somewhat) undermined by injuries but when at their free-flowing best, Liverpool were undoubtedly one of the most exciting teams in the division.

It cannot be forgotten how defensive José Mourinho's Manchester United were when coming to Anfield back in October, in recognition of Liverpool's attacking quality.

It is from that that the club's success - if they are to enjoy any - will come this season. Even without Coutinho, Salah, Mané and Roberto Firmino is a tantalising starting trio capable of spearheading success.

And it is success that Liverpool desperately crave. While a top-four finish was an achievement last season, consistently acquiring Champions League football will not cut it at Anfield - as Klopp knows.

When he joined the club in October 2015 he essentially targeted the title inside four full seasons but pleaded for patience in doing so. But patience is tested after a summer like this.

Last season was a year of real headway under Klopp, though it feels as though the momentum has significantly slowed and the confidence shrunk since that mid-May win over Middlesbrough.

Hopes of another title charge may however need to be harboured unless circumstances change before the start of September.

That is not to say Liverpool cannot enjoy a good season. Their unbeaten record against their top seven opponents last term shows they are capable of mixing it with the best when they are in full flow.

Should they repeat such form and manage to find a way to translate it from games against the top-flight's elite to meetings with the league's lesser lights, then Liverpool are capable of putting together a genuine tilt at the title.

Furthermore, their high-octane style - combined with their new-and-improved counter-attacking threat - make them a real threat on the continent, where they could take a few of Europe's giants by surprise if they afford themselves the opportunity by beating Hoffenheim.

Back on English shores however, competition from the two Manchester teams, the two North London clubs, Chelsea and even perhaps Everton, plus a lack of squad depth in several areas for a team likely to face a battle on four fronts, are what stand to count against Klopp's side.

The worry is that Liverpool, yet again, have wasted an opportunity to build. It was supposed to be different under Klopp but having failed to persuade clubs to do business without identifying alternatives, the club leave themselves at risk of spurning another opportunity to consolidate their top-four return and take long-awaited steps towards an annual challenge for the title.

Liverpool must hope that the final weeks of the window end with as positive a conclusion as they can hope for - with plenty more yet to come in the Coutinho saga and growing anxiety as to whether any more new players will walk through the Melwood doors.

Their season appears to hinge on strengthening their squad further. If they don't then their defensive issues are well capable of again sabotaging their credentials and leaving them with no part to play perhaps even in the battle for Champions League qualification.