Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool have not entered a full season together with as many unknowns as they do this term. There were questions at the start of Klopp’s first full campaign on Merseyside in 2016 but perhaps not as many that are hanging overhead now.
High-profile outgoings have changed the look of Klopp’s squad. He has lost some of his most trusted players but also has some new talent to work with. There were signs of evolution last season but the transition into Liverpool 2.0 under Klopp seems to be happening at a quicker pace now.
Liverpool fell away from the top four last season and will be playing Thursday night football in the Europa League this term whilst trying to regain their footing domestically. A schedule that could be onerous but should, equally, offer opportunities.
Finding a balanced midfield will be key to any early season momentum. It’s been a position that has needed investment and reenergising but in the blink of an eye the age profile has swung and experienced players are less readily available.
Plenty of familiar faces do remain, though. Virgil van Dijk, hoping to return back to his best, now has the captain’s armband, Mo Salah will be looking to break more goalscoring records and is part of one of the strongest attacking quintets — on paper, at least — in Europe. Darwin Nunez and Coady Gakpo are settled while Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz are both fit and have full pre-seasons behind them.
How they did last season
Last season was comparatively poor for a Liverpool team who have consistently challenged Manchester City for the Premier League crown and progressed into the latter stages in Europe under Klopp. Yet even finishing as high as fifth could be considered an achievement given their inconsistent, and largely underwhelming, campaign.
Picking up the Community Shield provided false hope and, in truth, things only started to click a few months out from the end of the campaign with Trent Alexander-Arnold’s deployment in midfield helping in that regard. They flirted with snatching a top-four place but simply left themselves too much to do in the end.
Not reaching the quarter-finals of any of the three cup competitions also irked for a club with a renewed taste for silverware. The hope at Anfield will be for Liverpool to put up more of a fight across the board this time around.
There is no doubt that Jordan Henderson’s surprise £12m move to Al-Ettifaq in the Saudi Pro League to join up with manager, and former teammate, Steven Gerrard was the biggest development in the off-season. No one expected the captain to end his 12-year stay at the club this summer and the swift nature of his departure demonstrated how quickly the transfer unfolded.
It means there was no send-off for the captain who lifted aloft the trophies during the club’s most successful period in the modern era. Although Klopp could not afford Henderson any guarantees regarding game-time, the 33-year-old will be missed both on and off the pitch.
Fabinho following Henderson to Saudi Arabia is another blow to the experience count in Liverpool’s midfield and although the pair were passed their peak, their absences will be felt in the short term at least.
Roberto Firmino’s departure was forewarned and the Brazilian received a warm send-off before also heading to the Middle East. James Milner has joined Brighton & Hove Albion for one last hurrah at the top level — and his understated leadership will also be missed.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita were injured more often than not during their spells at Liverpool and their exits after ending their contracts were expected. Fabio Carvalho has been loaned out to RB Leipzig for the season.
Liverpool’s two signings so far came early in the transfer window. World Cup winning midfielder Alexis Mac Allister signed for £35m from Brighton and 22-year-old Hungarian winger Dominik Szoboszlai joined from RB Leipzig for £60m.
Both are talented players with their best years ahead of them — and, just as importantly, offer the blend of defensive aggression and attacking instincts that Liverpool’s midfield has lacked at times in recent seasons.
However, Liverpool have been caught short by the size of the midfield rebuild this summer given the unexpected exits and at least another player — maybe two — will be needed before the end of the window.
Klopp is one to roll with the punches and the prospect of building his second title-winning squad at the club will be one the Premier League’s longest-serving manager will relish. With new faces and tactical questions posed, Klopp will need both his man-management skills and innovative approach.
Last season was riddled with inconsistency and the manager will be keen to show that it was a blip rather than a sign of a more prolonged slip down the pecking order.
There is the expectation that there will be more bumps along the road this term and the 56-year-old manager will likely have to take the rough with the smooth again amidst another full-on schedule.
Not only is Klopp dealing with a changing picture on the pitch but also off it there is a new sporting director, Jorg Schmadtke, a replacement for Julian Ward who left after less than 12 months in the role.
Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Konate, Van Dijk, Robertson; Mac Allister, Jones, Szoboszlai; Salah, Gakpo, Diaz.
Three talking points
Will Liverpool’s revamped midfield click?
A revamped midfield is what supporters have been after for some time and they will get that this season. Five midfielders have left since the end of last season and with them a lot of experience. New signings Mac Allister and Szoboszlai are of good pedigree but joining Liverpool represents a step up in their respective careers.
Last season, there were shortcomings both defensively and offensively in a midfield that was frequently outrun and outfought, particularly in away games.
Whoever Klopp selects in his midfield will have to offer greater protection to a defence that was often left horribly exposed last term and also contribute further up-field and supply more goals than the eight scored by midfielders last season.
Should Lavia arrive from Southampton, the average age of Liverpool’s midfield will drop further. Only Thiago Alcantara is over the age of 24 but youngsters such as Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott and Stefan Bajcetic, who all had spells of good form last time out, will be expected to step up.
It may be trial and error as Klopp works out his best combinations in midfield but whoever he selects, it will have a new look and feel about it.
Where does Alexander-Arnold fit in?
One possibility is for Alexander-Arnold to continue with his hybrid role by moving from right back into central midfield when Liverpool have possession. Klopp’s decision to change the 24-year-old’s role ahead of April’s Arsenal game proved the turning point in both his and Liverpool’s season.
The team went on their best run of the campaign, winning more points than any side apart from City, and Alexander-Arnold’s performances received acclaim. Many felt it got the best out of the player’s creative attributes — he registered seven assists in the last 10 games — and was eased of the defensive burden a little.
Alexander-Arnold drifting into midfield does leave the right side of Liverpool’s defence exposed and requires Ibrahima Konate to cover more ground. Moving Alexander-Arnold permanently to midfield with Joe Gomez playing at right back currently appears unlikely but could be a possibility.
Should Europa League be taken seriously?
For the first time in a full season under Klopp, Liverpool will be playing in Europe’s secondary competition — albeit one they have embraced in the past. They reached the final in 2016 and last won the competition — then named the UEFA Cup — in a remarkable final in 2001.
English teams have used the Europa League group games to rotate their side and Liverpool will likely follow suit. It could prove to be an outlet for younger members of the squad to get more experience; exciting 17-year-old Scottish winger Ben Doak possibly being one beneficiary.
Irrespective of the competition, Liverpool have a history of embracing European nights and they will fancy their chances of reaching the showpiece in Dublin next May. After all, it remains the only competition Liverpool have competed in under Klopp and not won.
Expected finish - 4th
It is pretty clear that Liverpool’s primary focus this term will be to return to the top four. Losing out on Champions League football cannot be underestimated for a club the size of Liverpool and two seasons out of Europe’s premier competition would be a significant blow.
Winning the Europa League would also be a route back to the top table — even if that could involve a lengthy 15-game journey — but supporters will be hoping for an improvement in the league from last season, nevertheless.
At present, Liverpool do not appear strong enough to challenge City at the top of the Premier League table and the switch to a Thursday/Sunday routine only adds to the sense of Klopp and his team somewhat entering the unknown this term.