The mood is positive at Anfield. Fans are back in the ground and Virgil van Dijk and the rest of last season’s walking wounded are ready to play. Liverpool are on the march again.
The Kop’s mantra is ‘trust and believe’ and morale is high before the start of the Premier League campaign against Norwich City at Carrow Road on Saturday. This is not the time for nagging doubts but, for all the positivity, questions remain that will only be answered once the action begins.
Most of last season’s travails were put down to injuries. The absences of Van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip left a huge hole at the centre of defence. Jurgen Klopp made the error of trying to solve the problem by drafting Fabinho and Jordan Henderson into the back line, a move that asset-stripped the midfield.
That left two departments lacking coherence. When Henderson was lost for the season in February, a top-four finish looked unlikely. The recovery to earn a Champions League slot was remarkable and testament to the squad’s mentality.
Was the underwhelming title defence simply down to losing too many key players to long-term layoffs or were there other factors? Klopp is about to find out.
The team have not hit peak form since before the pandemic. Opposition coaches worked hard to neutralise the tactics that propelled Liverpool to win the Champions League and their first title in 30 years. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson rampaged down the flanks in the magnificent, trophy-winning spell. Last season rival teams put the brakes on the duo.
Klopp will be without Robertson for the opening weeks - Kostas Tsimikas filled in capably at left back during pre-season - but things will be different even when the Scot returns. It is unlikely that the full backs will be allowed much latitude by opponents. This puts the onus on the midfield.
The departure of Georginio Wijnaldum to Paris Saint-Germain marked the end of an era. The trio of Wijnaldum, Henderson and Fabinho were not a traditional midfield. Their role was not about creating and scoring. They provided the platform for the full backs to get forward and supplemented the high press. They comprised a superb, underrated threesome that did not get the credit they deserved because they did the team’s dirty work.
Klopp now needs his midfielders to be more creative. Thiago Alcantara is one of the finest passers in the game. The 30-year-old took a while to adapt after arriving from Bayern Munich but showed signs of getting to the pace of the Premier League in the spring. He is the obvious first choice alongside Henderson and Fabinho but there is a natural drop off in mobility.
The manager has options. Naby Keita needs to impose himself and make the transition from squad player to first-team regular in his third season at Anfield. Curtis Jones will get plenty of playing time and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should get opportunities. The club are still on the lookout for another midfielder.
Goals should not be a problem. Roberto Firmino was close to his best in pre-season and Mohamed Salah is simply one of the world’s finest strikers. Sadio Mane looks sharp and Diogo Jota provides an excellent option. A big plus is Harvey Elliott. The 18-year-old, who returned from a loan to Blackburn Rovers, is an exciting prospect who is climbing the pecking order.
With the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea active in the transfer market, there is some concern that Liverpool’s only arrival has been Ibrahima Konate. The centre back, who cost £36 million from Leipzig, was an important signing. He adds class and depth in last season’s nightmare position. The plan was always to bring in Konate early and then see if any bargains emerged for midfielders and forwards. In the Covid-affected financial climate Liverpool will wait for the right player at the right price.
Expectations are high. At their best - and if Klopp rejigs his midfield to good effect - they can push Manchester City all the way. The return of crowds will help. This team feeds off the atmosphere more than any Liverpool side in living memory. It is hard to see the title returning to Anfield but far from impossible.