Can Liverpool Crack the Premier League's Top Four?
Trust the Jurgen.
It’s a saying American football pundit Jon Hiatt quotes often -- though unfortunately, less and less of late -- when referring to Jurgen Klinsmann in his role as manager of the US Men’s National Team.
Leaving Landon Donovan off the 2014 World Cup roster? Trust the Jurgen. Opting for Brad Guzan over Tim Howard in goal? Trust the Jurgen. Featuring Kyle Beckerman in the Copa America Semifinals? Swallow hard and … trust the Jurgen.
But while the collective faith in the former German international might be waning on this side of the Atlantic, that’s not the case for another manager with the same first name some 3,500 miles away.
The other, more popular J.K.? Liverpool FC’s Jurgen Klopp, the man tasked with returning the Reds to the top of the English top division for the first time since 1990.
After eight months in charge on Merseyside, it appears Liverpool trusts this Jurgen to the hilt. On July 8th, the former Dortmund and Mainz manager penned a six-year contract extension, keeping him at the club until 2022.
The virtual unanimous endorsement from Reds’ supporters over the move is the latest indicator that the approval rating for the 49-year old Stuttgart native couldn’t be much stronger.
Despite a disappointing eighth-place finish in the league, Liverpool did reach two cup finals in Klopp’s first year in charge, and optimism is high that a summer of recruiting the right players for the system the German employs -- coupled with a lack of a European distraction -- could make for a special year at Anfield.
While winning the league still remains the ultimate goal, we all know the real mandate for Klopp and Company. Finish in the Top Four in the table, thereby guaranteeing UEFA Champions League football and all the riches and prestige that go along with it.
Simple enough, yes?
But in the past seven seasons, Liverpool -- one of the greatest clubs in the European club football, winners of 18 English top flight championships and 5 Champions League titles -- have accomplished the feat only once.
Excluding the near-miss runner-up finish of 2013-14 (Gerrard slips, Demba Ba scores, blah, blah, blah), ‘Pool have posed little threat to the “new” Big Four of Chelsea, Arsenal, and the Manchester clubs and have finished in an average position of sixth since 2009-10.
But will this year be different? Can Klopp’s Reds find a way to break through, or will another season of disappointment be on the way?
Liverpool's New Season
Let’s roll with the glass half-full argument first, and for me, that begins with a lack of European football to be concerned about.
In the aforementioned 2013-14 season, Brendan Rogers (insert your Gibraltar jokes here) coaxed a whopping 101 goals from a swashbuckling group led by Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge and finished with 84 points, just two back of Manchester City for the title. The emergence of Sturridge, Raheem Sterling, and Phillipe Coutinho proved key in the club’s turnaround from a seventh-place finish the season before, but their minimalist amount of matches can’t be underestimated when explaining that side’s success.
After not qualifying for European competition and with early exits in both domestic cups, Liverpool only played 43 matches during the entire 2013-14 campaign.
By contrast, this past season saw Liverpool reach the final in the Europa League and in the League Cup, putting their match total at a whopping 63, the most of any club in Europe.
For context, that’s almost two-thirds of an entire Premier League fixture list in the midst of the normal season. Tough to maintain success on all fronts in that environment, wouldn’t you say?
For a good example of a team that reaped the benefits of a light schedule, look no further than your reigning Premier League champions, Leicester City. Just like Liverpool in 2013-14, the Foxes didn’t have a European commitment and dropped out of both domestic cups early, allowing Claudio Ranieri and company to focus solely on the league.
Leicester finished with just 43 matches on their fixture list en route to their wildly improbable, thoroughly enjoyable, opera-filled EPL title. (Dilly ding!)
Another example? West Ham had a longer foray in the FA Cup than Leicester did, playing 47 games from the start of the season on, but the lack of multiple games a week had a huge impact on their league success, as the Hammers flirted with UCL qualification before ultimately finishing seventh. (Note that I’m not counting their summer Europa qualifiers that all happened before the season started. If Slaven Bilic didn’t count them, neither should we.)
Here’s the rub though. Fewer matches won’t make any difference to a club’s success -- if the club isn’t any good. Just ask fans of Newcastle, Norwich, and lowly Aston Villa, all of whom played 44 matches or fewer this past year, only to end the season trophy-less and relegated.
And that brings us back to Liverpool’s credentials for a Top Four spot. No midweek trips to the continent will help, but is the right combination of talent, depth, chemistry, and coaching in place to mount a serious challenge?
Having What It Takes
As you’d imagine, this is where opinions divide.
In Klopp’s preferred 4-3-3, some attacking combination of Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge, Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana, and Roberto Firmino should be enough to provide the creativity and pace needed to break down defenses, while a steady midfield of Jordan Henderson, Emre Can, and James Milner (with Lucas Leiva and promising Marko Grujic in reserve) appear on paper to be sufficient enough to do the business from the center of the park.
Yet offense wasn’t really LFC’s problem last season. The club scored 63 goals in the league -- only eight off scoring leaders Man City -- but they leaked 50 over the course of the 38-game season to tie with Watford for the eighth “best” defense in the EPL. (By comparison, Leicester, Arsenal, and Spurs allowed 36, 36, and 35, respectively. Not coincidentally, those clubs finished 1-2-3 in the final league table.)
Klopp has addressed some of the team’s defensive shortcomings in the transfer window with the signing of center backs Joel Matip from Schalke and Ragnar Klavan from Augsburg as well as the addition of goalkeeper Loris Karius from Mainz, but whether any of them earn a regular place in the Reds’ starting XI is anyone’s guess.
It’s likely a new left-back is still needed -- it’s not you, Alberto Moreno; it’s me ... and every other LFC fan -- though after that, it’s unclear how this squad will transform over the next month in the transfer window. While it’s likely more will be on their way out of Anfield than in, if one more genuine first-choice player is recruited, things might look more bullish for a legitimate run at the Top Four.
On the other hand, with no European football on offer, a major signing shouldn’t be something LFC fans should count on, and even if one does arrive at Anfield, chances aren’t stellar the player will work out as hoped (see: Benteke, Christian).
With or without another arrival, the reality is that this Liverpool team has likely gotten better from last season, though there are still questions at every position.
Of the new additions, Mane was a terror at times over the last two seasons at Southampton, scoring 21 times in 67 league appearances, but he also had moments of poor judgement and is still very much the unfinished article.
Much will also be hoped of Karius as a potential alternative to Simon “No Crosses, Please” Mignolet in goal, but the German U-23 star would have to be special indeed to take the job from the incumbent Belgian international from day one.
Regarding the holdovers, Sturridge remains the biggest question of all. Despite making only 25 appearances in all competitions last year, the England striker incredibly was the team’s top scorer with 13 goals, most of which coming at the end of the campaign. He’s managed to stay healthy over the summer (so far), but he’s always one wrong step away from a lengthy stint on the sidelines.
Then there’s the matter of their opposition. Champions Leicester can’t be counted on to recreate another season of magic (right?), but as for the rest of the Top Five, Man City and Man United have strengthened immensely on the touchline and in the field, while the big North London clubs will be in the hunt again, despite less activity in the market than their neighbors to the northwest.
It also shouldn’t be forgotten that, like Liverpool, 2015 champions Chelsea won’t have the distraction of Europe either, and after watching Antonio Conte inspire a marginal Italian squad to one atrocious Simone Zaza penalty miss away from the Euro Semifinals, a repeat of last year’s dumpster fire of a title defense seems unlikely.
The boost in money league-wide from the Scrooge McDuck-esque television rights deal also means that the West Hams and Stokes of the world won’t be going away anytime soon, and it’s hard to see rivals Everton not mounting a challenge with Ronald Koeman now in charge.
A Challenge Ahead
In the end, even the most ardent Liverpool supporter has to agree that the fight for the Top Four will not be an easy one. Europe won’t interfere, the squad looks to be improved, and a full season with Klopp in charge will help, but the challenges of finding the right starting XI in a crowded squad and dealing with the improved presence of their rivals might be too much to overcome.
For those hoping Jurgen Klopp can turn this team around overnight, it’s important to remember that Borussia Dortmund only improved from sixth to fifth in the Bundesliga standings from his first season in charge in 2008-09 to his second.
The real jump came in the third year, when Dortmund toppled Bayern Munich to earn the club’s first of two straight league titles. If history repeats itself, then patience might just be the key on Merseyside…
…if you trust the Jurgen.