On 12th August, Liverpool played its first game of the 2018/19 season against West Ham United at Anfield. At the end of 90 minutes, Liverpool had scored 4 goals against the Hammers for the fourth consecutive league game and thereby registered a 4 goal (to none) win for the first time since 1994. However, the match did not just establish the Reds’ prowess on the opening weekend but also laid the foundation for great expectations to set in for this season.
To begin with, the performance on Sunday proved that the pre-season form was not deceptive which had seen them defeat both the Manchester clubs, Torino and Napoli in their last four pre-season fixtures. However, performances like these are not surprising when it comes to Liverpool. Ever since Jurgen Klopp’s takeover, the Reds have been displaying world-class football against the European giants of the game. Unfortunately, this dominance more often than not has also been opposed by the other side to this team, a side that has faltered against teams struggling in relegation zone or sitting middle of the table in Championship football.
With such a history of inconsistency, the Kopites can hope for nothing more than for this team to sustain the form showcased against West Ham. For more than 2 years now, the Liverpool squad has seen significant improvements, additions and other changes that have been fueling the hope for the fans of the Reds at the beginning of every season. This summer too was no different with several new signings and different training ground routines that allow us to question (like the past two seasons): is this Liverpool’s season? Will the hopes sustain along with the team’s form? We have reasons to believe so:
The Depth: Liverpool put out a decent squad against the Hammers on Sunday with all players fairly experienced with the ‘English style of football’. The front 3 of Firmino, Salah, and Mané that wreaked havoc on defenses last year were intact for the opener with 3 goals being shared between them as Mané scored twice and Salah once. The fourth goal, however, was scored by the substitute, Daniel Sturridge who scored 20 seconds after coming on for Salah. Similarly, Xherdan Shaqiri brought in tremendous pace in the dying minutes of the game after replacing Mané. When Jordan Henderson came in for Firmino in the 69th minute, Liverpool had already scored 3 goals, and Henderson was there to consolidate that lead, adding a 4th man to the 3 man midfield.
The bench was brimming with talent as Lallana, the new signing Fabinho and Clyne still remained after Liverpool had used up all of their substitutions. In addition to that, veteran defenders Matip and Lovren are off the squad due to their respective injuries who are expected to return in the near future, further bolstering the squad’s depth. Oxlade-Chamberlain is expected to miss the majority of this season, however, one can only imagine the enhancement in quality that the squad will face with his arrival. This depth that had been lacking so far will come in great use once the Champions League and Cup fixtures begin allowing the squad to sustain a good and stable form.
The Spine: As an extension to the greater depth of the squad, Liverpool has a spine that is not limited to a single set of players. The spine on Sunday consisted of Alisson, with Van Dijk ahead of him, then Milner and Firmino finally. However, this spine can be tweaked around with without compromising the efficiency. For instance, Milner can go back to the familiar left (in a case of Keita’s unavailability) for Henderson to take the central spine. Fabinho too is used to playing in the central midfield which makes him another option available to constitute the spine. The top of the spine is not limited to Firmino. He can be replaced from the central position anytime during the match by Mané or Salah which essentially employs the entire front 3 in the spine. Allison and Van Dijk at the back provide the much-needed reliance and confidence to the overall defensive paradigm that had been lacking for the last 2 seasons.
Keita, Sturridge, and Shaqiri: Naby Keita, the £53 million man from Leipzig had his debut on Sunday. The hype to his transfer was so much so that great expectations were set in even before he kicked a ball at Liverpool. He played at a position familiar to Wijnaldum who in turn played on the right. Keita with his box to box game, untiring and persistent efforts, accurate passes through the defense made him appear as a slicker Lallana (whose absence had troubled Klopp for much of the last season). Keita who was instrumental in the development of 3 out of the 4 goals scored showed just what he is capable of over the season. The exciting prospect here would be to watch Lallana (on the right of midfield) combine with Keita (on the left) with a similar forward-going style of play.
Daniel Sturridge was being portrayed as a strong force weakened with time but his excellent pre-season form coupled with his goal on Sunday after coming on as a substitute brought to light the potential he has to contribute to the squad and the larger game. Shaqiri’s involvement in the death brought in pace at the end that was easily defeating the tired legs of the West Ham defenders. This showcased Sturridge and Shaqiri not only as strong super-subs (similar to how Giroud was at Arsenal) but also as capable strikers to replace the trio of Mane-Firmino-Salah later in the season when ‘fixture overload’ will require Klopp to rotate.
New tactics: Something appeared to be different when it came to Liverpool carrying the ball forward. Apart from the larger governing principle of ‘gegenpressing’, a tactic that had become common for Liverpool while going forward from their own half with the defense not stretched saw the Reds make a large number of diagonal passes (as opposed to releasing the ball forward through the gaps and zonal rotation) that would usually end up at Milner’s or Robertson’s feet near the sidelines on the left of the final third with a cross-in only to be cleared away by the defenders. It was difficult for Liverpool to create chances unless on a counter against a stretched defense. This had led to the squad falter against many teams that had a tight defense or a ‘parked bus’. On Sunday, the Hammers had minimized the opportunities for Liverpool to counter with the defense falling back before a Liverpool advance. However, the Reds managed to break this deadlock with carefully placed passes between the lines of defense, such as the one to Keita which he took forward through the midfield until passing to Robertson who turned in a low-cross for Salah to convert. Football like this can see Liverpool get the better of those teams who have so far tried to suffocate the Reds’ attack subsequently reducing them to diagonal passes.
It’s changed like these that have been identified over the pre-season and the first match of the Premier League Season that have laid great expectations from Liverpool this season. This is just the beginning and there are 37 games more to go in the league alone. The above-mentioned differences seem to favor the sustainability of the squad and therefore points towards a good season that will meet the expectations. Nonetheless, no predictions are certain in football and only time will tell if Liverpool can indeed own this season!