The Hard Tackle surveys the Reds’ fixture list and lists out some of the major talking points from what will be a key 2nd full-season in-charge of Liverpool for Jurgen Klopp
As football fans drift into an existential crisis following the completion of yet another football season, they are left with only juicy transfer bytes to feed on till pre-season kicks off. However, the release of the Premier League fixtures for the 2017-18 campaign will have provided a much needed, albeit short, reprieve from the same.
It certainly will have for Liverpool fans who up until the signing of Mohamed Salah little over a week ago were a frustrated lot watching their club botch up one major transfer and stutter their way through securing a deal for others.
Jurgen Klopp is entering his 2nd full season in charge of the Anfield giants and while there has been a marked improvement in the side since his arrival, there is still very much a sense that Liverpool haven’t reached full throttle yet. The Reds faithful all around will hope things change in that regard going into the 2017-18 campaign.
And if early signs from the fixture list are anything to go by, that most definitely won’t be cake walk for the Reds especially since there will be European football to accommodate as well for Liverpool.
What do the Reds take away from the 2016-17 season?
Last season was mostly a case of what could have been for the Reds as they promised so much but delivered very little. Granted they secured top 4 but a Premier League title prediction wouldn’t have been amiss if you spotted their performances during the opening months of the campaign.
During the first half of the season, an impressive unbeaten record against the Premier League’s top six aside some resounding victories against Watford, Leicester City, Hull City meant that the Reds were ear-marked as the season’ early title challengers.
Liverpool did suffer couple of telling setbacks against bottom half teams like Burnley and Bournemouth during that period but that didn’t take away what Klopp’s side were capable of on their day.
Consistent injury worries to key personnel coupled with a lack of potent back-up options for those players meant the Reds would stutter their way through the second half of the campaign and just about end up finishing in the Top 4.
The potential prize of Champions League football was definitely the saviour in what would have otherwise been a disappointing season for the Reds. With no pressure of midweek European football, one would think that the Reds should have made more out of their advantage like the way eventual champions Chelsea did.
They even struggled to match their cup record from last season when they made it through to the finals of the League Cup and UEFA Europa League.
That said, Champions League football was the target prior to August and with the Reds achieving the set target, they can definitely be content going into the summer.
And they are already reaping the fruits for the effort having signed long-time target Mohamed Salah from AS Roma for a club record fee of £36.5 million while also being linked with the record signatures of Naby Keita and Virgil van Dijk, both of whom would be significant upgrades for Liverpool.
They’re primary focus would be to improve their bench strength going into the next campaign with European football as well squeezed into their busy English footballing schedule. Silverware will definitely be on the mind of Jurgen Klopp and while his side has shown steady improvement in terms of League placing, he’d certainly wouldn’t mind a similar marked improvement next time around.
Curtain raisers – Big start critical for the Reds
An explosive start to the campaign need not always guarantee a break-through season and Chelsea are the most recent examples of that analogy. Having enjoyed a decent start, Antonio Conte’s side stuttered through a harrowing September when they won just one game out of 4 including a 2-1 loss to Liverpool and a 3-0 loss to city rivals Arsenal. What happened after is history.
But if you see yourself finishing somewhere in the Top four again, especially considering the level of competition in the league at the moment, then a solid start is imperative to a decent season. Watford, Crystal Palace and Arsenal beckon for Liverpool.
The Reds did the double over Watford and Arsenal last season but continue to have a dodgy record against Crystal Palace. And with the Londoners appointing erstwhile Reds target Frank de Boer, a crucial start is certainly required for Klopp’s team.
Watford shipped out 7 goals over two games against the Merseysiders last season but with former Hull City boss Marco Silva at the helm, they’ll hope for an improved showing at home on the opening day. Silva took over the job at the KCom stadium during the second half of the campaign and helped mastermind a 2-0 victory over the Reds in January.
Therefore with an entire summer left to prepare his side for the start of the new season, even the Hornets mustn’t be taken for granted by Klopp. In fact, when its Liverpool, there really never are any pushovers.
Liverpool demolished Arsenal during last season’s opener with the scoreline reading 4-3 after a late fightback by the Gunners led by Reds’ target Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Klopp will certainly hope he can get the better of Arsene Wenger this time around as well.
The business end of the campaign sees Liverpool conclude their league commitments at Brighton Hove Albion. However, they have a visit to Chelsea pending on the penultimate day of the season and should the two sides be in the picture for the title, the May 5th showdown could turn out to be a classic.
Congested December and the “Make-Or-Break” month
As usual, December presents the most congested set of league fixtures for the Reds with seven fixtures crammed during the festival season. The Merseyside Derby against Everton at home and a visit to the Emirates remain the most eye-catching fixtures for Liverpool during what will definitely prove to be the period that defines the season for Klopp.
A Merseyside double will once again be on the minds of the Reds as they approach what promises to be another feisty derby during the festival season. Everton have done some good business so far securing the signatures of Davy Klaasen, Jordan Pickford, Sandro Ramirez and Henry Onyekuru before the official commencement of the transfer window.
Knowing Liverpool’s track record against smaller teams, it would be foolish to bet Leicester City, West Brom, Swansea and Brighton would prove to be easy targets. Under Craig Shakespeare and Paul Clement, Leicester and Swansea have found new life as both managers have come in and turned around the fortunes of their respective clubs.
With a first full-season beckoning, there will be a burning desire for both erstwhile assistant bosses to make their name as suitable head coaches. Moreover, both the bosses have already beaten the Reds on their first time of asking with Klopp’s team suffering 3-1 and 3-2 losses to the Foxes and Swans respectively.
On the other hand, ‘promotion specialist’ Chris Hughton has a notorious record as a Premier League boss and he’ll look to correct that with Brighton on their first outing in the English top flight since 1983.
Tony Pulis doesn’t need an introduction to Liverpool fans. Although last season was an exception, the Merseysiders prior to that have almost perpetually struggled against the Welshman’s teams, especially on their visits. It’s precisely for these reasons why one may earmark December as the month which could have a significant impact in predicting where Liverpool may finish come the end of the season.
Are Liverpool in with a shot for the Premier League title?
A club of the Reds’ calibre should be right up there fighting for the title every year but a lack of quality in the side in recent years, as compared to the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City, has condemned them to some mediocre showings as far as league placings is concerned.
Their 4th placed finish during the 2016-17 campaign makes it just the second time in seven years that the Reds find themselves among the European elite. So would a Premier League title suitably be the next target? Not really. The need of the hour is consistency and of course, silverware.
To expect an immediate return to the era of dominance like the 70s and 80s would be naive and foolish. Klopp must look to make Champions League finishes a normality at Anfield and not just a “once in a blue moon” occurrence. The growth of the team under him is evident and the signings thus far have signaled a step in the right direction. But that should also reflect in on-field performances and the trophy cabinet.
League honours may be a long shot but a surprising title challenge wouldn’t be totally amiss either. But so far as immediate goals are concerned, the club’s aim should be to put together a well rounded squad consistently fighting for silverware.
Klopp more than anyone will understand that in this day and age, a manager’s pedigree and often his legacy is measured in one and only one currency, trophies. He may be tactically sound and capable of pulling an absolute rabbit out of the hat, but unfortunately rabbits don’t count for silverware.