The 2018/19 campaign ended with glory as Liverpool lifted their sixth European Cup, and a hugely important summer lies ahead to build on that success.
After losing 3-0 against Barcelona at the Nou Camp, and with Man City relentless in the league, it looked as though Liverpool’s incredible campaign would end up with no silverware to show for it.
To come back against Barca and finish the job against Tottenham in the final was a magnificent and deserved end to a remarkable season, as Jurgen Klopp and the players finally got that monkey off their backs and wrote themselves into the history books.
However, unlike after Istanbul, this triumph doesn’t feel like a one-off miracle, but a natural culmination of several years of consistent progression under a world-class manager.
It feels like the perfect platform to kick-start a new era of success for Liverpool with further trophies to follow, but in order to ensure that happens, this summer will prove key in building on such a phenomenal achievement.
Lessons to Learn from Previous 2nd-Placed Finishes
The last two times Liverpool have finished runners-up in the Premier League, they have failed to build on these near misses in the following season—and that’s a pattern Klopp and his players will be keen to reverse this time round.
In 2008/09 under Rafa Benitez, Liverpool lost out by four points to Man United and ended up finishing seventh in the following campaign, while after falling short to City by two points in 2013/14, Liverpool finished sixth on a dismal 62 points the following season under Brendan Rodgers.
A combination of star players such as Xabi Alonso and Luis Suarez departing after those respective seasons, along with a comprehensive failure to address weaknesses in those squads and invest in improvements, meant those second-placed finishes proved to be false dawns rather than stepping stones on a long-term path towards sustained success.
In 2014/15 particularly, a disorganised summer transfer window saw the arrival of the likes of Mario Balotelli, Rickie Lambert and Lazar Markovic, none of whom ever seemed to fit into Rodgers’ plans, both in terms of individual ability and their styles of play.
Money was thrown about in panic with no real sense of direction or where these players would fit in, and ultimately only Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren could be considered worthwhile investments, despite both now facing uncertain futures this summer.
Tactically, both Benitez and Rodgers struggled to find effective means of evolving their respective teams, and both seasons were characterised by a loss of identity and clarity of purpose on the pitch which had been fundamental to the previous title-challenging seasons.
This time around, however, all the foundations are in place to ensure Liverpool don’t allow this season to be a flash in the pan.
Klopp has already demonstrated his ability to tweak how Liverpool play to exert far greater control in games this season, rather than the chaotic ‘heavy metal’ football of old.
We’ve seen the likes of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah all play a variety of slightly different roles, while Klopp has also built a system which allows Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold to be the key creative forces from the full-back position.
This group of players is so used to playing for Klopp now that the underlying principles are firmly established, and we can expect to see further tactical developments next season to ensure Liverpool do not stand still, and continue to evolve and progress.
The work of Michael Edwards and the unity between Klopp and the owners has also seen Liverpool’s transfer strategy produce exceptional results over recent years, with detailed long-term planning ensuring that only the right players are signed to fit the manager’s vision, even if it takes a little longer to secure them.
We can therefore expect that past failings in the transfer market will not undermine Liverpool’s attempts to build on a fantastic 2018/19 season this summer.
Areas for Improvement
The most obvious area to address this summer is adding further quality depth to the forward positions.
Firmino, Mane and Salah made a combined 152 appearances throughout 2018/19 and managed to stay injury free for the vast majority of the season.
It’s a major gamble to rely on them all staying fit next season again, however, and Liverpool must ensure there are sufficient backup and rotational options to allow for injuries, fatigue and fluctuation in form.
Xherdan Shaqiri provided an effective option as the fourth attacker in the first half of the season, but quickly dropped off the radar once Klopp switched from a 4-2-3-1 shape back to 4-3-3, perhaps due to his lack of defensive attributes and positioning out of possession.
Divock Origi produced one of the most extraordinary seasons in living memory with his iconic Merseyside derby winner, the brace against Barcelona, the winner against Newcastle and, of course, his goal to seal the Champions League.
While both players can certainly play a valuable role as part of the squad next season–with reports of Origi potentially earning a new long-term deal–much will depend on whether they are satisfied with their limited game time, or whether they might be tempted by a more prominent role elsewhere.
Especially with Daniel Sturridge departing upon the expiry of his contract, there is clear scope to add further quality to Liverpool’s forward options this summer to reduce the reliance on the front three and minimise the drop-off in quality when one or more is injured.
With Pep Guardiola having Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus and Riyad Mahrez to pick from, this is what Liverpool are up against, and at least one elite-level forward who can play across the front three, whether centrally or out wide, seems a necessity this summer.
Elsewhere, backup is required in the full-back positions, as both Trent and Robertson have played a huge amount of football this season and looked leggy towards the back-end of the campaign as a result, due to a lack of viable alternatives.
James Milner has provided adequate cover in both positions, but at 33 it’s a lot to ask from him and with Alberto Moreno leaving and Nathaniel Clyne likely to move on, there is definitely scope for more options here—especially at left-back, which is a more specialist role (while Joe Gomez can also deputise on the right if needed).
Another centre-back might be an area to look at, particularly given Lovren’s injury problems, although the resurgent form of Joel Matip and Gomez now fit again means Klopp might be content with his options there.
A creative midfielder could also be on the agenda, as Liverpool clearly wanted Nabil Fekir last summer before the deal broke down and have at times lacked a cutting edge in that area this season.
Potential Options to Improve the Squad
Liverpool have kept their transfer business under wraps ever since the Virgil van Dijk saga, and it is likely that targets have already been lined up and much of the groundwork already done for this summer.
However, there are a number of players who would seem to fit the profile of what Liverpool need in terms of reinforcing the front line.
Given the campaign they have had, just missing out on the league and being able to sell the ‘Champions of Europe’ line to prospective targets, they are among the most attractive destinations in world football at the moment, and working for Klopp is obviously a huge draw for players as well.
In a dream scenario, Kylian Mbappe would be the ideal addition–although even if Liverpool did persuade him to join, the fee would most likely be astronomical.
Perhaps a more realistic option might be Ousmane Dembele, whom Liverpool have looked at before and has been repeatedly linked with a move away from Barcelona.
He has all the attributes to be an excellent wide forward option for Liverpool, blessed with blistering pace and sublime dribbling ability.
Memphis Depay is another name who has been linked with Liverpool in the past and having resurrected his career in France, he might also be a realistic option this summer as a versatile forward who can operate anywhere across the front three.
He also has the Dutch connection with Van Dijk and Gini Wijnaldum, which could be a factor.
Nicolas Pepe has enjoyed a highly impressive season for Lille and is another name being touted as a target for a host of top European clubs this summer, and another goalscoring wide forward who may fit the bill; at 24, he is still yet to hit his prime.
Ajax’s Brazilian winger David Neres may also be one to look at, after his outstanding role in the Champions League this season showed he can perform at the highest level, while Hakim Ziyech is another who may be on the move from the Dutch champions and can play as a No. 10 as well as out wide.
For a more orthodox No. 9, RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner has long been linked with Liverpool and having produced another strong season in Germany, would also add a great deal of firepower to Klopp’s attacking options.
In terms of a backup full-back, Ryan Sessegnon would seem an obvious possible option given Fulham’s relegation to the Championship and Klopp’s ability to help young players grow and fulfil their potential through work on the training ground.
At just 19, Sessegnon is raw but has plenty of the qualities to succeed as an attacking full-back and could prove a very useful understudy to Robertson, while potentially providing another option further forward as well.
Regarding centre-backs, Nathan Ake is one which would make a great deal of sense.
He’s of the right age at 24, and has plenty of Premier League experience from his successful time at Bournemouth, while he is very comfortable in possession and can also play at left-back.
Matthijs De Ligt is the big name everyone wants this summer, but his fee would probably exceed the £75 million Liverpool paid for Van Dijk, and Ake would be a much more attainable option who would perhaps also be more likely to accept more of a squad role rather than commanding a guaranteed starting spot.
Improvements Within the Squad
As Klopp has shown in the past, he will often look within his squad to find creative solutions to fix problems rather than delve into the transfer market.
While many might want Liverpool to splash out on a creative midfielder this summer, it could be that Klopp sees a fully integrated Naby Keita and the returning Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as capable of plugging that gap.
Oxlade-Chamberlain demonstrated his ability to add a cutting edge to the midfield prior to his injury in 2017/18 with his driving runs from deeper areas and ability to take opponents out the game with his speed and direct play, while also chipping in with goals and assists.
Whether he can reach that kind of form again remains to be seen, but if he can have a strong pre-season this summer he will be a major bonus for Klopp to have available once more in 2019/20.
Keita, meanwhile, started to come to life in the second half of the season before picking up an injury against Barcelona which ruled him out of the Champions League final.
And if he can continue where he left off, having bagged three goals in a short space of time, he too will bring a new dynamic to the midfield with a full pre-season under his belt following a broken-up debut season.
Another player with strides to make is Gomez, who missed the vast majority of the second half of the season after breaking his leg against Burnley in December.
It’s easy to forget just how imperious he was alongside Van Dijk prior to that, as the pair formed the most formidable centre-back partnership in the league.
He has a fight on his hands to regain his spot from Matip this summer, but if Gomez can finally put his injury troubles behind him then Liverpool have one of the top young defenders in Europe in their ranks and he can make a serious impact next season.
Those Who Could Make a Breakthrough in Pre-Season
One of the most exciting things about this summer is the chance to watch some of Liverpool’s younger players get the chance to prove to Klopp why they deserve to be part of his plans next season.
Rhian Brewster is a name most Liverpool fans will be very familiar with already, and having recovered from a long-term injury, he looked primed to finally make the step up to the first team and play a significant role for Klopp next season.
A superb natural finisher with bags of pace who prefers to operate through the middle, Brewster will be hoping to fill the void left by Sturridge and pre-season will provide the prime opportunity for him to show he is ready to become a regular figure in the senior squad.
This summer is also a pivotal one for Harry Wilson, who scored 18 goals and picked up six assists during a highly productive loan spell at Derby as they narrowly missed out on promotion to Aston Villa in the play-off final.
At 22, he is running out of time to make his breakthrough and will need to make a decision as to whether he wants to stay and fight for his place at Liverpool or look elsewhere for more guaranteed opportunities.
Pre-season will be vital for him, and if he stands any chance of being part of the squad next season he will need to seize his chance to impress.
For Marko Grujic, he finds himself in a similar situation, having enjoyed an impressive loan spell in the Bundesliga with Hertha Berlin where he became something of a fan favourite.
Opportunities will also be difficult for him to come by due to the sheer quality and number of options ahead of him in the pecking order, and either a permanent move or another loan could be on the cards this summer if so.
Dutch teenager Ki-Jana Hoever will also be hungry for another chance to impress after making his senior debut aged 16 in the FA Cup defeat to Wolves, and can play anywhere across the back four.
There is no better defensive mentor than his compatriot Van Dijk, and while Hoever might still be some way off regular first-team action, he is certainly one to keep an eye on for this summer after his stellar showings for the youth teams.
One lesser-known player to look out for is Adam Lewis, the 19-year-old academy left-back who will be eyeing up the vacancy left by Moreno.
Although next season might come too soon for Lewis in terms of stepping up as Robertson’s understudy, Klopp is always willing to give opportunities to those who impress.
And if he can perform well in pre-season, there is certainly a gap to be filled in his position.
It is likely to be another formative summer for Liverpool as Klopp looks to build on the platform set up with victory in the Champions League final.
But it could be an off-season of fewer additions and more work at Melwood.