Liverpool’s season has been about how to best handle curveball after curveball, but it has also shed light on the vital transformation which needs to take place in the summer.
‘Sometimes life is going to hit you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose the faith’ – Steve Jobs
Right now, pretty much everyone with a connection to Liverpool FC is entitled to feel they’ve been hit in the head with a brick, and it gets harder with each bad result to keep the faith. But if you are going to listen to a few words of wisdom, Steve Jobs is somebody who never lost sight of his vision and what he wanted to achieve. He was never afraid to fail and always learnt from it when he did.
This season at Liverpool has been a nightmare from the start, with no fans impacting our intensity, injuries completely killing the balance and chemistry in the team, and every 50-50 decision going against us. So, there are reasons – not excuses – but cold, hard factual reasons why Liverpool are in a rut right now. They don’t need lots of analysis as they are clear for everyone to see.
But, to ignore what is happening or write it off just as bad luck is actually a missed opportunity. What this season has exposed is that Liverpool have become a well-oiled machine under Klopp, with the system being as important as any one player.
But that system is broken right now and we don’t have an alternative way of playing when we lose key attributes – such as pace at centre back. We keep on trying to play the same way, but we are trying to do it with a patched-up engine and it just isn’t working.
When things aren’t going well it is really tempting to point the finger of blame – and mistakes have been made at Liverpool this season. The failure to recruit a new centre back earlier in January has had a huge impact on results and that sits with FSG. Whatever the reason, and yes there are big financial constraints with COVID, it was a risk that has backfired and could potentially have bigger consequences if there is no Champions League football at Anfield next season.
Rebuilding the team
The really easy answer to Liverpool’s current problems are once the players and fans are back life will return to normal, and we will start being great again. There is of course every chance that might happen, but there are some real challenges coming up on the horizon that will need to be addressed as soon as this summer.
One of the biggest concerns this season is how blunt Liverpool’s attack has looked. Once again there are contributing factors such as a lack of pace at centre back exposing the high line, notably not allowing the full-backs the same freedom they have been used to.
Our pressing has fallen off a cliff with Henderson and Fabinho sized holes in midfield. Thiago was brought in to help unpick the lock of a low block but has had to play across a patched-up midfield in roles that just don’t suit him. And our front three have looked off the pace as a collective – with only Mo Salah playing to his level consistently.
Some of these problems can and will be fixed when players come back. Some are bigger issues. The biggest issue to solve is that there are far too many starting players too close to 30, including the front three. Love or loathe the FSG model for Liverpool, but if we keep Salah or Sadio Mane beyond this summer the resale value for those players will plummet. There is a big decision this summer on how we start to replace and refresh our attacking options. And it may well have to result in one of the trident moving on.
With the emergence of Diogo Jota, it will likely see a more reduced role for Roberto Firmino next season, although I think talk of his demise is a little hasty. Firmino has always been a streaky player and he has suffered as much as anybody from the lack of intensity in our play. He is still a genius on his day, but Jota offers more of a goal threat at this moment.
In addition to refreshing our attack, it is likely we will need to replace Gini Wijnaldum in the summer and make a big decision about Naby Keita. At 26, he is at the perfect age, but his injury record is a real worry. He should be a nailed-on starter next season and if he can’t be then we need a similar type of player that can be relied upon.
The other immediate issue to solve is fleshing out the squad. This season has proven that although we have some decent squad players in one-off games like Xherdan Shaqiri, Divock Origi and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, they have not been able to step up consistently enough. The squad needs to be deeper so that Klopp has real game-changing options from the bench.
How are we going to afford it?
The polarisation of opinion on FSG has become a bit of a nonsensical sideshow at Liverpool. It has become so black and white – love or hate – whereas like most things in football and life the answer lies in shades of grey.
They have been good owners, who have made plenty of mistakes but have done what they said they were going to do. They’ve always said no deficit spending so it is pointless beating them up for not doing that, but they’ve also overseen some incredible moments – including hiring Klopp – so it is hard to argue the model can’t work.
One of the reasons the club is well run is that the wage bill is heavily incentivised. So, when we are doing well that is reflected in the wage bill which last year was one of the highest in Europe at £300 million, but if we do not do well that’ll flex downwards. It is designed to flex up or down in line with income and success, which means the club isn’t stuck with a huge fixed-wage bill if we spend a season out of the Champions League, for example (not saying that will happen).
Another factor to consider is that most deals in today’s market are spread over the course of a players’ contract. So the upfront fee doesn’t usually need to be paid all at once, as seen with Jota. This once again becomes a factor if we do have a drop in income but expect to recover that in future seasons like Champions League money.
It is also looking likely fans will be back at Anfield from the start of next season and that will go a long way to plugging the black hole of matchday revenue. That certainty will allow all clubs, including Liverpool, to budget for that income which they’ve not been able to do since COVID hit.
And last but not least, Michael Edwards has proven time and again that he is excellent at player trading. You can call it ‘sell to buy’, or you can call it smart player trading. With some of the issues around COVID hopefully becoming less of an influence in the next window, Edwards will hopefully be able to move on the surplus players and reinvest that in the right players. He has a lot of work to do in the summer, but his track record should give everyone confidence he will get it right.
In the worst-case scenario without European football next season, there is no reason to expect that the ‘model’ will just fall down this summer. Players still want to play for Klopp and for Liverpool, and if they swerve the club as they will go a season without Champions League action I highly doubt they’d have been the right fit anyway.
The biggest challenge
The hardest thing once you find success is sustaining it. FSG will know all about this having seen pockets of success at the Boston Red Sox, but struggling to make it sustainable against the financial might of the Yankees.
But the expectations at Liverpool are on a completely different level (no disrespect to Red Sox fans), and ‘the model’ needs to keep on evolving to keep Liverpool competing.
The reason that next season poses the biggest challenge so far for FSG, Edwards and Klopp is that they have set the bar so high. The time has come to reinvent and rebuild, and it comes against a backdrop of reduced income and a difficult season. But this is a leadership team that have worked brilliantly well together thus far and come up with solutions to every single problem thrown at them. There is no reason to believe they can’t do the same again.
Klopp has to evolve the style of play and come up with some new ideas to counter the low block that has caused so many problems this season. That won’t just be fixed by players coming back.
Edwards needs to play a blinder on player trading, and may well need to make a huge trade moving out one of our front three and bringing in a younger option. FSG need to make sure the resources are available, and if we do miss out on dining at the top table of European football, accept some more risk than they’ve been comfortable with before.
But all of these challenges can be overcome. The infrastructure at the club with a redeveloped Anfield and the new training facility at Kirby are solid foundations. With a fully fit squad, we still have the spine of a Premier League and Champions League-winning team.
It might feel like we are being hit in the head with a brick at the moment, but there are plenty of reasons to keep the faith.
And just to be 100 percent clear, the worst possible case scenario is losing out on the Champions League, that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen or simply accepted. But sometimes you need to cut through the noise and then you can see it doesn’t have to be Armageddon if you have a rogue bad season, which can happen to any club.
Let’s be honest, surely we won’t ever have another season like this one?