THERE has been something distorting about what Chelsea have done so far this season. Something which has damaged perceptions across the division, especially within the other sides in the top six. The rate they have notched points up has left everyone else searching for shortcomings. Why can they do that when we cannot?
Every other side in the top six has therefore both got on their own back at some stage, egged on by some in the media, taking turns to be in a crisis while all going at two points a game. None have been consistently terrific but taking the season as a whole none have genuinely underperformed.
For Liverpool it has manifested as criticism of the strength of the squad, especially in attacking areas. Yet if we look at every rival we have with one eye on the summer gone and the summer to come, we can see they all have issues and holes. None have the combination of both incredible first team quality across the pitch and remarkable depth — referenced here by Paul Tomkins — when we think back to Manchester United and Chelsea 10 years ago.
Let’s be clear about this:
a) Liverpool should have invested in one more forward similar to Sadio Mane last summer. I understand why it didn’t happen. No-one is hugely culpable but it looks an error which needs learning from. Gerard Houllier’s maxim: You cannot programme success, only prepare for it. Atkinson’s maxim: There’s no point aiming for fourth any more, aim for first.
b) Liverpool could do with one more quality option in every position down the spine until we get to the attack where they could do with another Mane at least. On a great free show last week Sean Rogers pointed out that this is how Liverpool bought last season and we would take the same again. Lines like that make you wonder, but this is the nature of football. Again, a look around our rivals tells you that.
Arsenal still look a quality centre-back and a centre midfielder light while Petr Cech hasn’t had a good winter. They bought in both of those positions in the summer. They have a surfeit of attacking midfielders but only one good right-back (who has had a poor and injury impacted second half of the season). If they change the manager it will be chaos. Maybe good chaos but chaos nonetheless.
Spurs are so reliant on Harry Kane and it would be fair to say Anfield showed their midfield deficiencies, as did the Champions League. They bought in those positions in the summer too. They lashed £30 million on Moussa Sissoko. Walk around that.
Manchester City spent big money on goalkeeper and centre-back. And guess what? Yep. Could arguably do with the same again. Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane look potentially marvellous footballers, though. Regardless they need another big window. We presume they will have one because of their manager, their money and because we fear the worst. I reckon they will do alright which would arguably be an improvement on their last three summers.
The current league leaders didn’t get a single one of their top targets last summer according to Rory Smith. The lads currently in sixth got all of theirs it appeared. One to remember. Both have strange squads, Chelsea look like they have the strongest 13 in the country; Manchester United look closest to two very good players for every position.
Chelsea have essentially gone top with the same first 11 plus Willian and Cesc Fabregas. They use Kurt Zouma and have recalled Nathan Ake, having sold Branislav Ivanovic as he could no longer turn around. Their number two centre forward has barely kicked it in the league. They have had massive good fortune with injuries to date. They are likely champions but their summer will be fascinating.
Manchester United’s squad should be the envy of the league yet they sit sixth. I expect they will have a whale of a time as the season closes because of their depth but there isn’t a genuinely terrifying 11 they can put out. I remember Manchester United sides which terrified me. Therefore they can also be expected to buy down the spine — Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Michael Carrick cannot keep on keeping on forever and it wouldn’t surprise if Jose Mourinho buys another centre-back. He’ll also be looking to do some jiggery-pokery in wide areas. (I expect United will be the team to beat next season, by the way).
The Tomkins piece should be required reading as it explains how all of this has come to pass and why we can expect these imperfect situations to continue. The scale of the problem is there but so is the potential opportunity for Liverpool. Rafa Benitez had to be perfect. Be perfect and make hard choices. Jürgen Klopp probably doesn’t need to be as perfect, though the choices will remain as hard. In short, the Liverpool manager needs to find his way to 60 points with 10 games left for four of the next five seasons. If he does that what we want will surely come.
The priority for the Liverpool manager if he intends to keep Liverpool’s style of play the same should be to ensure its attack can withstand increased games and intensive periods without having to change approach. Undoubtedly they should look to add a centre-back to compete with Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren but Klopp’s move if he isn’t going to shift his on-field approach should be a classic Alex Ferguson one. Go big on one defender, buy forwards in bulk.
They should look to invest in a player who will offer genuine numbers from the left-hand side of the attack and get another player to compete with Mane. The manager has committed to Roberto Firmino as his main man for this campaign. It will take some player to shift him and/or Liverpool’s style of play. Liverpool should look for that player but acknowledge it may not come and be prepared to add an unfashionable physical centre forward who works hard but won’t expect to start. This is especially important for the winter months should a perennial world class option not be available.
In different ways — and not entirely their own fault — both Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge haven’t done what their manager and teammates needed in the winter. The former deserves another chance. The latter deserves to showcase his talent weekly, something which now looks unlikely here.
Seeing Philippe Coutinho as a midfield option boosts that area of the pitch should Adam Lallana pick up a knock or need a rest but if Emre Can won’t sign a new deal something more dramatic may be required and it should see a player who can play if Jordan Henderson can’t be added. If Can stays I think it should/could well be in midfield and full-back Liverpool gamble just as all these sides will gamble somewhere.
Next season will see the same stories written — only one side can win the league and therefore everyone will be in crisis at some stage. Everyone will be underperforming somewhere. When the manager speaks about keeping our nerve it is this he is referring to. Liverpool can’t plan for that, though.
Liverpool can come first next season; they could still come first this and could certainly — partially through luck, partially through their own shortcomings — have more points on the board now. They could come sixth this season or even lower next. Next international break I’ll write about the pressure this puts on the ownership, have a look at the top six and FFP, and examine Klopp’s position in this.