The crazy sprint to the World Cup has finally arrived and with it comes a chance to hit pause and assess what the season has given us so far.
To call it a mixed bag is fair on the balance of things, with wild swings up and down. Starting strong with victory over Man City at the Community Shield gave hope that this team still knows how to come through on the biggest stage. Then came some crushing defeats, though with how dominant Napoli have looked this year, that loss in the Champions League looks less like doom and gloom and more like a better team simply on a mission this season.
The squad clearly is in need of some refreshing and with the looming sale by FSG, so much is up in the air in the coming weeks. It’s very unclear what any new owner would bring to the table though the influx of cash would certainly help Jurgen Klopp be able to contend with the absurd riches of operations in Manchester, Chelsea and Newcastle. More will be written about the overall tenure of FSG when they do go through with any potential sale but on the balance of things, they haven’t been too bad. Though there are some very big mistakes, namely supporting the Super League for those fateful few days and the at times annoying tendency to operate below budget, which is also a common theme with their American sports teams like the Red Sox, they have also shown a willingness to learn from mistakes and have been flexible. Plus, they hired Jurgen, which alone has secured their legacy.
Despite the frustrating lack of form at times, Liverpool enter this break on something of a good run and find themselves well within striking distance of Top 4, which at this point has to be the goal for the league. While I will not write off the title just yet, especially with the possibility that the World Cup will create new injury and headaches for a lot of clubs, at this moment, Liverpool find themselves in decent position to still make much of the remaining season. Though the task will be increasingly tough, with Real Madrid looming, with City in the next run of cup competition and with several form clubs above them right now, all is not lost. All the fans who screamed about the sky falling, that Nunez was a flop, that Jurgen had lost the team and that Liverpool were done have been really quiet lately, which is how it should be. Anyone who makes knee-jerk reactions to things need to be patted on the head and sent to bed while the more serious fans assess what is going on.
Looking at the team overall, I’d give the following ratings to the positions:
Alisson Becker has been our player of the year so far, no question about it. He’s single-handedly kept us in games when the defence has looked weak and remains the best one-on-one goalkeeper in the game. Mix in his distribution which is always on potent display and there is little doubt he is the world’s best at what he does. I’ll be making my World Cup predictions later in the week but having him between the posts bodes very well for Brazil.
For good measure, we very well might have one of the best backups in the world too and a fine shop-stopper and especially a penalty saver in Kelleher. His heroics against Derby and last season speak for themself. What a privilege it is to currently have them both in goal for us, after so many past seasons when the goalkeeper was a shaky proposition. I do want to give a special shoutout to Simon Mignolet and what he has accomplished so far with Brugge in the Champions League too, very glad to see him thriving, but honestly, Alisson has just been heads and shoulders above everyone else. It’s really not his fault that Liverpool’s defensive record has been so suspect when compared to seasons past.
Speaking of the aforementioned defence, they are still kind of confounding. Virgil looks like the same player but he seems just a half step slower than in years past and perhaps a little bit of the fear factor may be gone. While it used to seem like teams wouldn’t even dare challenge him one-on-one, far too often he’s found himself having players dribble right at him and at times actually beat him in the air. His partners have been shuffled so much due to injury but Gomez has been both impressive and then prone to going missing at times. The same thing for Trent, who I do think could use the World Cup as a springboard to restore some of his confidence. To be completely fair, he has switched off when tracking players back far too often this season and Liverpool have paid for it. Leftback has been mostly solid with Robbo continuing his quest to be remembered as perhaps the greatest bargain in Liverpool history and Kostas an able deputy.
What is so hard to pinpoint is there have been some absolutely colossal games the defence have played, against City and the return leg to Napoli when they’ve stood tall against terrific attacking units, but then they wobble against the likes of Leeds and it’s right back into the mire. The post-World Cup run will honestly be a whole lot easier if the defence can find their form of previous years and return to the strong, dominant unit they are capable of being.
Midfield is a real mixed bag. It’s been a less-than-stellar season from the likes of Hendo and Fab so far as both have been leggy and prone to giving away possession too often. Even Thiago, who is still a wizard with the ball, has spent a few too many games making strange errors. Plus, the lingering health issues of him, Naby and others just make the entire unit frail. There has been so much chatter about injecting more power and youth into the midfield, perhaps with Jude Bellingham and it would be most welcome but would not come cheaply. Milner, love him or hate him, has been solid and mostly available but the real bright spot has been the continued development of Harvey Elliott. He looks like he has chemistry and a real partnership and understanding with Mo and his beautiful assist to Nunez is just the tip of the iceberg there. Overall, this is the space that needs the most overhaul. I wouldn’t at all be shocked to see several new faces here, perhaps as early as January but definitely by the summer window.
Finally, let’s touch quickly on the attack. As the foremost member of the Bobby Firmino fan club, this has been a sweet season so far. All of his best traits have again been on display and I hope he is rewarded with an extended deal, even if just for one more season. That he wasn’t picked for Brazil will be a bitter blow for him and perhaps a big mistake for the country but for Liverpool it means he can rest, recharge and be ready to thrive when the domestic league returns.
Mo Salah has had a “down” season in some circles but check his stats and he’s still on track for over 20 goals this season. I do think he has embraced being more of a playmaker this season than in seasons past, looking to link up play and make passes into the box more often than not which might explain why his goal tally seems a little low, especially in England. Don’t forget he is STILL tied for top scorer in the Champions League and his goal against City is all that needs to be said about whether he remains at his potent best.
Darwin Nunez too has silenced much of the early talk about him as well. Really, I would argue it was his dumb red card against United that has kept him from reaching this level much earlier. That scrutiny and then subsequent lack of games played with his teammates meant he needed longer to bed in with the flow and structure of the club. As he’s played more and settled in, the goals have flowed. He’ll easily pass the 20 goals-scored mark for the season too if his play and form continue. Frankly, his biggest problem is that he’s constantly being compared to a generational talent in Haaland which is unfair. Darwin has been just fine and Jurgen might have found something by playing him a bit more off the flank than down the centre all the time. It’s sort of crazy to think the team has basically still been scoring in bunches without the services of Jota and Diaz but when those too finally return, this attack looks as lethal as ever.
The question is, what will the scope of the league look like? Have Liverpool fallen too far behind to catch the leaders? Time will certainly tell but I can say that I do believe City will be there in the end. They have proven it too many times already, although the Reds have proven to be their kryptonite quite a few times. Beyond them, current leaders Arsenal have been phenomenal this season so far. They fully deserve to be top of the league for the break but now the real test begins. Moving forward, they have the full target on their backs and it remains to be seen how they respond to being the hunted versus the hunters. They have a wealth of talent but have not been through the fire yet.
Beyond them, I don’t believe fully in Newcastle or Spurs just yet. Conte blows so hot and cold with the team that I do fear he may end up burning the squad out. How far they go in Europe might be a big factor. With so much pressure on him to succeed in the Champions League after a lot of poor showings, if they continue to progress, might he throw all his eggs into that basket? We know City too is desperate for that crown but they have the roster to fully compete on both fronts. Spurs I’m not certain have that depth that needed to be stretched in that way.
Newcastle are grinding out results and as is well known, will continue to spend. I think if they can finish Top 5 this season it will be a monumental achievement and is not at all impossible. Something looks broken still at Chelsea meanwhile and I think unless they revamp the team again, they may find themselves 6th or even 7th. United meanwhile have reached D-Day with Ronaldo after his bombshell interview and I would bet all the money in the world he isn’t on the roster by January. Though it will hurt his legacy a bit at United, the team hasn’t needed him. They remain a dangerous squad but I also think that, like Newcastle, they will be happy to finish the season in the top 4 or 5.
Quick end-of-season top 6 revamped guess?
Beyond that, Brighton and Fulham have been joys to watch continue to thrive, Leeds are the most fun team to watch except if you love defence and I still think Forest put it together enough to survive relegation.
It’s been one hell of a season so far and thankfully for Liverpool, much of it still remains up for grabs. Now, all eyes turn to the World Cup and the real problematic politics of Qatar, which should not be forgotten. Though the football will be fun no doubt, there remains a shadow over it. How well we can separate the hosts’ sins from the matches themselves is a big question.