Guardian writers’ predicted position: 2nd (NB: this is not necessarily Andy Hunter’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 2nd
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 5-2
Amid the delirium of Liverpool’s Champions League celebrations in Madrid Jürgen Klopp received a call from the man who had pipped him to the Premier League title three weeks earlier. “We promised each other that we will kick each other’s butts again next season,” the Liverpool manager disclosed of his exchange with a magnanimous Pep Guardiola. “We will go for everything and see what we get.” Liverpool’s appetite has been whetted by a sixth European crown. They look the only team capable of denying Manchester City a Premier League hat-trick.
Klopp and Guardiola enter this campaign coveting above all the prize the other possesses. Liverpool were good enough last time out to have been crowned champions in 116 of the previous 119 seasons. Yet even a remarkable haul of 97 points was not enough to overcome a flawless domestic rival. That demoralising reality could have lingered into this season but for the release that arrived at Estadio Metropolitano.
Waiting for the champions to falter during an enthralling run-in proved punishing and futile for Liverpool. It may do so again this season. But Klopp’s side, who were 11.7mm from remaining unbeaten in the league last season, had John Stones not scooped off the goalline at the Etihad Stadium in their only defeat, know they pose the greatest threat to City’s dominance. They know they have the talent and depth to sustain a challenge. Since 1 June they know what it is to be winners too. The comeback against Barcelona changed everything for a team that have shed the substantial weight of nearly men. Champions of Europe is a more inspirational mantle as they pursue the club’s first league title for 30 years, a truly ludicrous stretch for a club of Anfield’s resources.
Liverpool have progressed each season under Klopp but improving on a club record points tally plus the ultimate triumph in Madrid presents a formidable challenge for the manager who has unified Anfield. With no senior additions at the time of writing, he is seeking further improvement within a comparatively young but experienced and balanced squad. His track record of developing players, whether bought or inherited, suggests that is achievable, but it is not wholly desirable given the lack of cover for Virgil van Dijk or Andy Robertson.
On and off the pitch Liverpool are a settled unit. There is no requirement for the tactical shift of 12 months ago given the success of Liverpool’s more compact midfield, the protection that afforded the best defence in the Premier League and the overall consistency it produced. Liverpool conceded 22 league goals and 38 in 53 games in total. No goalkeeper preserved more clean sheets than Alisson, who kept 21 in his debut term in English football, proved an immovable obstacle to Tottenham in the Champions League final and maintained his outstanding form throughout Brazil’s successful Copa América campaign.
The £65m goalkeeper corrected a fundamental weakness in the Liverpool team as the £75m Van Dijk had done before him. Together they made a virtue of Klopp’s patience in the transfer market and reassured the club’s hierarchy that big fees are worth paying for those who yield a decisive influence. The lack of incomings this summer reflects the manager’s belief his team requires fine-tuning rather than major surgery, plus the difficulty of sustaining Liverpool’s level. It is also a byproduct of investing heavily last year, not only in new faces but in lucrative new contracts for Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino, Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez. With Van Dijk keen to follow suit and extend his Anfield career, the defensive foundation of Klopp’s team will be secured for years to come. Another dividend of the internal investment, the Champions League triumph and a settled dressing room is the absence of disruptive transfer speculation surrounding Liverpool’s core talent.
Klopp’s options are increased by the availability of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Rhian Brewster and Gomez following long-term injuries. Oxlade-Chamberlain made two brief substitute appearances at the tail end of last season as he returned ahead of schedule from a horrendous knee injury. Brewster, the 19-year-old striker whom Klopp rates so highly, missed a year’s development because of serious knee and ankle problems while Gomez was sidelined for four months with a fractured leg having formed an impressive partnership with Van Dijk in central defence. The manager also considers Adam Lallana a different option, one he has deployed in a deeper midfield role in pre-season, although the England international must rediscover consistency to match his obvious ability after two injury-plagued years.
Another internal candidate for the job of injecting more penetration and creativity into Liverpool’s midfield is Naby Keïta. The Guinea international made only fleeting impressions last season, with injuries and perhaps a lack of confidence costing the £52.75m summer arrival a consistent run, and will be expected to step up after an extensive bedding-in period.
Brewster looked sharp early in pre-season and Klopp will need him to be, as a reservation that hangs over Liverpool’s prospects – or at least their hopes of repeating last year’s flying start – is the freshness of their vital front three. Salah, Firmino and Mané came into last season on the back of brief post-World Cup holidays. Their exertions this summer finally ended on 6 July, 7 July and 19 July respectively because of Africa Cup of Nations and Copa América commitments, with Mane’s involvement against Norwich in doubt on the opening day following Senegal’s progress to the final. Klopp gave his players more time off during last season than ever before. He was also without the injured Xherdan Shaqiri for most of a difficult pre-seasonand faces a delicate balancing act again while dealing with a heavier workload.
Ending the wait for a 19th league championship is Liverpool’s clear priority but the season offers plenty of opportunity for winning to become habit-forming. The Premier League opener is sandwiched between the Community Shield against City and the Uefa Super Cup versus Chelsea in Turkey. December squeezes in the Club World Cup in Qatar and the chance to win that title for the first time. There will also be a demand on Klopp to take the domestic cup competitions more seriously, given that his regular protestations that he does so are often undermined by his selections. There is also, of course, the Champions League to defend, with the prospect of a hat-trick of finals and a return to Istanbul in front of a Liverpool team that have never lost a European knockout tie under Klopp.
Madrid marked the end of a gruelling pursuit of silverware for Liverpool and their manager but also, they now expect, a beginning. As Van Dijk said as he savoured victory over Spurs in June: “This is just the start. It’s not like we’re going away.” Guardiola had accepted as much long before he picked up his phone.