August has often been a time of optimism for Liverpool supporters, with a view that the new season will be different from the last as mistakes have been corrected and the summer arrivals will bolster a squad in need of improvement. There have been many times that such bravado quickly appeared foolish as another season soon turned to rubble – think back to 2011/12 when some fancied Kenny Dalglish’s Reds to be in the mix for the title, only to end the season in eighth with an abject record of only five home wins. More recently, there was real hope in 2014/15 that Brendan Rodgers could take Liverpool to the top after going so close the season before and making a raft of summer signings, but six defeats from their first 12 games meant that, by the end of November, even a top-four push was unlikely.
The Reds face high expectations again this season after a very positive 2017/18 when they reached the Champions League final, were unbeaten at home in the league, played some of the best football seen in England in recent times and boasted the top flight’s leading scorer in Mohamed Salah. While pre-season results always come with the cautionary asterisk of counting for nothing, in the long run, the signs from the last month are that Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool have every reason to believe that they will continue their upward trajectory this campaign. Tonight, they face Torino at Anfield in their final pre-season game and they return home off the back of outstanding victories over Manchester United (4-1) and Napoli (5-0).
I was at the latter game in Saturday at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, almost a year to the day that the Reds beat Athletic Bilbao at the same venue, and I went home with huge satisfaction at what I saw. While the thrashing of Jose Mourinho’s side in Michigan came with the caveat that United were missing several key players, the result and performance against a full-strength Napoli, who pushed Juventus all the way in last season’s Serie A title race, rightly, had Liverpool fans salivating at the prospect of what’s to come in the months ahead.
From my perch in the Press Box, I had the perfect view of everything that happened on the pitch on Saturday evening and the scoreline was a fair reflection on the authority of Liverpool’s performance. The slick counter-attacking, energetic off-the-ball movement and diligent pressing which has characterised the Reds under Klopp were all there to see, with Carlo Ancelotti’s side the latest victims of a Liverpool team at their coruscating best.
The Reds gained a reputation as ‘early birds’ last season, scoring eight times in the opening 15 minutes of league games, and they were two to the good inside eight minutes on Saturday. It was pleasing to see James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum, two of the midfield triumvirate that expended every sinew of effort when Liverpool’s options in the middle of the park were so threadbare in the frenzied final few weeks of last season, getting on the scoresheet. For Wijnaldum especially, the goal should come as a timely boon after he found the net just twice in 2017/18.
Salah went one step further to banishing the awful memories of his abortive Champions League final appearance with a typically stylish goal on the hour, curling an exquisite shot past Orestis Karnezis in the Napoli goal. The successor to Pepe Reina actually had a decent outing in Dublin but had no answer to the Egyptian’s final contribution to the game.
Even when five substitutions were made simultaneously just after the third goal, Liverpool’s tempo did not diminish. Dominic Solanke did well as he hopes to improve on a frustrating first season in red, but the standout player in the final half-hour was Daniel Sturridge. Much-maligned for his troubled injury record, the England marksman was clearly determined to prove a point on Saturday and, after missing two chances in quick succession, he showed his best striker’s instincts by being in the right place to tap home Liverpool’s fourth goal when Karnezis diverted Divock Origi’s shot into his path. On a side note, the Belgian played with an endeavour that has been long overdue. Alberto Moreno, another whose time at Liverpool has accompanied plenty of criticism, completed the scoring with an emphatic strike into the roof of the net as the 51,512 fans in attendance, almost all of a Liverpool persuasion, lapped up the delicacy that was being served in front of them.
As ever, though, the initial glee of such a stellar performance must give way to more rigorous analysis of potential areas for improvement and again the microscope is facing in the direction of Liverpool’s defending. Alisson kept a clean sheet in his first game for the club and looked assured throughout, although those in front of him coughed up a few opportunities to a dangerous Napoli front three. Lorenzo Insigne and Arkadiusz Milik both should have done better with first-half opportunities, while it took a good reaction save from Alisson to deny the Italian striker before Ancelotti’s men did find the net through Jose Callejon, although the Spaniard was (harshly, I thought) adjudged to be offside.
Of the 20 Liverpool players who took to the pitch at various stages on Saturday, it was hard to pick out any who disappointed. Alisson, Naby Keita, Fabinho and the lively Xherdan Shaqiri all look like solid new arrivals. Nathaniel Clyne gave his most assured display in a long time, while it was refreshing to see Joe Gomez back to near his best after so long out of action. Virgil van Dijk appears to be developing into a real leader at the heart of the defence, while the much-feted front three of Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino looked as sharp as ever. Even the likes of Sturridge, Solanke, Moreno and Origi, all of whom have had their troubles, put their hands up for a greater degree of game time this season with their second-half displays.
What might please Klopp the most from pre-season is that, without taking from the strength of the first XI, he now has a far greater squad depth at his disposal for 2018/19 than he had last season. Having been forced to field the same three midfielders in the closing weeks of last campaign due to a spate of injuries, he now has Milner, Wijnaldum, Keita, Fabinho, Shaqiri, Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson from which to choose – the latter two weren’t even in the squad on Saturday. It’s the same picture up front; while Salah, Mane and Firmino will obviously be the first choice-selection, it’s good to have Sturridge as a Plan B while Origi and Solanke should benefit from utilisation in domestic cup games or possibly league matches where the Reds build up a comprehensive lead.
The one area where Liverpool appear light is in central defence. Even with Dejan Lovren to step in, can the Croatian deliver greater consistency to justify his lofty self-proclamations? Gomez’s return should help, especially with Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan set to be bit-part players this season. The young Englishman has been out for some time, though, so questions remain as to how he will cope with the likes of Harry Kane or Sergio Aguero, as he might need to do in the first two months of the season.
A word of praise, too, for Klopp and the players for spending the bones of two hours after the match signings autographs and posing for photos with the hordes of Irish Liverpool supporters who made their way to Dublin on Saturday. Perhaps the most commendable action of all was the visit to Sean Cox, who thankfully seems to be making good progress in his recovery from the vile attack prior to the Reds’ 5-2 win over Roma at Anfield in April.
It was just a pity that the post-match press activities were poorly organised, with only a handful of journalists being informed of Klopp’s press conference as the majority gathered in the mixed zone through which players were shepherded hastily afterwards. Only Andy Robertson broke away for a brief word with one reporter, although the likes of Salah and Mane did at least give the impression that they were willing to share a quick comment before being ushered out of the stadium.
The signs are good that Liverpool will have another strong season, but unlike in other years where simply making the top four counted as success, the Reds need to push a position or two higher this time around after substantial summer spending. A prolonged title challenge isn’t likely to materialise, but if they can finish second or third and not give their rivals too much of a head start, it would represent another year of progress under Klopp. That’s a target which strikes the best balance between progression and realism.