A defeat to start the season always creates talking points, just as Liverpool’s penalty shoot-out loss to Arsenal in the Community Shield at the weekend did. A 5-4 loss on spot-kicks after a 1-1 draw in 90 minutes saw substitute Rhian Brewster the only player to miss from 12 yards.
And while captain Jordan Henderson and first-choice right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold were big absentees for Liverpool, the big post-match takeaway from the losers’ perspective centred around the strength of their squad amid what is expected to be an incredibly tough campaign.
Not only do Liverpool have an angry Manchester City to fend off, a side keen to reclaim their perch as the best in the country and one that could even boast the talents of the world’s best player in Lionel Messi by October 5, they have a new-look Chelsea team chock full of fresh quality and a rapidly-improving Manchester United outfit who will also hope to enter title contention.
Arsenal and Tottenham are surely bound for more of a top-four fight than a battle for the crown but both sides are more than capable of tripping up Jurgen Klopp’s charges as they seek a 20th title, with the Gunners now winning both of the two meetings with Liverpool since Mikel Arteta took charge.
The defending Premier League champions have a target on their backs and on top of the challenge they face from the likes of City, Chelsea and United – there is the fact the season is a month shorter and the players have had a very short summer break to contend with too.
And so questions around the depth of Liverpool’s squad are justified. While they arguably have the strongest starting eleven in the Premier League, there are holes to be picked at in the Reds’ squad behind their first eleven – and the loss to Arsenal showed there are three areas that can be improved upon.
The pursuit of Timo Werner, who was eventually snapped by Chelsea after Liverpool opted against meeting his release clause, showed that Klopp recognises the need for a fourth forward to not just offer support to the trio of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino but also challenge them for their places in the starting eleven.
Although Xherdan Shaqiri and Divock Origi were absent from the bench at Wembley, even if they remain at the club for the new season, Liverpool still need another attacker capable of offering more off the bench when Mane and Salah aren’t in full flow. That is what they needed from the bench against Arsenal but Harvey Elliott was their only natural wide-man in reserve.
Watford’s Ismaila Sarr appears the ideal acquisition, given he is already a dangerous attacker – as he showed against Liverpool in March – but also has a ceiling that means he can become one of the best attackers in the English top-flight.
The 22-year-old would reportedly cost around £40million, which may be out of Liverpool’s price range unless they can sell players, and managed five goals and six assists in 28 Premier League games last term – not a bad return for his first year in England and in a team that were relegated.
And his versatility, which means he is capable of playing in any of the three positions across a three-pronged attack, means regular minutes would be on offer even if he would not get as many league starts as he did at Watford.
Perhaps most crucially, he would not come into Anfield immediately expecting to displace Mane or Salah. Having two wingers so good means it is inevitably difficult to find players willing to accept they are not guaranteed starters.
But at the same time were one of them to get injured, Sarr would be a solid understudy to come into the team even for a 10 or 15-game stint, and boasts more pace and one-on-one threat than any of the current back-up Liverpool attackers like Origi.
Factor in the fact fellow Senegal international Mane is his idol and there are plenty of reasons to think that Sarr could have a significant impact at Liverpool – the only down sides of any deal being his big price tag and the fact he will get called up to the African Cup of Nations at the same time as Mane and Salah.
Perhaps more obvious from Liverpool’s clash against Arsenal was the need for more creativity. With just four shots on target from 60 per cent possession and 631 passes, Alexander-Arnold’s absence was notable. Everything went through Andy Robertson.
James Milner’s inclusion in midfield over the in-form Naby Keita, it appears, was to try to help give more security down the right-hand side where Neco Williams was up against Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
And while Williams is a fine prospect, the difference in his attacking output to Alexander-Arnold’s is stark. Without the Scouse right-back, Liverpool are almost entirely reliant on Robertson to create from the left.
The Scot did his best against Arsenal but Liverpool obviously would have created more if they more threat down the right or through the middle. Klopp recognised that eventually, taking off Williams and Milner and bringing on eventual goalscorer Takumi Minamino plus Keita, and also later Curtis Jones.
Yet even though Minamino, who works well between the lines in much the same way Firmino does, scored the equaliser and Keita looked bright, Liverpool’s sheer possession should really have amounted to more in the second half. They created more, but still not enough.
That’s where Liverpool-linked Thiago Alcantara comes in. A classy operator in the middle of the park, the Spaniard is on the market as he looks to leave Bayern Munich after a seven-year stay in Bavaria. He is out of contract next summer and it appears best for all parties that he seals a move before October 5.
The Reds are reluctant to pay his £27m price tag knowing they could sign him for free next summer or at a far cheaper price in January – but having him for the first few months of the upcoming campaign could prove crucial.
More and more teams will look to set up in a low block to thwart Liverpool and deny the likes of Mane and Salah space in behind, and it will fall on the likes of Keita to provide the cutting edge Klopp’s charges need to find gaps in tightly-packed defences.
But Keita’s fitness record at Anfield has been chequered to say the least, and while Thiago has also struggled with injuries of his own, adding the 29-year-old – a genuinely world-class midfielder – into the mix only adds more to the Liverpool attacking arsenal.
Shut down Robertson and Alexander-Arnold out wide and you might still have Thiago and even Keita as well to deal with centrally. Not to mention the creative threat that Firmino can provide. It would give Liverpool another key to help unlock Premier League back-lines.
And the third and final hole in the Liverpool squad for Klopp to plug is at centre-back, where a replacement for Dejan Lovren – now bizarrely taking free-kicks for Zenit St Petersburg in Russia – is needed. His £10.9m departure was a good deal for all parties, but it’s easy to forget Lovren came into the team and played an important role last season en route to the club’s title triumph.
Fabinho dropped into central defence against Arsenal after Klopp took Willians off and moved Joe Gomez to the right, and while the Brazilian can deputise fairly comfortably there, he is best deployed in central midfield where on and off the ball he is one of the best No 6s in the game.
The injury record of Joel Matip means Liverpool need an experienced defender like Lovren in reserve, but one who is less erratic than the Croatian, who was capable of producing a terrible display for every two or three strong showings.
Admittedly it is a challenge for a fourth-choice defender to come in and match the rhythm of their team-mates when their game-time is so limited, but that gives further weight to the idea that they should at least be experienced – a la Ragnar Klavan – rather than a young defender.
Liverpool have a few promising up-and-coming defenders but were Matip to succumb to a long-term injury, relying on Ki-Jana Hoever or Sepp van den Berg to fill in would be a big ask given the team’s title-winning aspirations. Virgil van Dijk may have played every league game over the last two seasons, and formed a strong partnership with Gomez, but Liverpool need one more player they can rely on behind them in the pecking order in addition to Matip.
The Merseyside outfit don’t have to break the bank for a defender, despite how beneficial it would be to have a player with the potential of Brighton’s Ben White in reserve.
The likes of Real Betis’ Aissa Mandi have been linked and it is someone like the Algerian, who could be picked up for £10m or less, who would help prevent Liverpool being left short, such as in January when they had to recall Nat Phillips from a loan stint at Stuttgart to play one FA Cup game and then return to Germany.
It is difficult to improve a squad that has won the Champions League and Premier League in back-to-back campaigns and Klopp has admitted Liverpool have restricted funds, but in what will be a testing campaign, it would feel like a significant gamble not to bolster the squad with a few more additions. Liverpool need more depth and also an injection of fresh talent to ensure the competitiveness within the squad remains high.
Having added Kostas Tsimikas to provide support to Robertson at left-back, adding more in midfield with Thiago, signing one more senior centre-back and adding a fleet-footed versatile attacker would be a huge shot in the arm for Liverpool’s hopes of adding more silverware to the cabinet in 2020-21.
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