It would be fair to say that Klopp’s ability to construct a squad of unlikely heroes into one of Europe’s most revered sides has been one of modern football’s most impressive feats. Before the German’s arrival on Merseyside Liverpool were little more than a sleeping giant, taunted by rival fans for their constant reference to past glory and successive failings to win that evasive Premier League title. It hasn’t been a quick fix, but with a little time he has been able to create an atmosphere of belief within the club that has resonated with everyone associated with it: his adoration is shared amongst the fans and the playing staff, while his capacity to marry the emotion of a fanbase with a tactical philosophy that relies on intensity and a sense of togetherness has been a joy for almost anyone who admires the sport and its potential to unite people. Not only this, but his willingness and dedication to improving the players that were either already at the club or had been brought in from lesser sides- even relegated clubs in the case of Andy Robertson and Gini Wijnaldum- is at the heart of what makes Klopp and this Liverpool side so special.
Given their trophy haul over the past 18 months and their unlikely position as reigning English, European and World Champions, it’s hard to envisage a Liverpool team that can improve under Klopp’s tutelage. However, his declaration that he expects to return to Germany once the remaining four years of his contract have been fulfilled allows a short window for even greater dominance to be achieved. It’s news that no Liverpool fan wanted to hear, but it offers perhaps one more cycle of evolution within a team that has evolved in myriad ways since he took over as manager in 2015.
Unfortunately for anyone associated with the club, the Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly impacted on how this evolution will manifest itself, if one can be manifested at all. As the owners refused to spend any significant amount of money in the previous two transfer windows, many fans saw this summer as the perfect time to take advantage of their success by acquiring some of Europe’s most promising talents. However, it seems that their reluctance to spend big money on Timo Werner means that the writing is on the wall where Liverpool’s transfer plans are concerned: the financial mite that they displayed over 24 months ago to bring in Van Dijk and Alisson Becker simply isn’t there in the way it was before.
With that said, reports do suggest that Liverpool would be willing to spend around £30 million to secure Thiago Alcantara’s services from Bayern Munich. News of the transfer, which still seems far from being finalised, has puzzled plenty of people who have familiarised themselves with Klopp’s tactical blueprint over the past 18 months. It would appear that Thiago’s highly technical style is at odds with the industrious approach that his midfield trio have adopted as Alexander-Arnold and Robertson have become more integral to the side’s attacking phases. Unlike Manchester City who require technicians in midfield to create attacks, Liverpool’s midfield operates as a means of winning the ball off the opposition before moving it wide or to forward players- and they have proven extremely adept at operating in this manner. However, if reports are to be believed, it could be that Klopp sees Thiago as the one to carry out the final stage of his tactical evolution with this Liverpool side; one that forces the midfield to have a greater offensive impetus and dictate the course of play.
Although it was a game that lacked the competitive nature that one has come to expect from these two sides, Manchester City’s 4-0 disposal of Liverpool at the Etihad just days after Liverpool had cliched their first Premier League title presented us with an indication of why this particular tactical change may not just be preferable but ultimately essential if Liverpool are to compete in the coming years against a Manchester City team that were uncharacteristically inconsistent this season. City’s midfield of De Bruyne, Gundogan and Rodri was simply too technically skilled for Liverpool’s midfield of Henderson, Wijnaldum and Fabinho. They were able to play their way out of Liverpool’s midfield press time and again, before De Bruyne was able to drive with the ball in the final third and pick out passes for forward players in space. Liverpool couldn’t get a hold of the game through midfield and couldn’t impose their style on Manchester City when in possession, something that could have been provided to them if they had a more technically proficient midfielder in their ranks. It could also be argued that their lack of midfield players possessing more technical and creative attributes is why Liverpool struggled to blow away smaller sides in a manner that we have come to expect from the likes of Manchester City. While they were robust and posed a threat to teams with their crossing ability, their lack of creativity in midfield forced them to play in a predictable way at times and many games were won by just one goal. Despite finishing second, Manchester City scored 17 more goals and created 20 more big chances over the course of the season, suggesting that their build-up play was considerably more effective. Liverpool’s passing and crossing accuracy was also lower than City’s, indicating that a tactical alteration in midfield may be necessary if Liverpool are to become less predictable and more dangerous in the final third and Thiago may be the perfect man to initiate it.
Regarding shot-creating actions over 90 minutes, Naby Keita- a player that has struggled to cement a regular place in Klopp’s starting eleven- is the only Liverpool midfielder that boasts a higher number than Thiago (3.53 compared to 2.85). Thiago also beats Henderson, Fabinho, Wijnaldum and Keita in terms of the progressive distance of his passes, suggesting that he not only looks to play the ball forward more often than Liverpool’s midfield roster but has the ability to execute these passes towards goal with great effect. However, his evolution under Hansi Flick from an attacking to a deeper-lying midfield player may give a greater indication as to why Liverpool are so interested in Thiago and what he can offer this Liverpool side in all aspects of their play: he has made more interceptions this season than any other Liverpool midfielder, while his tackle completion per 90 minutes (2.3) is greater than that of Milner, Wijnaldum and Oxlade-Chamberlain. It’s clear that in order to play an important role in Liverpool’s squad you need to be effective in and out of possession and Thiago’s stats reveal a player whose performances bridge the gap between a technician and a tireless defensive midfielder. Liverpool’s tactical approach with the ball may have to be altered, but out of possession the same level of intensity to win the ball back can be expected if Thiago makes the move from Bavaria to Merseyside.
However, whether Liverpool choose to pursue Thiago as a transfer target or not, there are still plenty of ways in which this team can be improved in a bid to add more silverware to their collection: Adrian has been far from perfect since his arrival and although it initially seemed that he could do a job when Alisson was injured, his appearance in the Champions League second leg against Atletico Madrid proved otherwise; Joe Gomez is susceptible to the occasional error and misplaced pass, while Joel Matip is too injury prone to be called upon to partner Van Dijk game after game. Although a few rumours linking Koulibaly to the club have been thrown around in recent weeks, it seems unlikely that Liverpool will have sufficient funds to address this issue in the current transfer climate. Nonetheless, another big money defensive signing may be necessary if further improvements are to be made on the pitch and Alisson’s injury problems should force Klopp to search for a solid backup goalkeeper.
Despite these issues, it’s important to remember that many of the younger players have been developing in a promising way and, if recent performances are anything to go by, some could expect to feature heavily for the team next season in their pursuit of greater success. Although he’s still a teenager, Harvey Elliot looks like he’s more than ready to step up to the plate if Salah or Mane were to suffer any injuries and could save the club north of £50 million should they decide that further attacking options are unnecessary. Curtis Jones has also been making massive steps in the direction of being selected as a starter in the future with his two senior goals against Everton and Aston Villa. With these youngsters showing such promise within a team of Premier League and Champions League winners, there is no reason to suggest why they can’t push on to become players of the highest level if they continue their development under Klopp. Young Welsh right back Neco Williams has also featured more regularly in the post-lockdown matchday squad and, although he may currently struggle to keep fan favourite Trent Alexander-Arnold out of the side, Klopp may be inclined to move the young England international into a midfield role depending on Williams’ development over the next couple of seasons.
Whether Liverpool are able to strengthen their squad this summer or not, it’s important to remember that this side won’t be getting any worse regardless of whether they’re able to make significant reinforcements or not. Many felt at the end of last season that the German ought to have strengthened his squad after finishing second to City and winning the Champions League in Madrid, but Klopp understood the value of keeping a hungry squad that knew the tactical system and their individual roles to perfection and who didn’t need any time to acclimatise to their environment. They may not be the perfect side, but it’s difficult to improve a squad of Champions League winners and Premier League record-breakers and Liverpool’s league success next season will depend on their consistency compared to that of Manchester City. If they are able to replicate the consistency that they’ve shown this season then it would be almost impossible to imagine any other team claiming the title. From the outside looking in, its hard not to get the feeling that Klopp and his Liverpool team are in a fantastic position to win more trophies, regardless of the direction they take in terms of tactical approach and financial expenditure over the next four seasons. The potential for growth and improvement is there, but one can sense a hunger and togetherness within this squad, qualities that have the ability to drive the club to greater success without significant investment. Four trophies over the last two seasons is a remarkable achievement for a club that had under-achieved so much in recent history, but what is certain is that Klopp and his players will not be prepared to rest on their laurels.