We spoke to David Lynch of the Evening Standard about Liverpool’s season so far.
1. Eight games in, Liverpool sit third in the Premier League on 20 points, 2nd in their Champions League group and are out of the League Cup. Considering the opponents faced in the first few weeks of the season, how would you sum up the club’s start to the 2018/2019 season?
Although nobody at Melwood will be getting carried away, I think Liverpool should be really, really pleased with how they’ve started. When I looked at the fixtures before the season got under way, I thought Liverpool would have been happy just to be anywhere near Manchester City going into the second international break.
Between facing (an undercooked) Arsenal and a tough trip to Liverpool, City played the three newly promoted sides from this year and the ones from last year – that’s quite a straightforward fixture list for a team of their quality and experience.
Liverpool, meanwhile, had to take on Tottenham and Chelsea away, trips to Crystal Palace and Leicester City, and then face their toughest home fixture of the season – hardly getting eased in!
The hope will be that, if they can keep pace with City (and the surprise package of Chelsea) during a run like that, they might actually be able to pull away from them when the fixtures get kinder.
On the League Cup front, it was disappointing to go out to Chelsea but I think avoiding that two-legged semi-final in January will actually prove to be a blessing in the end, it’s just the loss of games for fringe players that is a pain.
And as for the Champions League, they’d have been all but through if they’d held on for a point against Napoli despite playing so poorly, so that was a shame.
But I still think these back-to-back games against Red Star Belgrade should see them on the cusp of qualifying for the knockout stages, which isn’t a bad position to be in.
2. What’s impressed you so far this season?
Like everyone else, I’ve been blown away by the defensive performances. How many times during Jurgen Klopp’s reign have we been told he can’t coach a defence?
Look at them now! People will say he’s spent vast sums on Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker to fix the problems but Trent Alexander-Arnold (free), Joe Gomez (£3.5m) and Andy Robertson (£8m) are all vital cogs in that backline, too.
There’s just a great mix of physicality, nous, pace and quality back there and they’re as convincing a defensive unit as we’ve seen at Anfield since Rafael Benitez was in charge.
3. There has been a lot of talk surrounding the form of Liverpool’s front three – Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah have started relatively slowly considering their scintillating form last season – is this down to teams figuring Liverpool out? Or do you think Jurgen Klopp has adapted to play more defensively?
Of course, the flip side is that the front three haven’t been on fire so far. It’s telling that not one of that trio scored in the Chelsea double-header or the Napoli or Manchester City games when the opposition’s tactic was to effectively man mark them out of the game.
They’re going to have to get used to that sort of attention as the season rolls on, but I do think they’d be aided in finding space if there was more intelligent running from the midfield behind them.
That’ll be something that comes with rhythm; I always feel like the attacking side of the game is the last thing to click during the early stages of the season.
These lads are just too good to struggle for long – I’m sure they’ll be back to their best soon.
4. How happy will Klopp be with his side’s start to the season?
He said in his press conference that if he’d been offered 20 points after eight games before a ball was kicked, he would’ve taken it – that says everything. He’ll also be pleased to see the tactical evolution his team are undergoing, with Liverpool looking more and more to control games rather than playing at 100mph all the time.
Adding that string to their bow can do no harm because it’s a long, long season and they’ll need to be fresh come May when titles are handed out.
5. Who has impressed you the most so far this season?
It’s hard to look beyond Joe Gomez for this one. How many times have we seen talented centre-backs come through the door at Anfield, play a few games at full-back, then completely disappear?
Not only was Gomez brilliant at right-back last year, he’s proven himself worthy of his chance at centre-back this time around. His ability in the air has come on so much but it’s his pace that has most surprised me since he’s been played more in his natural position.
The way Liverpool push their full-backs up the pitch, there’s usually space for a quick break down either side of the centre-halves if the opposition win it and move it immediately into that gap.
But that just doesn’t feel like a problem when Gomez is there – he’s like an Olympic sprinter when the ball is played into those areas and, considering the injury problems he’s had, that’s incredible.
It’s also worth mentioning that he’s a level-headed lad who’s an absolute pleasure to deal with so I hope he spends a long, long time at Liverpool.
6. Liverpool signed Alisson, Naby Keita, Fabinho and Xherdan Shaqiri in the summer transfer window – what have you made of their first few months at Anfield respectively?
It’s been a slow start for all of them apart from Alisson hasn’t it? To start with him: He’s been fantastic, I think. You’d hope he never repeats that Leicester mistake but you can’t help but be impressed by his shot-stopping, command of his box and just sheer size (I genuinely think this helps put strikers off).
As for Shaqiri, he’s not been helped by the fixture list getting so tough toward the end of that latest run – Klopp said himself he was wary of changing things up for that reason.
I think the games after the international break represent the perfect chance for him to get more starts and his presence could really help get the front three firing again. With Fabinho, the jury’s probably out at the moment, but again it’s early days.
He improved as the game wore on in that League Cup tie against Chelsea and started to show more and more what he’s about but then I felt struggled with the pace when introduced against Napoli.
In his first couple of months, Klopp was trying his hardest in training to get him to stand around 10 yards further up the pitch than he is used to and I think once he gets the hang of that he’ll get more games.
Keita looked really promising in pre-season but is another who seems to be thinking too much about what’s expected of him rather than showing exactly what he’s capable of – I genuinely felt he looked like his confidence was shot when he came on against City.
We know how good he can be and hoped he’d acclimatise quicker but hopefully, he can be another Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain/Andy Robertson once he’s got to grips with everything.
7. What have you made on Daniel Sturridge’s return to the fold this season, and how impressed was Klopp with the striker throughout pre-season?
I don’t think so. He has a year left on his Liverpool contract and, even if he continues to shine, I’d be slightly surprised if he signs a new deal.
But I think his time at West Brom showed him what it would be like to step down a level, and he’s obviously desperate to avoid that whether he has to move on next summer or not. For now, scoring goals and impressing for Liverpool is his only option – and that’s an arrangement that works for everyone.
8. It’s that time of year again where rumours begin to circulate regarding the January transfer window – Standard Sport released an exclusive this morning revealing Liverpool’s interest in bringing Aaron Ramsey to the club in January – is there anything in that one or do you feel it’s mostly agent talk given the midfielder’s contract expires at the end of the season and it does’t look like he will sign a new deal with Arsenal.
I must say it wasn’t my story, though I’m sure it was impeccably sourced by my colleague James Olley. I have no doubt Liverpool are in some way keeping tabs on Ramsey’s situation given his ability, age and experience but, as James states, this hasn’t gone any further than monitoring the situation for now.
Firstly, it’s hard to imagine Arsenal sanctioning a January move given the fee wouldn’t make the disruption to their season worthwhile. In terms of a summer move, English clubs would only be able to talk to him about a free transfer at the end of the season, so it’s unlikely anyone will be rushing to publicly declare a firm interest before then.
For what it’s worth, I do wonder where he might fit into the equation were he to come to Anfield in January in particular. Unless there are departures, Jurgen Klopp doesn’t feel his squad is particularly short in any areas apart from the No.10 position (a direct result of the collapsed Nabil Fekir move).
Now for me – and this is just the way I see his game – Ramsey operates as more of No.8 than a No.10, so he’d be effectively coming in to play in the parts of the pitch where you’d hope Naby Keita will dominate as the season progresses.
I feel like Liverpool are well stocked in terms of central midfielders and so if there are to be any January additions, it’d be more a pure No.10 than someone like Ramsey – or a replacement should any back-up players choose to depart. For the summer? Probably not one we’ll hear about for a while yet.
9. Are we yet to see Liverpool click into gear, and if so, why do you feel that is?
Covered a lot of this above!
10. Is Mohamed Salah suffering from a loss of confidence so far this season?
I’m not sure it’s a loss of confidence but perhaps more a combination of overthinking things and being marked much more closely this season thanks to what he did last time around.
In my opinion, he just needs a couple of straightforward chances to come his way and that feels much more likely to happen in the games to come.
He’s too good a player to have lost that goalscoring touch and the stats show he’s continually getting in the positions this season, even if it’s not falling perfectly for him. I’m not too concerned yet.
11. Are you still confident Liverpool can progress to the knockout stages of the Champions League despite the setback in Naples last week?
A point in Naples would have been fantastic because two wins over Red Star Belgrade would’ve then put Liverpool on 10 points, which gets you through on most occasions.
But they’d still be on nine if they can win those two games now and, with a home tie against Napoli to follow, will fancy their chances of getting at least a draw in that one to seal progression.
It’s not as easy as it might have been, but then we need to perhaps respect the fact they were handed such a tough draw compared to some others.
12. Despite us only being a few months into the season, many pundits and fans have stressed the need for a creative midfielder following the failed transfer of Nabil Fekir in the summer – do you feel that deal is completely dead, and if so, do you feel Klopp needs to bring in an alternative in the January window?
The Nabil Fekir deal is completely dead and any suggestions otherwise since that day at Clairefontaine have been pure speculation. It’s not nice for the player, and wasn’t good news for Klopp at the time, but let’s put that one to bed now!
There’s no doubt Liverpool’s scouting team will be working hard to identify an alternative, though I don’t have names to hand just yet. Whoever they decide on, you can’t imagine it’ll be someone whose club will be keen to make them available for transfer in January, so that could well be one for the summer.
In the meantime, you’d hope Naby Keita can start showing his best form in that No.8 position and linking the midfield and the forward line better.
His dribbling stats were ridiculous in the Bundesliga but have gone right down in the Premier League, which hasn’t helped. It’s that skill for breaking lines that creates space, so you don’t always need an orthodox No.10 to do it, as Oxlade-Chamberlain proved last season.
13. Finally, what are your expectations for Liverpool this season?
I’m more cynical than most when it comes to Liverpool’s title chances, to be honest. I know they’ve spent money and have a world-class coach in charge but Manchester City got 100 points last season and don’t look like they’ve got any worse!
This idea that Klopp is under pressure to win the title now is ridiculous considering he’s up against the best Premier League side ever (points-wise, at least) and has only really spent big himself this summer, while City have invested such sums over a longer period.
Liverpool’s aim should be to stay as close as they can and hope City take their foot off the gas to either focus on Europe or lose some measure of desire having given so much to breaking all sorts of records last season.
That said, I do think the Reds have a fantastic chance to go deep in Europe again this season.
Their style of play is perfectly suited to two-legged ties and Anfield is such a massive plus point – some teams are beaten before they even turn up.
If they can go as far again this time, you’d just hope that injuries don’t rob them of a chance to show their best in the final – and that’s why the additional squad depth could prove to be money well spent.