Liverpool concluded their Premier League campaign yesterday with a 3-0 home win against relegated Middlesborough, and as a result they secured 4th place in the table and the opportunity to play out a playoff in order to earn a Champions League group stage berth. Given that qualifying for the Champions League was the goal at the beginning of the season, as long as they get through the playoff, it is mission accomplished for Jürgen Klopp’s Reds.
Liverpool’s success against clubs at the top of the table contrasted with their struggles against clubs at the bottom this season has been well-documented, so there was always a chance that the Boro game yesterday could’ve been a devastating finale to the campaign – and if the Reds had tripped up it would’ve been as City and Arsenal both took care of business in their respective fixtures. But fortunately that wasn’t the case: after a nervy first 45 Gigi Wijnaldum broke through in stoppage time, and Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana tacked on 2 more early in the second half to put the game to rest by the 60th minute.
Now, with the allure of Champions League coupled with Klopp’s pedigree and Liverpool’s history, the gaffer should be able to attract world-class talent to Merseyside. It remains to be seen if John Henry and Fenway Sports Group will really loosen the purse strings so as to allow Klopp to bring in top signings, but Klopp has suggested that they may well just do this. At the very least, he’ll have a modest sum of money to work with in order to boost a squad that has proven to be thin and relatively injury-prone throughout the course of 2016-17. One would imagine at the top of the wish list will be a left back, a center back, a proven striker, and midfield depth.
Without further ado, here is my assessment for each player’s 2016-17 campaign (minimum 15 appearances):
Loris Karius 3/10 – One of the few players who had an indisputably bad season for the Reds. Given that Simon Mignolet hardly inspired confidence in 2015-16, Klopp brought in Karius from his old club Mainz with the intention of having him overtake Migs for the #1 keeper role. A broken hand in preseason delayed Karius from taking the reins, but once healthy he was preferred to Mignolet who started the season playing rather respectably.
But from the onset Karius didn’t look comfortable, conceding soft goals to weak opposition and never looking confident calling off defenders and winning balls in the air. As a result, Klopp was forced to give goalie duties back to Migs in December, and he hasn’t looked back.
Karius is still very young and it is worth remembering he was coming off an injury and adjusting to life in the Premier League and in England during his struggles in net. He could still have a bright future ahead, and he’ll see opportunities down the road in cup competitions and if Mignolet suffers a dip in form in the league. But it obviously wasn’t the ideal start to his time in Anfield this past season.
Nathaniel Clyne 6/10 – Clyne is a player that I would say most Reds supporters like more than I do. And I grant them a number of points they’ll make: he’s defensively solid, hardly puts a foot wrong or is found caught out of position, and he has a good work-rate. That he logged the most minutes for the Reds of any player tells all you need to know about Klopp’s trust in him, and he is a well-deserved starting right-back for a top four club in England.
Still, his unwillingness to get forward frustrates me. And I know the retort to my criticism is that he is a right back and his first responsibility is to defend as one. I understand this and would still contend that he needs to get forward more, whip balls into the box, and pose an occasional offensive threat. And I believe he has the pace and the stamina to do it.
The problem is that since he doesn’t really get forward, the attack can become predictable and reduced to only the left side when the ball is not in the center. How many of those games against weaker opposition was it only Milner marauding down the left side trying to whip balls in (often to no avail)? Defenses were able to shade to that side because they didn’t have to worry about Clyne threatening down the right. I’m not asking Clyne to reinvent his game and I appreciate that he never hangs his teammates out to dry by recklessly going on attacking runs when they aren’t warranted. But I do think a Clyne who at least keeps defenses honest would pay dividends to the rest of the Liverpool midfield and attack, and I think he has the football IQ to do this on occasion without abandoning his defensive responsibilities. And if he were to make this jump, he’d enter the conversation of best right backs playing in the Premier League.
Georginio Wijnaldum 7/10 – Wijnaldum has grown on me as the season progressed. He exhibits a calmness on and off the ball, and his goal yesterday when the Reds had nothing going for them early totally changed the tide of the game and perhaps the next few years for all of Liverpool FC. Defensively responsible in his usual holding midfield role, in addition to his distribution he has also shown a knack for scoring timely goals.
Like a number of players in the squad, there are only minor detectable flaws. For Gigi, it still remains his tendency to play better in home fixtures and sometimes disappear at away grounds. That he has only scored at home for both Liverpool and Newcastle in recent years is a little disconcerting. With Champions League now on the docket, Wijnaldum will need to play with the ease he showcases at Anfield in some difficult European grounds. He’s capable, and Liverpool will enjoy his services for years to come.
Dejan Lovren 6.5/10 – If Clyne is the player that most supporters like more than I do, then Lovren may just be the player I like more than the average supporter. I think Lovren takes a lot of heat from the Liverpool support and, save the occasional headscratcher, I find most of it excessive. Compared to where he started in a Reds shirt, his performances and resolve has been commendable.
I think why supporters dislike him is they don’t see him as a starting center back for a Premier League winning team. For the record, I don’t either. I think he should be 3rd or 4th choice for a Reds team that intends on truly contending for the title or making a run in Champions League. But holding that fact against Lovren doesn’t seem to be fair. In other words, that he has had to play as a top choice center back for the current team is an indictment on the lack of depth at the position and not Lovren. Dejan has played about as well as he is going to play, and that has consisted of mostly steady performances. In the Premier League, mostly steady at center back may just not be good enough for a title. I don’t believe it warrants ire either, though.
James Milner 6.5/10 – Since replacing Alberto Moreno at left back after his dismal display in the season opener at Arsenal, Milner has held down a position that is not his natural position for the entirety of the season. For this alone, he deserves a lot of credit. Left back isn’t where the midfielder should be playing at this stage of his career, or any stage really, and his inability to whip in a ball with his left foot (as such, always cutting back onto his right), displayed an awkwardness with the role. However, his willingness to constantly get forward without compromising his defensive responsibilities most of the time was admirable. And the guy never stops hustling – that’s always been his greatest attribute throughout his career.
In many respects, it’s hard to grade Milner. He was playing a position that wasn’t his, and he also assumed the captaincy after Jordan Henderson’s campaign was unfortunately cut short. Overall I think Milner did pretty well. He made mistakes, but that was to be expected, and his willingness to take on the role with no complaints when he’d personally rather be in the midfield is a testament to a guy who puts the team before himself. But I think all supporters would rather see Milner as a rotation player in the midfield, and therefore securing the services of a first team left back must be the priority of Klopp’s in the offseason.
Philippe Coutinho 8.5/10 – The little magician had a splendid season, and the only concern is that he might be so good that Barcelona or Real Madrid may no longer be able to stomach not having his creativity as part of their side. On his day, there are few better in the world with the ball at their feet. He also poses a threat at every free kick opportunity.
If we’re getting really nitpicky, he can still continue to improve off the ball, and although he has gone anonymous in fewer games than ever before, the occasional forgettable performance may be all that gives pause to the giants of Europe to pull the trigger. By all accounts, Coutinho is happy at Liverpool, and after being so instrumental in getting the club back into the Champions League one has to hope he’ll want to remain with Liverpool to reap the spoils. If his services can be retained long-term, he could well go on to become a Liverpool legend.
Roberto Firmino 8/10 – Firmino’s versatility and darting runs are a joy to watch, and it is without a doubt that after two years he has proven to be a very intelligent signing from Hoffenheim. He works brilliantly as a False 9 for Klopp who clearly sees Firmino as an integral piece to Liverpool’s attack.
Like Coutinho, there is little left to be desired out of Firmino. Perhaps he could continue to develop strength which pays dividends in the Premier League more than anywhere else in the world, and of course anyone can always bag a few more goals if they improve upon taking the chances they create with more regularity.
Jordan Henderson 7.5/10 – It feels like a long time since Hendo has featured in the squad after injury cut his season short. But after somewhat of a slow start, the Liverpool captain looked comfortable in his deeper midfield role and at times maneuvered the troops like the captain of a future Premier League champion. Henderson will never be the quickest or the most technically-gifted, but he reads the game well. And the rest of the squad responds to his leadership. He’ll look to improve upon his 1 league goal in 24 appearances next season.
Daniel Sturridge 6/10 – Will he stay or will he go? Indeed, Sturridge’s fate is likely in the hands of manager Jürgen Klopp. Extremely injury-prone, it’s just difficult to build a team around Sturridge knowing that you’ll never be able to rely on him being consistently fit. As such, I wouldn’t mind retaining Sturridge as a 2nd or 3rd choice striker, but this seems harsh to Sturridge given his impressive rate of return when he is actually able to play.
I personally prefer the interplay when Firmino is up front in a False 9, or if we could sign someone pacy like a Lacazette who Lyon has expressed will be available to the highest bidder. Sturridge doesn’t look as comfortable in Klopp’s system, to me. But it’s hard to argue with his strike rate, and if we were to keep him as a super sub and for domestic cup competitions that would hardly be the worst-case scenario. But I also think Sturridge deserves the right to start somewhere else, and if another club is willing to take the risk given his injury history, I think it’s in Sturridge’s best interest as well to move on.
Ragnar Klavan 5.5/10 – I initially quite liked Klavan, but on a few different occasions he was left a bit exposed as off the pace for the Premier League at this stage in his career. He was always meant to be about a 4th choice center back, but was of course thrust into a more prominent role early on due to numerous injuries at the back. Sometimes he was dependable, at other times it was a bit iffy.
Like Lovren, Klavan can’t be a starting center back if you really want to contend for the league. Klavan’s really on the fringe of being good enough to complete your 2nd pairing choice. He’s had a good attitude throughout the campaign though, and I think he’ll be an excellent option to perhaps pair alongside younger players in domestic cup competitions. But he’s probably arrived at Anfield 5 or so years too late to really feature in Liverpool’s starting XI.
Sadio Mané 9/10 – Mané was absolutely sensational. Pacy, incisive, and always a goal threat, it isn’t a coincidence that Liverpool’s dips in form coincided with when Mané was either away at the African Cup of Nations or injured down the stretch. Liverpool was nothing short of a different team dependent on whether Mané was on or off the pitch. Fitness will always be a concern following the injury, but apart from that the Senegalese attacking midfielder was everything Klopp could’ve asked for and more after being signed in the offseason. Maybe Klopp and co. can convince him to skip out on the African Cup of Nations in the future – certainly every Reds supporter would be on board with that.
Adam Lallana 8.5/10 – Pedestrian under Brendan Rodgers, no one has improved more immensely since Klopp has taken over than Adam Lallana. Intricate on the ball and penetrating off it, he’s always looking for ways to impact the match in Liverpool’s favor. And he covers a ton of ground, ever willing to press defensively and make life difficult for teams trying to play out the back. My only wish is that he was a few years younger. But regardless Lallana is in his prime and another well-suited piece to Klopp’s pacy puzzle.
Lucas Leiva 6/10 – Lucas has completed a decade with the club, and is by far its longest-serving servant. Not always a fan favorite, including myself at times, I think everyone has come to accept what Lucas is: a responsible defensive midfielder. Rarely flashy and offensively nonexistent, Lucas is your classic holding midfielder who quietly influences games. With aging legs, he may be less effective than he once was, but he’ll always put in a shift.
The debate rages on as to whether we should keep him. I think he’s worth keeping as a rotation player who can also feature more prominently in cup competitions and mentor youngsters breaking in. I also understand it’s a business, and if Lucas is promised first team football elsewhere and wants to play first team football then he should walk on and everyone will wish him the best. Hate him or love him from a tactical standpoint, no one can deny that Lucas appreciates what it means to play for a club like Liverpool that means so much to so many people.
Emre Can 7.5/10 – When he’s having an off day, he can be the most frustrating player on the pitch. And he had more than a few off days early on in the season. But down the stretch one could argue he was the most influential player for Liverpool, and he was needed as injuries and minor dips in form left Champions League qualification in the balance. His goal against Watford will go down as an instant classic for the skill it required alone, but, in the context of Liverpool’s season, it may have just saved it from agonizing disappointment.
Can is still really young and should only continue to develop as he matures in his decision-making and his consistency. With the understanding that there are always going to be growing pains for young players, Can’s year as a whole must be considered a successful one.
Simon Mignolet 7.5/10 – Coming into this season with a fair share of doubters including the manager himself, Mignolet responded to his critics in an overwhelmingly positive manner. Looking more confident than ever before, he attacked aerial balls with confidence rather than the timidity we came to expect, and he made a number of timely saves by showcasing a strong hand or intelligent anticipation. I really find it difficult to recall too many blunders by Mignolet in the catching or saving departments.
His distribution could always improve, and like most keepers that aren’t in maybe the top five in the world or so he could stand to not only save the shots he’s supposed to but progress to truly robbing some more shots that most keepers shouldn’t be saving. But Migs was astoundingly positive and playing confidently. I personally don’t think we need to spend money on a keeper if it can be spent elsewhere with Mignolet proving to be more than serviceable.
Divock Origi 5/10 – I’m not a big Origi guy. He seems to look clunky on the ball far too often. The strange thing about him is he boasts a half-decent goal rate despite not making it look particularly aesthetically pleasing. He’s also still rather young and raw, and should only continue to improve in a Liverpool shirt.
With all due respect to Origi, his relative success in the goal-scoring department may just suggest that any half-decent striker could score goals for this Liverpool team that boasts so much creativity in the attacking third. It begs the question of how much a world-class striker could bag, and if they could challenge the likes of Kane, Lukaku, and Costa for Golden Boot honors. As of now, Origi is a poor man’s 2nd choice striker for Liverpool and someone I would consider to be more of a 3rd or 4th option. Maybe this undersells Origi.
Joël Matip 7/10 – I like Matip – especially because we got him on a free transfer. He’s calm on the ball and positionally sound. A nice distributer of the ball, Matip also seems capable of partnering with anyone. I consider him our best center back and, since we’re unlikely to sign more than one center back in the offseason, any top pairing going into next year would likely feature Matip. I think you can challenge for the league with a healthy Matip in your starting XI – although whoever you bring in to partner alongside him should be at least equally capable if not better (or even significantly better).
As we can see, it was a campaign full of positives and this is reflected in the ratings. We accomplished the goal of securing Champions League footy, and we performed superbly against the giants of English football. Indeed, when you perform so well against the biggest teams, it’s hard to find many faults in the Liverpool team. At their best, they can beat anyone in England and compete with anyone in Europe.
Obviously, their less than stellar record against weaker teams is a concern as far too often Liverpool couldn’t break down a defensively-minded opposition only to prove susceptible to the few counterattacks that weaker opposition could muster up. Klopp will need to improve upon gameplanning for weaker teams: including but not restricted to turning long spells of possession into clearer chances without leaving ourselves open to quick counters. Alas, this is the art of balancing patience and impatience; at times, we got this balance wrong, particularly against inferior opposition.
Other parting thoughts must also be to improve upon putting games away after getting out to a lead. Teams that win the Premier League know how to kill games after jumping out to leads. All too often, Liverpool overextend themselves and let teams back in and points slip. Much of this is due to shaky set piece defending, and that needs to improve.
Critiques aside, this was a good year. Now our eyes turn to Klopp to see who he can bring in to strengthen the side to compete both in the league and in Europe. It’s an exciting time to be a Liverpool supporter.