All the negativity surrounding the Reds these past couple of weeks, and yet in eight unbeaten days the team scored three goals away in one game (and only drew due to a clear technical error when the officials got the rules wrong), became the first team to beat Hoffenheim at their place for 15 months, and deservedly (and finally) beat the biggest bogey team – the Double Bogey – at Anfield, all achieved without Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne, and in the case of the some of the games, Daniel Sturridge and Emre Can.
While one game doesn’t define a season, the injuries – and the resting of five players – for the first home fixture of the season was indicative of how much the squad has improved; especially without the best lock-picker, and arguably the second-most creative midfielder at the club, too. The XI didn’t look amazingly strong, but it obviously wouldn’t with so many missing. But it looked pretty good all the same.
Granted, it hasn’t always been the Reds at their full-flowing best, so maybe it’s a good sign that so many chances have been created in the process.
It backs up my assertion, made a couple of weeks ago, that things were improving even without the new signings (which is not to say that new signings were not desirable, and still aren’t desirable – merely that the club won’t collapse if it cannot seal deals in what has become a complex market). And Liverpool “deserved” at least three goals in all three games, based on quality of chances/xG.
I presented Trent Alexander-Arnold as one example of this ‘development without purchasing’, and lo and behold, he’s now shining in the first team, whereas last season he was just making up the numbers, dipping his toe in the water to experience the harsh lessons that all young players need to endure. At 18, he not only played well in Germany, but did something hugely rare for an 18-year-old: he took, and scored, a vital free-kick, and did so not by luck, but with inch-perfect placement (as seen in the U23s last season – so it was no fluke).
And he’s probably not even at 50% of what he can become with experience and with further physical strengthening (and maybe growing an inch or two before he hits 21). He will probably experience a dip this season, like all young players, but his best is now good enough to actually elevate the Reds’ first team, not just desperately fill in during an injury crisis and hope for the best (which is how a lot of youngsters obviously get their first tastes of senior football). And if he has a dip, there are plenty of other options. Liverpool are not reliant on him.
That’s one player who didn’t need to be bought; one player Pep Lijnders had been working with Jürgen Klopp and co. to bring through smoothly for two years now; one player that many fans and observers didn’t have the right “feel” about in terms of his immediate potential, because they struggle to see past a rookie’s first game or two. So while the transfer market is important, it has to be remembered that Klopp is an improver of a player, and a builder of unified teams.
Watching the U23s late last season, it was clear to me that four or five players – including the then-recuperating Marko Grujic – were going to be doing more than merely making up the numbers this season. Last season was their experience of being thrown into the deep end, and at times they looked panicked; this season can be their chance to show that, actually, they learned to swim.
Joe Gomez is another clichéd “new signing” – suddenly an option again, after essentially missing two seasons’ worth of football. And Danny Ings, lest we forget, scored a great goal in his return to the U23s a week ago; assuming that he can get close to his old levels (and judging by his character, he will give it a go), then at his worst he’s much better than many “squad” players the Reds have had in the past, and still an unknown quantity under Klopp, for whom he’s barely played, but for whom he seemed suited. (As I’ve said before, I don’t think you can rely on Ings being fit, but if he is, then that’s all the better.)
Even Jon Flanagan bolsters the numbers with his long-overdue return to fitness. The latter two are full England internationals, and the former was an England U21 player aged just 18. After between 18 months and two years out, these players will need time to find their very best form (and may or may not achieve that), but they’re still options, still on the payroll, and all strong characters who will give it their best. There’s also the fact that they could improve, particularly Gomez, who only recently turned 20. Unlike last season, Gomez now looks fully fit again, and, no pun intended, right back on track.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the season so far has been the radical change in options at full-back, just by signing one player; what they can now offer is far, far greater than last season. Also, there’s the change in the way the Reds are attacking, with the differences made by the full-backs and the pace from the “wingers”, who attack differently to last season.
These are some of the issues I’ll be covering in the rest of this article, which looks back on this week’s games, and ahead to the Hoffenheim 2nd leg.
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