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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Premier League 2017/18 Preview: Klopp and Liverpool aim for consistency

It was a season of two halves at Anfield last year and the Merseyside team will hope they can replicate the form of the first half as they juggle the Premier League and the Uefa Champions League.

Finishing in the top four was satisfactory for Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp last season but they will expect more this year. Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters
Finishing in the top four was satisfactory for Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp last season but they will expect more this year. Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters

It was late on New Year’s Eve and, as 2016 slipped away, Jurgen Klopp finished a successful year by applying a little pressure to Chelsea.

“Can you imagine you annoying it is when you win 13 games in a row and there is one team only six points behind?” he asked.

The notion that Liverpool were title challengers disappeared in January. Their season came down to the final game, but to secure an Uefa Champions League place, not to become champions.

After beating Middlesbrough, Klopp reflected: “I am not sure if that was the target of all supporters but pretty much the second best; 76 points is an outstanding number.”

Yet the accumulation of those points showed the way it was a season of two halves. Liverpool took 43 in the first period, culminating in the December defeat of Manchester City, and only 33 in the second.

One borders on title-winning form, the other positions a side for sixth or seventh. Before January, they provided arguably the most exciting football in the country in fast, fluent fashion; after it, they were a slower, stumbling side until finally regaining their poise at their last.

Klopp felt Liverpool were inhibited by a lack of confidence in their winter wobbles. Others diagnosed a lack of strength in depth, an issue that required resolving given the extra workload European football provides.

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It has only been partially resolved. Mohamed Salah has the potency and pace to alleviate the reliance on Sadio Mane to provide attacking incision and perhaps to allow Philippe Coutinho move into midfield.

But whereas the other two signings – England’s Under-20 World Cup-winning forward Dominic Solanke and Hull’s Scotland left-back Andrew Robertson – conform to the Klopp mould of improving players, there remain two vacancies, courtesy of two sagas.

Klopp’s willingness to pay RB Leipzig £66 million (Dh316.2m) for Naby Keita, a bid the Bundesliga club rejected, highlighted his determination to bring in the all-action Guinean.

The catalytic Jordan Henderson’s more frequent injury-enforced absences indicate the need for another midfield workhorse.

The controversial courting of Virgil van Dijk continues. The Dutchman has the physical and footballing attributes to improve a Klopp side and, excellent as Liverpool’s record was when Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren were the central-defensive pair last season, the Croatian did not always inspire confidence.

Meanwhile, it is very possible Liverpool could relapse without replacements, especially if Coutinho is poached by Barcelona.

While previous Liverpool managers have been undermined by compromising on transfer targets and spending on second-rate players some never really wanted, Klopp takes a different view.

Without his ideal recruits, he signs no one in pivotal positions. There is an ongoing question if the German has too much faith in his charges and as Klopp has admitted he must rotate more, some of his squad players could be exposed more often.

Rather than changing his approach, Klopp seems to be ever more idiosyncratic, signing to reinforce his unique tactical approach.

His answer is to do it better, not different. They may need to. Liverpool should certainly expect more opponents to come to Anfield intent on defending. It is imperative they avert a repeat of frustrations in 2017.

Their decidedly mixed record against the lesser lights provides scope for improvement. It may be necessary, and not merely because, while they eviscerated Bayern Munich in pre-season to highlight how dangerous they remain, it is unrealistic to expect Klopp’s big-game hunters to go unbeaten against the top seven again.

If Liverpool regress in one respect, they have to progress in another. And yet, perversely, standing still would be represent progress.

They have not qualified in the Champions League in a season when they have also competed in it since the halcyon days of 2008-09 under Rafa Benitez.

Their title challenge in 2013-14 was made to look a one-off when they slipped backwards the following year. Klopp may be building something decidedly different, but he seems to have laid firmer foundations than Brendan Rodgers did.

Yet while there is the annual focus on Liverpool’s wait for a title – 27 years and counting – last season provided the better chance, even if Klopp does begin this season with a stronger side.

The reality that Liverpool have not married prowess in the league and Europe for nine years means another top-four finish would represent a step forward.