How often have we seen a frustrated Liverpool side held by compact defences who look to exploit spaces in-behind this season? Such was the case once again in Sunday’s scoreless draw with Southampton at Anfield.
The Reds created no clear-cut opportunities against Southampton, barring James Milner’s saved penalty from Fraser Forster. Liverpool have failed to not only beat The Saints in four meetings this campaign, but failed to find the net in six hours of football against them spread across the Premier League and League Cup Semi-Finals.
Many will point to injury problems as an explanation for why it appears Liverpool may stumble into a Champions League qualification spot rather than assertively secure their place, but further inspection reveals only two key players were unavailable on Sunday.
Sadio Mane and Jordan Henderson’s absence is crucial, that is undoubted, but for a side expecting to compete on all fronts next season Jurgen Klopp must call for reinforcements.
It is understandable that Liverpool’s squad appears thin when compared to the likes of Manchester City and Arsenal, as both had European competition to think about, but their limited options have made them predictable, particularly against ‘inferior’ sides.
A look at Liverpool’s losses column proves this; Burnley, Bournemouth, Swansea, Hull, Leicester and Crystal Palace are the six sides to have beaten them, making Leicester the only top ten side to do so.
While Liverpool have come to life on the grand stage this season, going undefeated in 12 games against the top seven, they’ve stumbled too many times for a side who have ambitions to win the Premier League and be a threat in the Champions League.
So, what areas of the squad do Liverpool need to strengthen next season?
James Milner has been vocal in his displeasure at filling in at left-back, and while he’s done an admirable job covering in the position, it is an area that needs a solution come next season.
The Englishman is naturally right-footed, meaning any over-lapping run behind an opposition defence will be delayed when he chooses to cut back on his right foot. Time and time again this season we’ve seen Liverpool attacks unnecessarily halted when Milner does so, leaving a case for a more natural left-back to come into the squad.
Liverpool have one in Alberto Moreno, but his perpetual placement and peripheral use off the bench leaves little doubt as to what Jurgen Klopp thinks of the Spaniard.
On the other side, Nathaniel Clyne is a reliable and strong defender who lacks the attacking purpose of the modern full-back. It is both a complement and criticism of the English international, who should firstly be praised for his defensive discipline, but his lack of impact in the final third becomes apparent in games where Liverpool dominate the ball, as was the case on Sunday.
The centre of the park is well covered with Emre Can, Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana, Lucas Leiva and the rarely utilised Marko Grujic in the ranks, while James Milner could be used as a central midfielder next season if a new left-back is brought in. However, the defensive midfield area lacks a definitive name to start week in, week out.
Starting by preference order, Jordan Henderson has matured into a tackling defensive midfielder capable of distributing the ball with more quality than Sunday’s deputy, Lucas Leiva, but continues to battle through injury problems. He started just 15 Premier League games last season and 24 this, numbers that won’t suffice if Liverpool aren’t stacked with cover.
Emre Can is another midfielder who often drops into the space between the two centre-halves, but is by no means a natural defender. He is aggressive in the challenge and physically imposing, but lacks the positional sense and concentration to control a game from deep positions. He is much more effective in the final third, as shown through some spectacular efforts against Burnley, Bournemouth and Watford.
The last remaining option in the position is Lucas Leiva, a player who has come in handy in scattered appearances throughout the season. His biggest weakness is mobility, especially in Klopp’s high-pressing and high-tempo system, while his effectiveness in possession is limited.
Width has been lacking at Liverpool for quite some time and the signing of Sadio Mane partially blanketed the issue. His absence has made it apparent once again as Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho are forced to start from wide positions, hindering their abilities.
Liverpool’s attack is stacked with the previously mentioned Brazilian duo, Divock Origi, Sadio Mane, Daniel Sturridge and perhaps the returning Danny Ings contending for the three attacking spots next season. However, Daniel Sturridge’s fitness is a major concern, as he has started just 23 Premier League games in the last three seasons combined, giving reason to consider moving him on.
Overall, Liverpool have a dangerous starting XI that appears capable of challenging in the Premier League and Champions League. Their problems start when injuries and suspension creep into the squad, something that is a near-guarantee with European competition. But do Liverpool have enough in the current squad to secure a Champions League place next season?