Considering how badly Liverpool's title defense seemed to be falling apart in the winter months, ultimately Jurgen Klopp might feel that his side weathered the perfect storm that hit their center back corps about as well as could be expected. They were 30 points worse off in 2020-21 than they had been in 2019-20 but they also spent much of the season with center back pairings built around Rhys Williams, Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak. Virgil van Dijk they were not.
What does a near approximation of the old Liverpool look like now? We should find out over the coming months. Below are our bold predictions for Liverpool this season and make sure to check out the rest of our Premier League previews here.
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Curtis Jones's star continues to rise
That Georginio Wijnaldum has gone unreplaced since his move to Paris Saint-Germain has thrown the spotlight on a great many of Klopp's other midfield options. Will Jordan Henderson be the next to run down his deal and go on a free? Can Naby Keita finally find consistency? Is year two the moment when Thiago Alcantara pops?
Those are all good questions, but the most intriguing and convincing midfield storyline for this season might be the establishment of Curtis Jones as a consistently high level performer for Liverpool. At the very least, Jones can serve as first reserve to the Fabinho, Henderson, Thiago triumvirate but he may end the campaign with at least a convincing case to be a regular starter in Klopp's side.
In many ways Liverpool's young midfielder seems to be laboratory built for this particular Liverpool team. He may not be particularly loud in terms of his direct contributions at either end of the pitch but Jones is someone who knows how to get the ball back and can advance it exceptionally quickly up the pitch. According to fbref, Jones ranks in the 96th percentile across Europe's top five leagues for progressive carries and the 94th for progressive passes received. He's only 20 years old, but Jones seems to have shades of a great many of his team mates in his game. He's able to register touches around the box like Keita, recover possession around halfway in the same fashion as Fabinho and spot an opportunity to intercept the ball like Henderson.
Crucially all these data points have not come from garbage time in easy Premier League games. Klopp may not have had that much of a choice when injuries bit, but in key games last season he was prepared to trust Jones
A Sadio Mane revival season
If any player typified the woes of those still standing through Liverpool's title defense it might have been Sadio Mane. The sheer exertion of getting to the top of the mountain left the Senegal forward utterly drained and his form seemed to fall off a cliff edge. By late May Klopp felt he had no choice but to drop a player who would end the season with just 11 league goals, half his return from two seasons prior. And no-one, least of all the man himself, could explain what had gone wrong.
"If you ask me what is wrong I will struggle to give you an answer," he told Canal Plus late last season. "Personally I don't know. I have always tried to be positive, whether things are going well or badly. I question myself all the time.
"I even underwent a test to take a look at my body. Am I eating the right foods, or has everything changed? But they checked the test results, and everything is fine."
Everything he was doing up until putting the ball in the net seemed fine as well. Having averaged 0.44, 0.44 and 0.45 expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes in the three preceding Premier League seasons Mane hit the 0.45 mark in 2020-21. Compared to the previous season he completed more take-ons, created more chances and got into more shooting positions per 90 minutes. But the ball just would not go in.
If you wanted to suggest this was just a bolt from the blue season for Liverpool this is the sort of evidence you would point towards. Mane did not become a worse player in 2020-21 and there is no reason to assume that that production will be his new normal. The Africa Cup of Nations may check his momentum in midseason but expect the Senegal forward to get back to his best this year.
Europe a more likely avenue for trophies
Sometimes there are seasons that just look to be set up for a particular team from the outset. Liverpool's title-winning run was one: a settled group of players at the peak of their individual powers who had done enough in other competitions to convince themselves that a first English title since 1989 was within reach. This is not one of those seasons.
Van Dijk, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez will be back but how long it will take for them to return to top performances after lengthy absences remains to be seen. New arrival Ibrahima Konate will also need time to settle whilst further up the field Klopp's glowing farewell to Wijnaldum emphasized the difficulty Liverpool will have in replacing a readily available midfielder who, in his former manager's words, "played really, really well 90 per cent of the time".
Even if Diogo Jota plays as well in year two as he did in the early weeks of his Liverpool career and Roberto Firmino gets among the goals more consistently they will still be without Salah and Mane for the Africa Cup of Nations. With those defensive issues it seems feasible to suggest they will be a little slow out of the blocks and may slow down a little in January if there are no further signings.
And yet this was still a team that made their way to the Champions League quarter finals in hugely impressive fashion, winning a tough group and impressively swatting aside RB Leipzig. But for a few minutes of madness against Real Madrid they might have gone even deeper. Come the business end of the European game next summer their defenders might well be back to their best and Klopp could well have his full compliment of attackers. If you believe that the frontrunners in the title race could have slipped away from Liverpool by the spring then they may just be able to go all guns blazing for a seventh European Cup.
Or maybe, just maybe, all they need to do is keep in touch with the leading pack through the hard months that may come early in 2021-22. Then who knows.
- Premier League finish: 4th
- Top scorer: Mohamed Salah
- Player of the season: Mohamed Salah
- Something unexpected: Ibrahima Konate struggles to establish himself ahead of Joe Gomez, who offers a healthy reminder as to why he seemed like a certain starter for England at Euro 2020.