Commentary: Liverpool will struggle to retain its title
Liverpool were relentless last season but were also relatively fortunate in terms of injuries to key players, says John Duerden.
SINGAPORE: The 2019 to 2020 English Premier League (EPL) season may have been the longest in history – prolonged by a COVID-19 suspension - but there was one constant theme that ran from August to July: Liverpool’s domination.
The Reds started it all with a 4-1 demolition of Norwich City and then kept on winning. So much so that the Reds were 25 points clear by mid-March.
The only thing that could stop a first English championship heading to Anfield since 1990 was the coronavirus that caused a 12-week suspension of the league.
Yet when the action resumed in mid-June, Liverpool quickly got the necessary results to confirm the title.
The performances after the restart were not quite as emphatic as those before – dropping 10 points in nine games, including losses against Manchester City and Arsenal - but they were more than good enough to get the Reds their first title in 30 years.
Ultimately, Liverpool collected an amazing 99 points, finishing an equally impressive 18 points ahead of Manchester City.
With a star-studded team that has been built and managed by charismatic coach Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool were a well-oiled and high-octane machine last season but the new campaign that starts on Sep 12 is likely to be different and raises a big question if Liverpool can dominate the league to the same extent in the coming season.
Winning 26 out of the first 27 games gave the Reds an unassailable lead. It also meant that the team was never under pressure as challengers never could get close enough to create any tension.
A TIGHTER SCHEDULE THIS TIME
This time it may be different.
First, with the EPL starting a month later than usual, due to the delays last season, but still finishing at the same time next May, we will see a tighter schedule of games played.
Teams like Liverpool, which also qualified for the continental Champions League, may have to play almost 50 games in eight months including the EPL and two domestic cup tournaments – the FA Cup and the EFL Cup. The number of games could increase if they progress to the later stages of these competitions.
Such a gruelling schedule will place unprecedented demands on squads.
This means that the strength of Liverpool’s squad is likely to be tested more seriously than before. Liverpool were relentless last season but were also relatively fortunate in terms of injuries to key players.
The star attacking trio of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane missed a combined total of seven games between them.
The defence was equally stable. Key centre-back Virgil van Dijk was ever-present with 38 games as was Trent Alexander-Arnold with Andy Robertson missing just two.
However the packed calendar this time will also have a greater impact on Liverpool than most. Klopp’s preferred counter-pressing game style is physically demanding and has been criticised by observers as opening players up to injury and fatigue.
In a season where players only had about six weeks to recover and get into peak physical condition during the off-season from mid-July to September, compared to the usual three months summer break, injuries are not unexpected.
LACKING SQUAD DEPTH
This brings me to the second, and related, point of why Liverpool may not be able to replicate its dominance this season. Compared to many of their title rivals, like Chelsea and Manchester City, Liverpool’s squad does not have similar depth with its bench not having a comparable quality of players as its starting eleven.
Belgian Divock Origi has come up with some important goals in recent seasons but he is not a comparable replacement for Liverpool’s talismanic front three.
With Croatian centre-back Dejan Lovren also departing in the summer, Liverpool only have Joel Matip and Joe Gomez as proven partners to Van Dijk at the heart of Liverpool’s defence.
Injuries to key players could leave them particularly vulnerable in key areas.
The problem appears more acute as to date, Liverpool only added Kostas Tsimikas to the squad. The left-back arrived in August from Greek giant Olympiacos as back-up to Andy Robertson.
The Reds have been interested in Bayern Munich midfielder Thiago Alcantara but are unwilling to pay his asking price of 30 million euros to bring the Spaniard to Anfield.
Some Reds fans, who have just finished celebrating a first English title in three decades, have started to become uneasy about the lack of new blood but it is not a surprise.
Klopp has been playing down the prospect of major spending in this transfer window for months but despite the success, fans always crave new signings especially as some squad players, like Lovren and Adam Lallana, have left with more, including key midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum, possibly following them out of the door before the transfer window closes.
Liverpool do not have the massive financial backing of their challengers which means they can’t stay too far ahead for too long according to Manchester United legend and Premier League pundit Gary Neville.
"What would concern me about Liverpool for a long period would be if they were bought out by a super-rich owner, who invested at the level of Manchester City (or) Manchester United,” Neville said in July. “Liverpool still, in their transfer business, are still quite modest compared to the other clubs.”
RIVALS HAVE STRENGTHENED
Inevitably other teams have strengthened. City’s problems lie in defence and the signing of Nathan Ake from Bournemouth should help to rectify that. The ambitious club, and its world-famous coach Pep Guardiola will be hungry to win the title again.
Chelsea, fourth last season, have been the biggest spenders so far this window. The Blues have spent more than 200 million pounds on six major signings including Timo Werner from RB Leipzig, Hakim Ziyech from Ajax Amsterdam and Kai Havertz from Bayer Leverkusen.
Manchester United have been quieter but the addition of Dutch international Donny van de Beek will add quality and the possibility of English star Jadon Sancho arriving from Borussia Dortmund would give the team - with 20 league titles to Liverpool’s 19 - a real chance of challenging.
January signing Bruno Ferndandes was a huge success and with World Cup winning midfielder Paul Pogba fit, United, who finished third last season, should be a much bigger threat this time.
SUSTAINING A WINNING MENTALITY
And then there is the mental side of keeping the wins coming. Liverpool collected 97 points in the season before last and then managed 99.
That is an incredible achievement but sustaining it for a third year will be tough. Manchester City managed 100 points and then 98 points before falling off considerably last season and taking 81.
Chelsea struggled with this so-called third season syndrome too. Winning the title in 2005 with 95 points, the Blues took 91 the second year. In the third, that had slipped to 83. To keep the mentality of winning almost every game can take its toll.
Liverpool won the league last season despite scoring 17 fewer goals than City and conceding just two fewer. City thrashed more teams while Liverpool won 14 games by a single-goal margin.
To keep taking those tight victories, when one goal by the opposition can cost two points, will be hard to maintain and a real test of the players’ hunger and mentality.
The fact that the games will be played with no, or relatively few, fans for the foreseeable future due to the threat of coronavirus, may affect Liverpool more than their rivals.
The Anfield stadium can be a cauldron of red passion and can inspire the team, with a playing style that depends on intensity and energy, onto greater heights.
The likes of Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium or Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge are nowhere near as intimidating.
It may be more than a coincidence that Liverpool did not look as impressive after the league restarted when fans were disallowed from attending matches.
Liverpool have won their first title for 30 years but only Manchester City have successfully defended the English Premier League win in the past decade. The Reds are the team to beat but are going to find winning the next title more difficult than the last.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of three books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).