Liverpool have Man City envy and Jurgen Klopp must turn easiest Liverpool decision into hardest

Liverpool have Man City envy and Jurgen Klopp must turn easiest Liverpool decision into hardest

There is little debate about Liverpool’s strongest starting XI with the majority of Jurgen Klopp’s side virtually picking themselves when everyone is available.

In goal, Alisson is the Reds’ undisputed number one and arguably the best goalkeeper on the planet while no other centre-back in world football comes close to Virgil van Dijk.

Meanwhile, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson have established themselves as two of the best attacking full-backs going and are pivotal to how Klopp’s side play, while Joe Gomez is one of the best young centre-backs around.

At the other end of the field, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane are two of the globe’s most-feared forwards and form two-thirds of Europe’s deadliest front three.

And while Roberto Firmino might have found some vocal critics this year due to an underwhelming goal return, his importance to Klopp’s Liverpool unquestioned.

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Competition for places in midfield is a tougher ask but Jordan Henderson is captain and in the form of his career while Fabinho is virtually unstoppable as the Reds’ number six.

That leaves one position left which a majority of the fanbase would love to see filled by Naby Keita, though he has not yet done enough to usurp Gini Wijnaldum.

That’s it. That’s the team. Easy, job done, same again next week, boys.

But the problem with having such an established starting XI is what happens when they’re not at their best, how do you cope with the drop-off in quality in reserve and just how do you go about strengthening your squad without upsetting the apple cart while persuading a new arrival they will get opportunities to play.

These are all issues Klopp knows oh too well and has seemingly faced more than ever in recent months as his side continued to cement its place as one of the very best in the world.

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With games coming thick and fast since the Premier League resumed after its enforced suspension because of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s inevitable that Liverpool’s standards have slipped in recent weeks since finally being able to clinch the Premier League title.

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But signs had emerged even before the break as the Reds exited both the Champions League and FA Cup in quick succession, as well as losing their first Premier League game of the season at Watford.

Since mid-February, Klopp’s side have tasted defeat six times, having only lost three in the 12 months before that. And one of those latter losses was the youngsters getting thrashed 5-0 by Aston Villa in the League Cup with Liverpool’s senior squad in Qatar for the FIFA Club World Cup.

Such standards are of course superhuman and impossible to maintain. But having reached such heights has only highlighted the decline even more and the so far inability to arrest it.

From title-winner complacency to fatigue and burnout, there are a variety of reasons that can be used to explain Liverpool’ drop-off in form.

And unfortunately for Klopp, rotating his pack has done little to breathe fresh life into his side as they continue to meander towards the end of the season since clinching the title.

Keita has shown glimpses when handed the opportunity but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has not been at his best since football returned and veteran James Milner has struggled with injury.

Elsewhere in midfield, Curtis Jones has looked promising as he takes the first steps of what will hopefully be a successful Premier League career.

In attack, Takumi Minamino and Divock Origi having failed to fully grasp opportunities when turned to, and prefer playing centrally, ensuring Salah, Mane and Firmino’s absence has been felt even more firmly when rotated.

Meanwhile, Xherdan Shaqiri has barely featured this season because of injury.

And in defence, Joel Matip is again injured after falling behind Joe Gomez in the pecking order while Dejan Lovren’s Reds future is uncertain after his own injury troubles and a loss of form.

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At full-back, Neco Williams has grasped his opportunity this season to establish himself as Alexander-Arnold’s deputy, but Liverpool lack natural cover at left-back, while in goal, mistakes from Adrian before the break ultimately cost the Reds as they exited both the Champions League and FA Cup.

As a result, Liverpool’s strength-in-depth continues to be questioned with fans not reassured by their quality to emphasise a desire for summer signings, highlighted by calls for the Reds to sign Thiago Alcantara from Bayern Munich following recent transfer links and frustration at not moving for Timo Werner after Chelsea won the race for the RB Leipzig striker’s signature.

Yet the Reds are not the only side to struggle with consistency since English football returned, with even Manchester City complementing emphatic victories with surprise losses.

But while Pep Guardiola’s side remain 18 points behind Liverpool and have not come close in this season’s title-race, few would argue they don’t boast a stronger squad than the Reds as the Spaniard seemingly makes multiple changes to his starting XI on a match-by-match basis with minimal impact on performances.

Pep Guardiola speaks with Raheem Sterling during Manchester City’s win over Liverpool

While Klopp’s strongest XI is largely unquestioned, the same cannot be said of Guardiola.

Kevin De Bruyne, Aymeric Laporte and Raheem Sterling are shoo-ins alongside Ederson, but the former trio are not immune to rotation.

But the rest of City’s line-up is anyone’s guess, even when players are missing.

Sergio Aguero remains City’s leading striker but had continued to rotate with Gabriel Jesus throughout the campaign before suffering a season-ending injury, though even that wasn’t enough to guarantee a permanent starting role for the Brazilian.

Riyad Mahrez has enjoyed an impressive season at the Etihad while Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden look at home both out wide and in midfield.

David Silva continues to shine as he’s slowly eased out ahead of a summer exit, while Fernandinho remains as reliable as ever, either in midfield or after emerging as a makeshift centre-back.

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Meanwhile Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan strengthen an already well-stocked midfield, while Leroy Sane was allowed to leave for Bayern Munich at the start of the month.

Eric Garcia has seemingly leapt in front of Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones to win the battle to partner Laporte since the league’s restart, while Guardiola almost rotates his full-backs on a weekly basis between Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo on the right and Benjamin Mendy and Oleksandr Zinchenko on the left.

Winning all but two of their nine matches since the restart, including an emphatic 4-0 victory over Liverpool, using 23 different players, scoring 27 goals, conceding just four and claiming 5-0 wins on three different occasions.

Klopp will feel envious at what Guardiola has at his disposal despite his own faith in his squad, and City’s European ban being overturned despite breaching FFP will have heightened such a feeling.

But despite all this, it is far too early for the Reds to panic as eyes begin to turn to next year’s title race.

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Guardiola is expected to add to his squad this summer as Manchester City look to reclaim the Premier League title, though it remains to be seen if Liverpool will follow suit.

The arrival of a new left-back would not be a surprise if the right player became available, while potential departures for Shaqiri, Lovren and loanees like Harry Wilson and Marko Grujic could call the Reds into action with the window set to be open until October.

But whatever happens in the transfer market, Klopp needs more from his squad to challenge what is currently an undisputed starting XI to turn his easiest decision into his hardest.

Afte rall, they’re Premier League, European and World Champions for a reason.

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About the Author: Piers Parker

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