If Liverpool’s 2020 title triumph was a scintillating dream, then the defence was very much a painful nightmare.
Injuries, loss of confidence and a history-making losing run at what had previously been fortress Anfield, dogged a tortuous and underwhelming attempt to retain the trophy for much of 2020-21.
However, a 10-match unbeaten run at the end of the campaign saw Jurgen Klopp’s side overcome defensive frailties in the absence of Virgil van Dijk, and pretty much the entire first-team centre-back personnel, to somehow grab a creditable third-place finish given the context of their predicament.
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This time around, VVD and co are back fit and raring to go. Of course, there have been very few new recruits so far and the Reds will be relying on the likes of Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino to hit the world class heights that were conspicuous by their absence last term, if they are to come anywhere close to regaining the aura that had many earmarking them as one of the best ever Premier League teams just 12 months ago. If that can be achieved, there’s no doubt Liverpool have a top drawer first XI and will be challengers once again – but there are plenty of question marks at present.

TRANSFERS IN (major)

  • Ibrahima Konate (RB Leipzig, £36m)
It’s been a quiet window at Anfield so far. It was no surprise to see the Reds swoop for a highly-rated centre back given the long-term issues with van Dijk, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez.
The likes of Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams valiantly tried to plug the void but the reality was the Merseysiders would need greater strength in depth in that area to avoid any such crisis having a season-stunting effect ever again. This should allay any such fears this time around.
Konate topped Liverpool’s wish-list and has huge potential with a powerhouse physicality, excellent technique and real pace that could see him emerge and put big pressure on Gomez as the first-choice partner for van Dijk.

Ibrahima Konaté

Image credit: Getty Images

Of course, Andy Robertson's injury is a blow and cover in that left-back area is not extensive. Supporters will also hope to see a late flurry of business to freshen up a stale bench in terms of the forward line with Xherdan Shaqiri and Divock Origi failing to make the desired impact when called upon. Any such incoming transfers seem certain to rely upon funds being raised by the departure of fringe players but there’s no doubt the Reds would benefit from easing some of the pressure on their main quartet of forwards.

TRANSFERS OUT (major)

  • Georginio Wijnaldum (Paris Saint-Germain, Free)
The Holland international was part of Liverpool’s ‘leadership group’ alongside Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Virgil van Dijk. He was clearly an influential figure in the dressing room and someone Klopp had plenty of faith in given that he featured in every Premier League game last season, starting on 34 occasions.
Does he leave a chasm in the engine room and should he have been replaced? It remains to be seen but Liverpool do have some options already within their ranks that Klopp could see as the answer.
Curtis Jones will see it as a big opportunity and has already shown his potential with a number of impressive showings. At the age of 20, he will surely only get better and better. The fact he is home-grown will also see Kopites warm to the thought of him taking on greater responsibility.
Liverpool will also expect more from Thiago Alcantara in his second season at Anfield while captain Jordan Henderson, the evergreen James Milner and Fabinho represent enough quality to ensure the 30-year-old Wijnaldum’s absence won’t be felt as painfully as some may suggest.

Georginio Wijnaldum of Holland during the EURO match between North Macedonia v Holland at the Johan Cruijff Arena

Image credit: Getty Images

KEY MAN – Virgil van Dijk

When Liverpool paid £75m for the big Dutchman back in January 2018 his impact was clearly metamorphic as he brought strength and leadership to a previously porous backline that turned them into major title contenders.
His loss to a long-term injury early last season was equally transformational, but in an evidently more negative way. He wasn’t the only defender Klopp had to do without but there’s no doubt he was the key one as their title defence crumbled.
Van Dijk is back now after playing some part of pre-season but there’s always a concern a player may not recapture previous glories following a serious injury like the anterior cruciate ligament the 30-year-old one suffered in the Goodison derby back in October.
If he makes a successful return to the halcyon heights that saw many hail him as the world’s best defender, then you can expect Liverpool to thrive. His pace and recovery when defending a high line is crucial to Klopp’s tactics, not to mention his leadership qualities, aerial ability in both boxes and penchant for building attacks with sweeping, diagonal passes. His presence will also lift those around him, which can only be good news given how many of Liverpool’s major stars saw their form dip during his absence.

YOUNG STAR – Trent Alexander-Arnold

Liverpool’s creator-in-chief – at right-back. It seems odd to highlight him as a ‘young’ star given all that he has achieved in recent seasons, but TAA is still just 22 years old.
His delivery from the right is quite simply exceptional and has been fundamental to the Merseysiders’ silverware success under Klopp.
A drop in level was much-publicised last season but he stepped up at a crucial moment, producing more assists and carving out more chances than any other player during Liverpool’s late 10 league-game surge to secure a Champions League berth.
The return of van Dijk and more established central defenders will only help him and he could yet benefit from a summer of rest after injury curtailed his Euro 2020 hopes.

BREAKOUT CANDIDATE – Harvey Elliott

Big things have been expected from the young winger ever since he arrived at Anfield as a 16-year-old from Fulham in 2019.
Two years on and it seems certain Klopp is going to make sure the teenager gets his chance to impress in the first team this season.
Elliott signed a new long-term contract with the Reds earlier in the summer and he seems to have taken even further strides forward following his excellent spell on-loan at Blackburn Rovers last term.
The youngster has been utilised in a deeper, midfield role and has earned encouraging words of praise from Klopp: “He made a big step this pre-season. If Harvey stays fit then the football world can be really excited.” There has also been talk of an England U21 call-up and the murmurs drifting out of the Merseysiders’ training base is that they feel he is very much ready to make his mark in the first-team this year. Watch this space.

MANAGER SITUATION - No danger for a rested Klopp

Klopp remains widely adored and after ending a 30-year wait for the league title his place in Liverpool folklore is secure (and that's not to mention a sixth European crown 12 months earlier).
Even when outsiders attempted to suggest he was under pressure as the Reds set a new record of six successive league defeats at Anfield as they toiled in a laboured top-four push, no-one with a true appreciation of the club felt his role was in danger. When Klopp does eventually leave L4, it will almost certainly be on his own terms.
The German endured a tough season – both personally and professionally – but expect him to be re-energised after the break and ready to push the Merseysiders right back into the mix for the major prizes in the months ahead.

PREDICTION

On paper, with everybody fit and healthy, Liverpool have a team to worry anybody on their day, but questions remain upon the form of their star names and whether key players returning from injury can hit the ground running.
There is also the small matter of their rivals, who have all spent big so far this window. Champions Manchester City were already light years ahead of the rest and have splashed out on Jack Grealish with Harry Kane also linked. Manchester United will improve with Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane while Chelsea are a different proposition under Thomas Tuchel and are adding Romelu Lukaku to what is already arguably the strongest overall squad in the division.
In contrast, Liverpool have just one new name and are relying on some players to rekindle the form of two years ago. They do say you can never stand still in football and it is going to be hard for the 2020 champions to hit that tier once more. However, the threat below them is unlikely to be too great in the shape of Tottenham and Everton, so a top-four finish and a say in the title race is very much on the cards.
Prediction: Fourth.
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