Eleven Bold (some not so bold) Predictions for the 2021/22 Season
NOTE: This article has been going through drafts since before the season started, but due to my day job and my second job of U10 Girls Coach, I got too busy to finish it. Most of these are things I have thought since July, but the rough draft was completed on Saturday, Sept 11 before the Leeds game. Due to recent games, I have edited it a bit (the Elliott injury sucks!). Prediction 11 has not changed at all though and I think everyone will enjoy it!
- Bring on the Youth!
Liverpool have not signed many new players in the last two transfer windows for a lot of reasons, in particular – the global pandemic making sales hard and a roster that is already full of non-homegrown players. An additional reason though, is that Jurgen Klopp believes in bringing players through and loves giving youngsters a shot. Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliot, and to a lesser extent Neco Williams and Caomhin Kelleher are all set to get a lot of minutes this season, and depending on how you define “youth” Kostas Tsimikas and Nat Phillips also have roles to play.
Elliot was proving that he is ready to compete in the Premier League before the devastating ankle injury. Jones started strong but hit a bit of a plateau last winter but really looks very ready to push on to another level. Elliot looked poised to soak up a surprising amount of Georginio Wijnaldum’s minutes before his injury. With him out until at least March, Jones will need to step. Tsimakas has shown he is a capable backup for Robertson, while he, Williams, Kelleher, and Phillips are going to be key to Liverpool advancing in the early rounds of the domestic cups.
- Some LFC Players are Going to Remind Fans that They are Really Good at Football
An often-overlooked side effect of last season’s injury crises is due to the injuries concentrated on center backs it affected LFC’s tallest and most physical players. Thus, Klopp could not rotate or give opportunities to a lot of players to maintain some stability while also keeping some of Klopp’s bigger players on the field. Three players who were the biggest ancillary victims of the injury crisis were Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Takumi Minimino, and Naby Keita.
“Talent wins out” is an oft-used saying, but sometimes timing is just as important as talent. Ox and Taki have been incredibly unlucky when it comes to timing. For Ox, it is having a couple of major injuries just as he is settling into the side. For Taki, he transferred to a new country and league less than 90 days away from a total global shutdown. When he finally looked like he was going to get a chance in the side, Liverpool had an injury crisis where Klopp basically admitted he could not play Taki because he already had too many short players on the field. While neither will challenge for Premier League Team of the Season, both are versatile players who can have an impact on Liverpool’s season, especially now that Elliott is out. With a good year, either could work themselves into the rotation.
Keita has had a lot of ink used on describing how great he can be if he could ever stay healthy. It is clear he brings a totally new dimension to Liverpool’s midfield. He also can look lost at times, like last season against Real Madrid. This summer Naby had a full training camp and he seems to have a clearly defined role coming into the season. I expect Naby to finally push on and show that he was worth the huge transfer fee Liverpool put out for him.
- Set Piece Dominance
I have written about Liverpool’s injuries last year greatly affecting their overall height, and even though you can be short and still be a great footballer, some things in the game are a lot easier if you are tall! One of those is set pieces – both defensively and offensively. Having Virgil, Joe, and Joel back, and adding Ibrahima Konate in the middle both brings a direct threat for Liverpool to score while also occupying defenders to free up other players. Through the Leeds game, LFC have already scored three goals from set-pieces (including the penalty against Chelsea that came after a corner). They have also shut down opponents on set pieces, with even the goal they gave up to Chelsea being much more of a fortuitous floating flick than a towering header. Advantages in the margins like set pieces is what leads to titles. (EDIT: Henderson scored Liverpool’s fourth goal from a set-piece in five games against AC Milan!)
- FIFA, UEFA, COMMEBOL, etc Will Continue to Make Greed the Most Transparent Thing In Football
Remember last spring during the Super League saga when FIFA and UEFA were outraged that the clubs’ greed would ruin competition and the “sanctity of the game”. At the time, I wrote an article about how FIFA and the local associations (UEFA, CONMEBOL, CAF, etc.) were the most corrupt and greedy organizations this side of the mafia. Since then, the clubs (other than financially desperate Real Madrid and Barcelona) acquiesced on the Super League, but FIFA and the other confederations have kept their foot on the gas when it comes to greed, hypocrisy, ineptitude, and sheer ridiculousness.
The silliness started when FIFA forced players to fly all across the globe during a worldwide pandemic for World Cup qualifiers as if everything was normal. They then doubled down on the greed when they said three qualifiers could be played in eight days. Their ineptitude was on full display, as they failed to secure agreements with the various governments around the world to let players travel to qualifiers outside of normal quarantine restrictions. These restrictions could have left countless teams across Europe without players for 15 days – missing domestic league, Champions League and Europa League games. FIFA and EUFA were so sanctimonious that football should “settled on the field” in a good “sporting manner” to protect the “sanctity of the game” just a few months ago, but were fine with the most important club games in Europe being played without many of football’s biggest stars.
The various organizations’ hubris came to a head in the dramatic and ridiculous scenes at Brazil vs Argentina when health officials and police stormed the field in the fifth minute and stopped the game. Things only got more ridiculous when FIFA chose this time to roll out their plan for a World Cup every two years. How do we “protect the sanctity of competition” when teams’ best players are required to play non-stop until their hamstrings snap and their knees explode? The lack of planning and organization of the first international break almost saw multiple Premier League missing key stars before cooler head prevailed. Could you imagine had the South American stars been forced to sit and then Liverpool or City dropped points?!
COVID-19 restrictions and protocols will not be going away any time soon. There are still multiple international breaks to come. Local confederations are still upset that the money spigot was turned off for almost a year by the pandemic. Everyone can expect FIFA and world football organizations to continue to bungle this and have football players and clubs being the ones who suffer as they prove the only “sanctity” they care about is protecting their intake of the almighty dollar/pound/peso/euro!
Now Back to Liverpool
- Liverpool Flexibility Will Lead to Formation Changes
In the heady days of August 2014, Liverpool fans were anxious about losing Luis Suarez but hopeful the team still had a bit of magic in its boots and could give us another exciting season. By December, Liverpool were out of the Champions League (Steven Gerrard was infamously “rested” at Real Madrid) and were in 11th place in the Premier League. After a 3-0 loss to Manchester United, the Reds went on a wild 13-game league unbeaten run on the back of Brendan Rodger’s switch to a 3-4-3 / 3-5-2 formation (with Emre Can at center back and Raheem Sterling at wingback – later cited as one of the reasons he wanted to leave). The unbeaten run and the back three proved to be a smoke and mirrors situation as Liverpool finished the season with two wins, two draws, and five losses.
The next season Rodgers went back to a back four, and shortly thereafter, Klopp came in and installed his 4-3-3. Since Klopp has been at Liverpool, the 4-3-3 has almost been constant. At times, he has flirted with 4-2-3-1 or even a surprise 4-4-2, but the team has always quickly reverted to the 4-3-3. This year’s squad has a unique blend of talent and ability (see the sections on the kids and the players with something to prove) which creates some flexibility. While I do not think we will see Klopp get so revolutionary as to try a back three, he now has the personnel to use other formations.
At times last year, the 4-3-3 looked a bit stale and predictable – I think Klopp foresaw this and planned to evolve a bit which is why Thiago, Minamino, and Jota were targeted in the transfer market even though Jota was the only one who clearly fit in a 4-3-3 model. Unfortunately, a worldwide pandemic and the injury crisis limited any flexibility last year. This season, we could see 4-2-3-1 more often – a formation Klopp used a lot at Dortmund. We also have a mix of midfielders that can play farther forward and are adept at pressing, so we could see a 4-4-2 that quickly shifts into a 4-2-4 or an attacking 4-4-2 diamond similar to the 2014 squad. I expect Liverpool to line up in a lot more variations than the standard 4-3-3.
- A Midfield Trio of Fab, Hendo, and Thiago Dominating Big Games
Even with that tactical flexibility, I am excited for a midfield three of Fabinho, Thiago, and Jordan Henderson. I mentioned timing being important and another person who was very unlucky last year was Thiago Alcantara. His first two forays into the side were with Van Dijk behind him and Fabinho and Henderson next to him and he looked amazing. By the time he recovered from his injury against Everton, he had a makeshift back four behind him and was trading time with Wijnaldum at the #6.
He finally found his footing the last ten games of the year as Liverpool made their charge up the table. He played next to Fabinho with two true center backs behind them in every game, and together they bossed the midfield. Putting Fabinho and Henderson around Thiago will allow him time to do what he does best; spray the ball around the pitch with incredible precision. The three of them together should be the first choice for big games once they shake off the rust from summer international duties, and I see them being the key to Liverpool winning their Champions League group.
- Our Rivals’ Weaknesses Will Haunt Them
Throughout this summer’s transfer season, especially in August, the media and many of our own fans wrote off our title chances because Liverpool held pat rather than making big moves in the transfer market. Everyone was sure the big money that United, City, and Chelsea splashed about would take them past Liverpool. However, each is still an unbalanced team with plenty of weaknesses.
City’s entire sterile, pass you to death, intricate, the style was perfect for last season without any fans in the stands. With crowds back in the stadiums and the much more physical nature that referees are allowing this season, City could find itself slogging through some battles. They may also find scoring difficult at times as they do not have a striker and penalties are markedly down. Finally, they are placing a lot of hope that Fernandinho keeps using his secret fountain of youth, as the 36-year-old is still their only steel in the middle.
United added Sancho, Ronaldo, and Verane, but still have a lightweight midfield. Their best hope is that surrounding Pogba with stars will make him play at his best much more consistently, but they are far from a complete team. Adding Ronaldo has created more dressing room intrigue for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to try to juggle. Chelsea look the most complete of Liverpool’s major rivals, but even before their red card against Liverpool, the Reds looked the better team on the field. Chelsea always seem to be poised for a locker room implosion, and with their plethora of big signings and wages, one has to wonder how long Thomas Tuchel can keep them all happy.
- The January Transfer Window will Make LFC Fans’ Lose Their Heads, but the Team Will Be Fine
Liverpool will go into January in the top three in the Premier League, in the semifinals of the Carabao Cup and in the knockout stages of the Champions League. They will also go into January with at least two key players injured (not including Harvey Elliott) as it is normal for players to get hurt throughout the season. Fans will declare a lack of signings would be LFC surrendering the season. Fans will spend countless hours on social media pointing out that Liverpool should sign EVERYONE! Klopp will not want anyone as he likes his small squad and does not like to add players without training camp (Virgil Van Dijk notwithstanding). FSG will not add anyone (other than maybe a promising 16-year-old from Shrewsbury or Wigan). Fans’ heads will literally explode. Liverpool will be fine.
- One Million Stories Linking Us to Kylian Mbappe Without Anything New in Any of Them
Websites need clicks and newspapers need to be sold. Nothing makes this easier than a headline of “NEW INFORMATION on Kylian Mbappe to Liverpool… forward exchanges text messages with Klopp”. This soap opera will not end until Mbappe is playing forward for Real Madrid. On the other hand, who knows, maybe he will sign with Liverpool next summer in some wild coup for the Reds. It is doubtful, but the stories are never going to stop, and each new story will be exactly the same as the last. (Cue the AmericanScouser.com story on why Kylian Mbappe could sign with Liverpool.
- Liverpool Will Have the League’s Best Defense, which will Help the Offense
Virgil is back and he looks good, but through four games, Joel Matip possibly looks even better! So far, Liverpool has tied for the best defensive record in the league while looking solid if a bit open at times. Matip and Van Dijk have partnered for every game thus far and are still brushing the rust off, but with Alisson behind them, they have shut down all comers (other than Chelsea’s fluke header). Their biggest contribution though is allowing the rest of the team to push further up the pitch to squeeze the life out of the opposition.
Solid center backs are the key to Liverpool’s transition-based tactics. When the pair can control the backline by themselves, the LFC press includes eight players and is devastating and the fullbacks can become almost permanent members of the attack. Van Dijk and Gomez are also very adept at progressive passes that bypass lines of the opposition transferring the ball quickly into attack. While Matip consistently finds himself carrying the ball up to the opponent’s 18-yard box. The return of elite center backs has not just solidified Liverpool’s defense, but it has also opened up the offense.
- Liverpool Will Collect Trophies – Emphasis On the S this Season
I think this is the season Klopp makes a concerted run at a domestic cup. He has a mostly healthy squad and some real depth to make a go. This team also has something to prove, as they won no trophies last season. I think Klopp unleashes the dogs and goes for the Carabao or FA Cup. I also still think Liverpool have the best first-team squad in England; maybe not the best second team, but only 11 guys are allowed to play at a time.
This squad has the leadership and the ability to win the league. It also has fans back in Anfield and the squad to win the Champions League. I do not think Liverpool will pull off a quadruple or even a treble, but this seems like a team with a real chip on its shoulder after last year. I think they win at least two trophies. I will say Liverpool win the FA Cup and the Premier League. To prove our more pessimistic fans right, I have a feeling our “horrible lack of depth” will catch up to us, resulting in “only” the domestic double. This will give those fans plenty of fodder to push for #FSGOUT! and the signing of Kylian Mbappe next summer!