Sunday, August 14, 2022

Liverpool Premier League 2022-23 season preview, bold predictions: Jurgen Klopp’s five most intriguing players

One of the greatest teams English football has seen in recent years — perhaps in much longer — return for what will be the fifth season of their recent battle for supremacy. In reality there is only one truly unanswered question about this Liverpool team going into the 2022-23 season: will they be slightly superior or inferior to Manchester City this time around?

For the most part this squad is a known quantity. We know that Virgil van Dijk will be one of the best defenders in the world, that Mohamed Salah will score goals by the truckload and that Thiago will light up the internet with his impudent passes. But there are a few other players with some intrigue surrounding them. Here’s five of them.

1. Caoimhin Kelleher

The sample size is petite and the quality of opposition variable, but what is clear from Kelleher’s 17 appearances in the Liverpool first team, eight of which have ended in clean sheets for him, is that there is an intriguing prospect for Klopp to work with this season and perhaps not that much further beyond. Not for nothing did his manager describe the Irish international as “the best number two [goalkeeper] in the world” after his shootout heroics in the EFL Cup final win over Chelsea. Naturally a player of that quality will only be prepared to back up Alisson for so long.

Klopp’s label certainly seemed a little over the top — Paris Saint-Germain have Keylor Navas on their bench after all — but he may not be that far from the summit in his particular role. Certainly his statistics paint a favorable picture; according to Wyscout he concedes 0.16 expected goals (xG) fewer per 90 minutes than an average goalkeeper might be expected to. If he were delivering those numbers in the Premier League (and of course he probably would not because of the small sample size and occasionally inferior opposition) he would be one of the competition’s better keepers.

He is ultra reliable with the ball at his feet, Wyscout tracking data says that in Premier League and cup games for Liverpool he has attempted 363 short passes. He has completed 362 of them. Indeed his record was exemplary until the 81st minute of his 17th senior game for the Reds, when a smart clearing header was picked off by a Chelsea boot just ahead of a Liverpool one. It was the only misstep he made in that entire game.

Kelleher’s form so far in a Liverpool shirt and the glowing reports of those who work with him demand more game time — is there any realistic way for Klopp to give him that when he has Alisson, one of the world’s finest goalkeepers, at his disposal? Could a favorable Champions League draw open up some early season opportunities for the 23 year old? It would be a shame not to see more of such an intriguing young prospect. Maybe just give Alisson a few games up top Jurgen.

2. Joe Gomez

Much like Kelleher, one might assume that Gomez is in a position where he could not realistically be prepared to settle for the role he currently has. At 25 years of age he is simply too good for another season like last, where he was the fourth choice center back and second or third on the right back depth chart. After all only in Liverpool’s title winning season it was the Gomez and Van Dijk show, those two seemingly destined to be the cornerstones of the Anfield backline for years to come. Here was the prototypical modern defender: swift along the deck, a shrewd reader of the game when the opposition were attacking and a player with an eye for a pass with the ball at his feet.

Then came the knee injury on England duty and the lost season for Liverpool that may prove to be the turning point in Gomez’s time at the club. One might be able to make a case that Liverpool’s rearguard looks as set for the future now as it did then but instead it is Ibrahima Konate who looks destined to partner Van Dijk. The France international was eased into his first season in England but by the end of the campaign looked like the next great Premier League center back.

Gomez will understand better than anyone else how quickly circumstances could change but with those two and Joel Matip ahead of him in the pecking order at his best spot it, was curious to see him signing a new contract at the start of the month, tying him to the club until 2027. All the more so when he had been linked to Aston Villa this summer, where he would surely have been a nailed on starter, and clubs as high profile as Real Madrid in the past. If ever there were a time to move it was this summer. This is a player who Van Dijk described as “[one of] if not the best English center back around.” Gareth Southgate also thinks extremely highly of Gomez, but it is unlikely that he will take a player to Qatar if he is not playing regularly for his club, no matter how good they are.

Last season suggested there will not ultimately be enough minutes to go around and that Gomez, who logged only 327 minutes of Premier League football last season and has not started a match in the competition at center back since November 2020, will be squeezed out. Though that is hardly the worst news for Liverpool, it could be a cause for real regret around the rest of England.

3. Harvey Elliott

If there has been a reason for disquiet among Liverpool supporters over their transfer business in Julian Ward’s first window as sporting director it has been the decision not to recruit an additional midfielder. Having been beaten to the punch by Real Madrid for Aurelien Tchouameni, the powder has been kept dry at Anfield in much the same fashion it was when Van Dijk could not be pried away from Southampton. Better to wait for the right player — perhaps Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham? — than rush to add another body to Klopp’s squad.

That is easy enough to understand, there is no sense in tinkering with such a reliable engine room for the sake of it. Liverpool’s facilitative midfield has been the not so secret sauce of their success for years now, the ideal compliment to the tactical curiosities of Klopp’s volume creators at full backs and all action front three. In 2021-22 Thiago weaved a spell on the Premier League and Europe, Jordan Henderson flexed his creative muscles after being freed from whatever gaps needed plugging in defense whilst Fabinho radiated authority at the base of midfield. If Naby Keita is fit one could argue that the Reds’ midfield has everything it needs.

What about something, though, that is just nice to have, like a serious scoring threat from central areas? In the last five seasons no Liverpool midfielder (unless you incorrectly put Philippe Coutinho in that category) has scored more than four non-penalty goals in a season. No one other than Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has averaged more than two shots per 90 minutes in a season where they have played 900 or more minutes. If you remove the efforts from outside the box that he specialized in no one even reaches one shot per 90.

Elliott does not meet the minutes criteria, but in the limited appearances he made in an injury-addled campaign he certainly brought the promise of something different. Here was a player who would drive into the penalty area from deep positions and find his way to a lot of shots. He has the instincts of a forward, the moment the pass goes in to Jota in his impressive display against Southampton in May, he is driving on in anticipation of the pass from Roberto Firmino.

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Elliott runs beyond the Southampton defense into a shooting position Wyscout/Sky Sports

The 19 year old could well be a beneficiary of the gravitational force of Liverpool’s front five, especially whilst he is still something of an unknown for Premier League defenses. Leeds’ defending below is particularly egregious but Elliot is not afraid to exploit it. With the likes of Salah and Sadio Mane around him he is screaming for the ball to come his way.

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With Leeds defenders focused on the starry names, the space is available for Elliott to attack Wyscout/Sky Sports

With no new midfielder coming in this summer the minutes could well be there for Elliott, a regular early in the 2021-22 season before dislocating his ankle (though Curtis Jones might have something to say about that). Certainly you can see a persuasive logic for having a more front-footed, shot taking, late arriving midfielder in the games where they are trying to overwhelm a massed defense. As if Liverpool, scorers of 147 goals in all competitions last season, did not have enough goal-scoring weapons…

4. Diogo Jota

Twenty-one of those goals came from the boot of Jota last season, which initially looked to be the year where he finally broke up Klopp’s great front three, and yet it is fair to question where exactly the Portuguese international stands in the pecking order going into 2022-23. The Salah-Mane-Firmino trident has been snapped apart but there is no guarantee that Jota will be one of those who makes up the next trio.

Prior to late January Liverpool seemed to have adapted their system to allow Jota play as the archetypal poacher that few had assumed Klopp would want to play with. Though he still brought all the pressing and work rate off the ball that is demanded in the Reds’ system, he was less passer and link man, more close range finisher. Up to February 1 no player averaged more non-headed shots within the six yard box than Jota.

It was working but Klopp seemed to conclude his side could do better with new signing Luis Diaz going swiftly into the strongest XI and Mane going through the middle. The latter might be gone, but it is reasonable to assume that having paid a club record €75million on Darwin Núñez, they intend to use him from the off more often than not. Certainly it does not help Jota’s cause that he enters the new season battling the hamstring injury he picked up at the back end of last.

This is hardly a crisis for Jota. The fourth choice Liverpool forward is certain to get plenty of opportunities if he and his teammates can replicate last season’s feat of playing in every match available to them. Indeed it might even be that a first reserve role suits the 25 year old; imagine the sense of sheer hopelessness that will wash over any defense that might just be holding out against Liverpool when they see one of the Premier League’s most instinctive finishers entering the field, ready to pounce on any tired minds and bodies. It says everything about the progress being made at Anfield that a player can prove to be an unqualified hit in two seasons after making a £41m transfer and still be far from a guaranteed starter.

5. Darwin Núñez

As for the new man, he represents perhaps the most fascinating addition to the Premier League this season. The other big money striker feels like as sure a thing as there could be, Erling Haaland the product of the brightest minds in science and the arts coming together to forge the bane of English defenses. With Núñez, there are more grey areas.

For one thing, the body of work is simply a lot smaller. Prior to last season’s run of 34 goals in 41 games, the only major scoring season the 23 year old had had came in the Spanish second tier with Almeria. Núñez’s scoring returns in the Primeira Liga were spectacular but one has to expect a sizeable drop off now that he is playing in arguably Europe’s most competitive league.

Núñez was on the most scalding of hot streaks last season. According to Wyscout he averaged 0.99 goals per 90, but his xG was just 0.59. Even for the very, very best such an overperformance is not sustainable. Nor is it to be taken for granted that his xG number will remain that high in the Premier League. If he is going to do it anywhere, it is at Anfield, where the only three players to average 0.59 or more non-penalty xG resided last season. By then, though, Jota, Mane and Salah were all seasoned practitioners in the league.

You can find more evidence of that rich scoring streak in the Champions League, where Núñez devastated Barcelona and Liverpool on his way to six goals and a share of sixth on the competition’s scoring charts. Once more though the goals are way out in front of the non-penalty xG of 0.34 per 90, slightly less than Inter Milan center back Milan Skriniar. Have Liverpool paid big money for a player whose hot hand will inevitably cool?

Set against those concerns is the fact that Núñez has proven himself to be a taker of very good shots when he does get in scoring positions — his per shot xG in the Primeira Liga last season was an impressive 0.18 — and that like Haaland he has the physical characteristics to suit any league. Had the Uruguayan not suffered multiple knee injuries earlier in his career, which he would appear to have overcome in recent years, he might have been able to put together a more sizeable resume of goals.

But perhaps the most fundamental point of all in Núñez’s favor is the identity of the team that bought him. No club is without its errors in the transfer market but when Liverpool spend big — Alisson, Van Dijk, Mane to name but a few — they tend to hit big too. The data may pose some interesting questions but when you have the hit rate that the serial winners at Anfield do, you’re allowed a trust-me-transfer or two.

Bold predictions

  • Premier League finish: 2nd
  • Top scorer: Mohamed Salah
  • Player of the season: Thiago
  • Something unexpected: Injuries will give Joe Gomez a surprise run in the team, one that will reestablish him as a regular starter 

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