Selecting the Starting XI for Liverpool for Opening Day of Season vs. Watford
For Liverpool, every new season begins their own version of Great Expectations. This is the year, right? The time for growth and development on the field and, potentially, that elusive 19th league title.
The wonderful thing about opening weekend is that feeling of hope. Pointless pre-season friendlies are done and dusted—the phoney war is over and battle will finally recommence.
But who will be lining up for the Reds on the Premier League's opening weekend in August, when they travel to Watford.
Jurgen Klopp worked wonders with his first-team squad in the last campaign, steering them to fourth place to secure a return to the UEFA Champions League, but he now plans to strengthen.
Liverpool could be set for a busy summer judging by the number of players rumoured to be joining. Looking into our crystal ball, Bleacher Report has attempted to pick Klopp's starting XI (playing in a 4-3-3 system).
Goalkeeper: Simon Mignolet
When Loris Karius took over between the posts for Liverpool last September, Simon Mignolet's long-term future at Anfield appeared unclear.
As if facing competition from within the squad wasn't enough of a challenge, the Belgian cannot have failed to notice the numerous media stories linking the club with alternative goalkeepers.
However, by the time the Reds kick off their 2017/18 campaign, the 29-year-old will surely be Klopp's first-choice option between the sticks.
After Karius failed to grasp his opportunity, Mignolet seized his. Showing renewed confidence in dealing with crosses while pulling off some eye-catching saves at crucial times in contests, he finished the season with four successive clean sheets to help secure fourth place.
"Wherever this more trustworthy, less fragile goalkeeper has come from, anyone still suggesting Liverpool need a new No. 1 this summer has not been paying attention," Chris Bascombe wrote in The Telegraph.
Right-Back: Nathaniel Clyne
Strong and stable. Those were the buzzwords of Theresa May, the prime minister, during the recent general election in the United Kingdom, and they sum up Nathaniel Clyne's performances over the course of the 2016/17 season.
Yet while solid defensively, the England international needs to offer more in attack. He provided just two assists in Liverpool's Premier League campaign, although that statistic is dependent on his team-mates putting the ball in the net.
Still, Clyne sends in crosses more in hope than expectation. Just like an absent-minded postman, he should be delivering more on a regular basis.
Trent Alexander-Arnold showed on his league debut away at Manchester United that he has both the talent and temperament to prosper. For now, though, Clyne should still be Klopp's first choice.
However, the emergence of a rival for the position from within the ranks is good news for the Reds, according to James Pearce of the Liverpool Echo: "Alexander-Arnold is coming up on the rails, and Clyne should be feeling the competition."
Centre-Back: Joel Matip
Joel Matip proved to be an excellent addition. Signed on a free transfer, the former Schalke player settled in quickly to life in the Premier League and, at 25, his best years should still be ahead of him.
Tall and comfortable when in possession, Matip started life at Liverpool on the bench before making his league debut in the 1-1 draw at Tottenham Hotspur last August.
He quickly established himself as the best available option at the heart of the defence, only losing his place in the XI in December due to an ankle ligament injury.
"If you defend deep then you have a lot of legs and help around, that's how it is," Klopp said after the home loss to Crystal Palace in April, per Bascombe in The Telegraph. "A centre-half for a top team is playing with a lot of space at the back."
Matip looks the most comfortable of all Liverpool's centre-backs in coping with the challenges Klopp talked about. While a new defender may be on the shopping list, the Cameroonian's place looks safe.
Centre-Back: Stefan de Vrij
At one stage, Virgil van Dijk looked certain to become a Liverpool player. As reported by a number of news outlets, including Andy Hunter of The Guardian, the Dutchman had told the Reds he wanted to join them.
However, the landscape of the deal completely changed in a hurry.
Per Adam Leitch of the Southern Daily Echo, the Saints asked the Premier League to investigate a potential illegal approach. With tail placed firmly between their legs, Liverpool released an official statement apologising to "the owner, board of directors and fans of Southampton."
They also announced the end of their interest in the player, leaving Klopp to focus on alternative centre-back options to compete with the error-prone Dejan Lovren.
So, if you are unsuccessful in your attempts to sign one Dutch defender, why not try another? According to Sky Italia (h/t The Telegraph), Liverpool have already had a £17 million offer for Stefan de Vrij knocked back.
The 25-year-old only has one year left on his contract with Lazio though, meaning he could leave for nothing next summer.
A deal for De Vrij can definitely be done...provided Klopp doesn't start sending him sneaky text messages.
Left-Back: James Milner
How do Liverpool solve a problem like left-back?
Klopp's answer was to switch a midfielder into the problematic position. James Milner did such a solid job in the new role that he remained there all season, keeping genuine full-back Alberto Moreno out of the team.
Journalist Sachin Nakrani suggested the name of Benjamin Mendy to Bleacher Report in a recent feature focusing on Liverpool's potential transfer targets this summer.
More names will no doubt be linked in the coming weeks. Yet until Klopp reveals his hand over the identity of the chosen candidate, Milner remains the red-hot favourite to fill the role at Watford.
Holding Midfielder: Jordan Henderson
If fully healthy, Jordan Henderson will surely lead Liverpool out for the start of the 2017/18 season at Vicarage Road.
The midfielder missed Liverpool's final 13 games due to a foot injury, per Transfermarkt. While his team-mates fought hard to make the top four, a frustrated Henderson had to watch on from the sidelines.
Now the 26-year-old is trying to get back to full fitness.
He posted a video of a workout on his Instagram account at the end of May, although it is still unclear when exactly he will be ready to play again.
Should he be ready to go for the opener, Henderson could slot straight back into the deep-lying midfield role that he made his own before his injury setback in February. Expect him to take back the captain's armband, too.
Central Midfielder: Philippe Coutinho
Wherever he lines up on the pitch, Philippe Coutinho will be a key component of Klopp's Liverpool team.
The Brazilian played on the left of a front three for much of the 2016/17 season before giving a potential glimpse into his future position in the final two Premier League games.
"That would make us stronger for sure, having his creativity in the middle of the park. He would have to adapt to that. He is young, full of talent and I'm pretty sure he thinks he is in the right place," Klopp said, per Kristian Walsh of the Liverpool Echo.
"O Magico" needs to be able to get on the ball as much as possible. While defensively it might be risky against top-four rivals, Coutinho in the centre makes Liverpool a more dangerous prospect to deal with.
Attacking Midfielder: Adam Lallana
Adam Lallana is the willing runner who offers a touch of class. Two-footed and able to play in tight spaces, he has become pivotal for Liverpool under Klopp.
Having watched the player's development through the ranks, Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier believes the former Saint has hit new heights since the German took charge on Merseyside.
"He's been prepared to go back and help his midfielders or track runs. And that is in addition to the work he is paid to do up front—create and score. I genuinely think we are now seeing the best of Adam Lallana in terms of his ability, understanding of the game and his energy levels. His time is now," Le Tissier told Neil Moxley of The Mirror.
Lallana is picked here as the attacking midfielder, yet he could easily play in a fluid midfield that sees him constantly interchanging with Coutinho.
Leaving out Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum deprives the XI of a more physical presence in front of Henderson. If the Reds instead go with a diamond midfield, one of the duo will come in for a winger.
Right Wing: Sadio Mane
After being named player and players' player of the year at Liverpool's end-of-season awards, Sadio Mane offered a positive update over his comeback from a serious knee injury.
"I am getting better and I want to thank all of the physios for doing a great job—not just with me, they’re always doing a great job," he told the club's website.
Mane needed an operation to repair the damage he suffered in the Merseyside derby win over Everton at Anfield on April 1, although the signs are he will be ready to return in pre-season.
The Senegal forward was a revelation in his first year at Anfield, scoring 13 goals and providing six assists from the right wing.
Such was his impact following his arrival from Southampton, the Reds never quite looked the same without him. At least there isn't another African Cup of Nations tournament until 2019.
Centre Forward: Roberto Firmino
Will Roberto Firmino still be Liverpool's leading frontman by the end of the summer?
The adaptable Brazilian played a starring role as Klopp's first-choice centre forward last season, scoring 12 goals and providing 11 assists in all competitions.
Still, the club are reportedly interested in Monaco's Kylian Mbappe. According to Dominic King of the Daily Mail, manager Klopp has made contact with the teenage forward's agents, although the words "Klopp" and "contact" should trigger alarm bells following the Van Dijk disaster.
A move for Mbappe feels ambitious to say the least, although Neil Fissler of the Sunday Express also linked Liverpool with another Frenchman in Lyon's Alexandre Lacazette.
No smoke without fire, right? Considering Liverpool have Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge, as well as new signing Dominic Solanke from Chelsea, Klopp already has a plethora of forward options to choose from.
But until a big name is signed, sealed and delivered to Anfield prior to opening weekend of the season, Firmino remains the strongest option to start up top in a 4-3-3 system.
Left Wing: Mohamed Salah
The Reds are exploring other options in their pursuit of a pacy winger to potentially line up on the opposite flank to the speedy Mane. According to Sky Sports, the club have spoken to Sporting CP about Gelson Martins.
That doesn't mean the Salah deal is dead in the water, though.
Jack Austin of The Independent reported how the Egyptian's current club are willing to sell at the right price to comply with FIFA financial fair play regulations. It feels like the Serie A club are playing hardball...for now.
So, what will Liverpool be getting in Salah? Well, a player who struggled for minutes while at Chelsea but has since built quite a reputation in Italy, first with Fiorentina before then moving on to Roma.
If Klopp opts for two up top at Watford instead, Salah—who, according to Sky in Italy (h/t Kaveh Solhekol of Sky Sports) has told his current club he wants to join the Reds—would be the forward to drop out.
All statistics used in the feature are from Transfermarkt.co.uk.