Will Liverpool Finally Take the Next Step, and How Do They Grow from Here?

Dean Jones@DeanJonesBRFootball Insider at Bleacher ReportMarch 15, 2019

MUNICH, GERMANY - MARCH 13: Virgil van Dijk of Liverpool celebrates scoring his sides second goal with teammate Roberto Firmino during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg match between FC Bayern Muenchen and Liverpool at Allianz Arena on March 13, 2019 in Munich, Bavaria. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)
Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

We have reached a moment when Liverpool fans could be forgiven for wanting to freeze time.

The Reds are second in the Premier League, one point behind Manchester City, and chasing the title. They are also Champions League quarter-finalists, drawn to face FC Porto in the last eight and looking to make up for the pain of last year's final loss in Kiev, Ukraine.

Everything is still possible for Jurgen Klopp and his exciting crop of players. Every game has the feel of a cup final—so much is on the line.

Yet Liverpool supporters don't want to freeze time; they want to push boundaries and discover what this team is capable of. 

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A first Premier League title is within reach, and so too is Europe's top trophy. So can they do it? Or have we already seen the best this side have to offer?

Ahead of last season's European final with Real Madrid, we looked at the masterplan to win the 2018-19 Premier League.

So much of that blueprint has fallen into place, with Klopp's beliefs and vision absorbed by players and used as fuel to fulfil their hopes and dreams.

Now it's about the next step—the one that would set them apart from every other Liverpool team of the past 26 years.

Liverpool's German coach Jurgen Klopp (R) and Liverpool's Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson celebrate at the final whistle during the UEFA Champions League, last 16, second leg football match Bayern Munich v Liverpool in Munich, southern Germany, on March 13,
ODD ANDERSEN/Getty Images

Liverpool Echo journalist Paul Gorst was one of the experts who spoke to Bleacher Report in the buildup to the Reds' 2018 Champions League final, and as we speak again, he reflects on the Real Madrid defeat as one of the catalysts for improving them this season.

"There's no doubt that Loris Karius' Kiev meltdown emboldened Klopp to go and spend big on a goalkeeper in the shape of Alisson Becker," he said. "It had appeared as though Real Madrid were the front-runners at one point, but as soon as Liverpool were given an indication Brazil's No. 1 would be open to an Anfield move, they made him the most expensive goalkeeper in world football.

"His performances have backed up that (albeit brief) tag, too. Without him, they would have been knocked out against Napoli at home. With him and Virgil Van Dijk, they appear so much more settled and composed at the back. They no longer try to win games with an electric 15-minute period that blows teams away."

One of Liverpool's objectives was to dominate matches, and that is exactly what has happened. They average 60.3 per cent possession in their Premier League matches and have put it to good use.

They have also made a league-high 410 through passes and have the second highest expected goals value (behind Manchester City), according to Wyscout

Klopp has come so far with Liverpool's development, but now he needs to maintain the progress to keep pace with Pep Guardiola's team.  

The big test for Liverpool as they push for the domestic title is going to rest on his shoulders. Last season, during the Champions League knockout phase, the Reds dropped 10 points. Anfield insiders say that Klopp has said privately he must balance his team selections perfectly, and he is not looking at Porto as an easy option to play fringe players.

There is better depth this year, so that will help. Yet whether Liverpool do or do not claim silverware, planning must already begin on next season's aims. 

The club have worked well to tie down all their big names to long contracts, and one key aspect of this side is the lack of ego or individualism.

Yet that team ethic is why insiders believe they are going to be cautious about spending big money in the next transfer window.

One source told B/R: "On one hand there is a realisation that you have to keep adding pieces, keep improving every position. But on the other hand, every new face that arrives brings the risk of upsetting one of the current players."

The club's message right now is that we should not expect any major signings—but that could change.

Every round of Champions League progress this season brings in prize money, and there is every likelihood that Klopp will literally earn the right to make at least one significant addition.

A left-back to back-up Andy Robertson is one area of concern, with Alberto Moreno set to leave. A central striker is another, while a left-sided forward is also considered a potential area that needs strengthening.

Two names stand out as targets: Ajax defender Matthijs de Ligt as a new partner for Van Dijk, and Timo Werner from RB Leipzig as a different option in their attack.

The club have put together detailed analysis on both players, although Barcelona are in the driving seat for De Ligt. 

Werner is an interesting option. According to insiders, Leipzig have become agitated by confidence from Bayern Munich that the player is going to sign for them at the end of the season.

As such, there is a growing feeling they would prefer to sell him to anyone but their Bundesliga rivals, so Liverpool would have a chance.

Nicolas Pepe, a speedy forward from Lille, has been discussed, too, though there is a fear he could become quickly frustrated if he is not getting the game time he would like.

"Liverpool's summer targets is something of a closed book at the moment," says Gorst. "Timo Werner is a name who continues to be strongly linked, but it remains to be seen if the reported interest is genuine. There's no doubt they will need a striker or two, though. Daniel Sturridge is expected to leave, and Divock Origi has doubts surrounding his future.

"Liverpool have a team capable of matching any other XI in world football on their day, but scratching beneath the surface exposes a lack of depth. Whereas City can afford to bring on the likes of Riyad Mahrez and Gabriel Jesus, Liverpool are a bit short in certain areas. Lack of quality cover at left-back remains an issue and creativity from midfield has been a regular complaint. 

"Whether Klopp would admit it or not, Philippe Coutinho—or shall we say Nabil Fekir?—is yet to be replaced. It sounds churlish to say given Liverpool are still in with a genuine shot of winning both the Premier League and Champions League, but a No. 10 is needed."

So, what about the potential of a Coutinho comeback? He's not found his feet at Barcelona since a £142 million move.

Rafael Hernandez of Barcelona fansite Grup 14 believes the option of a Coutinho return is possible.

"Coutinho has been a massive letdown because he arrived to be a new saviour and he was never really anything of the sort," he told B/R. "Same for the Iniesta successor talk, that never made any sense given how different they are as players. 

"Walking and playing with his head down, like he doesn't want to be there, a carbon copy of his final months at Liverpool, and making comments like after the Lyon match that you never know about the future—not the first time he's done it this season. It's clear his head is elsewhere already unless he steps up for the next month as Ousmane Dembele is out.

"I think it's possible he returns to Liverpool with his head down, admitting his mistakes in a redemption story much like Mario Gotze and Leonardo Bonucci did recently, especially because Barca haven't paid the full transfer fee to the English club yet."

Word around Anfield has been that Klopp was not devastated to sell Coutinho—but if the chance to re-sign him did arise, he would surely be tempted at the right price.

Liverpool have to manage this big moment in time carefully. They are on the brink of something special, but a failure to win a trophy and then misfiring in the summer transfer market could bring a halt to this incredible momentum.

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