Top four finish a minimum expectation for Liverpool

It has been a schizophrenic experience following Liverpool in their summer build up towards the new season.

Against AC Milan, and even more impressively in the meme-inducing victory over Barcelona for instance, there were moments when you could have taken to the internet to post a gif of a pleasantly surprised face.

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Yet against Chelsea and Roma – and under admittedly mitigating circumstances in Mainz – there were those ‘face in the hands’ periods when it felt like the failings of the past few seasons were still painfully evident.

The rider of course, must be that pre-season is hardly a guide to a Premier League programme. Yet there are always clues on offer for the course ahead, not least in terms of the relationship between manager and squad, and tactical direction.

So what can we expect from Jurgen Klopp’s men, given that last season he steered the side he inherited to a rather underwhelming eighth placed finish with a 60 point tally that was decidedly mid-table?

On the surface, that seemed little progress on the season before when the sacked Brendan Rodgers finished sixth during a season of turmoil. Yet the fact Klopp signed a new six-year contract extension only in July paints a rather different picture.

The achievement in taking Liverpool to a first Europa League final was impressive enough, even if the final game itself was another schizophrenic moment, but it was more the sense of unity and cohesion lifting the spirit of the squad that was perhaps the biggest achievement.

That again was evident during the pre-season tour of the United States, and says much about the management qualities of Klopp, given the seven new signings he has already added to his squad.

He’s also added pace and strength to a side that was sometimes exposed in those areas during the previous campaign, and perhaps most importantly of all, a hint of defensive solidity in the central areas, where it was most glaringly previously lacking.

He adopted a 4-3-3 system for much the summer testing period, which was a far more aggressive, attacking line up to the one he implemented when he first arrived. In essence, there will be five forwards and an emphasis on fleet-footed offence when they have the ball.

That suggests Klopp has a squad to at least compete for the top four place that the Reds’ American owners have always stated is the minimum requirement at the club – and will undoubtedly be the stated aim during this campaign.

Beyond that though, it is still not easy to make a case for a title challenge, given that Liverpool have their noses pressed against the cold glass ceiling of financial restriction, staring enviously in through that window as some of their rivals go on obscene spending sprees on the other side.

Klopp will most likely make a profit in this summer’s transfer market, despite spending £70m, while United and City, and to a slightly lesser extent Chelsea, collect talent like a football sticker book.

That means the Reds boss has been forced to gamble on unpredictable signings like Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum, and youthful gambles such as the so far impressive Marko Grujic, and (until he was injured) Loris Karius.

It will need all of the above to come off for Liverpool to be looking any higher than fourth, and yet if there is a message of hope for their fans, then it comes in their manager’s track record in building a team, rather than a collection of star names.

His success at Dortmund was based on team unity rather than individual quality, plucking relatively obscure signings out of the air, and offering them the environment to blossom. “If you bring one player in for £100m or whatever and he gets injured then it all goes through the chimney,” he said during the tour, and he certainly has a point.

But does he have a team to compete? Well, at Dortmund, he worked first on defensive organisation and stability. At Liverpool? New centre half signings in Klavan and Matip who look solid and composed? Check.

New goalkeeper (albeit currently with a broken hand) who can provide assurance to the defenders in front of him? Check. Greater fitness to more readily adopt the pressing style that will form part of his plan? Check.

Pace and strength up front? Check. Team spirit and togetherness? After Mamadou Sakho was sent home from the tour for upsetting that, a definite check – and an extra tick for the canny political instincts of manager who knows how to manage supporters as well as his team.

Goals? No immediate check on that one, and without a world class talent like Luis Suarez, it is not obvious where the inspiration in this area will come from, given Daniel Sturridge’s continuing training ground issues.

This season, one of United, City or Chelsea SHOULD win the league, and if any of them doesn’t, then real questions will be asked by their supporters, and no doubt their owners, of the manager who failed to deliver.

Liverpool most certainly SHOULDN’T win the league. They have spent less than £5m on two defenders, not £50m on one. They don’t have star names (Sturridge apart), and they still have a glaring weakness on the left of defence, given an injury to James Milner. Questions will only be asked if they finish outside the top four. And then only politely.

Yet with such a wily manager, and with a league programme without the draining midweek distraction of European football, there is always the outside chance they can at least worry the favourites, like a sheep dog lurking menacingly at the edge of the field.