A question regularly asked of football supporters to pick their team’s best XI. And Liverpool fans are no different. But there is probably more debate about the subject than there has been in some time on which members of the current squad would make up the best team available to manager Jurgen Klopp.
The first ports of call when making a selection are picking the players you couldn’t possibly leave out and which formation to put the selected eleven squad members into. Klopp tends to go with a 4-3-3 formation with intricacies based on which players have been picked to play which roles within that system. The terms ‘number 6’ and ‘false number 9’ have become oft-spoken by Liverpool fans since the German took the reigns from Brendan Rodgers just over two years ago, with the debate continuing to rage over whether club captain Jordan Henderson should play the pivotal deep-lying midfield role or if Germany international Emre Can is more suited to it. While many discount the notion of regularly playing the duo alongside eachother in the side, most have a view on which of them is the preferred candidate and opinion is divided. Then the question comes as to who plays alongside the ‘number 6’ occupant in the midfield three.
My personal view is that we don’t actually such a thing as a ‘best XI’ at present and it benefits Klopp to pick from the available players depending on the opposition and whether we are playing at home or away. Teams have developed a tendency to show up at Anfield with a game plan of sitting deep and trying to snatch a goal. It has worked well, to varying degrees, for the likes of Burnley, Manchester United, Crystal Palace and Southampton in particular since Klopp took the job. They have worked out that by cutting out the advantage of pace on the break from Liverpool, especially at Anfield, they have more of a chance of claiming a result. The notion appears to have passed Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger by, given the 4-0 hiding his wide open Arsenal side were handed earlier this season. But he doesn’t really have the players suited to sitting in deep with a siege mentality – but nor do we, given the 5-0 mauling we suffered at Manchester City after Sadio Mane was sent off in the first-half.
And so when looking at which players comprise the best side we have available to us you have to take into account who they’re going up against. It would make a lot of sense to play both Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana in the midfield three, provided each is available, in order to add maximum creativity from the centre of the park. The idea of playing them both in deeper roles came under Klopp’s watch and credit has to go to him, or whichever coach suggested it to him, for that. They’ve both been able to influence games more from the midfield and it’s been a benefit to the team. Having them in tandem has not been something we’ve seen enough of so far and the impending return to fitness of the England international could see the idea put into practice against his former side Southampton at the weekend. That game may come too soon, but it’s something to look forward to otherwise. The debate would again turn to which of Can or Henderson should sit in behind them to add a little defensive cover to the back four, who are likely to see the full-backs pushing on to add attacking weight against tightly-packed defences. We could have done with Lallana against Jose Mourinho’s parked bus a few weeks back when we failed to make the breakthrough in the second consecutive stalemate at Anfield. Coutinho was pushed forward to cover the damaging absence of Mane as well, so we had to deploy a midfield of Can, Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum. That trio is unlikely to strike fear into the heart of many defences.
When looking ahead of the midfield three, it is pretty clear which players should occupy the attacking slots in Klopp’s side. Nobody in their right mind would leave out either Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane from their side, whether it be at home against a dogged side intent on claiming a point or away from home against a more expansive outfit looking to beat us. Roberto Firmino is likely to be most fans’ picks when it comes to select the central attacker and that marries up with the manager’s view too. He has a few options in reserve with Daniel Sturridge getting the occasional game, Danny Ings returning to fitness and former Chelsea youngster Dominic Solanke emerging after his arrival in the Summer. But none of those provide the pressing or link-up play that the Brazil international offers. Klopp loves him and so do most of the fans, but many would question his goal return so far this season. He took on the number 9 shirt at the end of last season after Salah arrived seeking his number 11. And while he isn’t a genuine striker, wearing that shirt carries a huge amount of history with it thanks to Ian Rush, Robbie Fowler, Fernando Torres and, ahem, El-Hadji Diouf previously occupying it. Firmino has so far scored just three times in the Premier League, one of those being a penalty, and has laid on two assists for his team-mates. While Salah is in such hot scoring form that return can be carried from the main forward, but if the Egyptian slows down in terms of finding the net, Firmino will need to become more prolific. He has managed to notch three goals in four games in the Champions League, but two of those were in the 7-0 rout of Maribor. He also missed a penalty against Sevilla in the 2-2 draw at Anfield and had he scored it would have been a big boost to hopes of winning that game. On the other hand, he did open the scoring that night. But the attack is the least of the problems Klopp has when selecting his team.
The debate over which goalkeeper should be number one has intensified this season. Simon Mignolet is the first-choice stopper when it comes to the Premier League, despite being dropped for the 4-0 win over Arsenal. Loris Karius had very little to do in that game, but he was a lot busier against Sevilla and Spartak Moscow in the Champions League. He could possibly have done better for the Spanish side’s second goal that night, but he absolutely should have saved Fernando’s free-kick for the Russian side that opened the scoring on the night. The situation has only been complicated by the return of Wales international Danny Ward from a series of loan moves away from Anfield. A growing number of fans are calling for him to be given the chance to show what he can do after impressing for Aberdeen and Huddersfield Town, in particular. He was handed the gloves for the trip to face Leicester City in the League Cup back in September and cannot be held accountable for the 2-0 loss. Many feel that he deserves to be given a run in the more senior competitions following the series of errors from Mignolet and Karius. I am one of those who would like Klopp to afford the twenty-four year old a chance.
Who Klopp picks in the back four has been the subject most debated by Liverpool fans since he arrived just over two years ago. The faith shown in Dejan Lovren has baffled many, with the decision to hand him a six-figure weekly wage and contract extension questioned repeatedly. The Croatian international has let the team down time after time with defensive clangers and at twenty-eight years of age is unlikely to turn around four years of form and become the consistent centre-back we so badly need. He can take inspiration from another much-maligned defender proving that it is possible to win over fans, and a manager in his case, who’d written him off. Alberto Moreno has reclaimed a spot in the side after nobody would stump up the relatively modest £15m transfer fee placed on him at the end of last season. Interest came from Napoli and Swansea City, but neither would offer the full asking asking price and may well be regretting it now. Lovren following suit and winning over dissenters is asking too much, however. The emergence of Joe Gomez as an England international capable of marking Neymar out of the game this week will give many more ammunition as they call for him to be selected ahead of Lovren and Ragnar Klavan alongside Joel Matip at the heart of the defence. Klopp needs to either find a formula that works with the defenders he has available, if indeed there is one, or he will have to finally spend more than loose change on defenders next year. Had the pursuit of Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk not been handled so badly he could be in the side now – and he would make into every fan’s best XI.
This is where I would offer a conclusive summary and show you my personal ‘best XI’, but I don’t think we necessarily have one and would decide who’s playing based on the opposition. And that’s a good position to be in, because we have seen in the past how disappointing results can be when we have a side that picks itself rather than options.