Thiago's role, a new striker and a Wijnaldum replacement - How Liverpool can close the gap on Man City next season

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Farewell then, 2020-21.

You were unique, for sure. Horrible at times, in fact. Hard to predict, and definitely hard to enjoy. A slog of a season, which tested hearts, tested hamstrings and tested patience. 

A campaign to forget, for the most part.

For Liverpool, at least, it ends on a high. Champions League qualification is theirs, a silver lining to what has been a gloomy few months for the deposed champions.  

They prayed for fourth and finished third, as it turned out. They did their job on the final day while Chelsea and Leicester failed to do theirs. They finish the season on a 10-game unbeaten run in the league; eight wins and two draws, top-of-the-table form when it was needed most.

Jurgen Klopp’s side looked dead and buried just a few weeks back. They were eighth in the table in mid-March, as far as 10 points behind Leicester and playing like a team that had forgotten how to win. Like a team that had forgotten everything, to be perfectly honest.

Between December 19 and March 15, they played 14 Premier League games and won only three. Somehow, having been unbeaten at Anfield in the league for nearly four years, they managed to lose there six times in a row. Even Everton, who hadn’t won there since 1999, turned up and enjoyed themselves.

That they managed to pick things up from there, that they were able to salvage something from the wreckage, reflects incredibly well on this group of players, and on Klopp.

They were battered and bruised, and deservedly questioned as a bright start unravelled during the winter, but they proved a thing or two during those final weeks of the season. Don’t doubt their mentality or their hunger. The fire still burns bright.

Virgil van Dijk Liverpool GFX

“Next year we’re coming back for trophies,” tweeted Trent Alexander-Arnold on Sunday evening, and you can believe him. They might have been smiling this weekend, but after waiting 30 years for a league title, it will have hurt to have had to hand it back so soon. Pep Guardiola and Manchester City should be wary of the wounded red beast.

Klopp says Liverpool will emerge stronger after their struggles this season. “In the harder moments you can learn the most, and you can show the most,” he said. “It’s the best lesson you can learn from life.”

His side finished 18 points clear of City last season, when they won 32 of their 38 league matches, but they ended 17 adrift this time around. They’ve done it before, but to chase down Guardiola’s team again will be some task.

Here’s how they can do it…

Sign a forward

While there is no question that it was a defensive crisis which truly undermined Liverpool’s title defence this season, their struggles at the other end of the field cannot be ignored. 

Indeed it was those, as much as anything else, which stood out when things started to go badly wrong in January and February.

They finished the season with 13 goals from five games, but memories of those blanks against Newcastle and Southampton, Brighton and Burnley, Fulham and Chelsea and Manchester United will linger. It was painful to watch.

Klopp may argue that form is temporary and class is permanent, and it was certainly nice to see Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane contributing during those crucial final weeks, but there are legitimate concerns about how much longer the Reds’ trusted front three can go on. 

They actually only finished with one goal fewer than they managed last season - 56 compared with 57 - but this was their fourth season together. Not many forward lines stay together so long, and there were times this season when Liverpool looked better with Diogo Jota providing something new, something fresh.

Jota, who finished the season with 13 goals despite missing nearly three months with a knee injury, has been a fine signing, and should get even better next season, but if Liverpool really want to worry City, they need another addition to their striking stable in the summer.

Firmino needs competition, a No.9 who can rotate with, and eventually replace, the Brazilian. 

Who that could be, well that’s another matter. Don’t expect Erling Haaland or Harry Kane or Kylian Mbappe, but the Reds should have the means to bring in someone, especially if, as expected, the likes of Divock Origi, Harry Wilson and perhaps Xherdan Shaqiri are sold. 

Get that right, as they did with Jota last summer, and they’ll have taken a huge step forward.

Replace Gini

Anfield said goodbye to one of its modern greats on Sunday as, after five years and 237 appearances, Gini Wijnaldum bid farewell.

The Dutchman will depart on a free transfer when his contract expires next month - though it was interesting to hear him say afterwards that he had hoped to stay at the club for “many more years” - and he will take some replacing, both in terms of quality and character.

No player made more appearances for the Reds this season than Wijnaldum (he and Mohamed Salah both finished on 51 in all competitions). No player, with the possible exception of James Milner, has played in more positions under Klopp.

Wijnaldum wore No.5 for Liverpool, but he played as a No.6, a No.8 and a No.10 in midfield, as a No.9 in Camp Nou and on the left of a back three at Brighton. Rarely did his level drop, and those big goals will never be forgotten.

Liverpool have high hopes for Curtis Jones, who has established himself this season, but one doubts whether Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will ever become integral figures now. A new midfielder is needed, be it Brighton’s Yves Bissouma or someone else.

Whoever it is, they’ll have big boots to fill.

Diogo Jota Liverpool GFX

Ride the Thiago wave

Thiago Alcantara could be forgiven for wishing the season would go on a few weeks longer.

Belatedly, the Spaniard’s Liverpool career has started to take off. He has finished the campaign in superb form, running the show in the Reds midfield, just like he had done previously at Bayern Munich.

He’s some footballer. Silky to watch, able to play passes others can’t even see and willing to take responsibility for setting the tempo of his team’s play. Anfield loved its first glimpse of him on Sunday, and they will expect even more from him next season, now that he is free of injury and has his feet under him on Merseyside.

Guardiola knows exactly what Thiago can bring to a team. There are few midfielders like him in the Premier League.

If Liverpool can keep him fit and get the rest of their big-hitters back, they’ll be a force again for sure.

Pray for luck

There were times this season when Klopp must have wondered if he’d run over a black cat or 10 on his way to training. 

To lose one centre-back to a season-ending injury is bad, to lose two was shocking, but three? How do you account for that?

On top of that, both of the defenders signed in January - too late, it should be said - ended up on the treatment table too. Even Jordan Henderson, the emergency option, went down in February. 

There were other hiccups. Alisson Becker missed games, including the 7-2 defeat at Aston Villa, while several players, including Mane, Salah and Thiago, tested positive for Covid-19 at inopportune moments.

Jota, Alexander-Arnold, Keita, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Milner, Shaqiri, Origi and summer signing Kostas Tsimikas were all missing at various stages, meaning the likes of Salah, Wijnaldum, Firmino and Andy Robertson had to play pretty much every week, which in term affected their form.

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Klopp hopes he will have all of Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip available for the start of pre-season in July, while Henderson was on the bench against Crystal Palace. “They’re our first signings,” he has said. Players who will immediately make the team stronger, just by their presence.

Beyond that, he must cross his fingers and hope. Lucky Liverpool, eh? Not this season. 

Maybe next.