Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool reached a crossroads in the summer. Expectations around the Reds have skyrocketed since the German arrived in October 2015, and for the first time last season, everybody fell short.
Finishing fifth in the Premier League was a disaster, especially because no major silverware was lifted either. It meant Liverpool failed to reach what has become their minimum target, Champions League qualification. All the way back in his first press conference at the club, Klopp spoke about wanting to turn “doubters into believers”. Liverpool were a club in a state of flux, never really leaving a mark on the big trophies under Brendan Rodgers, barring a momentum-fuelled run towards the Premier League title in 2013/14. Klopp has built a team and a club that has achieved things on a level with their glory years, while relying on a strong transfer policy to close the gap on more affluent rivals.
That isn’t to say Liverpool haven’t had money to spend; they certainly have. But the way Klopp has developed a style and ethos has meant there has not been much room for mistakes. Sales at the right time, such as those of Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane, have been crucial.
The peak of Klopp’s era, winning the Champions League in 2019 and Premier League in 2020 was never likely to be maintained. But it should always be strived for; what made last season, which could have been worse before a late surge of form, so concerning was the team were completely the hallmarks of Klopp’s philosophy. Where they were once high octane, energetic and ruthless, they became easy to play against, often passive and toothless. It became clear that a full reconstruction of the squad was needed, beginning in midfield.
Out went captain Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. All had proven to be key men when fit at their best for Klopp, as was Gini Wijnaldum who left in 2021. but time had come to move them on. Alexis Mac Allister, Wataru Endo, Ryan Gravenberch and particularly Dominik Szoboszlai have come in to hit the ground running.
Klopp spoke about “Liverpool 2.0” earlier this season and there were times where it felt like a slow burner. A draw at Chelsea was followed up by a less than convincing win over Bournemouth. But a stunning turnaround with ten men at Newcastle saw things begin to change; since then, they’ve only lost once in the league, in high profile and controversial circumstances at Tottenham and look every bit a title contender again. They are also making light work of the Europa League, as pundits fawn over how they are ‘too good for the competition’.
Calm is to be encouraged at this point. Nothing has been won but there are plenty of early signs. Klopp’s trademark intensity is filtering onto the pitch again; Liverpool are suffocating teams with their fast starts to games and tearing through them like they so often did in their best days a few seasons ago.
That is where Szoboszlai comes in. He embodies everything more than most; physically, he is imposing, standing at 6 ft 1, an unusual height for an all action attacking midfielder, but he loses none of it in his technique and passing range, gaining more power overall through running and particularly shooting. Alongside Gravenberch, the 22-year-old Hungarian has brought more guile and flair than Liverpool’s midfield had previously. Even at their best, a lack of creativity was always seen as a weakness.
Every successful team relies on good on-pitch relationships. Liverpool are no different; Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson remain a prime example. But Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino were the cornerstone, working together like clockwork in attack. That relationship lost its edge before two of them departed.
Voids needed to be filled, one Salah has found a new partner in crime. Szoboszlai links superbly well with the Egyptian from a right-central midfield position; both push forward which allows space for Alexander-Arnold to cut inside and get involved too. It is evidence of Liverpool not only returning to their best but also progressing well past it from a tactical point of view.
There have been lots of comparisons made with Szoboszlai already, from Kevin de Bruyne to Steven Gerrard. While he has a long way to go match either, that serves as recognition of his impact on the team. At £60m from RB Leipzig, he is proving to be a great signing, one of the best in fact.
Now it does indeed feel like a Liverpool reboot; there are many reasons for that, but Szoboszlai’s impact is chief among them.