SINGAPORE — Can Liverpool retain their English Premier League (EPL) title in the 2020/21 season? Have they done enough in the pre-season to mount a successful defence?
For their fanatical fans, it depends on whether they believe the proverbial glass is half-full or half-empty.
For those who believe it is half-full, they would point to their extraordinarily-dominant title triumph last season – winning the league with a record-breaking seven matches to spare.
That dominance, coupled with the elation of finally breaking their 30-year top-division title drought, should breed a strong sense of confidence and swagger going into the new season.
For those who believe it is half-empty, they would fret over the lack of depth in the squad compared to their richer rivals, complain about the relatively modest reinforcements in pre-season, and worry whether the team could sustain their intensity for another frenetic season.
How Liverpool’s fortunes pan out will define this upcoming season, which begins on Saturday (12 September). For the first time in the history of the EPL, the Reds are the hunted instead of the hunter. Can they deal with it?
Rivals have made significant additions
Perhaps it is natural for opinions to be divided, as this is Liverpool’s first league title defence in a long while, and you would have to go way back to 1984 to find the last time they were successful in doing so.
Furthermore, the Reds’ title defence comes amid much economic and political uncertainties amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While they are a highly-profitable football club that enjoy a strong global fanbase, the ongoing ban on home-ground spectators and their reluctance on furloughing their staff mean that the Liverpool management is rightfully prudent about over-spending on strengthening the first-team squad.
So far, Jurgen Klopp’s team have signed only one player, Greek left-back Kostas Tsimikas, who should be a capable cover for mainstay Andrew Robertson. Several promising youngsters from the Reds’ academy could also play significant roles in the new season: right-back Neco Williams, attacking midfielder Curtis Jones, and striker Rhian Brewster.
But what is causing all the consternation among Reds fans is that their nearest rivals have done significant off-season shopping, in a bid to close the sizeable gap between them and Liverpool.
Second-placed Manchester City, whose Abu Dhabi owners are relatively untroubled by the economic crisis, have already shelled out millions to sign up defender Nathan Ake and midfielder Ferran Torres.
They were also the only club who could plausibly afford to sign Lionel Messi when the six-time World Player of the Year dropped the bombshell last month that he wanted to leave troubled Barcelona. Cue the sigh of relief among Liverpool fans when Messi eventually decided to remain in Spain.
Third-placed Manchester United have brought in highly-rated Dutchman Donny van de Beek, hoping he could form a formidable partnership in central midfield with Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes.
But it is fourth-placed Chelsea who have made the biggest splurge. In their first off-season after their ban from signing players by Uefa was lifted, the Blues – still under the ownership of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich – recruited aggressively with five intriguing signings so far: striker Timo Werner, midfielders Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech, as well as defenders Thiago Silva and Ben Chilwell.
Would this slew of transfers be enough for any of these clubs to bridge their gap behind Liverpool. There is genuine concern among the Reds faithful that they could.
Qualities which led to title may improve this season
Yet, there are others who remain sanguine about Liverpool’s title chances. And for good reasons too.
Danny Murphy, a stalwart in the Reds midfield in the early 2000s, told Yahoo News Singapore over an online interview last week that there are qualities among the Reds’ title-winning team that should carry over to the new season – and possibly be better.
“The squad togetherness, their ‘never give up’ attitude, the progression of their players – these will improve in the next season,” the 43-year-old explained.
“I believe Klopp deserves credit for knowing exactly when to bring somebody new into the team. He prefers to wait for the right piece to be available, and not buying for the sake of making up the numbers.
“Maybe a few small tweaks more, but the team is already unbelievably strong. They will be tough to be knocked off their perch. I think it will be a much closer fight than last season, but I don’t think the other clubs can breach that big gap to overtake Liverpool.”
Indeed, the consensus is that Liverpool are unlikely to top their dominant, smooth-sailing run to the EPL title last season – littered with record feats such as a 24-match home winning streak, an 18-match winning run, and getting 61 out of a possible 63 points to start the season.
It will be closer, more nerve-wracking title fight this time around. And this means that the intangible traits Murphy listed – team unity, fighting spirit and squad cohesiveness – will crucially come into play.
Whether the three closest rivals can match those traits, with all the allowance given to new players blending in well with the existing stars, remains to be seen.
Handling expectations in title defence
Nonetheless, expectations among the Reds fanbase will be sky-high.
Many of them are insistent that Liverpool press on to dominate the EPL in years to come, such that they can eventually overtake Man United’s record haul of top-division league titles (Liverpool have 19 to Man United’s 20).
Furthermore, Klopp has hinted that he is likely to leave the club when his contract ends in 2024, and this has inadvertently created more anxiety among fans, who are hoping the club can win as many trophies as possible before the wildly-popular German leaves.
In fact, how well the Liverpool players handle such expectations will arguably be the most crucial factor in this title defence.
It is never easy to carry such a burden and play at the highest level, as many ex-Liverpool players have found out during the club’s 30-year league-title drought.
It will be a fresh challenge for the likes of Mohamed Salah, Jordan Henderson and Virgil van Dijk to continue their outstanding performances amid heightened pressure to succeed.
Can they make their fans over the moon again? They will start as title favourites and will be tough to beat, yet carry that bit of uncertainty as they try to fend off strong challengers.
Half-full or half-empty glass? For Liverpool, they will be hoping that the glass can continue to be joyfully filled this season.
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