Tuesday, 25 July 2017

FPL 2017/18 Preview: Liverpool

Here we are again. A new season approaches, new signings flood in to tempt the browsing FPL manager, and, after far too long, I return to writing about fantasy football. This time around, I have been tasked with assessing the options available from Liverpool – this means attempting to place my considerable bias to one side, but my avid support does at least give me a good knowledge of the squad. Over the next few paragraphs, I will take you on a tour of the most and least attractive fantasy options in Klopp’s side.

Let’s start from the back. Immediately, alarm bells are ringing: much has
been written on Liverpool’s shaky defence, and I will not espouse further on the topic here save to say that there are much safer options. A keeper from the Reds is a complete non-starter – Liverpool’s unfortunate combination of few clean sheets and few shots faced means returns could well be minimal, both in terms of clean sheets and save points. Even if clean sheets are easier to come by this season for the Merseyside outfit, it is not even entirely settled who will play between the sticks: Mignolet is a relatively safe bet to start the campaign, but Klopp thinks highly of both the young back-up keepers. Indeed, he has spoken of a three-way battle for the spot – Ward and Karius will both look to get Premier League minutes ahead of the Belgian stopper. The defensive options are, largely, similarly uninspiring: if Van Dijk or a similar top-level centre-back joins then one of the back line may be worth a punt, but currently there is no reason to expect them to be any less leaky than they were in the last campaign. The only real exception to this is new signing Andy Robertson – he is undoubtedly a gamble, given that Milner will be determined to limit the minutes of the Scotsman, but at 5.0 it could be a risk worth taking. I would imagine that Robertson will soon make the left-back spot his own, and with Klopp craving width in attack he will certainly have assist potential. This is especially true when it is factored in that Mane will likely be switching to the left and playing in front of Robertson: the two of them could end up running the left flank.

The midfield is where things really start to get interesting. There are three Liverpool midfielders who all fall into a premium bracket: Coutinho, Salah and Mane have the likes of Eriksen and Alli for company in this range. In Mane’s case this tag is fully warranted, and could even prove to be something of a bargain. His direct style means he plays an integral role in a lot of Liverpool’s bursts forward, and his tendency to cut in means he bags plenty of goals as well as assists. This will only be helped by a move to the left, which will mean he is cutting in on to his stronger right foot. This shift is to accommodate Salah, who can be purchased for 0.5 less at nine million. He, too, is well worth considering. He has already notched twice in pre-season, and his link-up with the rest of the front line looks highly dangerous – do not be surprised to see him replicate his goal and assist numbers from Serie A. Of course, he represents more of a gamble than Mane given that this is his first season with the club; he does come with the advantage of being fully fit, however, whereas Mane has missed a significant chunk of pre-season. The final member of the trio is probably the worst value. Coutinho could well still be worth a punt, but the addition of Salah to the attack means that the Brazilian will almost certainly drop deeper. He did this towards the end of last season – I believe it is his best position, and think he will shine in this campaign, but this does not necessarily translate to FPL points. The danger of picking such a deep playmaker is that you will go unrewarded for lots of ‘hockey assists’ (the pass before the assist, which can often be the one that genuinely makes the goal). Coutinho will also likely end up in fewer scoring positions, although his long shot ability makes anywhere vaguely near the box a dangerous place. He will score points, but probably not with the consistency needed to justify the 9.0. When just 0.5 more gets Eriksen or Alli, I’d lean towards splashing the cash on one of the Spurs men.

Any other Liverpool midfielders come with too much of a rotation risk to be immediately viable. Lallana’s 7.5 price tag might be appealing to those a little short on funds, but his game time is far from guaranteed – Coutinho going deeper leaves only two more central midfield slots in the 4-3-3, and Lallana is competing with Can, Wijnaldum and Henderson. This is even before mentioning Grujic, who is enjoying another strong pre-season and making his case for selection. After a few weeks, if a clear first-choice eleven has emerged, then Lallana, Wijnaldum or even Henderson could potentially represent decent value – for the time-being, however, they are not worth thinking about.

The forward position is a complicated one. Firmino, who proved a good option from midfield in the last campaign, is now listed as a forward – his price tag remains similar, however, making him cheap for a striker at a top four team. 8.5 puts him three million cheaper than Aguero at City, two million cheaper than the Gunners’ new front man Lacazette, 1.5 less than Morata and a huge 4 million less than Harry Kane. This makes him hard to completely overlook: goals are shared out more in Liverpool’s attack so his returns will probably not be in quite the same league as these counterparts, but in terms of value for money he could be a strong option. Unfortunately, game time concerns complicate the matter. He will probably be Liverpool’s first-choice centre-forward, but with Sturridge still on the books it is hard to say this for certain. Klopp has said that he has never seen the England forward in better condition, and it is universally acknowledged that Sturridge is world class when fit. As such, if Sturridge can keep himself match-ready, it is hardly beyond the realms of possibility that he reclaims the starting striker spot. Add to this the pressure from Divock Origi, newly-fit Danny Ings and new signing Dominic Solanke (who is mainly one for the future but has caught the eye in pre-season), and Firmino starts to look like a bit too much of a risk. On the other hand, he is very likely to at least start the season: Liverpool’s opening run of fixtures isn’t bad, so it could be worth getting him in.

To sum up, the bulk of Liverpool’s viable options come from midfield. Salah and Mane are the stand-out options; Coutinho will probably do well too, but his deeper role makes him the worst choice of the three. The defence offers Robertson as a speculative pick, but this is a definite risk and probably something to think about in a few weeks rather than from the start. Up front, Firmino could prove to be good value-for-money: don’t expect truly elite returns, however, and don’t even necessarily expect his spot in the team to be safe.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Pre-Season: So Far, So Good

Liverpool maintained their unbeaten pre-season with a 2-0 victory over fellow Premier League side Crystal Palace. Results are of course secondary in these kind of games, but the performances have also been encouraging; precious little can be gleaned from pre-season, but those signs that can be seen are pointing in the right direction.

The first game, against local outfit Tranmere Rovers, ended in a comprehensive 4-0 victory. This match was most notable for the promising performances of the youngsters: Alexander-Arnold shone in the first half surrounded by older players, and the younger second-half eleven arguably put in a better performance than their senior counterparts. This culminated in goals for Chirivella and Woodburn. A draw against Wigan followed; while this was far from an ideal result, there were things to be happy about. Chief amongst these was a debut goal for Mohamed Salah. He linked well with the rest of the front three, and was rewarded for this with a tap-in goal after receiving a square ball. Salah has continued in the same vein over in Hong Kong – he terrorised the Crystal Palace defence with his pace, and is looking for all the world like he will be a real handful in the Premier League.  The prospect of getting him and Mane in the same side is tantalising indeed, particularly with Coutinho providing the service from the deeper role he now seems to be making his own.

Dominic Solanke, another new man, has made an equally quick start. His performances have perhaps been a little more surprising – his talent is undeniable, and he showcased this at the recent u20 World Cup, but not many expected him to look at home so quickly with a lot of the first team. Word out of the club following the signing very much suggested that Solanke was meant as one for the future, but he is making his case for the present. He made a goal for Chirivella against Tranmere, and got one for himself against Palace – the latter was a lovely strike, rifled into the corner from outside the box. Again, it would be foolish to read too much into pre-season, but he has certainly made Klopp sit up and take notice; at the very least, Solanke will hope to be involved in cup fixtures during the coming campaign.

For the time being, Salah and Solanke are the only new additions we have been able to see in action. A deal for Andy Robertson has reportedly been finalised in recent hours, but it looks as though fans will be made to wait until the squad head to Germany before he will be seen in a Liverpool shirt. However, that is not to say there has been nothing to keep supporters interested. The role of Ben Woodburn has been particularly intriguing – Klopp has repeatedly employed him in a deeper position. The German shed some light on the matter following the win over Palace; he stated that he wanted to allow the young Welsh talent to become as well-rounded as possible, and that playing him centrally would help to improve on traits such as composure. Whether the move is intended as permanent remains to be seen; either way, he has been impressive in a less natural role. As well as Woodburn, and the aforementioned Alexander-Arnold, Grujic has been able to impress. He steered in a lovely long-range strike against Tranmere, and although he has not added to his tally since then he has nonetheless made his presence felt in the centre of the park. Sometimes this has crossed a line – to the frustration of new Palace manager Frank De Boer – but the Serb seems to have all of the necessary raw attributes. In some respects, he is reminiscent of a young Gerrard: this is not a particularly useful tag in the sense that it saddles him with hugely unfair expectations, but the comparison is irresistible. He bursts forward from the centre of the park, has a good long shot on him, showcases a strong range of passing and has a rash streak – hopefully he is able to remain injury-free this campaign and get a little more involved in the first team.

The ’final’ of the Premier League Asia Cup is our next fixture – this is against Leicester. It will be good to test the squad against another Premier League side; the win against Palace was encouraging, particularly as we have struggled against them a lot in the recent past, and a win against the champions of two seasons ago would be equally pleasing. It should also be good for fitness – back-to-back games against opposition of a comparable level will certainly help to ease the players back to their peak. A trip to Germany follows this, and before we know it the season proper is upon us. Hopefully the preparations for this moment continue in much the same fashion: the squad are looking good, injuries have been avoided and results are generally coming too.