It depends on how you define drama whether or not you find any in the Premier League season. We pretty much know that either Manchester City or Liverpool will win the title. Some combination of Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs, and maybe United will fill out the other Champions League places. Perhaps Newcastle can stage a surprise that no one but their supporters will enjoy, given that they are LIV Golf FC. But at the top, that’s about it.
Within that duopoly at the top, their unfathomable excellence over the past few years has kept the same discussion happening repeatedly from getting too stale to most (but not all). It’s one thing to have the same two teams playing tug-of-war over the title for a long stretch like Arsenal and Man United did in the late 90s or 2000s. It’s another when each team is throwing up 90+ point seasons each time. There have been 13 90+ seasons in Premier League history, and City and Liverpool have authored six of them combined in the last five seasons.
Obviously, the margins are so thin. Just last season, Liverpool could point to a Mo Salah missed penalty in December, or Harry Kane not getting sent off against them earlier in the month, or a host of individual moments. Or City scraping that point at West Ham, or a last-minute winner at Arsenal, or another slate of coin flips we could cite.
This season, the intrigue is that both City and Liverpool are bedding in genuine central strikers, genuine No. 9s, that neither side has really featured before. City’s Erling Haaland and Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez could cause changes in formation and styles, and we can’t say for sure how that will go. And again, just one wonky game here or there has generally made the difference between these two.
The bigger change seems to be happening at City, which is basically reshaping its entire front line, though most of that was concluded after one glorified preseason game in last weekend’s Community Shield. Liverpool is a little more plug-and-play, though it’s been hinted and suggested that at least at times, Liverpool will shift to a 4-2-3-1 to accommodate Nunez. City might do the same at times.
But still, we basically know how Liverpool will line up and who with when everyone’s healthy. And we also know where the deficiencies are within that, such as they are for a team that came within a whisker of an unprecedented four-trophy haul.
Liverpool’s underbelly, however soft it might be, is that the midfield lacks a little creativity and a little pace. It’s not really counted on for that, as the inspiration for goals and chances comes from the fullbacks and the forwards. When teams did their best to nullify that, they just moved Trent Alexander-Arnold more infield with the ball last season. Thiago is around for the creativity problem, but he has always had fragility issues and is the only one of the normal starting 11 that creates much from midfield. Fabinho is tidy with the ball but is around to nullify counters for the most part. Jordan Henderson will spend the first two months of the season looking like a true attacking outlet both through creation and scoring himself, and then as the season goes on just reverting to a more industrious, counter-pressing type. Naby Keita can’t stay fit or consistent enough to provide the goals he always flashes when he’s on song for a game or two. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is already crocked. James Milner is basically moving into a player-coach role.
This means that if Liverpool is going to turn a new leaf, whether through formation or style even as just a change of pace, its title and European hopes might come down to three kids not legally allowed to drink on this side of the Atlantic.
When last season started, Harvey Elliott had been the surprise of the preseason and had worked himself into the starting 11 in midfield, even though it was assumed he would be Salah’s understudy on the right side of the front three. Just 18 at the time, Elliott was trusted even to start against Chelsea and looked more than comfortable doing so. Elliott provided something that Liverpool didn’t have in midfield, a non-stop attacker who would have played as a No. 10 in other systems, shifty in both feet and mind, ready and willing to get into the box behind or alongside the front three. Had he not suffered a horror ankle injury against Leeds in just the team’s fourth game that saw him out until January, he may have been a mainstay.
Curtis Jones, still just 20, is more in the mold of what we see Liverpool’s midfield as, and has knocked at the door of becoming a regular for two seasons now. He didn’t quite take off last season as his 2020-2021 season suggested he could. He carries something of a baby Thiago feel in his confidence on the ball deeper in the field than Elliott, but can drive forward with it. Even if he’s only depth, he has to prove he can be reliable depth this season considering the crunch of games the World Cup sitting in the middle of the season like Jabba The Hutt requires.
The real wildcard is the new addition this season, Fabio Carvalho. He’s only 19, and was pinched from Fulham this summer after attempts to get him last winter failed. Carvalho falls into that file marked, “Just tries shit,” which can be exciting as hell if a little risky. But again, Liverpool doesn’t have much like him.
Where Carvalho and Elliott are really worth watching is when and how often Liverpool switches to that 4-2-3-1. Roberto Firmino would seemingly be the first choice to play the No. 10 in that setup, but Jurgen Klopp has tried that before with limited success. Firmino isn’t as effective when stationed in those spaces instead of dropping into them from the forward line and surprising defenders. But Carvalho and Elliott feel like more natural 10s, given their midfield upbringings.
What Liverpool may need is goals from anywhere they can get them. Sadio Mane has taken his 18-20 bankable ones to Germany, and to just assume Luis Diaz and Darwin Nunez will pick up the slack completely and thoroughly is not a wise way to go about one’s work. Even if they do, toward the end of last season when exhaustion set in, Liverpool looked limited until Mane could pull The Reds’ ass out of a sling. This season will be no less tiring and Liverpool need more players it can call on throughout.
Liverpool needs more goals from more sources to even out whatever adjustments Nunez might have to make and to keep opponents guessing, especially late in the season when the miles accrued pile up. We know the margins are thin, and Liverpool’s may be decided on the backs of three kids.