The Table Doesn’t Lie: Have Liverpool found some squad depth?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19: Andrew Robertson of Liverpool during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Crystal Palace at Anfield on August 19, 2017 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images)
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19: Andrew Robertson of Liverpool during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Crystal Palace at Anfield on August 19, 2017 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images) /

Stoke looked like a team again while beating Arsenal at home, while Jurgen Klopp’s heavily rotated Liverpool side did enough against Crystal Palace.

The second week of the Premier League season was nowhere near as ridiculous as the first, with the only big upset coming at the Bet365 Stadium, where Stoke beat Arsenal. In the marquee match of the weekend, Chelsea narrowly beat Tottenham, whose form at Wembley will remain a talking point until they start consistently winning there. Elsewhere, Southampton pipped 10-man West Ham, despite giving up a two-goal lead, and Huddersfield made it two wins out of two against Newcastle.

The table is close to meaningless at this stage of the season, but Manchester United have already taken an ominous lead, winning both their games so far by a combined score of 8-0. West Ham and Swansea aren’t the best teams in the league, or even good teams in the league, but if Jose Mourinho’s spotless second-season record didn’t bother you before, it should now. Our only hope might be Manchester City, who host Everton on Monday.

20. West Ham (preseason prediction: 10th, difference: -10)
19. Crystal Palace (11th, -8)
18. Brighton (20th, +2)
17. Newcastle (14th, -3)
16. Bournemouth (8th, -8)
15. Swansea (17th, +2)
14. Stoke (16th, +2)
13. Burnley (19th, +6)
12. Chelsea (5th, -7)
11. Arsenal (6th, -5)

Stoke’s reinvention as Europe’s foremost destination for former Champions League-winning substitutes hit the rocks last season, as Bojan Krkic was shipped out on loan in January, Xherdan Shaqiri and Ibrahim Afellay succumbed to injuries (yet again) and Marc Muniesa spent most of the year on the bench.

But the most entertaining transfer strategy in England’s top flight made a glorious return to prominence at the weekend, as Jese Rodriguez, a Champions League winner with Real Madrid in 2013-14 and 2015-16 before moving to PSG (and then Las Palmas on loan) last season, inspired the Potters to a 1-0 win against Arsenal.

For the first half hour, Jese and Shaqiri (who left the game with yet another injury in the 25th minute) were the biggest thorns in Arsenal’s side. They didn’t dominate by any stretch, but they were a timely reminder of the value of Mark Hughes’ extremely not on-brand transfer policy: they were fun to watch.

Stoke were almost entirely non-descript last season, outside of the very few occasions Shaqiri was fit and Marko Arnautovic, now of West Ham, could find a teammate willing to exchange passes with him. Their mid-table finish seemed to be a result of the fact they have a squad filled to the brim with ninth-13th-place quality more than any coherent managerial vision or tactical identity, a la West Brom, Bournemouth or even Southampton.

But here, after far too long, was a version of Stoke a normal person might reasonably look forward to watching. There were some mitigating factors, like that this was their first game at their redeveloped home stadium, their shiny new signing was making his debut and, of course, they were playing the old enemy, Arsenal. Who knows how long this will last, whether they can maintain this form on the many more run-of-the-mill wet nights in Stoke to come?

The Potters are lords of the mid-table for a reason, and know better than anyone that not all 12th-place finishes are created equal. There’s a right way and a wrong way to be just good enough, and Jese showed, hopefully, the way forward, running constantly at Arsenal defenders, and scoring a really, really good goal, combining with Saido Berahino, who played well after replacing Shaqiri, before finishing easily past Petr Cech.

Spare a thought, too, for Jack Butland, who was excellent in goal. The Englishman missed almost all of last season with an injury, and wasn’t particularly good on his return to the side in May, but he showed against Arsenal what all the fuss is about. One intriguing subplot of this season will be which three goalkeepers make it into Gareth Southgate’s England squad for the World Cup. Butland, along with Joe Hart, Fraser Forster, Tom Heaton, Ben Foster and Jordan Pickford are all in contention for three available spots. Butland’s made a strong early case.

This was also a big, big win for Hughes. His side play Chelsea and both Manchester clubs before the end of October, and face difficult away trips to West Brom and Newcastle. For a manager whose sides always seem to struggle at the beginning of the season, the Arsenal match must be his blueprint.

It wasn’t perfect. Arsenal had their fair share of chances, including two good penalty shouts that were turned down and a goal (possibly incorrectly) ruled out for offside, but it was positive, attacking, energetic — everything it wasn’t a year ago. Jese has no more debuts left to make, the new-look Bet365 Stadium has made its bow and Shaqiri will be missed, but hopefully this newer, better Stoke will stay awhile.

19th August 2017, Anfield, Liverpool, England; EPL Premier League football, Liverpool versus Crystal Palace; Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool manager gives instructions to his players during the second half (Photo by David Blunsden/Action Plus via Getty Images)
19th August 2017, Anfield, Liverpool, England; EPL Premier League football, Liverpool versus Crystal Palace; Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool manager gives instructions to his players during the second half (Photo by David Blunsden/Action Plus via Getty Images) /

10. Everton (7th, -3)
9. Tottenham (4th, -5)
8. Leicester (15th, +7)
7. Manchester City (1st, -6)
6. Southampton (9th, +3)
5. Liverpool (3rd, -2)
4. Watford (13th, +9)
3. West Brom (12th, +9)
2. Huddersfield (18th, +16)
1. Manchester United (2nd, +1)

Liverpool’s 1-0 win against Crystal Palace on Saturday wasn’t the most memorable match of the weekend, but Jurgen Klopp’s team selection was striking. One of the Reds’ big problems last season was a near-total lack of viable first-team options outside the starting XI of Simon Mignolet, Nathaniel Clyne, Joel Matip, Dejan Lovren, James Milner, Adam Lallana, Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane.

So far this season, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Emre Can have replaced Clyne and Lallana, who are both injured, and new signing Mohamed Salah has taken Coutinho’s spot in the starting XI as the Brazilian continues to recover from a back injury/the realization he won’t be sold to Barcelona this summer. Also, in one of the more unlikely subplots of Liverpool’s season so far, Alberto Moreno seems to have reclaimed the left-back position from Milner.

Against Palace on Saturday, there was yet more rotation. Can, Alexander-Arnold, Salah, Lovren and Moreno were all rested. In came Joe Gomez, Andrew Robertson, Ragnar Klavan and Daniel Sturridge, while Milner played in central midfield. Not only that, but Klopp, who was often painfully hesitant to make substitutions last season, brought on Salah in the 61st minute and Dominic Solanke, who was making his Premier League debut for the Reds, 10 minutes later. Liverpool took the lead two minutes after Solanke’s introduction.

The reason for all this was presumably the second leg of Liverpool’s Champions League qualifier against Hoffenheim on Wednesday, which will be their fourth game in 12 days to begin 2017-18, but it was a clear illustration early on of the variety of Klopp’s options outside his first-choice XI. Last season, only 14 outfield players started 10 or more league games for Liverpool. Already this season, Klopp has started 15 different players. With Coutinho, Lallana and Clyne more or less guaranteed to start on their returns from injury/transfer-request-related back trauma, that number should jump up significantly this season. It’s still early, but (whisper it) the Reds appear to have stumbled into some squad depth.

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Depth is only valuable if the players are good, of course, but the performance against Palace was cause for optimism on that front as well. The standout addition to the starting XI was Robertson, making his debut after arriving from Hull in the summer. The 23-year-old’s arrival has the double benefit of increasing Klopp’s options at both left-back and central midfield, since Milner can play in the middle if he’s not forced to cover for the defense-optional Moreno. Robertson, at least based on his performance against Palace, seems to offer the best of both worlds.

He was good going forward, and provided a series of excellent crosses from which the Reds probably should’ve scored at least one goal. His being left-footed immediately makes him an attacking upgrade on Milner, who was excellent overall but too often slowed down attacks when cutting on to his right foot. And while Robertson didn’t have to do much work in his own third against Palace (Liverpool had over 70 percent of the ball), it’s hard to imagine he’s worse at the back than Moreno, whose problem isn’t so much the doing of defensive actions — tackling and marking and so on — as it is wrapping his head around the possibility defensive actions might ever have to be done in the first place. But anyway, the early signs are Robertson, if he doesn’t end up starting, will offer valuable depth at a position of need.

Unlike Robertson, Gomez and Klavan have little chance of becoming regular starters this season. Barring injuries, their roles will be to play games exactly like the one they did at the weekend. But this is Liverpool we’re dealing with, which makes it difficult to evaluate the importance of (what for any other side in the top six would be) routine home games against the likes of Crystal Palace. Both played well enough, though they had little to do. Klavan was what he was bought to be, a third-choice center-back, but Gomez’s performance was more interesting.

The 20-year-old showed huge promise after signing for the club in 2015-16, but missed most of that season, and then last season, with injuries. He was sloppy in possession against Palace, but solid at the back — the consummate reverse modern full-back. That might be because his best position is center-back, which could prove a long-term boost for Klopp, who, if you haven’t heard, was, and possibly still is, in the market for a center-back. If Gomez can stay fit, the Reds’ options at the back increase significantly.

Finally, there’s Sturridge, who, well, what is there to say? He’s really, really good, obviously. But also, you know, there’s that thing where he’s been injured approximately 157 times in the past three seasons. But also he scored 24 goals in 2013-14. But also if you type “is Sturridge” into Google, the search engine will dutifully complete the only question anyone has ever asked about Daniel Sturridge for you: injured. But also he’s scored 46 goals in only 89 appearances for the Reds. But also he’s maybe lost a step because of, obviously, the injuries. But also …

Sturridge is the exact opposite of what you want in a bench player, which is someone who can reliably step in any time, anywhere and do what needs to be done. Sturridge can’t do that, and there’s no reason to say this time will be different until this time is over, and was different. So Sturridge is a bonus, basically, which is better then nothing at all. Besides, if Solanke can prove as effective long-term as he was on Saturday, when he provided a very terrible assist for Mane’s goal with only his second touch, the Sturridge question will fade even further into the background.

Palace were forgiving opponents, no doubt, but then they should’ve been forgiving opponents when Liverpool lost to them last season. No win can be taken for granted by this team. But not only did the Reds win, they never really looked like losing. Best of all, in a season in which his side will have significant European commitments regardless of what happens against Hoffenheim on Wednesday, Klopp appears to have a real, honest-to-goodness squad on his hands.