Liverpool’s challenge ahead of a potential return to the Champions League is to add the ‘right quality’ to an already strong XI, according to Jamie Carragher.
The Reds achieved a fourth-place finish in 2016-17 and will be back in Europe’s elite club competition next season if they can successfully navigate a two-legged play-off in August.
Jürgen Klopp’s side laid the foundations for that final position during an opening half of the campaign that was brimming with attacking verve, confidence and belief.
Injuries and absences took a toll on Liverpool’s form at the turn of the year and hopes of chasing down runaway leaders Chelsea therefore gave way to the objective of ensuring a top-four spot.
They did so with a series of more resolute performances in the closing weeks of the season, digging in when needed to hold off Arsenal’s late charge and open up a path back to the Champions League.
With that opportunity in mind, Carragher expects Klopp will seek to not only bolster his squad in terms of numbers this summer but raise the overall level of quality at his disposal.
“The actual team, the XI, could go up against anyone – we saw that in the big games with some great results in those games,” the Reds legend told Liverpoolfc.com.
“But over the season, especially around Christmas and January, it was evident that the squad wasn’t big enough or strong enough. That needs adding to.
“But rather than just adding players to the squad, you want to add players to the team. If you add three or four players and they go straight into the first XI, three or four of those who were playing week in, week out last season go to the bench.
“It makes the bench a lot stronger and your team a lot stronger. It’s not just numbers. It’s about getting the right quality that can go straight into the team.”
Squad rotation will come into the equation, too, with Liverpool set to fight on four fronts next term after a campaign without any European football commitments.
“There were a lot of free weeks last season. But now you’re going to have to chop and change, that’s the name of the game,” continued Carragher.
“It’s not easy to get that right, picking the right players at the right time is a real skill. And it will be huge, especially with Champions League football in midweek if we get in there.
“And then you’re playing Saturday morning or Saturday at 3pm. It’s not a great turnaround in terms of time, recovery and recuperation.
“[Klopp] showed last season, at times, if someone wasn’t right he didn’t play them. You go back to the Stoke game, how vital that was – [Philippe] Coutinho and [Roberto] Firmino were on the bench because they weren’t right physically.
“If any player isn’t right physically throughout the season, he won’t play them. He needs that squad because he will have to chop and change.”
Carragher was a mainstay of the Liverpool side that so regularly competed in the Champions League under Rafael Benitez, of course.
Tricky qualifiers had to be overcome on several occasions during that period, with the likes of Maccabi Haifa and Standard Liege presenting a formidable obstacle to the tournament proper across two hard-fought games.
The Reds can be confident of reaching the group stage, in Carragher’s opinion, but the 39-year-old acknowledged the difficulty created by the specific set of circumstances involved.
“They are tough games. We know what’s at stake, but it’s exactly the same for [the opposition],” he explained.
“It’s notoriously difficult because it’s very early in the season – you’re probably not at your peak fitness-wise, you’re just coming in.
“And the nerves with it because you know what’s attached to it, you’ve built yourself all season to get into the top four. You get to the end of the season and you think it’s done but in reality it’s not, you’ve still got another game to go.
“No matter who you come up against, it will be a very difficult game.”
Should Klopp’s men complete the job in August, the Reds will return to the Champions League for the first time since 2014-15, when they were unable to progress beyond the group stage.
And Carragher stressed that qualification has to become the norm.
“We haven’t been in it too often of late and it’s something we have to be in now year in, year out, it has to be the minimum requirement as it was when we were playing,” he added.
“It’s a lot tougher to get in now, there’s a lot more competition, I must say, from when I was playing. It’s huge to get in but it can’t be a one-off like it was last time, we’ve got to try to make sure we’re in there year in, year out.”