Following Liverpool’s first game of the season last weekend against newly promoted Norwich City, we spoke to Anfield hero, John Barnes, to discuss the decision faced by Jurgen Klopp on Diogo Jota, Van Dijk’s return to competitive action, and his thoughts on Liverpool’s prospects in their bid for the Premier League title.
– Do you think Diogo Jota should keep his place in the team ahead of Roberto Firmino, or should Jurgen Klopp find a way of starting them both?
JB – “Well, I’ve always said Firmino is my favorite player of the front three. Salah scores goals and Mané does what he does, but Firmino’s the one for me who makes the team tick, so I would always have him. So to say that Jota should play instead of the front three, I don’t necessarily feel that’s the case. You could actually put him in one of the midfield three, because there are times when, depending on the other two midfield players, that Jota could really add some great strength and he’s played attacking midfield in the past.
“But I don’t feel that Jota should play instead of Firmino. In fact, I think Firmino is one of our most important players and the reason why Salah scores as many goals as he is; as a withdrawn center forward, between himself andMané, it give them those inward running angles to score goals. So I don’t necessarily feel that the fact that he doesn’t score as many goals is not a beneficial deliverable as he’s providing so much more than that.”
– How did Virgil van Dijk perform on his return to competitive action?
JB – “I think van Dijk had a fantastic game over the weekend and it’s great to see him back in action; to be honest, it looked like he’s never been away, which is incredible after such a serious injury. But also, Liverpool, as a team, played really well and it was great to see. And although Norwich may not be the best of teams, to get that win in means a lot for the team and hopefully it’ll set them up for the season ahead.
“Having said that, just because van Dijk is back on the pitch, and is looking great, it doesn’t mean he’s fully recovered. He’ll most likely need some more time to get back to his absolute best – but he will!”
“But also, from a center-back position, Matip is also back, and Joe Gomez is around, they signed Konaté, which means that the full-backs can play in their proper positions and we have a full strength squad, means that the team looks much more comfortable than it did probably the whole of last season and they’re ready to fight it out.”
– Do you think Joel Matip could be his partner this season over Joe Gomez or Ibrahima Konate?
JB -“Not necessarily – whether it’s going to be Matip, Gomez or Konaté is yet to be seen. It’s worth remembering that Gomez was ahead of Matip until he got injured, and then, following the signing of Konaté, who we paid a lot for, perhaps it’s Konaté who will play alongside van Dijk.
“However, it doesn’t make a huge difference as the signs are really good from a center-back position so whoever will fill that role would do so very adequately. But the important thing is van Dijk, because we’ve seen in the past when you had Matip and Gomez, or maybe if you have Konaté and Gomez, as much as individually they’re good players, I think any one of them playing alongside van Dijk would be worth their place in the team and be very competent. Matip, Gomez and Konaté have very similar profiles – all three of them are big, strong, quick, and with a composed van Dijk, with his leadership qualities alongside them, they would be equally as good as each other. As a manager, it’s a nice problem to have!”
– Where do you think Liverpool could finish based on their performance against Norwich, and who are their main rivals?
JB – “They absolutely do have it in them to win the league, but so do Manchester City. Manchester United are also looking strong, as do Chelsea, especially after signing Lukaku.
“My guess is that Liverpool and Man City will grab the two top spots followed by Man United and Chelsea – not necessarily in that order.
“I think as long as Liverpool can keep everybody fit, or at least the main players, that in itself should go along way. Also, they don’t have to integrate a number of new players this season as Jota and Thiago were really the only two new signings and they came towards the end of last season, and then it’s just Konaté. So as much as they haven’t made signings this year, we made our signings last year and one important signing this year and that is actually great set up for the season ahead as the players already know each other.
“And even if we get a couple of injuries at the back now, we can still fill in, get a couple of injuries up front, with Jota being there we can cope with that, so I don’t think we necessarily need to sign anyone. We’ve got the harmony, we’ve got the togetherness. We don’t need to get used to the way each other plays because the team has been together for a long while, where I suppose Man City has to get used to Jack Grealish and if Harry Kane comes, to try and fit them into a team, which may take time. So yeah, I think we definitely will be there or thereabout.”
“The main issue last season was that we lacked the quality because of the number of players that were injured. So if you look at the players that actually came into the team, the young players who did a great job in terms of what they had to do, under different circumstances they wouldn’t have been anywhere near the squad, so for us to finish third, was a really great achievement.”
– Alisson showed his value to Liverpool again in the win over Norwich, is he the best goalkeeper in the world for you?
JB: “Yes – I’d definitely say so. Of course Ederson at Manchester City is right up there too. But Alisson is a fantastic goalkeeper and apart from being great he also brings a much needed calmness to the team and I think that we saw it when himself and van Dijk came to the club, how everything just settled down and calmed down.
“And we’ve seen even with van Dijk playing, but when Alisson doesn’t play, then maybe the belief isn’t necessarily there. So I think that over the last three years, himself and van Dijk have been the two most important signings. Yes, Salah’s been scoring goals, but in terms of the way he plays with those two has been fantastic.
“And I’d definitely say he can be up there with Ray Clemence and Bruce Grobbelaar as Liverpool’s ever best goalkeeper; however, if he leaves the club next year, then things would be different. At the end of the day, you judge people in terms of the legacy and what they leave behind and the impact they’ve had on the team at the end of their careers. Allison has only been with Liverpool for two and a half years and he’s done fantastically well so if he stays and continues to play as well as he has to date, then I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes Liverpool’s best-ever goalkeeper.”