With Virgil van Dijk back, Liverpool are still joint-favourites for the Premier League title alongside Manchester City next year, insists Paul Merson.
In his latest column, Merson insists Liverpool have been unlucky this season, and that with their best defenders back, the intensity will return and they will still be one of the teams to beat in 2021/22.
Liverpool have seen the biggest drop points-wise from a Premier League champion, sitting on 40 points from 24 games having lost their last three and winning just twice in the league since December 19 – 10 games ago.
Merson also discusses summer signing Thiago, who he is convinced will come good, but isn’t fitting in at the moment in a depleted Liverpool side.
And after Tottenham’s 3-0 defeat at Man City on Saturday, a game in which Harry Kane failed to register a single touch in the opposition box, Merson asks: Should the England striker be thinking of leaving Spurs? And who could come in for him?
‘Liverpool will be back’
They will be back, 100 per cent. As soon as Van Dijk is back, this is a different team. I have no doubt about that. I still think next season, they will be the team to beat. If everyone is back fit, it’s 50-50 for me, heads or tails with City for the title.
It’s the biggest points drop, but you have to remember the figures they were putting up last season. They were out of this world. I know they haven’t been great, and they’ve had a load of injuries, but at half-time against Man City at home they were still in the title race, which I think is a phenomenal feat given the players they’ve had out.
If you asked us how Liverpool were going to start each week last season, we’d get the starting XI right nine times out of 10. It picked itself, it was such a machine. They suffocated teams.
When you gave players coming in who haven’t played a lot of football, it’s hard to play that tempo. If one switches off, you are punished.
When Van Dijk is in the team, Liverpool are playing on the halfway line. They win the ball back 25 yards out, then it’s one pass and they score. Now they’ve playing with a central midfielder at centre-back and they’re playing in their own half. This year I don’t think they’ve had a lot of luck at all.
There is a drop in intensity this season, and that’s because of the players coming in. The goalkeeper is, for me, the best in the world. Look at him now. There’s no trust at all in the back four, and he’s playing on a knife edge. It’s all because of Van Dijk.
Why are Man City succeeding at the moment? They have defenders playing out of their skin. Nobody wins anything without a good defence, and at the moment Liverpool’s defence is nowhere near the level they were at last year.
‘Tough time for Thiago… but we will see improvement’
Bayern Munich have the ball 99 per cent of the time. Now all of a sudden, he comes into this league, gets booked in virtually every game, then he’s walking a tightrope and the intensity has to go.
He comes over here, and it just proves that this is the hardest league in the world by a million miles. But he’s coming into a team that is struggling. He thinks he’s getting time on the ball, trying to make things happen, but it’s just hard.
When Van Dijk comes back, I think we see a better Thiago. He can see a pass like Kevin De Bruyne. But at the moment he’s having to run around, get the ball back, and that pass is 40, 50 yards away from his own goal. He needs to get the ball on the edge of the box and thread it through the eye of a needle.
At the moment, it’s the wrong team for him. When they start getting their best players back, and they’re getting the ball to him 30 yards out, he will cause problems. I have no doubt about it.
He can’t tackle, and if that was his job when they bought him, it’s a bad buy. But that’s not what they bought him for.
‘Kane has big decision to make’
I thought after the game on Saturday: ‘I wonder how Harry Kane feels when he gets home?’
He’s going to be 28 in the summer – his next three years will be his best years. He’s got a big thing to weigh up now. I don’t think he gets near Alan Shearer’s record (260 Premier League goals to Kane’s 156) at Tottenham playing this way. Far from it.
I said at the start of the season he’ll have a big decision. When you have a game like that against City, and he knows his football because he’s an intelligent player, he will know Spurs are a million miles off Man City. A million miles.
Harry Kane – Zero touches in opp box (PL starts)
|December 2015||Newcastle (H)||Lost 2-1|
|December 2018||Wolves (H)||Lost 3-1|
|June 2020||Man Utd (H)||Drew 1-1|
|February 2021||Man City (A)||Lost 3-0|
For me, I played football to win trophies. Nobody can ever turn around to me and say: ‘You never won the FA Cup, the League Cup, the Cup Winners Cup, the League title twice.’ Nobody can take that away from you. You play football to win! You want to win the league, win trophies, there’s nothing better than winning trophies.
I think owners of clubs have football into a top-four culture – they are not fussed if they don’t win anything, as long as they finish in the top four. That’s a trophy.
I think Kane is the best striker in the world. He’s the only one who can make chances, put the ball through the eye of a needle, and also finish. There aren’t many centre forwards in the world who can do that.
But it’s difficult. You have to think of your family; he has a wife and two kids, he might be happy as Larry where he is. It’s all well and good us saying he should leave, but he may be loving his football at Spurs. We don’t know.
Could Manchester clubs come in?
But if I’m Man Utd, I’m doing all I can to buy Kane. I know Erling Haaland is on a lot of radars, but there should be only one person on Man Utd’s radar: Harry Kane. If they want to close the gap to Man City, they need someone to come to that club and score goals the minute he walks into that club, like Harry Kane can.
Because Kane has done it, year in, year out, in this relentless league. Who is to know Haaland is going to hit the ground running in this league? You don’t have time in this league. Timo Werner was scoring goals left, right and centre, but came here and has struggled.
Sometimes I watch Kane and think: ‘Am I the only one who sees this?’ I’d be paying everything to sign him. He’s got the entire package.
Man Utd need to win the league now, not in five or six years’ time. Don’t get me wrong, Haaland is an unbelievable prospect. But for me it’s a no brainer – I’d want to win the league now!
I wouldn’t be surprised if Man City went for him, but that depends on how they do in the Champions League. The only thing that’s going to stop them winning the competition is missed chances. If it is down to missed chances, I know who I want in my team next year: Harry Kane.
But I’ll say it again: his family may be happy where they are. A lot of things at Tottenham tick his boxes, but he won’t want too many days like he had on Saturday.