Season Preview: Liverpool
August 9, 2012 in Premier League
Last year under ‘King’ Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool spent £120m on new players. Some would call it an investment, others a waste. This short-lived era of often unwise cash-splashing ended with Dalglish’s sacking. The king was dead: look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! At his most nonsensical, the returning Liverpool legend would jump to defend what was eventually proven as racism, as well as spend £70m on a combination of Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing, the latter of which provided no goals and no assists last season.
It would not be unfair to label the Dalglish era as a bitter disappointment; in spite of an impressive string of victories culminating in Liverpool winning the League Cup, there was little to get excited about. In the 2011/2012 campaign, Liverpool amassed their lowest top-flight points tally since 1953-4 and scored only 47 league goals – worse than Blackburn, who were relegated.
And under close scrutiny even the messages of hope are futile – fans have been quick to say that Liverpool hit the woodwork 33 times, assuming that with more luck, their total points would have rocketed. Conversely, a recent amateur study has concluded that, everything considered, Liverpool would have still finished under Everton down in 8th place.
Step aside King Kenny and enter 39-year-old Brendan Rodgers, who successfully turned Watford’s woeful start to the 2008/9 season into a mid-table finish. I believe Rodgers’s key task as Liverpool manager – aside from ensuring a respectable league position – is to reinvent the club’s identity. Since the last days of the Benitez era, there has been no concrete philosophy, no unified team ideology. The stumbling, mediocre narrative of Liverpool’s previous few years has been disappointing, and although they are still involved in the Premier League big six, it would be misguided to assume Liverpool still occupied a position within the big four.
Rodgers’s challenge is a difficult one, and will require patience from the Liverpool board and fans alike. During his spell at Reading, the former Chelsea youth and reserve team manager was faced with a similarly tricky position and, after a string of poor performances, left the club by mutual consent. However, that was three years ago, and Rodgers’s successful reign at Swansea suggests a matured tactical awareness coupled with a refreshing approach of how to play (and win!) Premier League matches.
Whatever style of football Rodgers decides to implement, it cannot be overstated how much they will have to hit the ground running. Liverpool have a very tough series of opening fixtures: away at West Brom, home to Manchester City, home to Arsenal, away to Sunderland, and home to Manchester United. And while December looks like a good month for the Reds – with games against Southampton, West Ham, Aston Villa, Fulham, Stoke City and QPR – they wouldn’t want it to be the time to make up for a shaky start.
In terms of transfers, Rodgers has been relatively quiet – after all Liverpool did spend a butt-load of money last year. Ensuring that last season’s top scorer Luis Suárez remains at the club has been a top priority, and his signing of a new contract has ended the speculation of a summer move to Serie A. Rodgers’ first move was to bring in former Swansea City and Roma striker Fabio Borini. The 21-year-old was coached by Rodgers in the Chelsea reserves and is highly thought of by Liverpool’s new manager. He is a young, clinical finisher, and for £10m, Rodgers will hope he can convert the chances created by some of the team’s more creative members. Another former player under Rodgers’s management, Joe Allen, is expected to complete a £15m move as Liverpool activate the release clause in his contract. The current Swansea City player proved himself in the Premier League last season and looked a solid presence in Team GB’s Olympics football squad.
After a season-long loan at the former French champions Lille, Joe Cole will be a welcome return to the Liverpool ranks. I’m not sure whether Steven Gerrard still thinks that Cole is as good as, if not better than, Lionel Messi, but there’s no denying that Cole is a technically gifted attacking midfielder with a creative mind; he’s also more versatile than fellow winger Stewart Downing. The pressure is well and truly off for England’s forgotten man, the returning Erasmus student.
And now to Andy Carroll. The future of Carroll hasn’t yet been decided; nevertheless whether he stays or goes, it is to be expected that his form will improve. As noted by the Guardian’s Barney Ronay, the sad demise of Carroll’s league form was inextricably linked to his misjudged price-tag, and his on-pitch presence often resembled a lumbering drunken horse. It’s an image as funny as it is upsetting. With his towering header against Sweden in this summer’s Euros, Carroll may have silenced some of his critics, but a newfound confidence might not be on the cards just yet. What the goal does demonstrate is at least some sort of understanding between him and his Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, whose visionary assist lies in desolate opposition to almost everything else about England’s Euro 2012 campaign.
However, there have been departures. Fragile central midfielder Alberto Aquilani has finally moved back to Italy, and Maxi Rodríguez, who looked like a whole new player in the last few months of his Liverpool career, has returned to childhood club Newell’s Old Boys. The most significant exit is Dirk Kuyt, whose high-octane work rate will be sorely missed as he transfers to Turkish side Fenerbahçe. With the likely possibility of Craig Bellamy and Daniel Agger leaving too, it seems Rodgers has a clear focus on who he is prepared to sacrifice.
So what can Liverpool expect for the coming season? Well, Martin Škrtel is an extremely important presence in a defence that looks rather weak: Carragher is not the player he used to be and the skills of first-choice fullbacks José Enrique and Glen Johnson lie mostly in attacking, rather than defending. While cover is provided from young hopefuls such as Martin Kelly, Danny Wilson and Jack Robinson, there is no proven defensive talent to supply more than adequate cover.
And what for Charlie Adam, who will surely attempt to break both of Gareth Bale’s ankles (I’m joking)? Steven Gerrard, the ageing captain, could end up playing fewer minutes in order to stay fully fit and maybe, just maybe, we can assume that Stewart Downing might get at least one league goal, right? Promising Liverpool youngsters Raheem Sterling and Jonjo Shelvey will make a few appearances here and there if they are not loaned out, gaining valuable match experience in a variety of competitions: that is, if Liverpool manage to qualify for the Europa League.
Arguably Liverpool’s key player over the next season is not Gerrard, Reina, or Suárez. It is in fact Lucas Leiva, the returning pivote midfielder, who was a stand-out performer before his anterior cruciate ligament. His assured technique in breaking down oppositional play will be vital to Liverpool’s success, and could allow Rodgers to play a 4-3-3 formation that utilises the very best of his inherited squad.
Patience is essential for this optimistic new epoch. I’m predicting a 6th place finish but this is a reserved guesstimate. Liverpool have proven to be an erratic force over the last few years and have as much potential to succeed as they do to fail.