This has to be the litmus test for Brendan Rodgers. After the rebuilding exercise that was last season, Liverpool, by all accounts seem to have enough depth to get closer to the top four this season, but must prove they have the mentality to go all the way.
Last season was his first foray in his role as the Liverpool manager where he finished 7th in the league. Whilst a seventh-placed finish may have been below par, the reality is that it was always going to be a difficult turn around. Rodgers was going through a major re-building process both in terms of his squad and the way he wants them to play.
Overall, Liverpool were quite impressive especially in the last quarter of the season with one defeat in ten matches. This season though, there will be more pressure to make an effort for the domestic cup competitions and to try and push for a top four spot.
For Rodgers, it was as much a significant balancing act as it was a complete structural reform, and by and large, he balanced the re-engineering process well, adding more technical quality around his main asset, Luis Suarez.
Tactically, instead of looking to get it wide and hit a big man in Andy Carroll and play for second balls (as witnessed with King Kenny), Rodgers had them playing out from the back in a 4-3-3 formation with Suarez at the tip of the front three. In my opinion, this didn’t always work out especially with teams that were very organised like Stoke City.
All told, it was a season of vast improvement in terms of the quality of play. A further proof of this can be seen in the goal scoring department wherein they scored 24 more goals than the previous campaign.
This summer Liverpool have been rocked by the enigma called Luis Suarez. The gifted albeit controversial 26-year old indicated his interest in joining Arsenal in a stratospheric attempt at muscling in on Champions League football. There has been so many twists and turns with the latest in this gripping sub-plot being that he now wants to stay and possibly extend his contract. Phew!
On other fronts, Liverpool have lost the experience of Mr reliable himself – Jamie Carragher. He retired, and the club now have that big hole at the back that must be filled. Pepe Reina, the third-longest serving player at the end of last season, was also allowed to leave on loan to Napoli after the club signed Simon Mignolet from Sunderland who joined for £9 million from Sunderland after three good years on Wearside, where he established himself as one of the league’s better goalkeepers. Mignolet looks a good buy and should add some quality to Liverpool’s distribution, as well as bringing aerial relief. However, he will need to hit the ground running immediately because fans will question the decision to let Reina join Napoli, with Liverpool’s back up options no different to last season, in Brad Jones. We wait to see if this will turn out to be a masterstroke or not.
In an attempt to try and plug the gaping hole left by Carragher’s retirement, Liverpool swooped for Kolo Toure on a free from Manchester City. He brings with him a wealth of premier league experience, particularly with Arsenal and recently, Manchester City, in addition to the experience of winning trophies. It certainly represents a minor coup for the club, but one cannot but feel that Liverpool need another centre back with Martin Skrtel and Sebastian Coates both seemingly on their way out. It is also paramount that Liverpool keep hold of Daniel Agger, a priced asset, as he courts interest from Barcelona.
In attack, other than Luis Suarez, if he stays, Rodgers has added depth through the acquisition of the Spaniard striker Iago Aspas adding to the already impressive Daniel Sturridge.
Liverpool appear to be well catered for in the attacking midfield department. Philippe Coutinho joined in the January window and has already proved to be a fantastic signing. The young Brazilian can play left-wing forward in this 4-3-3 formation that Rodgers likes to play, but he is at his best in the attacking midfield role. Other players that can play there include Joe Allen, who started last season well but suffered from a shoulder injury, as well as summer signing Luis Alberto. The 20-year old Spaniard impressed at Barcelona B last season but it’s surely asking too much to throw him in at the deep end early on. Many supporters believe that Jordan Henderson’s best position is in a role that Steven Gerrard once played; Henderson came into the side in the latter stages of last season and impressed in Liverpool’s end of season flourish.
Having said that, one area in the side that is of major concern is the lack of cover behind the attacking midfielder. Gerrard has been pushed back into the midfield two, alongside Lucas Leiva. I feel there isn’t enough cover in that position; that cover, which was hitherto filled by Jonjo Shelvey, has now been further reduced by his sale to Swansea. It is one of the areas that needs to be strengthened, because Liverpool suffered last season from not having a Mohamed Diame type player patrolling that area.
Liverpool are well catered for in the wing forward position, in youngsters Jordon Ibe and Raheem Sterling. The latter featured on almost a weekly basis last season, and I expect these two to feature regularly. Liverpool are still short of a wing-forward who is versatile and can play in the front three of Rodgers’ formation. Stewart Downing was an option on the right hand side of the forward three last season, but he has since been moved on to West Ham United for £5 million.
Up front, Liverpool are determined not to make the same mistakes as they did last summer, when they let Andy Carroll join West Ham on loan (he’s since signed permanently) without getting a replacement in. They were left with two senior strikers, in Fabio Borini (who subsequently got injured) and Suarez, and the lack of attacking options showed as Liverpool struggled with a miniscle squad. Rodgers learnt from that mistake and subsequently brought in Daniel Sturridge (in the January window) to ease the goalscoring burden on Suarez, and this summer brought in Iago Aspas from Celta Vigo: he’s scored four goals in seven games in pre-season, but if Suarez leaves, Liverpool will be left with three strikers, but with a major war chest that can be used for an immediate replacement.
In the final analysis, the major challenge will be the club’s lack of European football. This will surely haunt them. Despite the huge worldwide appeal and the of history of this supposedly successful European club, players prefer to join clubs that can offer Champions League football. That puts Liverpool at a serious disadvantage when trying to attract the top players, and it doesn’t help that Liverpool aren’t keen on offering top dollar. Sometimes spending big wouldn’t always work; it may appease supporters, but looks embarrassing if the big-money signing doesn’t work out as seen with the likes of Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing (both now re-united at West Ham United, no pun intended) and to a lesser degree Jordan Henderson.
Overall the squad appears to have more depth but still lacks quality in key areas to effectively compete with the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and even Tottenham.
In my opinion to even give it a go, Liverpool would have to sign another central defender, a defensive midfielder and an attacker who is versatile to play anywhere along the front three. One thing that bodes well is the fact that Liverpool got key players in early, however, nothing happened in July and nothing has as yet happened in August
Liverpool’s strong finish to last season – where they ended with an 8-game unbeaten run which is still going – creates momentum and optimism ahead of the new campaign. It also helps that Liverpool have been given a kinder start (on paper) this season than last year, even though it is still a little difficult. The momentum created from last season’s run will hopefully help Liverpool hit the ground running early on. That is vital as the pressure will be on from the first whistle to challenge for the top four, and with no Thursday nights in the Europa League to worry about, a top four spot and a challenge for the domestic trophies would be considered a success.
While much hinges on what happens with Suarez and whether he is motivated to contribute, Rodgers can also expect goal and assist contributions from the likes of Aspas, Sturridge, Gerrard, Coutinho and Sterling.
One of Rodgers’ biggest challenges is to ensure his defenders aren’t bullied by physical strikers like Christian Benteke or teams like Stoke City, or picked off easily on the counter.
Liverpool are far from the finished product, but have had an excellent 2013, and the form augurs well. Ultimately, the players need to show the kind of mentality that allows them to consistently control and dominate opponents not only with the ball, but without it especially at Anfield.
In my estimation, If Suarez stays, Liverpool will finish 4th, otherwise, we may be looking at 5th or 6th.