The new season is imminent! A year ago I wrote at length about the prospects for 2013-14 at the start of Brendan Rogers’ second season in charge at Anfield (http://www.bostonsocceracademy.com/blog/2013/08/16/THE-PREMIERSHIP-LIVERPOOLS-PROSPECTS-FOR-2013-14.aspx). Rogers endured a difficult first half of that season followed by a substantial improvement in the latter part. Consequently, I had little idea of to expect last year as there were a number of question marks and unknowns besides some distinct signs of promise and potential. My conclusion was that the Reds could improve from 7th maybe to 5th or 6th in the Premiership but not much more. How wrong I was!! Liverpool surprised myself and many others by coming within a heartbeat of the league title. To watch they were vibrant and exciting team and in the end they were unfortunate not to be crowned champions. 12 months on, in spite of coming off such a memorable season, just as many unknowns and question-marks remain. Was 2013-14 a flash in the pan or was it a serious indication of the path the Mighty Reds are now squarely moving along? In many respects I feel the same as I did last August. I have no clear idea on how they will do over the coming season!!
THE CURRENT TEAM
So here's the projected LFC starting team for the coming season:
DEF: Johnson or Manquillo; Skrtel, Lovren or Sakho (2 from 3); Moreno
C.MID: Gerrard, Henderson, Coutinho
FWDS: Sterling, Sturridge, Lallana
KEY RESERVES: Flanagan (FB), Toure (CB), Allen, Can, Markovic (all Mids), Suso or Ibe, Lambert (Fwds)
I think its fair to say that last summer’s signings didn’t workout! Only Mignolet played regularly. Sakho contributed and, with Agger seemingly on the way out, he is the only out & out left-sided central defender in the squad. Sakho can expect more time. This year’s buys, Moreno, Can & Markovic, compared to last years, Aspas, Ilori & Luis Alberto, are just as young but much more expensive. Logically they should be better! I can’t imagine that they have been bought to be spectators. More games this year has to mean that we will soon find out, one way or another, exactly were they are at and whether they can cope with the demands of the English game. With all the money spent this summer, if the media are to be believed, a clear out is also on the way. The owners are budget conscious and Pepe Reina has proved to be the first of several players to be moved on. Apparently he was on a large salary and had fallen out with Rogers. Agger, as already noted, and Lucas could well be amongst the next to be moved on. These are strong experienced players. Personally I would rate them higher than Toure and Allen who play comparable positions but appear destined to stay. However, besides their salaries they may not be content with supporting roles at this point of their careers. The manager has to be mindful of this so transferring them from this perspective might make sense.
So is the team stronger than last year? The returners are clearly better than they were 12 months ago. They understand & believe in the system that Brendan Rogers has implemented. However, Coutinho & Sturridge apart the players Rogers has brought in have not had the greatest success. Let’s hope the expensive new brigade fare better! On paper the team is a good. The bench is an unknown quantity but hopefully a step up from 2013-14. The weakness of the the team last year was defense. Johnson & Skrtel apart the players are all the manager’s picks so again the hope has to be improvement. That said Mignolet in goal is for me is a big question-mark. He’s a good Premiership level keeper but is he a top keeper compared to the goalies at the other contenders in the league? I don’t think so and would rate him the weakest out of the the top 7 teams in the league. One of the unfortunate things is that Pepe Reina was clearly a superior goalkeeper and has been let go. Liverpool need another keeper capable of starting!! Coates is a young player said to be on his way - he impressed me on the recent US tour - and Martin Kelly has already gone. Kelly’s potential has probably been stunted by injuries. I’ve never rated Enrique. He works hard and he runs, runs, runs but in the final analysis what does he actually do?!! The arrival of Moreno may well mean the end of the road for him. Jack Robinson is a talented young left back so Liverpool should have cover in this position. Dejan Lovren from Southampton is a proven Premiership player and said to be a leader. That is something that Liverpool certainly need in defence.
There appear to be plenty of options in midfield. Gerrard is past his best but still an excellent player. Henderson has been a surprise. Brendan Rogers has set him a target of 10 goals this season. If he can meet this goal then he will have taken another large step forward in his development. Joe Allen has never totally convinced. Incidentally, I wouldn’t expect goals from the midfield with Allen & Henderson in the team at the same time so its either one or the other for me. Besides these players there’s a lot of new blood to provide support. Another Southampton signing, Adam Lallana, is a creative addition, who can score goals and was a success in his inaugural Premiership campaign.
In attack Liverpool look to have strength but there are question marks. The biggest one is obviously replacing Luis Suarez. I’ll come back to Suarez later but his role the last 2 years is well chronicled. In the first half of the 2012-13 season, during the bumpy first few months of Rodgers’ reign, the Reds would have been bottom of the league without him on board. Daniel Sturridge is talented and has done very well but he picks up knocks quite easily. Also, unlike his former team-mate when he gets temperamental he tends to lose focus. Rickie Lambert is a good squad signing but on the evidence of what we have seen to date needs another striker to play alongside him to be fully effective. This might Rogers being prepared to play with 2 strikers on occasion.
Overall, the team and the squad is on the young side and this could be a negative over the long haul. Of the older more experienced players Johnson & Skrtel are good but prone to significant mistakes, Toure is well past his best, Gerrard still has quality but after the way the last season ended & a disappointing World Cup it will be interesting to see how he rebounds psychologically. Finally there is a Lambert, a player I rate, but what role can he fulfill successfully this coming season? Liverpool I feel lack a substantial number of experienced players who can be guaranteed to contribute. This is not the case with all their rivals at the top of the league.
My heart wants Liverpool to kick on and progress. My head suggests otherwise. The prevailing opinion appears to be that the Reds won’t be as involved in the title race: Tottenham syndrome (in the wake of their loss Gareth Bale); too many new players to bed in; the raised expectations of Liverpool’s fans and the fact that all the leading teams have added bigger name players. In the case of bitter rivals Man United, a manager who can live up to the recent history of the club. All of these could be factors in a lesser season but overall the biggest obstacle Rogers and his team face is replacing Luis Suarez. Liverpool played very well last season but Suarez brought that extra dimension. The intensity that prompts him to bite an opponent in the heat of the moment is also a key to his brilliance, sheer competitiveness and mental toughness. Sturridge has talent but I doubt he can fully take over the mantle. He just doesn’t have that extra added ingredient as well as the mental toughness that Suarez has in spades. One of Liverpool’s best performances last season was the demolition of Arsenal at home. This was one game that Suarez didn’t score in but some of the things he did where incredible - remember that sudden volley from distance that came out of nowhere and crashed off the upright - that kind of brilliance was reminiscent of the great Pele. Its not just the goals he scores but the virtuoso magic he brings to a game that makes him one of the best players in the world.
Liverpool still need to sign another forward but replacing a player like Luis Suarez is impossible. There is no direct replacement. A more sensible approach is team based. Tighten the defence, share the responsibility around scoring (especially from the midfield) and get the best out of Sturridge and company up front. Nobody has the out & out X factor of the Uruguayan but Sterling & Coutinho are youngsters of vast talent & potential who are developing and improving. If new recruits like Lallana & Markovic can add to the goals tally then the loss of Suarez might be softened to some degree.
The recent American tour and preseason games provided one or two clues of what might come to pass in 2014-15. Man City outplayed Liverpool for large periods in New York but each time they scored Liverpool came right back and equalized. The Reds showed that they can scrap and not give up and ended that game on top. Against Man United Liverpool had a tactical grip on the game until Wayne Rooney scored. Rooney is the kind of experienced X factor type of player that Liverpool may now lack following the transfer of Suarez. Rooney single handedly turned that game. The Borussia Dortmund game last weekend showed Liverpool looking dominant & strong replicating much of their flowing football from last season. It would also be fair to say that Dortmund had their minds on their midweek German Super Cup clash with Bayern Munich and weren’t at their most competitive. As I say these games give only clues and glimpses of what might be this season.
A successful season would be another top 4 finish and maybe a League Cup or FA Cup trophy as a bonus. I can’t say I’m certain LFC will make it into the top 4 but I challenge Brendan and the boys to surprise myself and Liverpool fans everywhere as they did last season. The critics and the experts are already writing the team off before a ball is even kicked and perhaps this might the be the very reason that the Mighty Reds can surprise us all once again. The 29 soccer “experts” & commentators at the BBC certainly suggest that Liverpool 2013-14 was indeed a flash in the pan. 14 of the 29 predicted Liverpool would finish 4th at best. The remaining 15 didn’t place the Reds in the top 4. Overall Liverpool were a distant 5th to Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal and Man United. The first 3 teams have spent big bucks on players of greater pedigree and reputation than those Liverpool have signed and are stronger than last season. The Van Gaal hype has propelled Man United back into the limelight and Liverpool apparently will be left trailing in the dust by them as well. In a funny way the departure of Suarez, while it may be the biggest obstacle to replicating last season’s form, could also help LFC in as much as many regarded Suarez as the sole reason Liverpool did as well as they did. If Liverpool remain underrated and a good start to the season who knows more surprises could be on the way. As I wrote before the start of last season … “prove me wrong Brendan” … let my heart rule my head! Come on you Reds!! YNWA.