Alex Hess assesses the squad and where the Reds need to strengthen this summer – will the lessons of last year be learnt?
In many ways, the FA Cup final showing was far from representative of Liverpool’s season. A non-performance both on a big occasion and against strong opposition – two criteria which have tended to result in rare galvanisation for Liverpool this year – was fairly unexpected, even if the result was not.
In other ways, though, many of the side’s now-familiar shortcomings were on display. The underwhelming, overawed nature of a Lucas-shorn midfield, the complete anonymity of Stewart Downing, and the worrying decline in form of Pepe Reina and José Enrique all made a reappearance. Meanwhile, the side’s best attackers were either busy compensating for others’ failings (Steven Gerrard) or isolated as a result (Luis Suarez). The introduction of Andy Carroll after an hour changed all this, but a team that only shows up for one third of a game will never be worthy winners.
Although drawing reactionary conclusions from one game in isolation is of little use, the final did emphasise certain long-standing problems that need addressing this summer.
Liverpool’s midfield needs serious reinforcing. Although the club’s recession from the famed Xabi Alonso/ Javier Mascherano partnership to a Jay Spearing/Jordan Henderson axis is a much-quoted one, the point nonetheless stands: Lucas and Gerrard aside, Liverpool’s midfielders are nowhere near being top-level footballers.
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Jordan Henderson, I believe, will grow into a reliable deep-lying presence, while Jonjo Shelvey is more raw, more naturally attacking, but potentially just as promising. Both showed what they can offer when on form in Tuesday’s win against Chelsea, but supporters should not get carried away. Neither should be considered the first port of call next season.
Jay Spearing’s tenacity and desire are admirable, but he has demonstrated that he cannot be relied upon as the primary back-up to Lucas. Indeed, his best form in a Liverpool shirt, at the end of last season, came alongside the Brazilian rather than instead of him. Charlie Adam, as predicted, is not the answer either, though perhaps a useful squad player.
In contrast, the defensive unit requires little work, although some competition at left back to awaken José Enrique from his two-month slumber wouldn’t hurt (he was as much at fault for Ramires’ FA Cup final opener as Spearing and Reina). For now, Reina’s recent patch of suspect form can be written off as simply that, while Sebastian Coates, one would imagine, will see more league football next time round.
Further forward, incision out wide is desperately lacking. Downing is a pacey, direct winger, but he has zero self-belief, and an immediate upgrade is needed. Raheem Sterling could well be the long-term remedy here, but he is only 17. Equally, goal-getting replacements will also be required if Dirk Kuyt and Maxi Rodriguez are to depart.
Finally, an additional striker should be sought. Suarez’s class and importance is undoubted, but as it stands he does not guarantee goals. Carroll, I am now convinced, should be retained, and – crucially – his new-found confidence and mobility preserved. He has proven that, when on form, he doesn’t need to be accommodated by a regressive style of play. If anything, the likes of Glen Johnson and Suarez appear to relish his presence as a focal point for their interplay. A third option is still required, however – one capable of stretching defences, who is ruthless in the penalty box. Javier Hernandez would be ideal, although players of his value do not come around often. Jermain Defoe, although at the wrong end of his 20s, may be an option worth pursuing.
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So, signings are clearly needed, but Liverpool fans should not kid themselves. The likes of Suarez – players of proven pedigree willing to join a club who aren’t in Europe’s elite competition – are the exception rather than the norm, and even more so after another year of underachievement. The badge alone will rarely attract the cream of the crop, but improvements are available – as well as Defoe, the likes of Victor Moses and Junior Hoilett should not be sniffed at.
Of course, the transfer market exposed the club’s biggest failing a year ago, and the respective roles of manager Kenny Dalglish and director of football Damien Comolli in last summer’s dealings have always been ambiguous. With Comolli now departed and Dalglish unlikely to escape another season of treading water, this year’s activity will need to show a marked improvement.
Fingers have been burned, and hopefully lessons have been learned.