Aaron Cutler previews a big year for Brendan Rodgers and asks how progress can be measured.
Liverpool’s players returned to training on Tuesday to begin preparations for the upcoming season. Many considered the previous campaign one of transition, with the introduction of new ideas spawning a trial and error period never likely to produce instant results.
Clearly a long-term project, it could take up to five years for the reds to realistically regain a place amongst football’s elite. But if year one of Brendan Rodgers tenure represented a Free Pass, his second will bring greater expectancy. Clear progress is essential, if only to prove he and we are on the right track.
Overall Rodgers is a popular figure. He speaks well, preaches a progressive style of play and seems to have bought into the majesty of LFC. He also garnered sympathy in the wake of last summer’s disastrous transfer window and the handling of various Suarez-fuelled controversies. The standard rabble of social media trolls aside; most fans support his vision and see a means to an end.
But popularity can only take you so far. We are Liverpool after all and in spite of a host of sorry league finishes in recent years, that fact breeds huge expectancy. Fenway Sports Group severed ties with Kenny Dalglish in search of Champions League qualification. With that in mind, Rodgers surely has a limited time frame in which to deliver what The King could not.
Despite an influx of signings already this summer, finishing fourth looks an almighty ask for Liverpool in 2013/14. So what constitutes a good season? In what areas can Brendan build on a steady if unspectacular first campaign? Below are five points sure to feature on any To Do list as he resumes work at Melwood.
Last year Liverpool finished seventh with 61 points, some way off fourth (73) but comfortably above West Brom in eighth (49). In many ways the Premier League can be divided into three distinct groups. You have those in and around the top four, the two Merseyside clubs below them and then the rest who give or take a few points are either lodged in mid-table or staving-off relegation.
The harsh reality is that top five are all superior to Liverpool right now and rightly fared far better last term. Everton are not. It may sound bitter but The Blues should not be finishing above Liverpool. United, City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs all have better squads than us, Everton do not. Credit to them for maximising their resources and defying the odds, a hallmark of David Moyes reign. But with him out of the picture most expect them to fall away. Should that happen Brendan Rodgers and his squad must set their sights on Tottenham in fifth.
Spurs came to Anfield last season and were very unlucky to leave empty handed. There were large periods in that game where they dominated possession and looked every bit the real deal. To our credit we dug deep and turned the tables to earn a memorable victory. Now we have to do the same over the course of a season.
Andre Villas Boas will obviously strengthen his ranks, with Paulinho the first of what is likely to be a raft of arrivals. However Gareth Bale remains their one talisman and the man on whom they will continue to pin their hopes. On countless occasions last term the Welshman proved the difference between a draw and a win, smashing home a series of wonder goals in true Roy of the Rovers fashion. Many claim Luis Suarez was equally as vital and they might have a point but at least The Uruguayan had help around him in the second half of the season. Bale was often a lone ranger. He may be a world class talent but it is unrealistic to expect him to repeat those feats time and again.
Should Bale leave, get injured or even tail-off slightly, it could cost Spurs between ten and fifteen points (at least). Basically Liverpool need to ensure they are in a position to capitalise. They can do that by finding more consistency in their own results…
Liverpool recorded three straight victories just once in the Premier League last season. A sorry if unsurprising statistic. That said, we only lost nine games all year, meaning a host of draws handicapped the campaign.
Thirteen times we shared the spoils, with the majority of stalemates delivering a deflated rather than upbeat atmosphere. Drawing with Stoke and West Ham at home is hardly the form of Champions League pretenders, nor failing to turn one point into three against Reading, Sunderland and Swansea on the road.
The manager needs to instil a winning mentality missing in the Liverpool squad since 2009. On his unveiling last June Rodgers spoke of acquiring players with the mental strength to play at this club. By that he meant individuals with an inner resilience… proven winners. Those cut from that cloth do not cower when the team is failing to break down a stubborn defence, or loses an early goal. Too often our side let their heads drop at key moments – think West Brom away, Arsenal at home. Finding that consistency is as much a mental thing as it is a quality issue.
Our first five fixtures last term were as ugly as a Neville family album, which hardly helped. This time around there is cause for optimism. A win against Stoke on the opening day will breed belief and set us up nicely for a trip to Villa Park. Successive wins and suddenly we are hosting United brimming with confidence.
A sustained challenge for the top four will only be possible if we find a consistency missing for four years or more.
Beat Top Sides
Despite three disappointing seasons the reds had remained largely competitive against their biggest rivals… until last year that is. Ordinarily Liverpool would raise their game when the likes of United and Chelsea came to town but then curiously falter against so-called lesser sides.
Even in 2009/10 (arguably our lousiest showing in fifteen years) we managed to beat United, Everton and Tottenham on route to a poor seventh placed finish. During Kenny Dalglish’s last full season in-charge we also won both derbies, as well as games against Arsenal, City and United.
In his first year at the helm Brendan managed to buck the trend of dropping points to those below but simultaneously lost the habit of defeating those above. As we were reminded time and again, of the top six Liverpool only defeated Spurs. Furthermore, it took them until February to beat anyone inside the top ten (at that time).
In truth the results themselves only told half the story. We outplayed Manchester City home and away and should have won both encounters. Likewise, we were in the ascendency against the would-be Champions at Anfield and may well have won that game were it not for some questionable officialdom.
We were competitive in both tussles against Chelsea and though Arsenal outclassed us at Anfield it was a completely different story at The Emirates in January.
The fact most of those games proved close-run affairs is heartening and suggests there is no call for a major inquisition as far as big games are concerned. Nevertheless it is vital to take points from the top echelons of the division if you are to gain parity. We took ten from a possible 36 against the six sides above us last term. Brendan should be aiming to boost that figure to 20+ this time around. Combine that total with a healthy return against those below and you find yourselves a lot closer to your Holy Grail.
To be clear there is no major problem with our defence. The fact we kept 16 clean sheets and only four sides conceded fewer goals proves that point. However that is not to say it cannot be improved or rather Rodgers will not tinker.
His style of play came as a culture shock to some of the backline, who were suddenly asked to play-out from the back. Martin Skrtel for instance never looked comfortable with those guidelines. We also seemed susceptible to long balls and set-pieces, with the likes of Oldham exposing us aerially.
The stats back this up … 28% of goals against this season came from set-plays, up 4% on the previous campaign, while headed goals accounted for 21% – practically the same percentage as the season before.
Acknowledging such frailties, Rodgers eventually recalled Jamie Carragher to completive action, resulting in the defensive line dropping far deeper from New Year onwards. Carra performed diligently but was never more than a stop-gap once looming retirement was announced. With his leaving and the futures of Skrtel and Coates up in the air, touch-ups are required.
The leadership Carra brought has been readily replaced in Kolo Toure – also a physical presence long needed. But in truth at least one other centre back is essential. If Rodgers is to revert back to his preferred style, he needs centre-halves who are comfortable in possession and capable of igniting attacks from deep.
Agger is of that mould but who else? The press continue to link us with Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Tiago Ilori and Toby Alderweireld who all differ in style. Other questions remain. Does Jose Enrique have a long-term future? Do Martin Kelly and Andre Wisdom have a role to play? You get the impression Rodgers would dearly love to revamp his rearguard but may rely on sales to do so. He has already snapped-up his preferred choice of goalkeeper and who’s to say more will not follow?
The physicality aspect is also a matter extending to midfield. Lucas struggled for fitness throughout the campaign and desperately needs a full pre-season under his belt. Worryingly he remains our only defensive-minded midfielder (assuming Jay Spearing departs).
At times Liverpool were lightweight in the middle of the park and got at far too easily – Aston Villa at Anfield being the best/worst example. A fully fit Lucas is great at nipping attacks in the bud but does not pose a physical presence to go-up against the Stoke’s and West Ham’s of this world. It may not fit his profile but Brendan would be foolish not to at least consider beefing-up his midfield options before September.
The club have been refreshingly active in the transfer market up to this point with no less than four players signed as of July 2. Deals for others, including Henrikh Mkhitaryan are said to be in the pipeline. Whether they admit it or not, such transfers may be pending while FSG raise funds from player sales. In an ideal world such business would be sorted ASAP.
Liverpool are notoriously bad at ridding themselves of unwanted players (Aquilani anyone?). Whatever your own personal views on them, it seems Martin Skrtel, Sebastian Coates, Jay Spearing, Jonjo Shelvey, Oussama Assaidi and possibly Pepe Reina are all surplus to requirements.
Should they each depart the club is looking at upwards of £30m income – not to mention the £15m recouped for Andy Carroll and any fee received for the wantaway Suarez. The transfer committee, along with Rodgers, have clearly identified a host of targets with a view to a major squad overhaul.
Working in unison they aim to build a much bigger/competitive squad than the one that begun last season. Moreover, said targets will clearly fit into the style Rodgers is so keen to implement. The more players we have singing from the same hymn sheet, or rather sharing the same footballing principles, the better.
It is then down to Ian Ayre to thrash-out deals and ensure the deadwood is moved-on to facilitate more transfers. If – as seems the case – lessons have been learned from last August we will not be dithering around on this front. We have started our business early, completing it in time for the big kick-off will hold us and our manager in good stead.
So ultimately fourth may be a tall order but the key will be having a say in matters and ensuring that voice gets louder year on year.