Liverpool’s Summer Window of Opportunity

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This summer has been a window of opportunity for Liverpool to regroup and reshape – Si Steers is cautiously optimistic we have made better decisions and learnt from our mistakes.

BANGKOK, THAILAND - Monday, July 13, 2015: Liverpool's manager Brendan Rodgers during a training session at the Rajamangala National Stadium in Bangkok on day one of the club's preseason tour. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It’s been a busy summer at Liverpool following a season that was dominated by mistakes in the transfer market. It is unfair to say that last summer was a complete disaster, as Emre Can, Alberto Moreno and Lazar Markovic could all become great players for the club in the future. Both Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren also have plenty to prove with a clean slate ahead of them.

But the failure to recruit a top level striker was one of the primary reasons that the club struggled through last season – a clear and costly failure by the transfer committee at Liverpool, and a case in point about how small the margin for error is in which they operate.

If poor recruitment was one reason for failure – poor decisions throughout the season were another. The team struggled for both intensity and identity and looked a shadow of the side that almost clinched the title the season before. The buck stops with Brendan Rodgers there.

Much was made of the end of season review conducted by FSG, and there will have been a lot of soul searching from everybody at the club. Love or hate our owners, they do not suffer fools, and they are not at Liverpool to fail (yes they want to make a profit – but they also want to win).

The conclusion from that review was that Rodgers had shown enough that with the right players, he can build a side to compete. But changes had to be made.

Changing the dynamic

In the absence of a Sporting Director at Liverpool, Rodgers has never really had the counsel of experience. Both Colin Pascoe and Mike Marsh were loyal lieutenants, but you sense that neither offered the wisdom or counsel that comes with challenging the manager. You want unity in your management team – but if unity means complacency or holds back new ideas it is time to change the dynamic.

HARVARD, USA - Thursday, July 24, 2014: Liverpool's manager Brendan Rodgers with first team coach Mike Marsh and assistant manager Colin Pascoe during a preseason training session at the Harvard Stadium in Boston on day four of the club's USA Tour. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The appointment of Sean O’Driscoll raised a few eyebrows, having cut his teeth in the lower leagues he was never going to come with the name or glamour many wanted or expected. But, he does come with experience, and he comes with a track record of being a manager himself.

Gary McAllister has been a manager and a number two, as well as a senior player at the club. Both men will have their own ideas about the game and I expect that FSG specifically wanted people that would challenge the manager.

Although not obvious candidates, both O’Driscoll and McAllister could be what Rodgers needs. Rodgers weaknesses were exposed last season – and at times he looked like he couldn’t find the answers when the team was struggling. That is in part down to personnel – but it is also in part down to a lack of experience in the backroom team.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - Thursday, July 16, 2015: Liverpool's assistant manager Sean O'Driscoll and first team coach Gary McAllister during a training session at the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane on day four of the club's preseason tour. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

They may not bring glamour – but O’Driscoll and McAllister both bring experience – and that can go some way to mitigating a major area of weakness that was exposed last season.

Experience is less important when you are flying – but when the chips are down, you need people around you that can guide you through bad periods.

The transfer committee

The much maligned transfer committee has had its share of successes and failures since its inception, but it is the failures that it is (probably unfairly) judged on. Last summer there was a sense of disconnect between the transfer strategy set by FSG, and some of the recruitment decisions.

That was most apparent with the signings of Lambert, Lallana and Lovren from Southampton – none of whom seemed to tick the box of youth, value or sell on value. Balotelli was another left field signing that didn’t really seem to fit with the model.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Monday, September 15, 2014: Liverpool's manager Brendan Rodgers and Dejan Lovren during a press conference at Anfield ahead of their opening UEFA Champions League Group B match against PFC Ludogorets Razgrad. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The decisions that were made last summer strongly indicated to me a lack of joined up thinking on the committee. I strongly suspect that the lack of unity on recruitment was at the heart of the end of season review – if the transfer committee is going to work effectively it has to work in unity. The manager has to trust his scouts to help build the side he wants, and in the absence of a Sporting Director, the manager has to be able to influence who comes in.

One of the biggest constraints for the committee has been the rigid value parameters they seem to have worked within for players at the top end of the market. Early signs are that this summer those value parameters have been flexed to land the right players – with Firmino and Benteke we have seen decisive action to land top targets.

In previous years we have spent too long haggling over value and missed out on key players – sometimes to land your top targets, you can’t achieve value. If that is a lesson the owners have learnt that is good news for the committee and the club.

The margin for error at Liverpool is so small – we can’t afford to make mistakes. That is why the committee will always be judged so harshly – as any mistake they make can have huge consequences on success or failure.

Cautious optimism

Selling two of our best players in two consecutive summers for a combined £124m doesn’t really set the tone for cautious optimism, especially when you have lost your captain and greatest ever player. But when you look at the business we have done this summer, we have been able to build a squad that has a good mix of youth and experience and is full of purpose, flair and energy.

KINGSTON-UPON-HULL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, April 28, 2015: Liverpool's Raheem Sterling feels a pain in his back against Hull City during the Premier League match at the KC Stadium. (Pic by Gareth Jones/Propaganda)

Selling Sterling to City is a bitter blow. There is no sugar coating or denying that Sterling was one of our crown jewels, a player that we wanted to be a big part of our future. But it’s not unique to Liverpool that a young player wanted to move on – whatever his reasons, Sterling made it clear he no longer wanted to be at the club. From that moment, it was about securing the best possible deal – one of the things Liverpool have become outstanding at under FSG is playing poker when selling. We received maximum value for Sterling – that doesn’t make us a selling club; it makes us a club that will not be bullied – as we also demonstrated with Suarez.

Although losing Sterling has been a blow, the capture of Firmino softens it somewhat. He joins a group of players 25 or under that can form the nucleus of a very good side and will grow together including Clyne, Ilori, Sakho, Gomez, Moreno, Can, Henderson, Ibe, Coutinho, Markovic, Origi, Ings, Benteke and Sturridge. Not all of those players will progress as we would hope – but the future remains bright.

We have also added experience to our squad with the capture of James Milner. I think the perception of Milner is sometimes that of ‘a solid pro’ – but he has more to offer than solidity. He is a leader on the pitch and has a good range of passing. He is well suited to the pressing game, and his crossing ability is excellent. He also knows where the goal is. I get the sense with Milner that he will become a firm favourite with Liverpool fans once we get to watch him every week.

Football - Liverpool FC Preseason Tour 2015 - Day 4 - Away Kit Launch

We will go into this season with a stronger squad on paper than last; and quite possibly the year we almost won the title. We won’t have the explosiveness of Suarez but we have a good mix of guile, strength and pace going forward.

There is an air of the unknown with Liverpool heading into the new season – we’ve gone about our business quickly and with little fanfare. Much will depend on how Rodgers integrates Firmno and Benteke into the side – and whether or not he can set us up to get the most out of every player.

Should he achieve that, we could take a few people by surprise this season. Rodgers needs a fast start – anything less will see him under immediate pressure. I think with the squad he has he can head into the season with cautious optimism, par will not be good enough, he has punched above his weight before, and he’ll need to do it again to remain the right man to take the club forward. [td_ad_box spot_id=“custom_ad_3″]

Club in good shape

Although it doesn’t always feel like it, the club is in pretty good shape. The Main Stand construction is well advanced, and redevelopment is another piece of the jigsaw in bridging the gap to the resources of our rivals.

There will be the inevitable analysis of ‘net spend’ after the summer which is often the only metric people use when judging the ambition of the owners. It is likely to again be fairly neutral after sales – but with £180m on players in the past two seasons and £150m redevelopment of the Main Stand there is no lack of investment. It is more about smart spending than lack of spending. The club is becoming profitable again after years of losses.

There are still questions that FSG haven’t answered – the structure at the club remains shrouded in mystery with Mike Gordon seemingly the man making the big ticket decisions. That doesn’t help with transparency.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, January 18, 2014: Liverpool's owner John W. Henry and wife Linda Pizzuti before the Premiership match against Aston Villa at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

There is also a lack of real narrative about direction – little has been heard from FSG for a while now. Although there is a strong possibility this is more to do with John Henry’s commitment to ‘let actions speak louder than words’ than any lack of interest or commitment.

There will always be speculation about the long term exit strategy for FSG – but I think it is unlikely that a buyer will be found to acquire the club as a complete entity. There is unlikely to be suitors lining up with £800m to spend. It is more likely that over time, FSG will source other investors but retain a controlling stake. So I believe they are likely to be in control at Liverpool for the long term.

If they retain the commitment to re-invest profit back into the club then that can be good news for Liverpool. The redeveloped stadium and the strong commercial performance FSG will deliver away from the pitch will reap long term reward on it.

Although last season seemed like a disaster and a huge step backward after coming so close to the title, it was in some ways a sobering reality check that the margin for error in which we operate is still so small.

This season will tell us if we have learnt from our mistakes, the pressure is on the manager, he has to prove that he can over perform. That will be the expectation – he has the squad and backroom team in place that he wants. It’s time to deliver.

This summer has been a window of opportunity for us to regroup and reshape – I am cautiously optimistic we have made better decisions and learnt from our mistakes.

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