A look ahead at what is likely to be a season of change on one side of Stanley Park. (Everton will most likely continue to be fairly poor (£) and a bit grim to watch.)
At the end of last season
Well, they (we) stank the place out really. Lots of cash ‘splashed’ (does it move in any other way?) on what amounted to quite a lot of mediocrity. It would have been less mediocrity, quantity-wise, but Charlie Adam added significant bulk, if not a lot else. While Jordan Henderson showed periods of promise and Stewart Downing can surely muster the courage to run at/past/near a fullback this time round, the league table didn’t lie. The tactical approach was, on many occasions, confused at best, with a style that too often seemed to get the best out of precisely none of the players involved. Form in the cups was impressive until an utterly sterile FA Cup Final performance was too much even for Andy Carroll’s bloodlust to rescue.
What’s happened since then?
It’s been a busy summer somewhere in the ether between Merseyside and Boston, with massive changes at all levels of the club. For the sake of brevity, we’ll stick to the footballing side for now: Brendan Rodgers has arrived from Swansea, and with him perhaps an acceptance that a long-term, bottom-up restructuring is required to lay the foundations for a competitive Liverpool in years to come. Significant additions in the scouting department (from Manchester City, interestingly enough) are likely to follow in time. In terms of playing staff, Fabio Borini and Joe Allen have joined, while the bloated wage bill has been cut thanks to the departures of Doni, Bellamy, Kuyt, Maxi and Aquilani. Andy Carroll looks unlikely to find a comfortable spot in Rodgers’ plans at present, but his exit depends on finding a club willing to match Liverpool’s demands, and which can offer European football. (Or, to put it another way, on Newcastle’s willingness and ability to pay £20 million for a striker, which they probably need.) Talk of further additions (one or more of Dempsey, Adam Johnson, Rodrigo Tello and Theo Walcott) seems realistic, but it remains to be seen to what extent the pursuit of those targets would need to be funded by the sale of valuable assets such as Carroll and Daniel Agger.
Current starting XI
On first glance, a pretty competitive first XI in terms of the European places, and one which seems to suit Rodgers’ style – capable of a high press, ball retention and mobility in attack. However, other than in midfield, (Shelvey, Henderson, Spearing, Adam) there is a distinct lack of depth in the squad unless numbers are added. It’s reasonable to expect more goals all round, with Borini a more natural penalty-box player than Suarez and the latter likely to improve on his tally from last year with more consistent finishing. A full season in a more advanced role for Steven Gerrard and the possible addition of Dempsey (or similar) could see a much-needed improvement in that area.
There can be no underestimating the scale of the job in hand for Brendan Rodgers. While his Swansea side were undoubtedly impressive last year, the pressure for success at Anfield, both from FSG and an anxious fan base, will present a real test for Rodgers in his first ‘big’ job. His devotion to an attacking, possession-based football gives him an immediate advantage with supporters, but his key challenge will be instilling that philosophy amongst a group of players understandably low on confidence. The signing of players already familiar with his methods will help in that respect, but this is a ‘project’ – *shudder* – which will require patience from all parties.
Where will they finish?
Obesity of expectations has long been a problem at Liverpool. That is not to say that such a giant of the game should not strive for greatness, but rather that this summer has been an opportunity to take stock of the reality of where the club finds itself. Most fans, one expects, would be satisfied with an improved showing in the league (which a more cohesive and consistent tactical approach should bring) and thus at least some signs of regaining competitiveness in the hunt for a Champions League spot. The signings, so far, of players of genuine quality within the specific skill set required (as opposed to the misguided recruitment policy of last summer) should lessen the adjustment period of which Rodgers himself has warned. On a personal note, it would be both exciting and comforting to see the more promising youngsters given genuine opportunities with the first team, whether in the League Cup or elsewhere, as well as ensuring that the deadwood which remains in the squad does not hinder the progress of the likes of Sterling and Suso. A 5th or 6th placed finish and one cup final (domestic or European) would represent a very solid first season indeed for the Ulsterman, but progress at Anfield this year should and will be measured in more than numbers if the club is serious about a long-term statement of intent.
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