BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
Fan Fuel’s Premier League previews arrive at Merseyside, where Liverpool’s pre-season has been dominated by off-field events surrounding the future of star forward Luis Suarez.
Release clauses, verbal agreements, contract disputes, legal resolutions and pretty much everything outside the world of football have been the central themes of discussion for every Liverpool fan this summer. Analysis of Luis Suarez’s actions and debates about his morality and loyalty have filled plenty of columns, and almost every figure in football, past and present has had a say in the matter. The fact remains however that on the pitch, Liverpool are going to be without Suarez for the first six games of the season even if he ends up having to stay at Anfield.
The Liverpool squad took time to adapt to new manager Brendan Rodgers’ methods, resulting in an average start to the season last time around. However, with some significant additions in January, Liverpool gradually became accustomed to Rodgers’ philosophy, eventually ending the season with 25 points from their last 12 games, a ratio if maintained throughout the season would be good enough to qualify for the promised land of the Champions League. Rodgers will hope to carry that upward curve into the new season, although there are still doubts about the overall quality of the squad despite a confident showing in pre-season.
On defence: It feels like an end of an era without Pepe Reina at Liverpool. Reina spent eight seasons at Liverpool, featuring in goal 285 times for the Reds. The Spaniard was an integral part of Liverpool’s best days under Rafa Benitez, both domestically and on the continent. However, one can’t dispute the fact that Reina’s decision making started to suffer in the last two seasons and some calamitous errors cost Liverpool important points. In his place Rodgers has signed Simon Mignolet from Sunderland. The Belgian certainly earned his salary at Sunderland where he was called upon to make save after save, and Liverpool fans can be assured that in the shot-stopping department, he is at the very least, the equal of Reina. His distribution wasn’t really on display at Sunderland, but will be a crucial facet at Liverpool, where Reina’s balls into the outfield started several attacks. Brad Jones remains as the understudy.
After the retirement of club legend Jamie Carragher, Rodgers was left with Daniel Agger and Martin Škrtel as his most experienced centre-backs. Kolo Toure has been drafted in to fill the void left by Carragher, but whether the Ivorian can still perform at the required standard of the Premier League is debatable. Agger is definitely the best of the lot tactically and technically, and if the Dane gets injured Liverpool could have serious problems. Škrtel has become increasingly error-prone over the past two years, and at one point Rodgers completely lost faith in him, reinstating Carragher into the starting eleven at the expense of the Slovakian. Sebastian Coates will certainly be asked to step up this season, after failing to realize the potential shown in his imperious performances during Uruguay’s Copa America victory in 2011. If Coates proves that he has finally adjusted to the rigours of the Premier League, it will go a long way to calming Rodgers’ defensive worries.
Glen Johnson was ever present at right-back last season, and will be expected to continue to perform consistently this season. While Johnson can still lose his defensive bearings easily at times, his role in supporting the attack through his dribbling abilities and neat passing are fundamental to implementing Rodgers’ philosophy. However, if Johnson switches off, Martin Kelly will be waiting in the wings after his return from injury. There is a belief at Anfield that Kelly would have established himself as first choice right-back last season were it not for his injury, and this could finally be the season in which he announces his arrival on the big stage. Rodgers initially didn’t fancy playing Jose Enrique, but the Spaniard’s calmness on the ball allied with sensible distribution and intuitive movement made the gaffer realize he was the ideal left-back to fit into his possession-oriented approach. Enrique also made a vital contribution with six assists as he cemented a brilliant understanding with Liverpool’s attacking players. Andre Wisdom and Jon Flanagan are the deputy fullbacks, although Rodgers is more likely to switch Kelly and Johnson to the left in case Enrique has to miss out.
The midfield: Steven Gerrard might be second in importance to Luis Suarez on the team sheet, but the captain is still undoubtedly the talisman of the club. Gerrard may not cover every blade of grass on the pitch anymore, but his presence in the team remains vital for many reasons. Due to Lucas Leiva’s injury enforced absence at the beginning of the season, and in part due to Joe Allen’s inability to settle into central midfield, Gerrard occupied a deeper position than he is accustomed to. Not that this negated the skipper’s attacking threat, as Gerrard chipped in with nine goals and a team leading nine assists. Despite his age, Gerrard will once again be called on to provide leadership to the rest of the team, along with another significant tally of goals and assists if Liverpool are to succeed in achieving their goals.
Somewhat forgotten in the hype of January’s signings was the return of Lucas Leiva to the team, and it was no coincidence that Liverpool performed better with the Brazilian in the team. When Lucas first wore the famous red shirt, he was an object of scorn for Liverpool fans all over the world. Over the last few seasons however, Lucas’ absence is keenly felt, especially in big games. He is unique in that for a defensive midfielder he doesn’t rely excessively on tackling. Rather his forte is in dispossessing opponents by moving into the right positions at the right time, and the rhythm Lucas brings to the Reds’ passing should not be underestimated as a crucial facet in the transitional play of the team.
Joe Allen will get a second chance at being the creative outlet linking the midfield with the attack. During his first season at Anfield, the Welshman was a victim of huge expectations because of the 15 million pound price tag. Allen did not replicate his best form displayed at Swansea, and while solid in possession, he was often too guilty of passing sideways. To be fair to him, Allen did have injury problems that curtailed his influence, but if Rodgers wants the team’s possession based ethos to get stronger this season, he has to give his disciple another chance to prove himself at Liverpool. The rewards of Allen getting it right could benefit the Reds to a huge extent, as witnessed in his good performances during pre-season. Jordan Henderson will probably alternate with Allen, after proving himself worthy of a place in Rodgers’ starting eleven with a late run of form last season. Henderson is the more direct option when Liverpool need to chase games, and the midfielders calmness in finishing bolsters the team’s goal scoring options.
On the attack: There is nothing new to be said about Luis Suarez’s abilities on the pitch. By far, Liverpool’s most creative player and leading goal scorer, Suarez has everything a forward would want in his armoury. A fantastic dribbler, the Uruguayan has no equal in the league when it comes to creating opportunities for himself and his teammates in the 18-yard box. His vision allied with quick movement make him almost impossible to mark out of a game, and his aerial ability is underrated as well. To top it all, he improved his marksmanship last season, and he can be lethal from direct free kicks as well. Whatever transpires before the transfer window closes in September, the plain and simple fact is Liverpool are better with Suarez in the team.
Nevertheless, to Rodgers’ credit, he did reduce the team’s dependency on their star by signing Daniel Sturridge and Phillippe Coutinho in January. To the delight of the manager and Liverpool fans, the duo settled in immediately. Sturridge proved that he could thrive in the forward role that he waited for during his entire Chelsea career. The English forward struck an immediate understanding with Suarez, and with a lethal left foot he managed to finish many through balls with aplomb. Fears that Coutinho would be too lightweight for the Premier League were instantly banished, as the Brazilian’s nimble footwork and dribbling abilities enabled him to create chances galore for his teammates. Coutinho was credited with seven assists and three goals in just thirteen appearances, and encouragingly he continued his rich vein of form during pre-season. The duo will form the attacking core of the team in the absence of Suarez, and will hope to get their season running in the opening game of the campaign against Stoke at Anfield.
The third player in Rodgers’ forward three will be a choice between teenager Raheem Sterling or new signings Luis Alberto and Iago Aspas. Sterling captured the imagination of fans around the country with his energetic and exciting displays from the wing, but burnt out after December. Rodgers’ will be able to utilize the youngster in a more controlled manner this season because of better squad depth, but Sterling will have to mature quickly off the field as well, if he is to be a success at Anfield. The Spaniard Aspas was a reliable forward at Celta Vigo last season, and his ability to play in any position across the front three adds a useful dimension to Liverpool’s attack. His compatriot Alberto is unlikely to see too much action, although he has impressed in pre-season. Jordan Ibe is a talented forward, and could potentially be this season’s version of Sterling.
Conclusion: Brendan Rodgers declared on his first day at the club that Liverpool’s rightful place is to be in the Champions League and eventually to challenge for the title. A year into his reign, Liverpool are no closer to reaching his stated aims. In his favour is a youthful and exuberant side, who are developing an exciting style of play, and most importantly scoring goals while doing so.
On closer introspection one does come to realize that despite the noble ideals, other than Suarez, Gerrard and possibly Agger, Liverpool possess too many players who are either average, or just below the top rung of footballers. The manager certainly has the confidence and belief in his squad, and if Suarez does end up staying and performs again, a crack at the fourth Champions League spot isn’t unrealistic. Ultimately however, Liverpool will have to consistently play above themselves, if they are to overhaul the more talented and deep squads of Arsenal and Tottenham.