It has been four long years since Liverpool last qualified for the Champions League. And with each year of absence from Europe’s elite competition, the harder it is to break back in. The cycle began under Rafa Benitez, when Liverpool finished seventh in 2009/10. It continued under the dismal reign of Roy Hodgson, then Kenny Dalglish, and most recently, Brendan Rodgers.
At least now though, the club seems to have stability and a clear vision for the future. Despite only finishing one league position ahead of his predecessor, last season, Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool began to show significant signs that the club were turning a corner. Since making the January acquisitions of Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool were beginning to look like ‘top four’ contenders once more. Of course, ultimately, fourth place isn’t where a club the size of Liverpool wants to be, but it is a significant step, when you consider recent history.
The challenge for Rodgers is in maintaining the momentum that was building towards the back end of last season, where Liverpool lost just three matches since the end of January. Unlike seasons before, though, Liverpool do have a slightly larger window of opportunity, this coming campaign. Under unusual circumstances, the Premier League’s top three clubs of 2012/13 all have new managers. The uncertainty over whether these new managers (I know, Jose Mourinho isn’t strictly new to Chelsea, but you get the jist) can prove to be immediately successful in their new jobs, leaves a chance for the likes of Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool to take advantage.
This window of opportunity makes it even more crucial that Liverpool make this summer a successful one. Pre-season has been encouraging, but it is clear that there is still work to be done in the transfer market, if Liverpool want to mount a serious challenge for the elusive Champions League places.
Last season: 7th
In: Kolo Toure (Manchester City, free), Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo, £7.7 million), Luis Alberto (Sevilla, £6.8 million), Simon Mignolet (Sunderland, £9 million).
Out: Jamie Carragher (retired), Andy Carroll (West Ham United, undisclosed), Pepe Reina (Napoli, loan), Jonjo Shelvey (Swansea City, £5.5 million), Suso (Almeria, loan), Peter Gulasci (Red Bull Salzburg, free), Conor Coady ( Sheffield United, loan).
Liverpool wasted no time in making additions to the first team squad – evidently learning from last year’s deadline day fiasco – and had made four new acquisitions, in principle, before the window officially opened on July 1st. Kolo Toure was first through the door, and was swiftly followed by the likes of Iago Aspas, Luis Alberto and Simon Mignolet.
Brendan Rodgers has spoken, on numerous occasions, about his desire to add players who possess a ‘winning mentality’, and with the retirement of Jamie Carragher, it was also essential that the club replaced the Liverpool legend’s experience and leadership. In Kolo Toure, Liverpool have brought in a player who fulfills all of the aforementioned requirements.
Another player who will replace an outgoing player is Simon Mignolet. The Belgian goalkeeper became Liverpool’s most expensive signing of the summer, when he arrived from Sunderland in a deal worth £9 million. The 25-year-old impressed last season, and with Pepe Reina moving on loan to Napoli, Mignolet is certain to replace the Spaniard as Liverpool’s first choice goalkeeper.
At the other end of the pitch, Liverpool have signed Luis Alberto and Iago Aspas to bolster their attacking options. The two Spanish forwards are prime examples of the type of player Rodgers likes: versatile, excellent technically and hungry for success. Aspas, who cost Liverpool £7.7m, was Celta Vigo’s standout performer last season, and is a fiery character who will provide Liverpool with tenacity, flair and – most importantly – goals. Alberto has a different type of game. The 20-year-old possesses great vision, giving him the ability to find spaces behind the opposition back line – an attribute that led to 18 assists for Barcelona B, last season.
The future of Luis Suarez, though, remains in the balance, and the success – or, perhaps, failure – of Liverpool’s summer very much hinges on his eventual destination.
Brendan Rodgers proved last season that he could be pragmatic. In his debut season, he inherited a squad not wholly capable of playing his preferred possession-based style of football. The team was built to play to Luis Suarez’s strengths, and to that extent, it worked well – Suarez scored 33 goals, last term.
But it is very difficult to predict how Liverpool will play, until we know the outcome of the Suarez saga (I know, it’s already boring). With the acquisitions of Alberto and Aspas, Rodgers has signed two players who possess the attributes to work well in his preferred style of play, and who are versatile and adept at interchanging positions. Aspas, especially, will be useful in Liverpool’s pressing game. The Spaniard has a very high work ethic and will be key in Liverpool’s attempts to try and win back possession from the front.
It is also much more likely that Liverpool will play a higher defensive line than last season, now that Toure – or possibly another new centre back – will replace Carragher at the heart of defence.
In my personal opinion, Liverpool also need a defensive midfielder, in the mould of Etienne Capoue or Maxime Gonalons. On too many occasions last season, Liverpool’s midfield was bypassed by the opposition. A bit of steel wouldn’t go amiss; although, unfortunately, I don’t think Rodgers sees this area as a priority for strengthening.
Philippe Coutinho. After signing for £8.5 million from Internazionale in January, the diminutive Brazilian exploded onto the Premier League scene, scoring three goals and providing five assists in 12 league appearances, whilst tearing open opposition defences in the process.
With his mazy dribbling skills, incisive through balls and intelligent movement, I expect Coutinho to be crucial to any hopes of Liverpool breaking back into English football’s top four.
In pre-season, he looks to have picked up from where he left off, last season. However, my main concern is, in the inevitable event of Suarez leaving, a lot of pressure will be thrust upon the 21-year-old’s shoulders to take on the Uruguayan’s mantle. A dip in form is bound to come at some point; how he deals with that, on top of dealing with the added pressure of expectation, will be key.
Keep an eye on
Raheem Sterling. At just 18 years of age, the potential of Raheem Sterling is frightening. He has blistering pace, he can score goals, and he has game intelligence way beyond his years.
2012/13 was an impressive breakthrough year for the Jamaican-born winger, but Brendan Rodgers was right to take him out of the firing line when signs of a dip in form became apparent.
In pre-season, Sterling has looked better for it; he looks fresh and hungry, and I think 2013/14 can be an even bigger season for him than last.
Stoke (H), Aston Villa (A), Manchester United (H), Swansea (A), Southampton (H), Sunderland (A).
In contrast to last season’s tough opening fixtures of the season, the fixture computer has been slightly kinder on Liverpool this time round. Only two of Liverpool’s first six fixtures are against sides who finished last season in the top half. The second home game against Manchester United will be one that Liverpool supporters will be most looking forward to. David Moyes will be under immense pressure to win his first “big” game as United boss, so Liverpool will no doubt be eager to cause their historic rivals some early damage.
Where will they finish? Even if Liverpool kept hold of Luis Suarez, I do believe that the club are still two or three starting eleven players shorts of a serious assault on the top four. A lot hinges on the remainder of the transfer window: where Luis Suarez goes – if he leaves (likely) – and how Liverpool reinvest the fee they receive for him. Losing him to Arsenal, a top four rival, would be suicidal, though.
BPF Prediction: 6th