By Phil Gregory
After their ill-advised dalliance with Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool’s owners saw the light and realised that they needed 21st century coaching and transfer strategies if they are to break back into the big time that is the Premier League mythical “Top Four”. Alas they learnt this lesson after they gave the Scotsman a fair wedge of dosh and whilst numbers such as £100m are thankfully – for the Yanks – total spends and not net spends, to come eighth after spending £100m reshaping your squad in your own image is frankly awful. Though to be fair, if “your own image” is fiery British steel that works bloody hard to run to where they should’ve been five seconds ago and utilising the aerial prowess of your £35m striker to score a mighty FOUR league goals, well, maybe Kenneth achieved what he set out to do. That may have won titles back in the day, but today the game has evolved and requires technique, guile and intelligence.
That aside they have got a new manager in who knows how to play the game in the right way. Brendan Rogers did a great job in getting Swansea promoted, and an even better job in getting them comfortably mid-table in such style. I’ve never applauded an Arsenal defeat like I did when we went to their place and got passed off the park, fantastic stuff it was (the upstart sods).
However a word to the wise: many a manager has taken a team up and done well, and Rogers does not have much else on his CV that I can tell apart from being by all accounts a nice coach at Chelsea and getting the boot from Reading. Perhaps he’s the next Pep Guardiola – all I’m saying is there is a fairly limited amount of evidence to judge his abilities from. How will he handle the pressure, will he need time in the job, will he run away screaming when he sees Charlie Adam and Gerrard playing incessant Hollywood passes… these are the intangibles that we cannot know after such a short coaching career and these represent a gamble on the part of Liverpool’s owners.
What we do know though is that 8th was an underachievement last season, relative to what they have in their squad. At the beginning they didn’t do too badly despite some disappointing results here and there, it was only late on that they went into full on, hilarious meltdown mode. I think most managers could get last season’s squad sixth or fifth on average, but of course that will not be enough going forward. Surely a stab at the top four is a minimum expectation this year, but that will be hard with them seventeen points of fourth-placed Tottenham.
The defence isn’t too shabby. Glen Johnson looked good enough at the Euros, much improved though question marks will always be there, while the likes of Agger and Skrtel are solid players. Carragher is over the hill so perhaps a little depth is required at centre back, much will depend on a wise purchase or whether Martin Kelly can stake a claim. I’ve heard Scousers say the lad is the real deal but alas they said similar about Jay Spearing, who is amongst the worst footballers I have ever seen and I include in that the boys the side I coach put ten past over ninety minutes.
Their midfield is a mixed bag. On the evidence of the Euros, Steven Gerrard should never play in a central midfield two again unless wheeled out for corners and other set piece deliveries. The boy can still play the game, but his strengths don’t really lie in the steady passing side of the game, he needs to be bursting into the box and shooting to be at his best. You’d pop him behind an advanced striker, but then again that is where Suarez is most effective. It’d be a brave incoming manager to phase out a club legend but if they get a decent midfield playmaker in then it’s surely the best move going forwards.
The bread and butter for Rodgers then is the midfield. If you fix the midfield, everything becomes easier. You have more of the ball so you concede less chances and your players are less tired, your strikers score more as they have more chances and so on. Liverpool tried to get an effective, incisive playmaker in with Charlie Adam (snigger) but this surely must be a top priority for Rodgers.
Elsewhere Kuyt has left and despite being a mixed bag, he has a record of scoring goals and running a lot, which is always useful when you play in front of Glen Johnson (see: James Milner). Realistically, a pair of wingers for either flank is a must if they are to entertain notions of the top four. Apart from that they seem to have the numbers. The likes of Downing, Adam and Henderson may not quite have the requisite quality but they are all respectable players (Ok, maybe not Downing…) so with investment in the first eleven they’d have the right mix of depth and quality in the midfield for much improvement if not clear challengers for the top four. Perhaps some cover for Lucas if he comes a cropper with an injury again could be wise, Jay Spearing does not at all count in this respect.
With the midfield problems possibly resolved, the other main bugbear for Scousers has to be the attack. Suarez has quality on the ball, but a return of eleven league goals is poor, even if he did hit the woodwork a bazillion times and have some time out for using racist language. To me, it seems the plan was to have Suarez buzzing around off a big front man, the likes of who would score goals and win headers from the wingers’ crosses. Certainly Andy Carroll can score headers, but his all-round game is just poor, and a team cannot afford to carry a player when they have the ball, not when possession is so important and regardless he can’t score unless the ball is six feet off the ground. Perhaps he’d be useful off the bench if Liverpool are pinning a side back and want to take advantage of a deep defence with his aerial threat, but can you genuinely imagine £35m Carroll sitting on the bench next to £16m Henderson and £20m Downing? I hope Rodgers is brave!
Much for Liverpool then will depend on whether they have money to spend. Money needs to be spent to get the first eleven up to scratch, but clearly Liverpool do not have the financial clout of Chelsea or the like, despite a hefty wage bill from their Champions League days. Four things are vital: a midfield playmaker, a striker who can lead the line and score goals, a great winger and a manager with the nerve to bench expensive players and declining club icons.
If they do achieve those three things, they could use this season creating a system that Rodgers wants the team to use, and any promising youngsters could be integrated into the squad. Realistically, a vague challenge for the top four is all they can hope for this year and it should be viewed as a transition before a real go at the Champions League berths next year.
Published with permission from Untold Arsenal: Arsenal News. Supporting the Lord Wenger; coach of the decade.