Having lost the FA Cup final to Chelsea and having finished 8th, below their rivals Everton in the league it is now fair to assess Liverpool’s season fully. Having claimed that Liverpool could finish in the top four at the start of the season and with a big outlay on players in the transfer market Liverpool’s season can be regarded as nothing short of disappointing despite the slight consolation of the Carling Cup victory. Some fans say history remembers cups but if Liverpool players and fans could swap the Carling Cup for a spot in next season’s Champions League they would surely take it willingly.
Luck has played a part in Liverpool’s season with them hitting the post on a number of occasions at home, but bad luck can only take a degree of the blame. Liverpool have simply not been clinical enough at home having only won 6 of their home games this season. Liverpool have also scored the fifth fewest goals in the Premier League despite spending heavily on attacking players over the last 18 months.
This is one aspect of where things have gone wrong, the players brought in have, to a large degree, simply not been good enough. Carroll is an obvious example of this, despite looking more positive in recent weeks, he simply has not scored enough goals to warrant such a big transfer fee. Suarez has been relied upon to provide most of the goals when his natural position is to run into channels and drop deep to get involved in the play and thus he has not scored as many as he perhaps should have, lacking the clinical finish of a natural goal scoring forward.
The support players also have not been good enough, Downing has no goals or assists in the Premier League which is a shocking statistic for a winger, Adam as well has lacked the composure in centre midfield that Liverpool used to boast when Xabi Alonso was playing for the side.
One reason for Adam’s dip has been the crucial loss of Lucas Leave who has been key to Liverpool over the last few seasons. Having lost him so early in the season and without any natural replacement in defensive midfield players such as Adam and Spearing have had to play the defensive midfield role neither of whom have done so particularly well. Were Lucas fit Adam could have played further ahead and the midfield generally would have looked more balanced. However Dalglish knew that the side only had one holding player yet bought a host of attacking midfielders in Shelvey, Adam and Henderson. Henderson and Shelvey are young so their current average form is not too much of a concern, but Adam appears to lack the quality to take Liverpool back to the top four.
All of the above points to a somewhat unbalanced squad. Liverpool have 6 players in their first team squad who are central midfielders, often only competing for two positions if Liverpool play two up top or someone in the hole. This has resulted in a number of midfield combinations being tested by Dalglish this season.
The Gerrard problem
Gerrard has been an iconic player for Liverpool over the years, leading them to the Champions League as well as the FA Cup, however over recent seasons his form has dipped considerably and he has failed to remain consistently fit. Due to his injuries Dalglish went on this midfield spending spree that has unsettled the squad somewhat.
The problem Gerrard causes is that he is not really a centre midfielder anymore, more of a support striker. He lacks the tactical discipline to play as a midfield two due to the fact he likes to roam around at will, but the support role is played best by Suarez. At the weekend for example Gerrard was the closest forward to Suarez but often drifted far out of position to collect the ball deep and ping long passes.
His impact on the side has been widely reported with Liverpool winning very few games that Gerrard has played from the start due to the tactical dilemma he causes as well as the impact he has on other players. All of Adam’s assists have come when Gerrard is not in the side as have his two goals, and his pass completion is higher without Gerrard in the team, Henderson’s tackle success is also considerably higher when Gerrard is out of the side. This is likely due to the way he impacts on the midfield shape. Liverpool have played him in a number of positions this season as was evident on Saturday when he played right, left, central and deep all in the same game.
Here is his heat map against Norwich:
His position in this game was essentially a central midfielder but as we can see he clearly roamed around freely, which is fine as Liverpool won but demonstrates the fact that he is inclined to roam around rather than play the role of a disciplined central midfielder. Again this would not be as much of an issue if Lucas was playing behind him as insurance, but with the less experienced Spearing it becomes an issue at times.
Where can the side improve?
Letting go of at least one midfielder, which could happen if Spearing or Shelvey are loaned out, and bringing in cover for Lucas in the holding role would be an excellent start. He has still made more tackles than any Liverpool player despite having missed almost all of the season. Liverpool need cover in this position to allow for a consistent shape in the midfield.
It is likely that having spent so heavily on players last year Liverpool would need to sell to buy which could mean that some of the older players like Kuyt and possibly Maxi could be moved on. Liverpool would also need to bring in a more dangerous wide man as we have seen that Downing has been relatively unproductive this year. Junior Hoilett will be certain to move which could be a very sensible signing for Liverpool as he can operate on either flank as well as behind a front man.
The side currently do lack a natural right sided winger with Bellamy, Henderson, Kuyt and Maxi all operating there at times this season despite none of them being naturally suited to this role. Again this demonstrates the lack of balance within the squad.
Is it realistic to expect Liverpool to sign a striker? Probably, having signed Carroll, Suarez and Bellamy recently they will probably stick with it as it is. Getting Lucas fit and finding a settled 11 during pre-season may help Carroll re-find his best form, as this season has not been helped with constant tinkering as well as injuries effecting the regular line-up of the side. If Carroll is to thrive Liverpool may need to adopt a slightly more direct style of play to allow him to thrive on the aerial battles that he had against Chelsea in the FA Cup.
Dalglish needs to be more consistent tactically if the side are to develop, this would help players like Carroll who have struggled to settle, according to whoscored.com Liverpool have used a total of 7 different formations this season. The 4-4-2 on 15 occasions, a 4-5-1 on 7, a 4-1-4-1 on 6 occasions as well as a few other formations including an absolutely bizarre 3-4-2-1 against Stoke earlier in the season. Liverpool need to have more tactical consistency so the players can understand each other better, with such disruption and confusion in a tactical sense there is at times little continuity game to game.
Liverpool have some good young players in their squad, despite people criticizing some of their signings Henderson and Carroll are still only 21 and 23 respectively, Shelvey is 20, Kelly a good young right back is only 22. The squad does need to be trimmed in areas such as centre midfield and beefed up in others such as on the right flank. With such a large spend on players last year a repeat of that is seemingly unlikely especially considering the clubs net operating loss and the up and coming FFP regulations.
To get back in the top four next season might not be easy. Spurs, who finished fourth, finished 17 points above Liverpool which will be difficult to claw back over one season even if the side do invest and Chelsea will likely come back stronger next year with a squad rejuvenation imminent. Dalglish’s tactics have at times been questionable but with his status at the club removing him seems incredibly unlikely so one would expect him to remain at the club at least until the Christmas if not the end of next season.
Follow Think Football on Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/Think_Football
Like Think Football on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thinkingfootball