Despite an expensive outlay on players over the past 18 months, Liverpool only managed a disappointing 8th place finish last season which eventually cost Kenny Dalglish his job. The question now is: what do the club need to do in order to improve on last season’s disappointment?
Score more goals
Liverpool scored only 47 league goals last season, with league winners Manchester City scoring 93. This is worrying in light of the large transfer spending on attacking players. New manager Brendan Rodgers’ first task will be to address the team’s lack of killer instinct in front of goal. Stewart Downing, who arrived at a cost of around £20 million, did not manage a goal or an assist last season. In this regard, one must question the quality of players purchased in 2011 transfer windows. One way Liverpool can improve in this department is to find a better balance between Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll, something Dalglish did not manage to do successfully.
Suarez only scored 11 goals in 32 games which is not particularly good form for a striker. The fact is that Suarez is not a natural goal scorer and would probably play better off a more central forward such as Carroll. Suarez did not operate successfully as a lone striker as he is more inclined to drop deep for Liverpool and get involved in support play as his high number of dribbles and passes indicate.
I’d imagine that Rodgers will implement a 4-3-3 and perhaps play Suarez off Carroll out wide on the left. Both Craig Bellamy and Luis Suarez have the ability to play as wide men in a 4-3-3 which could mean the club might sign cover up front. Of course much depends on how well they utilise Carroll in this formation as his best strengths are his aerial presence, rather than his technical ability. Thus has seen the club linked with a move for Newcastle’s Demba Ba, although his own form tailed off massively after the AFCON tournament and their are question marks over his long term fitness.
The lack of league goals relates to Liverpool’s poor home form which can be improved if they score more. Only four Premier League teams managed less home wins than Liverpool last season (two of whom were relegated). An increase in fire power could assist the side unlock sides who come to Anfield playing defensive tactics.
Finding a position for Gerrard
Steven Gerrard has been an iconic player for Liverpool for over a decade now, leading them to success in the Champions League in 2005 as well as the FA Cup in 2006. However, over recent seasons his form has dipped considerably and he has failed to remain consistently fit.
The problem Gerrard causes is that he is not really a centre midfielder anymore and more of a support striker. Although he operated as part of a two man centre-midfield pairing for England during Euro 2012, this is certainly not his preferred position and Liverpool will also not be as defensive as a unit as England were.
His impact on the side has been widely reported with Liverpool winning very few games that Gerrard played from the start last season due to the tactical dilemma he causes as well as the impact he has on other players. All of Charlie 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. Jordan 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 in last season’s victory away at Norwich 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. If Lucas is shielding the defense this is not so much of an issue, but what this does demonstrate is that Gerrard would prefer to operate in a 4-3-3 as one of a midfield three. Finding a formation that fits Gerrard in and utilizes his best attributes will be crucial for Rodgers and a 4-3-3 may be the answer.
Reshuffling the midfield
This ties into the latter point regarding Gerrard. The club currently have 9 players who can operate as central midfielders competing for a maximum of three positions. Jonjo Shelvey and Daniel Pacheco might be loaned out, but that still leaves 7 midfielders. Alberto Aquilani and Joe Cole may be moved on but the latter has expressed a willingness to stay with the club, although it remains to be seen whether they want to keep him. Really the club need to sign at least one midfielder, however a total of 6 midfielders is probably more than enough for just three positions. One issue with regards to Aquilani and Cole may be their wages that may make them less inclined to leave and clubs less inclined to make bids for them.
The club also need to bring in cover for Lucas who 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. Much of their lack of form coincided with Lucas’ injury last season as him being out meant Adam had to fill in as a ball playing defensive midfielder, which is not his best role.
Liverpool would also need to bring in a more dangerous wide man as we have seen that Downing has been relatively unproductive since joining the club. The club do not possess a natural right winger with Bellamy, Henderson, Kuyt and Maxi all operating there at times last season despite none of them being naturally suited to this role. Again this demonstrates the lack of balance within the squad. The club look to have moved on Dirk Kuyt (Fenerbahçe), with Maxi Rodríguez also likely to leave, which could open up room to bring in new players. One issue Liverpool have here is that having finished yet again without Champions League football they cannot attract the most sought after players anymore. Thus the chances of signing another Xabi Alonso or Fernando Torres again seem unlikely. The club will have to take relative risks in the transfer market in the hope that they pay off, which is easier said than done.
Liverpool have some good young players in their squad and despite people criticising some of their signings Henderson and Carroll are still only 22 and 23 respectively. Shelvey is 20 and Martin Kelly, a good young right-back, is only 22. The squad does need to be trimmed in areas such as central 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 Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations. The side’s defence is still good, despite Reina having a poor season he can still be considered a world class player and probably still one of Liverpool’s best players.
To get back in the top four next season will not be easy. Spurs finished fourth, 17 points above Liverpool, which will be difficult to claw back over one season even if the side do invest heavily as Spurs have also be strengthening, having just beaten Liverpool to the signing of Gylfi Sigurðsson. Fourth place is thus likely be contested by Spurs and Arsenal with Liverpool probably having to settle for a top 6 finish. The level of competition in the Premier League is so high now that even that may not be a given. Much will depend on how Rodgers settles in and whether he can help the side score more goals and dramatically improve home form, two primary problems for the club last season.
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