Getting Down To Business
In the summer of 2014 everyone associated with Liverpool Football Club was in a state of shock. Going in to the final three games against Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Newcastle Liverpool needed just two wins and a draw in order to lift the Premier League title for the first time and their first top flight trophy since 1990.
A 2-0 loss against Chelsea at Anfield followed by a 3-3 draw at Selhurst Park meant that the dream slipped out of Liverpool’s grasp and Manchester City won the title by just two points.
Having finished 2nd and come as close as they ever had to winning the Premier League, Liverpool had an opportunity to use the summer transfer window in 2014 to push themselves on, to make the right purchases in the market and to have a real tilt at the title.
For some reason, however, the sale of Luis Suarez to Barcelona seemingly came as a bit of a surprise to the powers that be, despite a watertight buyout clause being inserted into his contract when he signed a new one the summer before. Perhaps it was because no one at Chapel Street quite knew how to recover from the traumatic loss of the previous season.
Soldiers and those in warzones are the type of people that can legitimately claim to be suffering from posttraumatic stress, yet the mood around Liverpool suggested a loss not dissimilar to bereavement in 2014.
Transfer wise Liverpool spent the summer seeming as though they were running through treacle. There was the Loic Remy saga that seemed to drag on forever, as well as the failure to land Alexis Sanchez on the back of Suarez’ departure. In fact, the failure to replace Luis Suarez adequately was the single biggest factor that was detrimental to Liverpool’s start to their Premier League campaign.
Spread Out Signings
Whether it was down to the manager or the much abused transfer committee will probably never be revealed, but whoever was responsible one fact is indisputable: Liverpool failed to replace their star man in the summer and instead opted to bulk out the squad with players that were either too inexperienced to make a difference or else simply didn’t fit in with the type of football Brendan Rodgers likes to play.
A decision seemed to be made that Rodgers could build a team around Daniel Sturridge. The England striker had had a brilliant season along side Luis Suarez in the 2013-2014 campaign, making 29 league appearances and scoring 21 goals. He did miss 9 games, however, and is known to be an injury prone player, so the choice to make him the focal point of the team was a naïve one.
Liverpool’s signings were also spread out across the transfer window. An agreement was reached to sign Rickie Lambert from Southampton on the 2nd of June, with his team mate Adam Lallana joining nearly a month later on July 1st. Emre Can was next through the door on July 3rd, before a 12 day gap before Lazar Markovic joined the club. Another 12 days passed until Dejan Lovren came in on the 27th of July and the deal was put in place to sign Divock Origi on July 29th, with the Belgian heading straight back to his former club on loan for the season.
Then a loan agreement was made Atletico Madrid for the signing of Javi Manquillo on the 6th of August before the Reds returned to Spain on the 16th of that month for Alberto Moreno. The final man to walk in through the door was supposed to be the spark of crazy that Liverpool were lacking since their toothy Uruguayan has said goodbye, when Mario Balotelli became a Liverpool player on August the 25th.
Liverpool’s pre-season began on July 16th 2014 when they faced Brondby in Denmark. At that point Liverpool had signed just 3 players who were able to play in the match, with the deal for Markovic agreed just the day before. By the time they’d jetted off to America for their tour of the States, with their first game coming against Roma on July 24th, the situation hadn’t changed.
Ostensibly Brendan Rodgers was having to get his team ready for the upcoming season without knowing who was going to be in his squad. Liverpool ended up with 9 new signings that summer, yet only 3 of them were able to play in the first few games of the pre-season period. To quote the manager himself, “it’s like trying to build an aircraft while it is flying”.
It wasn’t really until the 10th of August, when Liverpool played Borussia Dortmund at Anfield, that most of the signings were in place, and even then Balotelli and Moreno had still to arrive; two players that were certain to make an impact on the first team squad if not the first XI itself.
Rodgers had hoped to spend the 2014-2015 season introducing his new players slowly, integrating them in to the Liverpool way gradually whilst maintaining the core of the squad. In the game against Southampton on the opening day of the season Liverpool started with Mignolet in goal, a back 4 of Manquillo, Skrtel, Lovren and Johnson with Gerrard, Henderson, Lucas, and Coutinho in the midfield behind Sterling and Sturridge. Only two new players made the starting XI despite the Reds signing 9 during the summer.
By the time Liverpool faced Spurs in the 3rd game of the season Manquillo, Lovren, Moreno and Balotelli had all joined the first XI in what was arguably Liverpool’s best performance of the season as a whole. Unfortunately injuries took their toll, with Lallana picking up one in pre-season that he wouldn’t really shake off and Sturridge getting injured early on in the campaign and not recovering properly for the entire year. In fact, Sturridge still isn’t over his injury problems and probably won’t be back until November time.
So not only did the players not arrive until too late for Rodgers to get to know them in pre-season, injuries meant that Rodgers’ ideal plan of introducing them slowly into the squad and the system – to say nothing of his desire to play Sturridge and Balotelli up top together – fell apart before the campaign had even really begun to build up steam.
It probably isn’t much of an overstatement to suggest that not having his full team to work with prior to pre-season, or even prior to the start of the season in some cases, weakened Brendan Rodgers right out of the gate last year. On top of that, being crippled – pun intended – by injury stopped any kind of smooth flow to Liverpool’s preparations.
Liverpool were heart broken at the end of the 2013-2014 season and needed time to recover. Missing out on the Premier League title was painful enough, but to then lose the whirling dervish of a player who was the chief architect behind their success was a kick in the teeth. The club’s failure to replace him adequately became the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Learning From Mistakes
This time around the club seems to have learnt from its mistakes. Whereas last time it appeared that the powers that be had made a conscientious decision to concentrate on building the squad rather than worry about the first team, it looks as though this summer the Reds have improved the areas that need improving the most.
Glen Johnson’s contract has expired and the player has left the club, so Liverpool need a new right back. In comes Nathaniel Clyne, not only a right back but one of the best defenders of last season and, at 24, likely to be the club’s first choice player in that position indefinitely.
Everyone knows that Suarez wasn’t replaced sufficiently. Last summer the Reds brought in Rickie Lambert and Mario Balotelli and failed to improve upon them in the January transfer window. This time around they’ve signed Roberto Firmino – a player that will add attacking verve and has got the fans excited. According to reports from those that watch the Bundesliga, Firmino is also the type of player who likes to press from the front, keeping the opposition on the back foot whenever he can. The exact thing neither Balotelli nor Lambert had the pace or ability to do last time around.The biggest one, of course, is the loss of Steven Gerrard. In Gerrard the club has lost not only a figurehead, but an immense amount of experience and nous from a player who dragged the team through many of its tougher times in recent years. He was not only the local heartbeat of the team but also its also its best player for the past 15 years.
Liverpool will never be able to replace Steven Gerrard with a player bought from somewhere else. Gerrard’s boots won’t be adequately filled until another world class, game changing player comes through the academy and carries the hopes and dreams of every Liverpool supporter upon his shoulder without fear or complaint. In other words, he’s irreplaceable.
What the club have done is the best they can under the circumstances. They’ve brought in James Milner, a player who can offer the experience that the team is now lacking. Having won virtually everything there is to win in the game, Milner knows what it takes to stay focussed in the final push during a title run in. He is also the ultimate professional, pushing other players to their limits in training and keeping the general feel of things behind the scenes at a good level.
In the past, Jordan Henderson has looked to be at his best when Steven Gerrard wasn’t on the pitch. When he didn’t have the colossal form of one of the club’s most legendary players to defer to, Henderson took the game by the scruff of the neck and tended to dictate play. Milner might bring experience, but he hasn’t proven anything at LFC yet, so don’t be surprised to see him and Henderson working really well together. The dynamo and the old head, running non-stop and running the show.
The most important thing about Liverpool’s new recruits is that they’ve been brought in early. Every single deal that has been signed off on so far was in place before the transfer window even opened. Danny Ings has chosen to cut his allowed holiday short in order to join the Reds in their pre-season training as soon as possible. That’s not only the kind of dedication the fans like to see, it also means that he’ll be in place to know what Rodgers expects of him in plenty of time to understand what it takes to impress at Anfield.
In fact, the only player that won’t be joining up with everyone else any time soon is Roberto Firmino, who is likely to be given an extended period of leave due to his involvement in the Copa America. The other player who won’t join up with his team mates any time soon is the one that hasn’t been bought yet. It seems locked in that the Reds want to add one more striker to their roster, with Christian Benteke the likely target. A deal has yet to be reached, however, meaning that there will be one player at least who won’t join the team in time to fit in seamlessly.
One player brought in late this season compared to virtually all of them last time around is a good improvement. On top of that, the club has improved on its first team options rather than just added to the squad. Liverpool’s line-up for the start of the season could look something like this:
Clyne Skrtel Sakho Moreno
Not bad at all when you write it down. Moreno is the obvious weak link, but even he has had his brighter moments. If you wanted to keep a similar formation but look towards the secondary players Liverpool have on their books then you could field a team more like this:
Wisdom Toure Lovren Flanagan
Another not bad looking team, full of pace and movement. It’s also worth noting that neither team has room for Joe Allen, nor has Raheem Sterling been included owing to his likely sale to Manchester City, nor Daniel Sturridge, given the fact that he’s likely to be injured until September at the earliest.
With two different teams that can both offer a specific way of playing, added to a variety of formations and players that can play in numerous positions, it feels as though Liverpool have quietly put together a choice of teams that can make a real difference moving forward. The club should also be over the heartbreak of the 2013-2014 season and, instead, be angry and raring to gain revenge on themselves for their poor end to the season.
By sacking Colin Pascoe and Mike Marsh and replacing them with two people who are known to like a pressing, attacking and intense game, FSG have not only backed Brendan Rodgers to the hilt, they’ve also put a marker down for how the team will look to play moving forward.
Not every fan was pleased with the decision to keep Rodgers, but now they’re going to have to embrace him and realise he’s going nowhere. Instead of complaining and moaning at the first sign of a defeat, the supporters need to get behind the man in charge and the players themselves, safe in the knowledge that if things pay off then Rodgers has the ability to get Liverpool playing some of the best football of the Premier League era. It could see them return to the pinnacle of the English game.
Imagine if Firmino, Milner, Benteke and Origi all manage to fit into the team and squad in the best way possible. Imagine if they slotted in alongside players like Ibe, Markovic and Sturridge when they were all fit, firing and playing as they were expected to when they were signed or when they came through the ranks? What a team that could be; what a difference it could make heading into the season.
The fact that Rodgers knows who his players will be heading into the pre-season and is able to work with them is a massive step in the right direction. If he can learn from the errors of last season and back himself in the dugout as well as on the training pitch then everyone at LFC will have learnt from their mistakes and the club could be in a tremendous position when the season kicks off.