Three years after arriving on the shores of Liverpool promising to bring "death by football" to the opponents of his new club, Brendan Rodgers enters a new season on the heels of a campaign that saw his side put to the sword by a formidable Top Four-and often, as the season-ending massacre at the Britannia showed, by far lesser sides.
The Manager spoke recently of having to regain the supporters' trust, a refreshingly candid admission from a man who far too often glossed over his side's shortcomings-as well as his own-throughout a dismal campaign. The Reds floundered in defence, midfield and attack, with a dearth of identity exemplified by Rodgers' switching formations against Aston Villa in the FA Cup semifinal like an awards show host swapping dresses between segments, as well as a lack of conviction epitomized by the side's gutless capitulation at Stoke in a shameful sendoff to club legend Steven Gerrard.
Re-establishing a clear identity and cultivating the fortitude of his side will be of paramount importance if Rodgers is to earn his way back into the good graces of supporters, and he'll have to accomplish both without Gerrard and Raheem Sterling, who both shined so brightly in the thrilling title run of 2013-14, in which Liverpool nearly realised their Gaffer's deadly vision of suffocating pressing, incisive movement and precise passing.
The club's summer business, conducted swiftly and quietly, along with a promising preseason run (albeit against inferior competition) suggest lessons have been learnt from a humbling campaign, though it remains to be seen whether or not that progress will be enough to propel the Reds back into the Top Four.
Rodgers took a significant step towards achieving those goals by prying James Milner out of his utility role at the Etihad and pairing him with newly-minted Captain Jordan Henderson to form a relentless and skillful midfield axis. Gerrard's skill and character will be missed in the middle of the park, and Henderson will certainly have his work cut out for him in taking on the armband from an all-time great.
Unshackled from the "water carrier" role he often occupied in order to compensate for Gerrard's relative lack of movement and positional discipline, however, the new Skipper should blossom with greater license to display his underrated creativity and range of passing. The ex-Sunderland man will benefit from the veteran presence of Vice Captain Milner, whose work rate, versatility and movement, like those of his new midfield partner appear ideally suited to Rodgers' philosophy, which stresses superiority in the midfield above all.
That philosophy, however, apparently does not include a place for a defensive midfielder, as the Reds still lack a disciplined, athletic presence to shield the defence behind the box-to-box running of their English duo and the attacking exploits of Philippe Coutinho and company further forward. The trio offer a tantalising blend of movement, creativity and technique, with the Brazilian, coming off a breakout campaign ideally suited to pull the strings from an advanced central role. Rodgers' side, however, may find themselves exposed - particularly in tough away fixtures - with a midfield three comprised of players who all prefer to play on the front foot.
Another such player is the promising Emre Can, who appears intent on securing a place in midfield after filling in admirably at the back for much of last season. The German's marauding runs are a sight to behold, but he might do well to restrain his attacking instincts in order to secure a place behind his Captain and Vice Captain, both of whom posses strengths similar to his own.
If Rodgers prefers a more disciplined presence at the base of midfield, Lucas Leiva might be his safest option in protecting the defence. The Brazilian, however, lacks the movement required of a top-class holding midfielder, and his contributions at the attacking end are exceedingly rare.
Joe Allen, originally the standard-bearer for Rodgers' style upon the pair's respective moves from Swansea could contribute in a box-to-box role, or in front of the defence. The Welshman is brave and adept in possession, with the tactical nous and the energy to contribute in the pressing game, but his slight stature allows him to be bullied in the middle of the park.
Local lad Jordan Rossiter and U-21 skipper Cameron Brannagan will hope to feature in the cups and could be pressed into duty with a couple of injuries amongst the midfield corps.
On the defensive flanks Liverpool, for the second straight summer brought in a duo of promising prospects to feature at fullback. Nathaniel Clyne is not exactly a youngster, but at 24 years of age he still has plenty of room for development and should offer both defensive stability and attacking impetus along the right touchline. His fondness for crossing could see him link up nicely with fellow new boy Christian Benteke.
On the left, Joe Gomez has been the revelation of the summer, cementing his place in Rodgers' first team plans with a string of impressive performances outside of his natural position of centre back. The Englishman's size, speed and strength make him an intriguing option to fill Liverpool's version of the Defence Against the Dark Arts position, while Alberto Moreno's pace and skill make him a decent bet to improve upon a disappointing maiden campaign on Merseyside. Local boy Jon Flanagan will hopefully put an end to his treatment table odyssey to provide perhaps the thinnest area of the squad with the hard-tackling and smart passing that made him an unsung hero of the 2013-14 title challenge.
Further infield, Martin Skrtel will return at the heart of defence, after an up-and-down season that began and ended with a leaky backline, while in between the Slovakian looked solid at the centre of a three-man defensive unit. Many Liverpool supporters have warmed considerably to Mamadou Sakho as Skrtel's partner, with the Frenchman proving a calm, technically adept presence next to the Hairless One's rough-around-the-edges physicality.
The Manager apparently remains unconvinced of Sakho's quality however, as Dejan Lovren appears to be Rodgers' preferred choice, despite an exceedingly disappointing first season during which the Croatian displayed levels of ill-directed enthusiasm and self-awareness normally displayed only on Jose Enrique's Instagram account. One can only hope the Northern Irishman joins all but the most stubborn Liverpool supporters in recognizing Sakho's class, or else the Reds may well lose their best defender ahead of next summer's European Championships.
Kolo Toure offers a veteran presence off the bench (albeit a slow, sometimes clumsy one), while Tiago Ilori remains somewhat of a forgotten man, despite his considerable potential.
Behind this apparently still unsettled defence, Simon Mignolet will hope to reprise his improved post-holiday form, after a torrid start to the previous campaign. The Belgian showed a good deal of gumption in resurrecting his play following an early-season demotion. Mignolet remains one of the better shot-stoppers in the league, and he improved in terms of commanding his area, while still lacking the level skill with the ball at his feet that Rodgers would prefer in his possession-based system. Should the keeper struggle once again, or pick up a knock, Adam Bogdan represents an upgrade over the departed Brad Jones as the Hungarian possesses strong instincts and reactions, although his passing, like that of Mignolet, leaves much to be desired.
If the last two seasons are any indication, however, Liverpool's fortunes will be most strongly influenced by their performance at the other end of the pitch. The irresistible combination of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge fired the Reds to within a whisker of the title two years ago, while the departure of the former and the Wile E Coyote-esque misfortunes of the latter (exacerbated by the club's failure to sign a dependable striking option) effectively dashed the side's chances last year.
Rodgers and the infamous Transfer Committee appear determined to right that wrong, as significant investment in the strikeforce yielded Roberto Firmino, whose movement, dribbling and clinical finishing should provide a much-needed attacking edge to a side that far too often looked to his compatriot Coutinho to conjure a moment of magic amongst a stagnant frontline. Outside of goals and assists, the former Hoffenheim star displays a work rate and a tenacity that aren't normally associated with the practitioners of o jogo bonito, and along with Clyne, Milner and perhaps Gomez, his arrival should facilitate a return to a more active press from the Redmen.
While the signing of Firmino threatened to push them down the pecking order, Adam Lallana and Jordon Ibe responded with a string of impressive outings throughout the side's preseason matches. Lallana, who struggled with injuries and inconsistent form throughout his first season on Merseyside, should challenge for a wide or central attacking midfield berth, where his skilful touch and clever eye for a pass could help break down the most stubborn defences.
Ibe, meanwhile has been somewhat lazily tipped as a replacement for Raheem Sterling, and while that's a tad too much be pressure to heap upon a 19-year-old's shoulders, there's no denying the youngster's considerable talents. He recently identified crossing accuracy and finishing as his two main areas of focus ahead of the season. Should he make such improvements, Ibe may well establish a role for himself on the right flank.
Lazar Markovic appears to be even further down the pecking order, but he offers similar pace and a tendency towards taking on defenders; like Ibe, fellow youngster Markovic must improve his final ball, as well as his tactical understanding.
Ibe's emphasis on crossing should be music to the ears of Benteke, the crown jewel of this summer's recruits. While the burly Belgian possesses neither the electric pace of Sturridge nor the sublime skill of Suarez, the stylistic complaints launched at Benteke (as well as at Rodgers for recruiting him) are a bit off the mark. He'll never be a massive threat to run in behind the defence, but he has the athleticism to press the opposition, along with clever movement in and around the box.
Crucially, Benteke brings proven goal-scoring abilities, which he expertly displayed with a thunderous volley off his chest last weekend, in his first match for the Reds. And while no one should expect Liverpool to all of a sudden begin lumping the ball up the field, the Belgian's aerial presence will make him a massive target on set pieces, as well as for Henderson's trademark chipped pass to the back post from deep.
The big fella should score his share of goals, but perhaps his greatest impact will come from his ability to create space for others. While last season the Reds were often stymied by disciplined, deep-lying defensive units, the presence of Benteke will attract the attention of opposing defences, freeing up room for the likes of Coutinho, Firmino, Lallana, Henderson, Milner and Ibe to buzz around and exploit gaps.
The side's attacking efforts will hopefully be bolstered by the return of Sturridge, whose clever movement and deadly finishing were both sorely missed throughout the previous campaign. The striker has shown the ability to play out wide to accommodate another central forward, but upon his hopeful return Rodgers might opt for a return to a midfield diamond, with Benteke and he forming somewhat of a thunder and lightning combo at the front. Danny Ings and Divock Origi will seek to contribute, particularly in the cups, where the latter's pace and the former's awareness could both prove quite useful.
While Liverpool's closest competitors for a top four finish (as well as the vast majority of the league) appear to have strengthened, massive improvement is required of Rodgers and his charges. That growth must arise from a return to Rodgers' philosophical roots, with a suffocating press supplying possession, skilful passing maintaining it and clever movement unlocking defences.
The Manager wants to earn back the trust of the supporters, and today he'll have an opportunity to take a significant step towards doing just that with the chance to exorcise the demons of the 6-1 drubbing at the Britannia. Twelve months from now, I expect Rodgers will have regained that trust, at the helm of a side who appear well-suited to re-establishing his "death by football" identify.
What better initial victim than a Stoke side who put the final nail in Liverpool's coffin last May?