A year ago, Liverpool were marauding down the home stretch of a thrilling-and ultimately heartbreaking-charge up the Premier League table for the first time in years. While a long-awaited Premier League title eluded them, Brendan Rodgers’ young side earned their way into the Champions League for the following season with a swashbuckling, irresistible style of play.
The (soon to be revealed) impending departure of Luis Suarez loomed large, but with or without him, it seemed, the Reds had signaled their intentions to the rest of England. Thanks to a rapidly improving crop of young players and a managerial star in the making, Liverpool were back where they belonged: challenging for the Premier League crown-and before long, they would be doing the same in Europe.
One year-and nearly £120 million (albeit much of it coming in exchange for the magnificent Suarez) later, Liverpool’s former jewel is indeed challenging for domestic and continental crowns, but in Catalonia. His former team-mates, however, have fared far worse. While the double blow of Suarez’s departure and Daniel Sturridge’s calamitous succession of injuries played a large part, it can be argued that Liverpool’s abysmal start to the campaign was heavily influenced by the struggles of newcomers expected to make an immediate impact.
After a season in which their turnstile-like defense ultimately led to their falling just short of the title the Reds spent loads of cash on improving the backline. While the unit improved, particularly from the festive period onwards, the respective impacts of big-money signings Alberto Moreno and Dejan Lovren can only be described as mediocre and shambolic. Relative bargain Javier Manquillo provided a relatively sturdy option at right back, although his lack of attacking threat left him out in the cold when Rodgers switched to a system that required more dynamic wingbacks.
Thanks to that shift, Liverpool’s best defensive signing turned out to be a midfielder, as Emre Can brought assured defending and composure in possession to a three man backline. “Marquee” signing Adam Lallana flashed his skill from time to time, but he spent much of the season on the treatment table, and even when healthy he seemed unable to find his groove in Liverpool’s disjointed attack. Lazar Markovic appeared lightweight and naïve early in the campaign, and although he enjoyed a strong run of form as an attacking wingback in Rodgers 3-4-2-1 formation, he has spent much of the last month or two as Rodgers’ sacrificial lamb, regularly being hauled off at halftime (at times in favour of players more deserving of the hook).
Signed as a “Plan B” option, Rickie Lambert predictably struggled to keep up with the pace of Liverpool’s preferred style of attack, while suffering from a dearth of aerial service up front. Mario Balotelli was similarly ill-suited to Liverpool’s style of play as, like Lambert, he offered little movement and pressing from the front, while Rodgers’ insistence on playing him as a lone striker nullified his strengths in both hold-up play and goal-poaching.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but fortunately in football, each new summer presents a new opportunity to apply lessons learnt in the past. Before I put forth my own plan for Liverpool’s transfer business in part two of this article tomorrow, here are a few such lessons I hope Brendan Rodgers and the much-maligned transfer committee will keep in mind:
Establish a tactical vision. Dave touched on this point in a recent ESPN article, but it bears repeating. Drafting Markovic into a team that rarely played wingers, adding Lallana to the likes of Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling in the attacking midfield ranks and introducing the ponderous pairing of Balotelli and Lambert into a side predicated on movement and pressing all smack of naivete and an ignorance of the delicate alchemy of team-building. I suspect tactical flexibility will always be a feature of Rodgers’ Liverpool-and I think it certainly has its merits. But the manager would do well to envision a favored formation, whether a 4-4-2 diamond, a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 or the 3-4-2-1 with which he had so much success this season, and to seek to find players who best fit the particular roles demanded by that system.
Replace your stars. In the wake of Luis Suarez’s departure, Liverpool had pinned its hopes on Alexis Sanchez to fill the Uruguayan’s massive boots. When the Chilean (or perhaps his wife) instead decided the grass was greener in North London, Liverpool appeared to give up on its search for a player who could even begin to imitate Suarez’s contributions and style. While the Reds were never going to find another player of his calibre, the lack of a replacement was clearly evident in a side devoid of movement, pressing, creativity and finishing. With Steven Gerrard (admittedly a star in name only this past season) and potentially Raheem Sterling on their way out the door, Liverpool must surely be on the lookout for potential reinforcements in their positions.
Versatility is crucial. As mentioned above, Rodgers’ Liverpool will likely always utilize a number of formations, and a player can easily become a waste of money if he proves incapable of contributing to a new formation. Balotelli and Lambert struggled to make an impact without a strike partner and as a result they were rendered nearly useless in the absence of Daniel Sturridge-a time when impact from the frontline reserves was most sorely needed. Similarly, Javier Manquillo was left out in the cold after Rodgers’ tactical switch did away with fullbacks in favor of more dynamic wingbacks. In contrast, Emre Can carved out a role for himself at a relatively unfamiliar center back position, while to a lesser extent, Lazar Markovic made a useful contribution at wingback.
“Big time” experience matters. While Liverpool’s wage structure and likely lack of Champions League football will restrict them to relative “bargain” shopping, compared with some of the wealthier clubs occupying the Top Four places above them, whenever possible, the club should look to add players who won’t be daunted by the weight of expectation on Merseyside. At various points in the season the Southampton trio, Markovic, Moreno, Manquillo and even Can appeared unnerved by the weight of the occasion. A mix of veterans being replaced and youngsters who haven’t quite made the grade at some of the wealthier clubs, along with starlets with burgeoning international careers and ideally a few Champions League tilts under their belts would represent an ideal blend of new recruits.
With those four lessons in mind, tomorrow I’ll take a look, position-by-position, at our current crop of players, with recommendations as to who should be shifted and who should be kept on for next season. Finally, I’ll offer a profile of what we should look for this summer at each position of need, with a particular name or two where appropriate. Here I’ll do my best to keep to the most realistic options, bearing in mind that at this point in the year, transfer rumours have nearly as many holes in them as do Jordon Ibe’s jeans.