After a torrid 2014-15 season, Liverpool have moved swiftly and decisively in the transfer market to plug holes in the squad. Aakriti Mehrotra talks about some realistic expectations that Kopites can have from the upcoming season, now that Rodgers has been given a free hand and stripped of all possible excuses.
Liverpool have been shrewd in this transfer window (as much as I can regret these words in 2016). The fact that they’ve got most of the transfers done before the pre-season because Rodgers wanted the players to be together and train for a month before the season began, unlike last season, signifies that the Northern Irishman has some sort of a plan in his head. There has been a clear improvement in the squad and unlike last season, the focus is not merely on increasing the squad but also on quality. Roberto Firmino has been the pick of the signings for most people who cry for “marquee” players, and the swiftness in which the Reds got that done was massively impressive. Not to forget, there has been a change in the backroom staff.
Brendan Rodgers new number 2 Sean O’Driscoll definitely has more experience than his previous one, despite what social media tells you. Gary McAllister has a certain Liverpool connect and can be a good person to have in the management while Pep Lijnders, the new “development” coach, seems very impressive through his resume and comments.
So what should we expect from the Liverpool this season? (If you expect to read an article stating “Brendan Rodgers to be sacked before December”; “A charming bespectacled German to take over the club”; “The charming bespectacled German to make Suarez return next season”, please stop reading now.)
Summer transfers to fare well
Liverpool’s acquisition of James Milner has been particularly impressive and it’s really strange how some fans don’t think of it as a smart acquisition. His experience, leadership, versatility and the underrated and overlooked ability can add plenty to the squad. Manuel Pellegrini said about him, “I’m Milner’s No. 1 fan. Find me a more complete English player. There are players who’re better technically, yes. Quicker players, yes. Players who head better, yes. But show me one who does all the things Milner does well. There isn’t one.”
Surely someone who evokes this kind of praise from his manager is doing something right? A huge problem for Liverpool last season was to win games from a losing position. To do the same, you need grit and experience in the team. Liverpool hardly had that. This is not to say that Milner can win a match single-handedly, he is not that sort of a player, but he is someone who once you put on the pitch, can irradiate his teammates with confidence. The 29-year-old has plenty of energy in him and can supply that much needed enthusiasm in the heart of the field alongside Henderson. He has also won silverware at City, has played at the topmost level and has plenty of experience to provide that much needed steel to the very young Liverpool squad that looked extremely vulnerable last season.
Roberto Firmino is as mentioned before, a very impressive signing. He will take sometime to get used to the new surroundings and teammates but it is fully expected that the Brazilian will add plenty to the Liverpool attack. Danny Ings and Divock Origi are likely to fight for the third choice striker but in Daniel Sturridge’s absence, they will have time to make a mark. Through the pre-season we can see that Brendan Rodgers is not opposed to the idea of playing Origi centrally and Ings on the wing. Christian Benteke’s £32.5m fee means he will be starting games.
It remains to be seen how well Benteke does at Liverpool but comparisons to Andy Carroll are purely lazy and he surely cannot do worse than Mario Balotelli in his debut season. Fans who have questioned his signing must ask themselves how many strikers who have scored 10+ goals in the past three seasons in Europe’s top 5 leagues, would be available and open to come to a non-Champions League side. However, both Origi and Ings will get plenty of time to prove their worth. Both are young, and both have shown that they have the potential to do really well. Adam Bogdan’s free signing was unspectacular, but it is very difficult to sign a spectacular number 2, more so without Champions League football to offer and Bogdan gave a glimpse of his skill at Anfield last season. On a free transfer, how much of a gamble could it be? Nathaniel Clyne is definitely an upgrade on Glen Johnson and was one of the best right backs in the league last season. If he can repeat his performance of last season, he will prove to be a good investment.
Joe Gomez was brought in from Charlton and fans were not happy with another raw player. However, so far, the Englishman has impressed. The central defender has played all three pre-season games as a full-back and has done well each time. Just 18, he is incredibly composed and mature and unlike the “modern day full back”, doesn’t take his defending duties lightly.
Last season’s “flops” to do well
Another thing that can be expected from Liverpool this season is for last season’s “flops” to do well. Adam Lallana was brought in for £25m and plenty was expected from the former Saints captain. While he was nowhere as bad as Twitter will tell you, there is no doubt that he was not fantastic. 6 goals and 3 assists are not impressive statistics. But stats don’t give you perspective. They don’t talk about lack of pre-season, injuries and different formations and positions he played in. Regardless, it was not a good season for the Englishman, something he has acknowledged more than once. With a full pre-season under his belt unlike last time and a season to get acclimatized to the “Liverpool way”, expect Lallana to do much better. Lazar Markovic was another “flop” from last season. With a £20m price tag, there has to be pressure to perform.
Markovic took a while to get going, then started showing his potential around the turn of the year, but then he started being used as a wing-back. The Serbian has done well in a more advanced position, as is always observed during international games and particularly well a little more centrally than as an out and out winger. The attacker is expected to be used as a squad player this season, but also in his favored role and if he gets a chance to play where he feels more comfortable, expect him to fire. Alberto Moreno wasn’t a flop, but after the initial games he didn’t really impress much. With competition from Joe Gomez and possibly another left-back Liverpool have been said to want to bring in, Moreno will also get better. He just recently turned 23 and has plenty of time to improve.
Liverpool’s young guns to play an important role
It’s a riddle as to how Emre Can will be used, but last season showed the ability of the German. He impressed for Germany in the midfield role and has been tipped by many to be the replacement for Steven Gerrard, the club needs. He is not a defensive midfielder, but more of the box-to-box variety, so it will be interesting to see how and how often Rodgers uses him given Henderson and Milner are almost certain to start every week. But if the U-21 Euros was anything to go by, Can could complement Henderson and Milner impeccably, contributing to a midfield trio with a little bit of everything. Tiago Ilori is a player that should get a chance this time (after two successive seasons out on loan) but it is uncertain if he will. Many think that Ilori should be the first choice defender and should replace Martin Skrtel in the line-up. While that seems highly unlikely, if he is given chances in the cup competitions, and he can take those, he could solve Liverpool’s defensive conundrums.
Experts and former players have told Liverpool to not look for a Raheem Sterling replacement because they already have Jordon Ibe within the ranks. Ibe was fantastic in the second half of last season and there were very promising signs in the 19 year-old’s displays. The youngster is expected to feature more in the cup competitions and be a squad player in the Premier League but if he does well, it could be the case that he leaves much older, much more expensive players on the bench. Joao Teixeira could be another young, academy player coming more into the fore of things this time. The Portuguese was impressive on loan at Brighton, and has impressed in the pre-season as well. Expect the younger players to make a big mark this season.
Rodgers to get the better out of certain players and formations without the Gerrard dilemma
One big advantage for Brendan Rodgers this season is that he can have a team without Steven Gerrard. As much as that could be a controversial thing to say, and perhaps even sound cruel to Liverpool fans, how (often) to use Gerrard was a major problem for Rodgers. There was a certain obligation to use the Champions League winner despite the player largely being the shadow of himself. Rodgers got the best of him in the deep lying playmaker position in 2013-14, and Gerrard delivered, despite his disastrous slip against Demba Ba. We mustn’t forget the 13 goals and assists and numerous match winning moments in that season. However, the conspirers will like to tell you that that eventually it was this role that led to Gerrard wanting to quit. How does that make sense? Didn’t Rodgers make Gerrard less redundant by making him adapt to a new role where his legs weren’t going to a major factor in his game, but his vision was. In this role, he could ensure he played every game when he was fit.
The player wanted to leave when the manager told him his games needed to be managed. Gerrard just wasn’t good/fit enough to start every single game (I am not refuting the fact that his role in the team could still be very influential with lesser game time). All non-Liverpool fans and many Kop faithful will unanimously agree that that was true. Even if we give into the whims of these conspirators and agree to the fact that Gerrard did leave because of Rodgers’s management, it is good for Rodgers and Liverpool that he did. The Northern Irishman no longer has the headache of pleasing the fans and the captain and putting his name in the teamsheet even when it shouldn’t be and accommodating the rest of his team according to that. Liverpool fans fumed seeing Jordan Henderson play as a wing-back, but they also fumed when they saw Gerrard sitting on the bench in the next game.
There was a reason why a section of Liverpool fans did want to give Rodgers another chance after the disaster of last season. It wasn’t because these fans have become “used to mediocrity”. No one likes their team to fail. It was because people understood that there were factors where Rodgers was left helpless (again, this is not to say the manager was completely absolved of all the blame).
But now, everything seems to be in place for Rodgers to look at the team and say “this is purely my vision”. Now, the lack of success – top 4 finish – will probably not be tolerated.
A lot will obviously also depend on whether or not one of Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United (especially the last two), falters. On paper, the previously mentioned teams are still better and if Liverpool finish fifth, it would be a fair reflection of the quality of the various squads, at the moment. However, a top 4 finish is what is expected from the club this season. Brendan Rodgers has to somehow get that extra bit out of his squad and ensure that the club finishes with a Champions League berth for the 2016/17 season. A trophy would be nice, but without a top 4 finish, that would mean little or nothing. Whether they can do it or not remains to be seen and the factors mentioned above will have to play a role in it.
Written by Aakriti Mehrotra