This is a season of change and transition for Liverpool in many ways. Some of the ways they will change are easy to identify and others not so. For example, the ongoing ownership debacle has the potential to provide funds for the first team in a way that hasn’t been possible for a few years now. The fact that nothing is yet finalised makes it difficult to predict what kind of effect this will have on the club.
The change of ownership also raises the possibility of some kind of fan involvement and ownership of LFC. This has the potential to be the biggest change at LFC and indeed in English football since the early 90’s. If the money can be raised and the majority investors are accommodating (and there is significant talk of both these possibilities) then a portion of the club could then be under fan control. For England’s most successful club to set the standard for this kind of fan involvement would be a signal that it can (and should) happen elsewhere.
New signings don’t always improve a team
Many other previews of the coming season like to focus on new signings and squad depth. The former is used as some kind of measure to predict future success. There are many problems with this. It is very rare that a new player instantly settles into a new club, and even more rare that the new player can improve the club in a significant way i.e. Fernando Torres. More often than not it takes a while for any new player to settle in. The point being that new signings are not always a good indicator of the quality of a team. The more new signings and changes that a team undergoes the more chances there are for disruptions to the team. Too much emphasis is placed on transfers by the media, fans and clubs.
This year, as last year, all eyes will be on Manchester City. It may take a while for City to gel but they have signed some of the best players in world football. And although none of the new signings have played in the Premier League before it would be surprising if David Silva and Yaya Toure didn’t improve their squad, throw in Mario Balotelli and City really are a force to be reckoned with. Liverpool will have to be at their very best to get back into the Champions League places but they can’t and don’t need to spend like City to compete with them.
LFC have been signing new players for little money but seemingly of a good quality. The two free transfers of Milan Jovanovic and Joe Cole, plus £4.5m man Christian Poulsen are players that can make an impact on the first team. The other transfers, so far, are more geared towards the future. Danny Wilson and Jonjo Shelvey are talented players but are unlikely to feature much in the Premier League this season.
Looking at squad depth, Liverpool’s first 11 is still high quality. Outside the first team there are many talented youngsters and Roy Hodgson has done good work already in trimming away other players that were in or around the main squad. A healthy Liverpool squad should have a top quality first team and talented young players ready to slot in. The main problem with this are unpredictable long-term injuries to big players, leaving a heavy burden being placed on the shoulders of young players. The introduction of the transfer window has meant that teams have preferred to stockpile players just in case there are any injuries to first team players.
Up-front last year Liverpool struggled to score goals in Torres’ absence. If he is out for any significant period of time this year Liverpool need to ensure that they have adequate back-up. Dirk Kuyt may be one-dimensional but Jovanovic and youngsters David Ngog and Daniel Pacheco have the potential to introduce some unpredictability to the forward line. A lot depends on Ryan Babel, he has been way too inconsistent at the top level thus far but if Hodgson can get him to finally live up to his massive potential then LFC may not need any further striking reinforcements. Maxi Rodriguez played well in since signing in the January transfer window, that experience of the Premier League should help him to improve this year. If Hodgson can find a quality addition at the right price (i.e. cheap) another striker should arrive before the end of the transfer window.
In midfield Liverpool seem to be well-stocked with central midfielders, even without Javier Mascherano. The additions of Cole and Poulsen to existing players Steven Gerrard, Lucas Leiva, Alberto Aquilani and Jay Spearing leave a good combination of hard-working ball winners and creativity. With width being supplied by Babel, Kuyt, Maxi, Jovanovic, Cole or Gerrard this is one of the best midfields in the country.
In defence Liverpool are lacking a little quality. Jamie Carragher was caught out by quick players too often last season and during the World Cup. Sotirios Kyrgiakos is good in the air and may be useful against long ball playing teams but is also vulnerable to quick players running at him. A good first choice centre-back pairing would be Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel. Both have improved the positional side of their game and are good distributors of the ball. Whether Hodgson feels able to drop Vice-Captain Carragher yet is another matter. Glen Johnson is a better defender than many give him credit for and is ably understudied by Martin Kelly and Steven Darby. On the left Fabio Aurelio will need to prove his fitness can match his undoubted ability and, if he stays, Emiliano Insua is a quality deputy. The left side is another area that needs strengthening though.
Goalkeeping is the easiest to judge, Pepe Reina is simply the best keeper in the Premier League. The reports of Brad Jones signing from Middlesborough are interesting, although he will only be used as a back-up to Reina.
Possibly the most valuable signing this season could turn out to be Peter Brukner and his Sports Science staff. Liverpool suffered greatly in the last two seasons from injuries to Gerrard and Torres. If the new medical team can keep these two fit and firing for as long as possible, there are many reasons for positivity. After his two excellent goals in England’s friendly against Hungary, Gerrard looks fit and ready to recover his form of two seasons ago.
Turning to Hodgson’s preferred formation for this year, from player interviews it appears that he focuses greatly on the shape of the team. This would indicate that he has a formation or two that he wants to play. Looking at the players available I would imagine some variation between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 depending on the game and injuries. If Torres is absent, and I would be surprised if he started the first game, a 4-3-3 with wide players ready to drop back into a 4-5-1 when out of possession is more likely. In Torres’ absence the front 3 is likely to be made up from any of Cole, Kuyt, Jovanovic, Babel or Ngog. The middle 3 will be from Gerrard, Lucas, Aquilani or Poulsen.
Last season expectations were high that Liverpool could build on their second place finish of the year before and finally win the Premier League. These expectations were exposed as being unrealistic in truth in the pre-season games, and as soon as the Premier League kicked off it was obvious the team was imbalanced, inadequate and unsettled. This year expectations are far lower but the squad is arguably just as good as last year and, more importantly, far happier. Losing disruptive influences like Albert Reira and players who don’t want to be there like Yossi Benayoun and Mascherano will have a positive impact on team morale. Add this to a new lease of life for Gerrard and Torres, plus a fit a Aquilani and Cole who feels he has something to prove and all the talent in the world with which to do it, and Liverpool have many reasons to be positive. A good start will be important and with Arsenal coming to Anfield on Sunday they could not have a much harder game to kick off. Hodgson has has a good start to his Liverpool career, he speaks intelligently and has made astute purchases. He will get an easy ride from the media to begin with and as always Liverpool fans will support him. Benitez won the Champions League in his first season, Hodgson can’t emulate that feat but a good run in the Europa League and FA Cup and qualification for next season’s Champions League are the minimum expectation for Liverpool.
Injuries and poor form curtailed Torres’ 2009/10 season and his World Cup campaign but he is Liverpool best player. Torres’ importance to Liverpool cannot be overstated, with him in the side they are a far better team than without. They have replacements in every area of the pitch but there is no other player that could replace Torres. His decision to stay at Liverpool is arguably Hodgson’s greatest achievement so far. Hopefully the few weeks rest since the World Cup final will have done Torres good and leave him able to show the ability he has.
Both Martin Kelly and Dani Pacheco could make an impact on the first team this year. Kelly was just called up to the England U-19 squad after a strong showing in Liverpool’s pre-season games and Pacheco lit up Spain’s U-19 European Championship campaign. I would expect both to play in the Carling Cup and early Europa League fixtures, and to deputise for Johnson and Cole respectively in the event of any injuries.
For his outstanding creativity and the feel-good factor he brought to Anfield, Joe Cole has to be the signing of the summer. He is making the right noises about wanting to settle into Liverpool and Liverpool life. A good start to the campaign will see him firmly established as a fan favourite. He will be vital in providing the link between midfield and attack this year.
Liverpool will not win the League this year but neither will they be as bad as many think. There is a strong squad already available even if new investment doesn’t arrive before the end of the transfer window. Hodgson also needs to show there is a clear path from the youth teams to the first team. A fresh start under a new manager can provide the impetus for many players to raise their level. A Champions League spot is well within Liverpool’s reach, with somewhere between seventh and third probably being as high as they can manage.