A year ago today I was writing a season preview for Liverpool for the 2011-12 season. The difference between the two seasons is really quite extraordinary. Last year was all about lowering expectations and hoping that a couple of free transfers (Joe Cole and Milan Jovanovic) would add something extra to the team. I was also hoping that we would see a midfield featuring Alberto Aquilani and Javier Mascherano. The only one of those that happened was that LFC fans’ expectations were lowered. Aquilani was sent on loan to Juventus and Mascherano was sold to Barcelona. Cole and Jovanovic were decidedly underwhelming.
The season started badly under Roy Hodgson’s management, and got steadily worse as Liverpool had their worst start to a season for 57 years. Watching Liverpool last year was painful. Hodgson is a manager obsessed with the shape of the team, with each player having to stick to a rigid formation. This makes his teams easy to predict, and as it turned out at Liverpool, easy to beat. I remember watching the 2-0 defeat at Stoke last year, Raul Meireles left his position on the right side of midfield to support an attack. Liverpool were trailing and needed a goal. The attack broke down through lack of support, and Hodgson substituted Meireles straight away, the one creative player on the field at that time. Naturally Liverpool didn’t get the goal they needed.
When the previous owners of Liverpool were finally run out of town by New England Sports Ventures and the High Courts of England, Liverpool could breathe again and finally look to the future with some optimism. It was only a matter of time before Hodgson left. His replacement, Kenny Dalglish, has surprised many with his tactical flexibility and by excelling in the job he left 20 years ago.
The change of ownership and Dalglish in the manager’s seat give Liverpool fans reason to believe that they have their swagger back. Lowering expectations is not the task of the management this year. After Fernando Torres decided he wanted to go to a club that was showing more ambition, Liverpool have signed Luis Suarez, Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing, Alexander Doni and Jose Enrique for a combined total of around £105m. Fenway Sports Group (the new name for NESV) have been true to their word and backed Liverpool’s management financially every step of the way. It is probable that if Liverpool had qualified for the Champions League the quality of players signed may have been higher. The players that have signed though all wanted to play for Liverpool. This desire can’t be underestimated in its contribution to Liverpool’s performances. Motivated players who want to win and do well, will always do better than players who want to play somewhere else.
Dalglish and Damien Comolli seem to be working together with few problems. Dalglish sets the standards and everyone follows. He refers constantly to the ‘Liverpool Way’. In Jamie Carragher’s autobiography he says for him the Liverpool Way is best explained by a quote attributed to Sir John Smith, ‘We’re a very, very modest club at Liverpool. We don’t talk. We don’t boast. But we’re very professional’.
The addition of Steve Clark and Kevin Keen as first team coaches have been vital. With his time out of management, Dalglish needed someone with an up-to-date knowledge of the tactics and training methods used in the Premier League. When the season starts we will see just how well this management team is doing, but LFC fans have every reason to believe that their club is being run in the right way.
Pepe Reina’s decision to stay at Liverpool is great for the team. He is such an important character in the squad and the best goalkeeper in the Premier League. Replacing Brad Jones with Alexander Doni is a step-up in quality and experience but barring injury to Reina it is hard to see Doni playing in the Premier League.
Liverpool’s back four will be interesting this season. The introduction of three young players last season was one of the most exciting things to happen. Martin Kelly, John Flanagan and Jack Robinson all have undoubted ability and if they get enough chances this year should continue their progression. Glen Johnson seems to be collecting injuries with alarming frequency which means that right-back should be open for Kelly, although it is possible that he could move into the centre of defence. Jamie Carragher was exposed a few times last season and Kelly could begin to replace him there. If Daniel Agger can stay injury-free then Liverpool have one of the best ball-playing centre-halves in Europe. Martin Skrtel has looked suspect numerous times in his Liverpool career but if he can remove those errors of positioning and judgement from his game he can be a fine defender. The addition of Jose Enrique at left-back is a good move for Liverpool. He is fast, powerful, a good defender and gets forward well. I imagine a first choice back four to look like this:
Kelly – Carragher – Agger – Enrique
Liverpool’s bulging midfield has been the target of much guffawing in the press recently. I don’t get what’s funny about having options. The addition of Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam give Liverpool things they haven’t had for a long time. Downing provides pace, width and great crosses, he will do well at Liverpool. Adam is a regista-type player, something Liverpool haven’t had since Xabi Alonso went to Real Madrid. His gives an extra dimension with his passing, and I expect him to get a lot of game time this year, particularly given Gerrard’s injury.
If, as currently looks likely, Aquilani and Meireles stay at Liverpool there is heaps of creativity there. Aquilani can play as a trequartista or in slightly deeper role, and can create many chances playing between the lines. His performances in pre-season should have been enough to warrant him given a chance at Liverpool this year.
There are many formations open to Liverpool this year given their midfield options.
While Gerrard remains injured I would expect a 4-3-3 to include:
Downing – Lucas – Henderson;
a 4-4-2 to include;
Downing – Lucas – Adam – Henderson;
or Downing – Lucas – Spearing – Henderson
or Downing – Lucas – Aquilani – Henderson with Aquilani pushed further forward;
a 4-2-3-1 to have a midfield of:
Downing – Aquilani – Kuyt/Henderson
Lucas – Adam
or even 4-5-1 with:
Downing – Lucas – Adam – Meireles – Kuyt. With Downing and Kuyt pushed high up on the flanks.
Either way, lots of options, lots of possibility to change things around. The good thing is Liverpool won’t be predictable this year in midfield. I would expect lots of balls out to the flanks, and lots of crosses for Carroll. Also Aquilani, Adam and Suarez give Liverpool the option of playing through the middle, with support from the wide areas through attacking full-backs. Lucas and/or Jay Spearing will provide the protection for the back four, breaking up attacks in the Makelele-role.
Luis Suarez is an incredibly exciting player who creates chances, scores goals and has an extraordinary will to win. His exploits in winning the Copa America with Uruguay may have taken something out of him, but he also had a two month break around December and January while serving his ban for biting an opposition player while at Ajax. It looks like Suarez is in contention to play in the opening game against Sunderland, if he stays fit and injury-free this season Liverpool will be amongst the Champions League spots.
Andy Carroll is an interesting player for Liverpool. With his aerial ability he certainly offers something they haven’t had for some time. A worrying tendency when he plays though is for Liverpool to launch series of long balls from defence for Carroll to knock-down to others. This stops the thoughtful build-up play possible when it comes through the midfield, and creates the possibility of losing possession. He isn’t as mobile as others on the team, but he is powerful and has a great left-foot shot. With the addition of Downing and Adam, Liverpool will be dangerous once again from crosses and set-pieces. Carroll will naturally be a target for close marking, leaving the possibility that other players could find space, as we saw in the pre-season game against Valerenga when Agger scored from two corners.
One note of caution is that if either of these two suffer with injuries during the season, Liverpool’s attacking options will be limited. Dirk Kuyt and David N’gog are the only other options, and neither are as effective.
It has to be Luis Suarez. No other player on the team has such a combination of creativity and what the Italians call furbo, the cunning and will to do what it takes to win. He is effective coming in from either flank, or playing behind a target-man. Goals win games and Suarez provides goals. I can’t wait to watch him play this year.
Last year I went for Martin Kelly and Dani Pacheco. Kelly was going well until injury ended his season, if he stays fit this year he can really consolidate himself in Liverpool’s defence. Pacheco may find himself out on loan again. The two full-backs John Flanagan and Jack Robinson will get more game time this year. I would also expect to start seeing Conor Coady and Raheem Sterling make some appearances. But it looks like the one young Liverpool player to really make a place in the first team his own may be Jay Spearing. It may surprise some given all the money Liverpool have spent on their midfield but Spearing does a good job at breaking up attacks and if he can begin to use the ball more intelligently he can become a fine player.
For his crossing ability and his versatility on both wings, Stewart Downing is going to be a big player for Liverpool this year. No doubt he offers something new, and will link up well with Andy Carroll.
This is always the difficult part, last year I said (hedging my bets somewhat) Liverpool would be somewhere between 7th and 3rd. This year I am saying they will finish 4th and get the last Champions League place. They will be above than Arsenal and Tottenham, and may push Chelsea. Manchester City won’t win the league, unfortunately the other team from Manchester probably will.