Story by Greg Hallam
Twenty two years without a top division title and overtaken as the most successful team in terms of titles won by arch rivals Manchester United, it is safe to say that it hasn’t been the most celebrated last few years at Liverpool. Die-hard fans can argue the case of the sensational comeback from three goals down in the 2005 Champions League Final and a successful record in recent years in domestic cup competitions. However, that was a Liverpool side that was at the peak in the ‘noughties’ period and still they were unable to land a much craved title in the red side of Liverpool. Integral players of the team such as Xabi Alonso have long gone. Whilst others in Jamie Carragher has seen his legs gone and club captain Steven Gerrard who has endured a whole host of serious and niggling injuries in the last few years.
A period of transition has occurred since the headier days of 2005. Managers have come and gone and Rafa Benitez knew what was ahead and was the first to abandon ship. Roy Hodgson replaced him and attempted to make Liverpool harder to beat. However, this seemed to fail as they slipped nearer to relegation. Even if he had succeeded with a cautious brand of hard-work and teamwork it wouldn’t have been good enough for fans of the club used to the glory days of the 70’s and 80’s.
Then ‘King Kenny’ returned in January 2011 which was followed by an immediate buzz and upturn in results possibly attributed by the excitement of Dalglish’s return and the fact that he wasn’t Roy Hodgson, rather than any particular tactical nous or alterations. This improvement in results meant a solid mid-table finish was achieved in season 2010-2011. This however was still was not enough for the long suffering Liverpudlians reflecting on past glories but it did bode well for the future. Money was spent on youth in particular, Jordan Henderson and Andy Carroll in the summer of 2011.
However, the bubble burst for ‘King Kenny’. The new players did not fit into Liverpool’s philosophy of football. Andy Carroll a bustling, physical forward capable of bullying and terrorising defenders on his day struggled for form. This, combined with a severe lack of goals meant that ‘King Kenny’ was eventually dethroned at the end of the season 2011-2012 when finishing a massive eighteen points behind the Champion’s League places with an eighth placed finish.
Brendan Rodgers certainly has a major headache in adapting this current Liverpool squad into his preferred 4-5-1/4-3-3 system. Rodgers’ enjoyed having three passers at the heart of midfield when successfully managing Swansea. Gylfi Sigurdsson was at the top of the triangle in central midfield and supporting the usual lone front man Danny Graham mostly. The closest player Liverpool seems to have in being able to play this role is Steven Gerrard. Gerrard has enjoyed a rather successful Euro 2012 campaign for England in a more withdrawn midfield role creating more assists than any other England player. Thus showing that it is more likely Gerrard would sit in a deeper midfield role spraying the ball around in a Brendan Rodgers’ team. This suggests that Liverpool is missing a key point in the link between midfield and attack. Rodgers’ failed bid for Sigurdsson suggests he has acknowledged this problem and is hoping to rectify this issue soon.
Another headache for Rodgers would be finding a player who possesses enough quality to create opportunities, keep the ball and also to protect the back four. Jordan Henderson has come in for criticism because of the price tag of twenty million pounds which was paid for him. In fairness he is a genuine, hard-working and industrious player. Having started as a winger at Sunderland though, it has been hard for Henderson to adjust to this central midfield role and it seems unlikely that he can control a game in midfield and play little intricate passes under pressure, which Rodger’s championed at Swansea and would seemingly want to do at Liverpool.
Lucas Leiva had just started gradually winning the Liverpool faithful over before a terrible injury. However, like Henderson it remains to be seen whether he can control a game in midfield under pressure. Rumours are surfacing that Rodgers will be making a bid in the region of £10 million for Joe Allen who is a current Swansea player who worked with Rodgers and knows him very well. If Rodgers can lure Allen to Liverpool then that would be two midfielders suitable for Rodgers’ preferred style of football in the middle of the park. One would also expect another signing in a slightly more forward thinking role, with Rodgers using players like Spearing, Lucas and Henderson as back up and perhaps axing one or two midfielders.
The signing of Fabio Borini up front (another one of Rodgers’ old boys at Swansea) suggests that it is a three way race for the lone striker role that Rodger’s prefers. The fact that Borini is tried and tested by Rodgers would suggest he is perhaps the favourite to get the nod come August. But where exactly does that leave Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez as the other two contenders? Suarez was a rare bright spark in Liverpool’s playing front last season. However, a return of eleven goals suggests he doesn’t have the firepower to make it as a lone striker. Another option would be to play him behind a striker and at the head of a midfield triangle but with just three Premier League assists last season can Suarez be relied upon to have the creative nous, temperament and unselfish play in him to suit that position? Another option would be to give him a free role cutting in from the left hand side and this does seem the most viable place for Suarez to start next season.
Where does that leave Andy Carroll? He is seemingly surplus to requirements with both West Ham and AC Milan potentially interested – will Rodgers’ cut his losses? Another option would be to use him as a plan B for when things are going wrong. However would it be possible to keep the thirty five million pound man happy warming the bench? Perhaps if Rodgers cuts his losses and trys to recoup half of the fee originally paid and maybe it would not be a big surprise to see the burly striker leave Anfield this summer.
Right midfield also seems an area of concern and to further increase the stress on Rodgers with both the ageing Maxi Rodriguez and Dirk Kuyt leaving Anfield this summer. A positive though is that he has inherited a sturdy defence that can play the ball if asked, in Pepe Reina, Jose Enrique, Dan Agger, Martin Skrtel and Glen Johnson. So it may not be all doom and gloom for Rodgers. I predict a change in footballing philosophy for Liverpool and some major changes in the Liverpool midfield engine room. Many positions may be left unchanged but will Liverpool adapt quickly enough this season? A good start is critical to get the fans onside for a successful season. It is possible that this can happen but a bad start could see a tough stint for Rodgers and his new position could be as short lived as when he occupied the Reading post in season 2009-2010.