There may still be months until the transfer window reopens, but the tabloids have already begun predicting who will be joining Liverpool in the summer – did they ever stop after a very quiet winter window? You can always tell when the media are struggling for genuine links because the majority of the likely suspects named are usually random centre forwards from overseas irregardless of how they would fit into the current set up. Of course we all enjoy an exciting transfer link; Marco Reus, Xherdan Shaqiri, Karim Benzema had us trawling the back pages of the tabloids and scowling the Internet last summer searching for possible confirmations of these stories that declared the interest of World stars in making the move to Anfield. I can’t deny the excitement that comes from transfer speculation, no matter how ludicrous.
But it would be nice if the stories were at least restricted to those that at least held some level of truth. So far we’ve been connected with almost every big name forward across the continent; it wouldn’t be that bad but in his current tenure in charge, how many big name, European centre forwards has Rodgers actually signed? Balotelli perhaps is the only one – Origi wouldn’t exactly count as he is an exciting young prospect as opposed to an established marquee signing. Even when considering the signing of Balotelli, it could hardly be described as a success. True, for a player of his stature the value appeared good at the time, but how impactive has Balotelli been on the starting eleven since joining? Now consider some of the players we’ve been linked to compared to the success stories under Rodgers that would include modestly priced Coutinho and Sturridge, neither of which are traditional centre forwards as they have so much more to their game.You can understand my skepticism on the subject.
It does, however, raise a question in my own mind as to who Liverpool will look to add to the squad in the summer. A lot depends on whether we succeed in qualifying for next season’s Champions League both in terms of financial muscle and ability to attract the top names. Obviously we don’t have a crystal ball to say exactly what will happen come the end of the season so we will have to be open minded in our approach to this one; mainly because we won’t necessarily have the same pulling power if we fall outside the top four, but we will still have the weaknesses that require filling.
Last summer Rodgers spent big on increasing the squad and so far in 2015 the strength and depth in which Rodgers invested in during the summer seems to be paying off. With the latest performances I think we can happily say that the squad is taking shape nicely and now requires some fine tuning as opposed to another overhaul. This doesn’t necessarily mean we will only improve by spending vast amounts of money on a couple of world class players, it means we need to identify key areas that need strengthening and to focus our efforts and funding into finding suitable personnel for those roles.
The fact is Liverpool have an effective squad with a number of young players who are all starting to gel into the side. There seems little need to strengthen the squad but rather to focus on one or two new signings to enhance the starting eleven and raise the club into a position to make a realistic challenge for the Premier League title. This may cost huge amounts to get the right players, but it might not; it’s all about finding the right balance. This season started slowly with the bedding in of a number of new players, we don’t want a repeat of those early season performances and so it is imperative that those players signed do not disrupt the flow of the side whilst being integrated into the set up.
It can be argued that Liverpool’s transfer policy in the summer was as much dictated to by the lack of options. Perhaps we made more signings by way of quantity more than quality because the top players just weren’t interested in a move to the north west. We’ve been in the European wilderness for far too long, we have to be realistic in what our capabilities are. It can’t be denied that a number of quality players have been connected with Liverpool in recent years but found alternative employment including Mohammed Salah, Willian, Alexis Sanchez and Xherdan Shaquiri. For the next couple of years, as we seek to reassert ourselves onto world football, we may have to be honest and look beyond the obvious names for the right people to fill the gaps. Therefore we may have to accept that it is possible that the summer additions will be youngsters, players who Rodgers will look to slowly merge into the squad; ones who haven’t quite announced themselves onto the world scene. And what is wrong with that?
In the last couple of years Arsenal have spent big on marquee signings and once again they are merely battling for a top four spot as opposed to taking the next step and challenging for the title. They may have bought world class players, but it has done little to lift them onto the summit of the world’s number one domestic competition. Perhaps signing the right players for the system is far more important than signing the most expensive ones.
With all that in mind I would like to propose some considerations that may be going through the mind of Brendan Rodgers and his scouting network as we seek to raise our credentials to challengers once more. Below are my suggestions for where we might need strengthening, and my reasoning as to why. I’m not giving any names, the transfer window is way too far in the distance to be identifying specific players, but maybe this might at least help to dispel some of the more ludicrous rumours formulated no doubt by agents hoping to improve the contract terms of their clients by linking them to the Reds.
Goalkeeper – A troublesome position early in the season, there were a number of rumours of a replacement being hurried in during the January window, such was the form of our current number one. Mignolet has certainly turned things around since, with changes in formation that have seen vast improvements from the back line creating a more stable platform for the team to build from, Mignolet seems to have increased in confidence ten fold; he hasn’t quite won everybody over though. I still believe he may need to improve on his general presence, to increase his command over his area with more authority, and it could be argued that his recent improved stats come down to the success in Rodgers’ implementation of a three man defence with Mignolet merely being a benefactor of this change in fortune. The keeper slot could be a possible place to improve the squad, adding a second keeper to challenge Mingolet for the number 1 spot, perhaps someone a little more confident with his feet as well considering Rodgers’ approach at building up an attack from the back, may be a consideration – and it is a position that is least likely to infringe on the rest of the team should a change be made.
Wing Backs – The changes in formation to a three man defence has created a vital role for the wing backs. Throughout this season Alberto Moreno has made the left side his own, both from an attacking and defensive perspective. Early on there were moments when he appeared hesitant with the ball around his own box, but he seems to have grown with confidence throughout the season, and with his ability and pace I can only see good things coming from him next season, however I wonder if we may see a new signing on the right. Glenn Johnson is likely to leave at the end of the season, and although Manquillo has a further season on loan he hasn’t quite made the impact of Moreno. So far Rodgers has utilised the more attacking skills of Ibe and Markovic on the right, but unlike Moreno, both have very definite defensive frailties; at present Rodgers seems happy with a three man defensive unit, but I wouldn’t put it past him to look for a way of being able to adapt to a flat back four without having to make significant changes to personnel or sacrifice the attacking pace down either flank. Neither Ibe or Markovic offer that option, so Rodgers could well look for a similar type wing back as Moreno to balance out the wings, a player with pace and attacking flair, but also the capability of tracking back and tackling when needed – all those attributes in one player could cost big.
Centre Backs – A lot of fans were critical of the Liverpool back line early in the season, for me there was a lot more to it than poor defensive performances; our style of play was severely lacking pace and intensity, teams weren’t afraid to push forward and our defenders were being put under far more pressure than they should have. Fast forward a couple of months, the insertion of pace into the front line and a new three man back line, and suddenly we have one of the best defensive records of 2015. Individually, each of Liverpool’s back line have had to deal with criticisms and none are without their faults but they are all now starting to look effective ever since the inclusion of Emre Can in the lineup. It’s not certain whether Rodgers sees Can as a permanent fixture at the back, he certainly plays the role exceptionally, linking the back line with the midfield, ensuring the team can build their attacks from the back. Sakho, Lovren, Skrtel and Toure have all fitted into those remaining two positions successfully, and when Can has been needed elsewhere, a trio of the above has generally performed well. The question possibly remains as to whether a specific player is needed as back up to Can, someone with ability on the ball who can maintain possession and form a solid platform on which the side can work from.
Midfield – Possibly the most important part of the team in terms of personnel is the central midfield partnership. These two have to be balanced perfectly because if the rest of the team do their job then these two should have the time and space to dictate the play. Henderson has been a revelation since taking over the captain’s arm band and it has to be an almost certainty that he will get the position full time when Gerrard finally leaves in the summer. His partner is likely to be Lucas or Allen both have performed admirably in the second half of the season; however if there was one criticism of the midfield it would be a lack of goals. Take a look back at the great Liverpool central midfielders; Souness, McDermott, Whelan and Gerrard, they were all able to hit 30 yard screamers, they were dangerous from outside of the box which enhanced the team’s overall attacking options and threat. With teams becoming more willing to play with large numbers behind the ball and clogging the penalty area it is going to become important for Liverpool to start exploiting the space that appears outside the box, it is arguable whether Lucas or Allen offer that threat and although Henderson is starting to show an ability to do so, it’s not enough for him to manage on his own. When people start to talk about a holding midfielder, it’s important to realise that we sacrificed that position – in the traditional sense – for a third centre back. When Gerrard attempted to play that role, he sat too deep and although he was there to protect the back four, the midfield began getting overrun. Unlike teams from the past who used the midfield players to build an attack, we are starting way behind that – from the defence – it could be argued we are reinventing a similar style to that which created the sweeper system years ago (but that’s another debate). The midfielders we are looking for are hard working, box to box runners, players who have reasonable passing and technical ability and an eye for goal from 30 yards or can make surging late runs into the box avoiding detection from the opposition. With our very own living legend Steven Gerrard leaving at the end of the season, there is certainly potential for this position to be filled with a world class replacement, a midfielder bringing in 10 – 15 goals a season would be most welcome.
Forwards – Up front is where the tabloids like to speculate the most, it’s the position that sells the most papers. There is a strong possibility we could be seeing the departures of Balotelli and Lambert in the summer and with the arrival of Origi from his year long loan, we are at least certain of some changes to take place. I am not convinced there will be much requirement for improvements in this area though; if Sterling stays (which we can’t guarantee either way at present) he is likely to continue his development into a world class forward, Markovic and Ibe are also likely to be given chances further forward having spent this season developing their game to fit in with Rodgers’ high pressing philosophy. Coutinho, Sturridge and Lallana make up the remaining available forwards Rodgers will have at his disposal to fill the three attacking positions; it would have to be an incredible talent to convince Rodgers to invest in this particular department with all those players mentioned being young in years and likely to improve and mature for the new season. Yes, we have been lacking goals this season from our forwards, but some of that has come down to relying on an 18 year old to spear head the attack, that pressure and responsibility is now being more evenly distributed, taken on by the others mentioned above which is the real reason why our fortunes have changed in the last couple of months. One thing has become apparent from recent performances and that is the requirement for pace to press back the opposition, the central midfield need space to dictate the flow of the game, and therefore it’s vital for the forward players to ensure the opposition defence sits deep in their own half rather than clogging the midfield with extra bodies. It is also beneficial for the forwards to have the ability to play wide as well as through the middle and yet also have a degree of power and strength; not much to ask for(!?!) but nevertheless something Rodgers will be looking for if he is to please the tabloids and bring in a new forward during the summer. Personally I can’t see it, the cost of forwards is always higher than anywhere else on the field, for the minor improvements that will come from a new signing I can see us more likely to invest what funds we have on one or two of the other positions in the summer instead.
It all comes down to one thing, the good of the club, Liverpool FC is bigger than any one player, or any single fan. When Gerrard leaves we will look to replace him, but not with some big name, big ego, superstar; rather, a player who suits the role he is being signed for and most importantly wants to represent this great club. Don’t loose sight of what the club is aiming for by wishing for a marquee signing, price is immaterial when finding the perfect fit.
By Ernie Fox