By Darren C (@darrenchoong)
A season of transition was the reality of Liverpool’s outlook last summer. With incoming manager Brendan Rodgers tasked to reshape the team and trim the Reds’ massive wage bill, Champions League qualification was hoped for but largely unrealistic; an improvement on Kenny Dalglish’s 8th placing last season was as much as even the most optimistic fan could wish for. That was what Liverpool achieved this season under Rodgers, and along with implementing his Swansea-esque 4-3-3 formation, he did do a good job in improving some of “Dalglish’s flops” as well as offloading those who contributed little but was on huge wages, money the club simply could not afford to spend so lightly anymore. Frugality was the new name in town, as the failed experiment of “moneyball” strategy was finally shifted out.
His new system was an adaptation from Barcelona’s famed pass and move, pressing game, which has seen the Spanish giants swept all before them in the past four years. It seemed at the start that current goalkeeper Pepe Reina, educated in Barca’s famed La Masia academy, would be the perfect number one in such a system. Indeed, Reina’s kicking ability and composure on the ball did set him apart from other traditional goalkeepers, and he did bring some calm at the start of the season, especially for a defence that was still learning how to pass the ball out from the back. However, as for the past couple of seasons, Reina was still susceptible to basic goalkeeping mistakes, and it did cost Liverpool some points over the season. Even as his form did improve after the new year, Reina is still seen as dispensable due to his erratic form. Furthermore, with doubts over his potential departure to replace Victor Valdes as Barca’s number one this summer or next, his future clearly remains in the balance. Australian goalkeeper Brad Jones deputized on a couple of occasions for Reina when he was injured. After a few decent performances in the league, his disastrous showing in the League Cup against League One side Oldham caused major concern, and it would not be surprising to see him leave this summer.
High, attacking full-backs or wing-backs are a major aspect in the system Rodgers’ wanted to adapt last summer. England international Glen Johnson seemed a perfect fit and it proved. His once-susceptible defending has significantly improved under Rodgers, and the best part is that his attacking prowess down the right has not been compromised. He is still a major attacking outlet for the Reds and it showed against Southampton, when he literally ran a one-man show down the right flank. His future, although in doubt according to some analysts, should still be at Liverpool, with his experience and attacking knowhow vital to Rodgers’ system. Furthermore, with Jamie Carragher’s retirement, the likes of Martin Kelly, and Andre Wisdom, who both started as back-up full-backs, could be used more centrally this season. Back-up specialist full-back John Flanagan has somehow disappeared off the radar, and hence increasing Johnson’s importance. On the other side, Spaniard Jose Enrique is like Johnson, great offensively but seen as defensively culpable at times. After his form dipped at the start of last season, Enrique was given a chance further forward at left-wing where he linked up well with Luis Suarez, before eventually returning back to left-back when he regained his confidence. Enrique’s situation is similar to Johnson’s, in that Liverpool lack an experience alternative at the moment, especially after Jack Robinson’s horror showing at Oldham and sometimes perceived lack of effort. Hence, Enrique imminent future will still have to be with the Reds.
With the centre of defence having to get a grips of playing the ball out of the back, problems definitely did arise at the beginning. The most prominent was Martin Skrtel’s back pass against Manchester City which allowed Carlos Tevez to equalise, denying Liverpool a vital win so early in the season. That set the tone for Skrtel’s season. Even though it started brightly for him, some errors like the one against City, plus Oldham’s Matt Smith bullying him to submission in the League Cup, saw Skrtel dropped in favour of veteran Carragher and he did not see much action after the New Year. His fate at Liverpool hangs in the balance, and if a good offer comes in it would be to no ones surprise should he be shown the door. Another candidate for the exit is Sebastian Coates. He, very much like Skrtel, made a few appearances at the start of the season, notably as a half-time substitute against Everton when Rodgers switched to a back three. Coates excelled against the aerial threat of Marouane Fellaini, but after being battered by Smith, he only saw action one more time near the end of the season. He had so much potential coming in two summers ago, but has so far failed to live up to expectations. A decent sized bid would most definitely see him leave this summer.
The only two to come out with some credit for the season was veteran Carragher and Danish captain Daniel Agger. Even though he started out as third, or even fourth choice, last season, Carragher remained professional throughout, and performed well when called upon from the bench. When his leadership was sorely needed post-Christmas, he came in and brought exactly what was demanded. His defending was stellar as usual, and his form was the catalyst for a magnificent run of games for the Reds after the new year. Unfortunately, he decided to call time on his career and now Liverpool will need to look for a new defensive leader. That man could be his defensive partner Agger. His renowned passing ability and habit of carrying the ball out from the back was definitely what Rodgers wanted in his defenders. Having managed to stay injury-free the whole campaign, Agger contributed with some key goals, notably the winning goal against Southampton and the first at the rout of Newcastle. He will continue to be a key cog in Liverpool’s defence next season, and if the Reds can stave off a bid from Barca for him, Agger will be the one Liverpool relies on next season, especially with Carragher now retired. A potential vice-captain, perhaps.
The three man midfield was to hold everything together for Rodgers and his new system. Lucas Leiva’s reoccurrence of his injury early in the season and subsequent return to fitness saw him gradually bed back into the team. His early form did suffer as his usual bite in the tackle was still missing. However, this season was always more about Lucas finding his feet after his first long-term injury, and that was definitely what was achieved. The late run-in saw Lucas back to his imperious best, breaking up play and linking the defence with the midfield. It is still pre-mature though, to compare him with Barca’s Sergio Busquets. Maybe a magnificent season would see such comparisons grow into fruition. New signing Joe Allen, whom Rodgers worked with at Swansea, was seen as the man to bring Rodgers’ vision to the playing field. Allen did make a bright start, highlighted by his neutralisation of Yaya Toure in the second game of the season. However, carrying a shoulder injury, Allen could not maintain his early season form and dipped so much that it meant him being relegated to the bench and subsequently not needed to the point he could have his shoulder surgery to ensure him back next season, fresh and fully fit. Much to prove for Allen next season, or he will be an expensive flop. England U-21 captain Jordan Henderson suffered under Dalglish in that he was played out of position on the right hand side of midfield. This term, even with less minutes on the park, Henderson was deployed in central midfield and managed to significantly up his goal return and assists. Beyond that, he provided the energy the midfield was sometimes lacking and being able to be deployed on the left wing to shore up that flank defensively when required. However, even though he made a much better impression this season, next will still be a make or break for Henderson. He will need to continue to impress to have any chance of having a long-term future at the club.
Fellow U-21 international Jonjo Shelvey enjoyed a good start to the season, being picked frequently and getting amongst the goals, especially in the early stages of the Europa League. He even got a called up to the senior England squad. His form plus the signing of Brazilian playmaker Philippe Coutinho saw his chances limited. However, his determination cannot be questioned when he requested to play in the Reds’ U-21 team in order to maintain his match fitness. Like Henderson, next season will be make or break for Shelvey, and he needs to prove he can be more involved attacking wise and get more goals his manager will definitely demand of him.
The question of whether club skipper and legend Steven Gerrard was whether he could fit Rodgers’ more favored short-passing system. Gerrard, as he always does, proved his critics wrong and stood out in a deep-lying position alongside Lucas. His game has definitely seen an increase in his short passes, but when the occasion does arise, Gerrard still manages to ping the ball 50-/60-yards and inevitably finds his intended target. He also manages to get his usual return of goals from midfield, and will continue to be a key component in Liverpool’s resurgence next season.
4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3? It seems Rodgers has found his solution at 4-2-3-1 ever since he signed Coutinho from Internazionale. Playing as the number 10, Coutinho has blossomed behind Daniel Sturridge during Suarez’s absence. Racking up a respectable amount of assists in such a short period of time has seen Coutinho become a fan favourite already. His skill on the ball is memorizing and his eye for a pass is second to none. The most surprising thing is that he is only 21 and can only get better. If Liverpool can keep him for the long haul and he can continue to improve and impress, Liverpool could be having a gem of a Brazilian playmaker for their near future. Young Spaniard Suso made a few appearances at the start of the season when Liverpool were lacking in forwards. He mainly played on the right wing and his first appearance was against Manchester United, where he was involved in Gerrard’s opening goal. So far, he has impressed with his Iniesta-like close control and perfect weight of pass. However, he has yet to prove he can be a mainstay in the side for long, and that he is not in the team just based on his huge potential. Either he goes out on loan next season or somehow force his way into the first eleven in order to prove himself.
Inverted wingers seem to be the new buzzword nowadays. Long gone are the days of right-footed wingers hugging the right touchline, and left-footed wingers dazzling down the left. Stewart Downing re-emergence as a first team player is to Rodgers’ credit. With confidence low and having to settle for a place at left-back in order to even get into the side, Downing gradually grew in confidence and finally settled on the right wing after the new year. With a decent goal return and assists to match, his hard work and defensive abilities that allow Johnson to overlap forward, are also what saw him get a run in the side. He could very well be leaving for a mid-table club in the summer, but should he remain, he will most definitely have to settle for a place as a squad member. Youngster Raheem Sterling experienced a blistering rise at the start of last season, starting against City, where he faced Kolo Toure and Pablo Zabaleta. For the first half of the season, he looked like the real deal with his dribbling ability and even managed a couple of goals as well as a decent amount of assists. With January providing offensive reinforcements, Sterling playing time dipped in the second half of the season. That was good man-management skills from Rodgers and it will be seen how a fresher, more experienced Sterling will perform next season. Oussama Assaidi did not seem like Rodgers’ signing, and so it proved as he made only one substitute appearance for the Reds. He did show some glimpses of ability in the early stages of the Europa League and League Cup, but other than that, it seems like he will just be a back-up player next season, or a makeweight in this summer’s transfer dealings.
Who would be Liverpool’s Lionel Messi? Who would be the false number nine? To Rodgers, Uruguayan Suarez would be both a false number nine and a main striker, in his words, a nine-and-a-half. Suarez, on the back of the racial row and criticism of his finishing, bounced back with a magnificent return of 23 goals. Further, he carried the Liverpool attack all by himself for the first half of the season, managing to stay injury-free and even curbing his tendency to dive and argue with the officials, in order to steer clear of a ban as a result of collecting five yellow cards. To his credit, Suarez seem to start swaying fans over with his sublime skill and trickery. However, that bite on Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic and subsequent ten-match ban overshadowed whatever good work he had done and plunged his future back in doubt. Although many want him to stay and feel he is vital to the push for top four next season, even the most optimistic of fans would not be surprised to see him go after all his recent comments to the Uruguayan media. And the man who came in to relieve the pressure on Suarez’s shoulder, Sturridge. With a return of 10 goals in 14 appearances for half a season’s work, things are looking bright for Liverpool with Sturridge. He showed some chemistry when played together with Suarez, and then when he led the line on his own with Suarez banned, he showed his class with two goals in the rout of Newcastle and a hat-trick away to Fulham. He provides the alternative of running beyond defences with his pace, and coupled with his trickery on the ball, can be a huge threat to opposing defences. He now has to add some consistency to his game and should he manage to continue his return of goals next season, he will be a mainstay not just in the Liverpool team but for the England side as well. Rodgers’ first signing of Fabio Borini started his campaign well, with a goal against FC Gomel in the Europa League qualifier. However, his constant injury problems as well as finding it hard to adapt to the right-wing and to link-up with Suarez saw him find it difficult in his first season at Anfield. A first league goal at Newcastle in April along with some bright moments at the end of the season brings some hope for Reds fans that he will contribute some goals next season.
This season was definitely one of success for Rodgers. Guiding Liverpool to 7th place, albeit behind Everton once again, was the minimum requirement. He has managed to bring in more youth players than have ever been seen. Whether it was more of circumstance or his way of management, we can only guess. His signings have been hit-and-miss. When they are a hit, they are really successful, and when they are a miss, they really need to show a lot of improvement next season. The style of football he wants to implement seems to be taking shape so far. He needs to improve his record against the teams over them in the league and maintain his side’s fine form over the teams below them. Those odd defeats to West Brom and Aston Villa at home needs to be rectified as well, with their big forwards in Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke causing his relatively smaller side problems. With links to classy players like Henrik Mkihtaryan and forward alternatives in Iago Aspas, Rodgers needs to continue to sign the players for the right amount, and especially the right players for his system.