Liverpool’s passing in the first half last night was crisp and their high pressing game startled United’s defence, causing numerous misplaced passes in the first 20 minutes. Yet, Liverpool was unable to sustain the pressure for the full 90 minutes, allowing United back into the game. On top of this, United made tactical adjustments at half time that exploited Liverpool’s weak squad links. While it should be acknowledged that this was just a pre-season friendly, I think such rationale would be a papering over of cracks in a team that over achieved last season. The squad does not currently look like top 4 material when considering the distraction of the Champions League group stage. So, let’s look at each area of the team and see where Rodgers still needs to make some adjustments before the window closes.
The goalkeeper situation is a curious one. Clearly Reina is disgruntled and there is no possible future for him at Liverpool. To this point there were numerous rumors yesterday that he had even offered to cancel his contract. Surely this is an option that Liverpool will only entertain once the window closes and they have lost the opportunity to recoup a transfer fee in exchange for his exit from the club. Mignolet in contrast does not look as comfortable in goal as Reina did in his first season at Liverpool. As a result, it is likely that this is a make-or-break season for him. With Jones a reasonable starting option for only a few games per season, Rodgers desperately needs to bring in another top quality goalkeeper to challenge Mignolet.
The match last night was a prime example of the weakness Liverpool possess in both fullback positions. Kelly, for all his passion for Liverpool, does not look like a top-level player. Johnson, who switched to left back in last night’s match, also looks past his best at right-back and only average as a left-back option. He was out of position on Manchester’s equalizing goal in the 55th minute, pulling both Sakho and Skrtel out of position. For Mata’s goal only 2 minutes later, again it was a square-ball from the wing, this time the left, which cut Liverpool open. Finally, in the 88th minute Johnson was again out of position, and a cross from the right resulted in an unmarked Lingard firing in from a central position on the edge of the box. It is hard to argue that Liverpool would have fared any better with the erratic Enrique, or Flanagan on the pitch. Flanagan does offer some promise, but he is more of a traditional English fullback than the technically gifted wingbacks that characterize the modern game, and will struggle to really add to Liverpool’s high-energy and technical methodology as a result. It seems that two new recruits are on the way, but it is not realistic to assume, given their inexperience at this level or in England, that they will assimilate quickly.
The central defensive options look better this year than last. Sakho has had a year to settle and if he shows the same form as he did in the World Cup, and so far in preseason, he will be a solid upgrade on Liverpool’s options last year. It seems Agger is destined to move on, but in Sakho, Skrtel and Lovren Liverpool possess three players that are significantly better defenders than Agger. Unfortunately, Liverpool are thin behind these three. Toure is experienced, but his ability has declined significantly. Coates was much heralded upon his arrival at Liverpool but has never looked to have the quality to make the step up to the Premier League. He lacks the strength to dominate in the air and also the decision-making to be a top quality tackler and passer. Rodgers has played him extensively this pre-season, but he is too quick to go to ground and has continued to show an inability to become the commanding aerial presence required for him to be a strong starting option this season. Liverpool don’t need to strengthen further here this season, but they will need to recruit or develop another high-quality central defender within the next 12 months.
In Central midfield, Emre Can has made a promising start. He looks very assured on the ball and in the tackle. He also has surprising pace, which will be needed to cover for Gerrard’s diminishing powers. Allen has had a good pre-season and looks likely to realize some of the promise that he showed early in his first season with Liverpool, before falling victim to injury and expectation. Henderson remains a lynchpin in the midfield and without his running and link-up play the midfield lacks the dynamism required to play to Rodgers preferred style. It is possible that Can has been recruited to play a similar role, given the change in Liverpool’s fortunes during Henderson’s absence at the end of the season. Yet, it seems that they are missing another quality player in the middle. Coady doesn’t seem to have the ability to step up to Premier League level, and in Rossiter Liverpool have a future England international, but he is still several years from making the grade. Consequently, it would be surprising to see Liverpool release Lucas without having another high quality incoming player to replace him. The problem is that in Gerrard and Lucas Liverpool do not possess the speed and energy for 90 minutes of sustained pressure on the opposition, and really need another recruit to fulfill this need over the grueling season to come.
On the other hand, Coutinho and Sterling look lively and capable of carving open any defence at any opportunity. With the addition of Lallana, Markovic and emergence of Ibe, Liverpool have strength out wide and in the hole behind the striker. It is this striker role that is going to prove to be a major problem though. Lambert has showed some steady touches in the matches so far, but does not look like a player capable of firing Liverpool into the top 4 this season. With Sturridge’s injury record and the likelihood that Markovic will take a year to settle, Liverpool do not currently look capable of replacing the goals lost to Suarez’s departure. Yes, Lallana will add 5-10 goals, but if Liverpool are to be serious contenders they look in desperate need of a top-level goal scorer. Their preseason has been a clear example of this. The first half of last night’s game was dominated by Liverpool and with a better striker in the middle, this surely would have resulted in at least 1 or 2 additional goals on the night. They have looked short of goals against all of the preseason opposition so far. It is hard to argue that Lallana or Markovic will solve this problem. Rodgers’ issue is two-fold: this late in the window there is a lack of player availability, and the highly publicized fee they recouped for Suarez. Combined, these factors are hampering his ability to recruit the required replacement, with the value of players often getting doubled as soon as Liverpool’s name is linked to them.
For all of the publicity about Liverpool’s recruiting campaign so far, they still lack the squad quality to win the title, and will struggle to achieve a top 4 place this season. The team needs a quality goalkeeper to challenge Mignolet, two quick wingbacks capable of protecting the team defensively, another high-energy central midfielder and a striker capable of bagging 20 goals this season. Without these further additions, Rodgers could find himself under considerable pressure by November.