Brendan Rodgers’ philosophy is embedded as Liverpool enter the season in need of fine-tuning rather than a tactical overhaul. But can they take the next step without Luis Suárez?
Guardian writers’ predicted position: 5th (NB: this is not necessarily Andy Hunter’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 2nd
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 12-1
The houses that lined Lothair Road behind the Main Stand at Anfield are all gone now, their bricks and histories bulldozed into oblivion in readiness for a new 21,000-seater construction that is due to rise in 2016.
Rebuilding will follow the demolition and, so put-upon residents plus Liverpool City Council desperately hope, regeneration will follow the rebuilding. What is envisaged outside Anfield is mirrored within, minus the hard hat for project leader Brendan Rodgers.
Rodgers’s wrecking ball arrived via Barcelona, dropped £75m and swung away with Luis Suárez clinging on by his big, busy teeth. How Liverpool cope with the damage is the great conundrum of pre-season, answers ranging from another title challenge – foreseen on this occasion – consolidation in the top four or squeezed back to the margins all carrying weight. And all influenced by the club’s ability to sign another leading striker before the transfer deadline and tighten up at the back afterwards.
Beyond dispute is Liverpool’s mantle as a contender and their reaction to Suárez’s exit. For all the revisionism that has occurred subsequently – he distorted Rodgers’s preferred system, we didn’t want him representing our club anyway ad nauseam – the Uruguay international was the world-class inspiration behind the club’s strongest title challenge of the Premier League era. The blow prompted a swift and considered response.
There have been seven incomings at the time of writing with negotiations continuing for an eighth, the Sevilla left-back Alberto Moreno. Loïc Rémy would have made it nine but for the collapse of a £8.5m transfer from Queens Park Rangers and Liverpool are not finished yet, in or out. Several weak spots Rodgers identified when he arrived as Liverpool manager in 2012 and which undermined the team’s thrilling title challenge last season have been addressed, so too the squad’s depth with a four-season absence from the Champions League over.
Comparisons have been made with Tottenham Hotspur’s scatter-gun spending of the Gareth Bale money but do not stack up. Liverpool played 43 competitive fixtures last season with no European football on the agenda, a blow to prestige that their manager accurately predicted would benefit the team for one season only. Integrating several new faces will naturally take time and not all will settle instantly but that does not apply to three recruits from Southampton. As Rodgers said, with a dig at the club he rejected owing to constant managerial upheaval at White Hart Lane: “It’s a different club and different vision we have here. At Liverpool there’s a strategy behind what we are doing.”
Clearly, Liverpool anticipated Suárez’s departure long before he received a four-month ban for biting Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup and began issuing apologies designed for Catalonian ears. Clearly, they considered the loaded question of how to replace an incredible individual talent like Suárez and reached the obvious conclusion; you cannot.
Rodgers has rebuilt around the Suárez void, increased creativity and energy in the final third through Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic, added Emre Can’s strength to central midfield, competition for Glen Johnson’s right-back role in Javier Manquillo, a different option up front in Rickie Lambert and, most importantly, a more authoritative presence at centre-half in Dejan Lovren. Whether the defensive reconstruction has gone far enough is debatable and reliant on Manquillo plus Moreno adapting quickly from Spanish football. There remains a need for a dominant voice to emerge from goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, Martin Skrtel, Mamadou Sakho and Daniel Agger, although the Dane’s Anfield future is in doubt.
Rodgers has greater options, his squad appears stronger and the team’s outstanding performances last season should instil a confidence to withstand the shock of their late collapse in the title race. The manager’s philosophy and style are embedded, the club has advanced ahead of schedule as a result, and Liverpool enter the campaign in need of fine-tuning rather than a tactical overhaul. But can they immediately take that next, critical step without Suárez? Clubs rarely improve by selling their best player, and Liverpool’s best player was the one Rodgers had developed his team around.
Suárez brought far more than 31 Premier League goals to Liverpool last term. His movement and instinct petrified opposition defenders, team-mates prospered from his creativity and from the example he set with his relentless will-to-win. Daniel Sturridge may not entirely agree with that final assessment, having received a few public rollickings from his former strike partner, but it is imperative the England international embraces the position of Liverpool’s leader striker following the finest season of his career and the responsibility that comes with it.
“I think you’ll see Daniel go on to another level again this season, with the confidence of a full campaign last year and scoring the goals he did,” Rodgers said. “Hopefully he can stay injury free.”
Sturridge’s 21 goals flowed from his own development as much as Suárez’s vision last term and the onus is on the 24-year-old to improve as a team player. He has Lambert to share that load, a more rounded striker than credited for beyond Southampton, a necessary alternative and a significant improvement on the departed Iago Aspas. Lambert can strike a dead ball for a start. Rodgers has not brought the England international back to his boyhood club on a misguided sentimental journey yet, right now, Sturridge, Lambert and the unwanted Fabio Borini represent Liverpool’s post-Suárez attack. The need to strengthen is glaring, as the manager has stated frequently in recent weeks.
The Sunderland target Borini and Sturridge missed the final game of Liverpool’s pre-season tour of the United States through injury, leaving Lambert to lead the line against Manchester United in Miami. On the basis of deals done, Liverpool have spent £90m this summer and recouped £75.5m. Even if those sums rise to £106m spent and £78m recouped in the coming days the club, with money left over from January, the new broadcasting deal and the return ticket to the Champions League, have the funds for a proven striker. A recent inquiry for Monaco’s Radamel Falcao, though thwarted, indicates the pedigree being targeted.
And yet Liverpool’s campaign rests on more than replacing the guile and goals that have been transferred to Barcelona. One of Rodgers’ first aims as Liverpool manager was to improve the team’s proficiency in front of goal. Job done. Now he must improve the protection afforded the Liverpool goal.
Manchester City scored 102 goals to Liverpool’s 101 in winning the league last season but conceded only 37 to Liverpool’s 50. Crystal Palace, who spent most of the season fighting relegation before rising to 11th under Tony Pulis, conceded 48. Chelsea scored 30 goals fewer than Rodgers’ side but, in shipping only 27 all season, finished two points behind in third. Even a modest reduction in Liverpool’s goals against column last season could have made a monumental difference.
Much, therefore, depends on Lovren, the discipline of the three midfielders in front of him, Steven Gerrard’s reaction to what he described as “probably the worst three months of my life”, the continued upward trajectory of Raheem Sterling and the business Liverpool can or cannot conduct before close of play on 1 September.
In Rodgers, Liverpool possess one of the most astute, forward-thinking coaches in the game. His rebuilding work may run parallel to the new Main Stand proposals and come to fruition in 2016 but his foundations, if not the world-class striker, are in place.