Brendan Rodgers should aim to consolidate Liverpool’s top four position, rather than going all out for the title this season. After narrowly missing out on their first Barclays Premier League title last season and spending over £100 million on new players during the transfer market, Liverpool fans may have been forgiven for thinking that the title is theirs for the taking this season. It seems the logical next step after finishing two points short of champions Manchester City and scoring over 100 goals during the last campaign.
There is a, very obvious, piece of the puzzle missing, however. Luis Suarez’s 31 Premier League goals and his outstanding performances carried Liverpool for large parts of last season. He single handily solved Liverpool’s Achilles heel, that has often ruined any chance of success in previous seasons, of beating weaker teams, netting three hat tricks and five braces on the way to being named the league’s Player of the Season.
Now, after the Uruguayan’s £75 million transfer to Barcelona which followed his World Cup bite and international ban, Liverpool have effectively lost a third of their goals. Unless Liverpool are prepared to spend a large proportion of that fee on buying an Edison Cavani or a Radamel Falcao it seems unlikely that Liverpool are going to score as many goals as they did last season.
This would suggest a change in Liverpool’s approach to games this season. Last campaign, Liverpool aimed to outscore their opponents and with the partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge up front it seemed a logical decision. In some games, such as 6-3 and 5-3 away victories against Cardiff and Stoke City respectively the plan worked, but too much attack ultimately cost Liverpool and their defence was left weakened and vulnerable and was punished in their 3-3 draw with Crystal Palace, a result which all but cost Liverpool their title.
This season Liverpool need to be smarter, like a Manchester United team under Ferguson or a Chelsea side under Mourinho. It will unfortunately mean that the Reds will not be as exciting as they were last season, especially away from home, but it is essential that Liverpool win enough games to finish in the top four this season and remain in the Champions League.
Liverpool will return to the highest level of European football this season after a five year absence and it will be a difficult return for the five times champions. Not only will they have to return to the routine of playing twice a week but they are likely to be seeded in the third pot and may end up in the same group as huge European forces such as Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich.
Liverpool’s summer signings, and the number of them, indicate that they are preparing for the increased number of matches. They have recruited eight players so far, forwards Rickie Lambert and Divock Origi, who has returned to Lille on loan, midfielders Adam Lallana, Lazar Markovic, and Emre Can and defenders Dejan Lovren, Alberto Moreno and Javier Manquillo. It also suggests that Rodgers wants to compete in the Champions League, not just take part, and will likely field strong sides for their European games.
Successfully getting through the Champions League group stage would not only be an excellent return to the competition but would be an important step in the Rodgers revolution. It took Manchester City three attempts to reach the knockout phase of the competiton and as a result they were stuck in the third pot for two years. If Liverpool reached the knockout phase they would also hope to move into the second pot, making it easier in future years to progress further in the competition.
Securing their position among the top teams in Europe once again will be pointless unless Liverpool finish in the top four, however. It’s a trap that Liverpool have fallen into before: their two previous 2nd place finishes in 2002 and 2009 were followed up by 5th and 7th place finishes in 2003 and 2010 respectively. Rodger’s Liverpool are not ready yet to challenge for the title and perform well in Europe but the Northern Irishman would admit that himself after saying Liverpool were ‘a year ahead of schedule’ when they were challenging for the title.
Ensuring Anfield remains a fortress will be crucial to remain in the top four this season. 16 home wins will be difficult to match, especially without Suarez’s goals, so Daniel Sturridge will have to be on top form. The striker missed two months of last season but still managed to score 21 league goals. To take another step up by scoring goals and carrying the team in the way Suarez did will be difficult but the Englishman is naturally confident and seems determined to shine without the Uruguayan.
The area Liverpool need to improve upon is away form, especially against their rivals. Although they managed excellent away results against Tottenham and Manchester United, both teams are under new management and will improve again this season, it was away defeats against Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea that really cost Liverpool last year. Rodgers sent out his team to win in all three games, Liverpool played some of their best football of the season against Manchester City, but they were too open.
Despite their exciting attacking football which won so many admirers last campaign, Liverpool need to be smarter when they are away to their rivals and will sometimes need to be prepared to grind out results, even draws. Chelsea were criticised last season for the negative tactics away to Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal but ultimately gained five points out of a possible nine and denied their opponents three points.
Rodgers has highlighted the defence as a weakness through the signings of three defenders. He will hope Lovren will add some steel to the centre of defence and may be preparing to keep it tight in their opening two away games, Manchester City on the 25th August and a trip to White Hart Lane to face Tottenham a week later.
Liverpool can still be dangerous whilst sitting back, however, and they are one of the quickest teams in the league with Sturridge alongside Raheem Sterling, Lazar Markovic and Philippe Coutinho. Their counter attack was very effective last season and the tactic still works without Luis Suarez, and at home Liverpool will use their speed of movement and passing as they did last season and demonstrated in the recent 4-0 pre season friendly against Borussia Dortmund.
I’m also not ruling out a potential title challenge from Liverpool, I’m just saying that it will be difficult to compete in the Champions League and the Premier League. If the reds were knocked out the Champions League early then they are more than capable of taking advantage of the reduced fixtures to mount a title challenge. Liverpool’s title challenge last year was only due to a late 11 game winning streak which saw them go from 8 points behind to 10 points ahead of Arsenal. Anything is possible in football.
I feel it is important to stress to Liverpool fans to revaluate their expectations. After selling Gareth Bale for £85 million last season, Tottenham spent over £100 million on new players and their fans expected to challenge for the title after spending so much money. They then decided to sack manager Andre Villas Boas in December when the team were only 5 points from 4th and eventually finished 10 points from 4th in 6th place.
Liverpool are now in a similar situation. They have lost their best player, have spent over £100 million trying to build the squad and will have to balance domestic and European competitions. It’s important, however, that Liverpool do not make the same mistakes Tottenham made. They sh0uld try and enjoy the Champions League but Liverpool shouldn’t panic if they outside the top four come February as Rodger’s team have proved that they are more than capable of going on a winning streak. Liverpool still have a young team that will relish the Champions League experience, but securing their top four position is vital in this young team’s development into a potential title winning side.
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