Monday, August 12, 2013

Will consistency elude Liverpool again this season?

 "We have to get out of this mini slump we're in quickly. It's not been Brendan Rodgers' problem, consistency has been a problem here for a few years now.”
These were the words of Liverpool's recently retired defensive talisman Jamie Carragher after his side's 2-0 capitulation to Zenit St Petersburg, a result that contributed to their exit from the Europa League before Newcastle, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, the other English sides competing in Europe's second tier. The faltering progress of Liverpool – two steps forward, one step back – has been a familiar story since the 2008-09 season, when Rafa Benitez took Liverpool closest to winning the league since the club's last triumph in 1989-90. One season, it was too many draws. The next, an inability to put “smaller” teams to the sword despite impressive performances against the top teams. Liverpool seemed incapable of having attacking options, midfield creativity and resilience, and defensive solidity all in the same team.

Carragher was right that inconsistency isn't a new problem under Rodgers – the “mini-slump” has been going on since Liverpool fell out of the Champions League places at the end of the 2009-10 season, when the Reds finished seventh (seven points off fourth). They have subsequently finished sixth (10 points off fourth), eighth (17 points off fourth, and even that wasn't good enough to elevate Spurs into the Champions League after Chelsea's triumph) and seventh (12 points off fourth).

But Rodgers' brief when he took over as Liverpool manager in June 2012 was not to return the club to Europe's top table – at least not immediately. Owners and fans alike recognise that – in light of Chelsea and Manchester City's lavish spending, Arsenal and Manchester United's everpresence in the top four, and the improvement of Spurs and Everton – Liverpool face a long battle to be playing European football on Tuesday and Wednesday nights again. Rodgers even admitted that the frustration of fans at Liverpool's decline as an elite club was one of the reasons he took the job, saying: “Also the frustration. It has been over 20 years since they won the title. We might not be ready for the title but the process begins today, it's a new cycle, and that is something that we will work towards in the years to come.”

Has the process really begun? Are Liverpool closer to qualifying for the Champions League, let alone winning the Premier League title, than they were when Rodgers took the reins? Was 2012-13 a humbling season for Liverpool, or an encouraging one?

Let's look at the humbling moments first. Many managers enjoy a honeymoon period at new clubs as players try to impress their latest boss. Not so Liverpool. A chastening 3-0 defeat away at West Brom swiftly dampened the rising hopes of fans; Liverpool didn't win in the league until the end of September, when they picked up three points in style with an emphatic 5-2 win over Norwich at Carrow Road. Rodgers, a young manager with a clear idea of how he wants his team to play, was always going to start slowly as players got used to his style. His difficulty was exacerbated by the summer departures of Dirk Kuyt, Craig Bellamy and Maxi Rodriguez, who had scored 20 goals between them the previous season (five, nine and six respectively).

Rodgers would no doubt say he needed to reduce the wage bill to create space for new signings – a mantra that is being repeated this summer, with the departure of high-earning squad players such as Andy Carroll and, imminently, Stewart Downing. Rodgers came in, looked at the squad and decided it wasn't good enough. We all knew that. But the players he brought in to fill the gap last summer failed to impress. Nuri Sahin arrived with much fanfare having been snatched from under the noses of Arsenal, but returned to Borussia Dortmund in January after failing to hold down a spot in the team. Oussama Assaidi has been utterly anonymous since his arrival from Heerenveen, with only 12 appearances and no goals. Fabio Borini has been desperately unlucky with injuries, but even with the little they have seen of him, Liverpool fans are justifiably concerned that the Italian's two goals in 20 appearances do not justify the £10.5m transfer fee. 

Joe Allen has been the most visible of Rodgers' early signings, but the manager's apparent favouritism has concerned fans, as the diminutive Welshman played last season despite dips in form and a shoulder injury, sometimes ahead of Lucas Leiva and Jordan Henderson. Indeed, many questioned whether Liverpool needed to buy Allen at all. He's a good player, but Liverpool already had Steven Gerrard, Jonjo Shelvey (now at Swansea), Lucas and Henderson on the books in central midfield, plus the promising Conor Coady waiting in the wings. Allen's arrival smacked of Rodgers being too reliant on players he had worked with before, and judging the talent already on Liverpool's books too fleetingly.

Rodgers' man management has been curious, too. Downing was much maligned in the season following his £20m arrival from Aston Villa in July 2011, and rightly so. Under Rodgers he went from outcast, with the then 17-year-old Raheem Sterling taking his place and Downing told he could look for a new club when the winter transfer window opened, to hero as he was paraded in front of the Kop following his winner in the Europa League against Anzhi. He then enjoyed a solid  albeit unspectacular  run in the team in the second half of the season, but now looks set to join West Ham, with his role at Liverpool unclear with the manager reluctant to play 4-4-2, and Downing contributing too little in a 4-3-3.

Martin Skrtel was Liverpool's player of the season in 2011-12, and the Slovakian's partnership with Daniel Agger was talked about as one of the best in the league: Skrtel's no-nonsense power plus the occasional goal accompanied beautifully by Agger's poise and attacking enthusiasm. Under Rodgers, Skrtel is heading for the exit, having lost his place to the 35-year-old Carragher and then the 32-year-old Kolo Toure. Skrtel perhaps epitomises the dichotomies that Rodgers seems to create in his squads; you're either in or you're out. The manager has little patience with dips of form or confidence. Yet, after failing to bring in defensive cover in January, perhaps a gentler approach towards Skrtel could have enabled healthy competition between Liverpool's defensive trio, instead of angst and ostracism.

And Liverpool certainly needed Rodgers to squeeze all the experience and talent he could out of his squad last season, as the club's dismal performance in the cups made apparent. After two finals, one resulting in the League Cup, in Kenny Dalglish's final season, last season was one of disappointment verging on embarrassment. The record reads: Europa League round of 32, FA Cup fourth round, League Cup fourth round. That's pretty appalling. When Rodgers tried to rotate his squad for the cups, it was found deeply lacking. These were the few opportunities for players such as Brad Jones, Sebastian Coates, Borini and Suso, and perhaps even youth-team players such as Coady, Samed Yesil, and Jordan Ibe, to make a name for themselves. But Rodgers' team selections didn't work, and Liverpool were left desperately hoping for magic from the stalwarts on the bench. It didn't happen.

Yet amid the many humbling moments, there were encouraging ones, which may be enough to suggest that Liverpool can finally call time on the seasons of transition and make some real progress, starting on Saturday. Rodgers' management of Suarez has been good, getting the best out of him as a lone striker, seamlessly adjusting his side to accommodate the January arrival of Daniel Sturridge without cramping the Uruguyuan, praising highly but not being afraid to criticise, and winning six of seven pre-season friendlies without last season's top scorer. Rodgers has also managed Sturridge, who came from Chelsea with a reputation for selfishness and underperforming, well, and was rewarded with some excellent performances, especially during Suarez's suspension for biting.

When Rodgers' team click, they do so in style – Liverpool scored at least two goals in 26 of their 54 matches last season, and showed signs of making Anfield a fortress again with big home wins against Swansea, Norwich, Sunderland and Fulham. They were wobblier on their travels, but still scored more goals away than in any previous Premier League season, and racked up the goals against Fulham, Newcastle, Wigan, QPR and Norwich. Whether you beat relegation fodder or Manchester United, you still only get three points and Liverpool showed an increasing ability to put games beyond doubt.

Much was made of Liverpool's inability to beat teams above them in the table, with the sole victory against Spurs at home. But that criticism disguises two key points. First, Liverpool were unlucky not to beat Manchester City home and away, and Arsenal and Everton away. Second, Liverpool held their own against teams competing for the top four, with seven draws in their 12 meetings with Manchester City, United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Everton. They're not there yet but these results, although disappointing, show that Liverpool are close. They were certainly not played off the park by any of their rivals, apart from in the home game against Arsenal.

Liverpool's squad as we head into the 2013-14 season is much better than a year ago. Rodgers has begun the process of blooding some exciting youngsters into the realities of Premier League football. Sterling and Andre Wisdom made positive contributions in the league during the early months of last season. Liverpool can hope for full seasons from Martin Kelly, Lucas and Borini. Rodgers showed real nous in the January transfer window, reinvigorating the attack with the exciting Philippe Coutinho and the increasingly impressive Sturridge. £20m for the pair is beginning to look like a bit of a steal.

This summer's arrivals have been useful if underwhelming. Aspas looks creative, Alberto a willing deputy for Coutinho, and Toure a steal. But Rodgers described his early business in this transfer window as building the squad. We are still waiting for signings that enhance the team: a central defender to replace Skrtel, a left-back, a winger and, depending on Suarez, a proven goalscorer. If Rodgers can add them before September, the eternal optimism of Liverpool fans may not be misplaced this season.  

Friday, August 09, 2013

How is Liverpool's squad bearing up for the new season?

I wrote this blog after the final game of last season and failed to publish it in good time. A lot has changed at Liverpool since then, with the arrivals of Aspas, Mignolet, Toure and Alberto, and the departures of stalwarts and fringe players. But for the sake of honesty, I'm posting the blog as it was written (with the actual future of a player in italics where appropriate)

Liverpool are expected to have £20m-25m to spend this summer, plus whatever can be raised through sales, according to the Liverpool Echo. So who should stay and who should go? Rodgers has spoken of his need for leaders on the pitch, hence the return to central defence last season of the 35-year-old Jamie Carragher. But the manager already has the England senior and Under-21 captains (Jordan Henderson is now ineligible for the U21s), plus the captains of Denmark and Slovakia. He faces an interesting choice of who should be vice-captain to replace Carragher and provide vocal leadership from the back, and has options in Daniel Agger and Glen Johnson.


Pepe Reina
Still an excellent shot stopper, and often imperious, with wonderful saves against Wigan and Fulham among others that got forgotten amid praise of the attacking performances. The Spaniard was admittedly flaky at other times, especially in the first half of the season. If he had a more reliable defence in front of him, ie a stable back four and defenders cutting out the individual errors, he'd be less liable to dodgy decision-making. Arsenal and Barcelona are sniffing around again, but we'd find it hard to buy as good a keeper for the £10m or so they would pay for a player who turns 31 in August. Verdict? Stay (Joined Napoli on loan)

Brad Jones
An unreliable backup to Pepe Reina, and never likely to be No 1, despite his squad number, but he signed a contract extension in December 2012 and has little resale value. Verdict? Stay

Peter Gulacsi
Liverpool's third-choice keeper since the mysterious disappearance of Doni, and will be happy to bide his time to step up to No 2. Verdict? Stay (Joined Red Bull Salzburg on a free transfer)


Glen Johnson
Dogged by inconsistency – who wasn't in Liverpool's team last season? - the 28-year-old right-back is still one of the most exciting defenders in the Premier League going forward. With some consistency of who plays in front of him next season, Johnson could shine. Verdict? Stay

José Enrique
Criticised by Rodgers early in the season, he risked reopening the wound when he retorted via the media in February. However, the Spaniard was described by Rodgers as one of the best full-backs in the league in March (difficult to keep up with this mini love affair ...). Enrique has shown class in some of his linkup play with Luis Suarez, and added a few goals to his repertoire as well. Yet Liverpool need better options at left-back than playing Johnson out of position, especially if Jack Robinson heads out on loan again. Verdict? Stay

Martin Kelly
His injuries are a worry, and so, for him, is the emergence of Andre Wisdom. Still a more than useful backup across the defence and, as he signed a new deal in February, his future lies in red. Verdict? Stay

Andre Wisdom
Impressed when called upon in the first team, the right-back could see more opportunities if Kelly is moved into a central berth. Verdict? Stay

Jon Flanagan
Flourished under Kenny Dalglish, frustrated under Rodgers. Would probably have gone out on loan last season if it had not been for a nasty knee injury in January. Would do well to pressure Johnson, Kelly and Wisdom in the right-back slot. Verdict? Season's loan to Championship club

Jack Robinson
Impressed in patches under Dalglish but found chances harder to come by under Rodgers as Enrique played his way back to form. Johnson still the backup option on the left of defence. Verdict? Season's loan to Championship club (Joined Blackpool on loan)

Central defenders

Daniel Agger
It was a big boost for Liverpool when they resisted Manchester City's public courting of the Dane at the start of the season. This summer, Barcelona are tempted by the classiest defender in the Premier League on his day. But Dagger is committed to the cause and won't be allowed to leave in view of the rebuilding needed at the back. Verdict? Stay

Jamie Carragher
Irreplaceable but Liverpool could certainly do with his defensive nous and passion on the training ground. Verdict? Give Gary Neville a run for his money on Sky

Sebastian Coates
Despite the defender's stunning strike against QPR in March 2012, the Uruguayan looked terrified against Oldham Athletic in the FA Cup exit. It's always difficult to come into an unfamiliar back four, particularly in a high-atmosphere cup game, and, still only 22, it's too early to judge him definitively. Yet to convince. Verdict? Loan to Premier League club

Martin Skrtel
How did the Slovakian go from player of the season to Rodgers' fall guy? He seemed to be losing interest when he was recalled in the defeat to Southampton, and his once solid partnership with Agger is wobblier than a jellyfish doing the Harlem shake. Transfer market values the 28-year-old at £13m. Whether that would be good value depends on whether Rodgers can dig out another Sami Hyypia or two. Verdict? Sold for around £10m

Danny Wilson
A regular for Hearts since moving there on loan in January – he has made more appearances for the SPL side in half a season than he did in all his time at Liverpool. He could well stay in Edinburgh as his contract expires this summer. Verdict? Leave on a free transfer (Joined Hearts on a free transfer)

Central midfield

Steven Gerrard (captain)
With nine league goals and nine assists, and having reinvented himself into a deep-playing midfielder, Gerrard quietly had an excellent season. Verdict? Stay

Lucas Leiva
The Brazilian may not have much natural South American flair, and with only six goals in over 200 appearances he certainly leaves the attacking to others, but Liverpool are a much better team with the tidy Lucas sitting deep. Let's hope he stays injury-free. Verdict? Stay

Joe Allen
Whenever I watch Allen play, it's always a rather flat experience. He rarely does anything terribly wrong, but others play the defensive and attacking midfield roles better. However, he's only just 23, a useful squad player, and certainly one who could help shore things up and defend a lead in the final 20 minutes of games. For me, not an automatic starter. Verdict? Stay

Jordan Henderson
The manager doesn't yet trust him but the fans are increasingly on this Mackem's side, as he brings energy, enthusiasm and desire whenever he plays. Should be a first-team starter ahead of Allen, particularly against the stronger teams and away from home. Verdict? Stay

Jonjo Shelvey
Rodgers looked to Shelvey for goals in the first half of the season, and he provided them against West Ham, Young Boys and Udinese. Faded in the second half of the season, as Coutinho and Henderson rose above him in the pecking order, but I still think Shelvey is the closest thing Liverpool have to a young Gerrard. He played really well on loan at Blackpool in 2011, but another loan deal would seem regressive. I'd like to see him given his chance to impress in the cups and from the bench. With no Europe next season though, that may not be enough for him. Verdict? Stay (Joined Swansea for £5m)

Jay Spearing
Gives his all whoever he's playing for and has been a regular on loan at Bolton. A Championship player or a Champions League one? With Gerrard, Lucas, Henderson, Shelvey and Allen all ahead of him in the pecking order for a role in central midfield, I suspect Rodgers may have decided that Spearing's the former. Verdict? Sold for £3m (Joined Bolton for undisclosed fee)

Conor Coady
Talked about as captaincy material for club and country one day, Coady is certainly one for the future. There's no need to rush the 20-year-old into the first team. The question for Rodgers is whether Coady, and Liverpool, would benefit most from a loan deal or playing in the cups. Verdict? Stay (Joined Sheffield United on loan)

Wingers/attacking midfielders

Stewart Downing
Came into his own towards the end of the season, but if Liverpool want to not only get into the Champions League but win a few games when they get there, they must have a better option than Downing. It may be worth keeping him as a squad player – Manchester United can call on Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Nani and Shinji Kagawa as wide options after all. But Downing is such a confidence player that I wonder how much Liverpool would get out of him as an impact sub. Verdict? Sell for £5m

Philippe Coutinho
A breathe of fresh air in January, and at only 21 he's likely to get even better. Expect him to be a regular next season and provide the cheekiness Liverpool have missed since Luis Garcia's exit. Verdict? Stay

Desperate to impress but massively overshadowed by Coutinho's arrival, especially as the Brazilian is only a year older. Could benefit from a season's loan, but would he be seen as a luxury player and risk getting insufficient game-time, especially in the tough Championship? Signed a new deal last season so unlikely to leave, but difficult to see him playing many games unless there's an injury crisis. Verdict? Stay (Joined Almeria on loan)

Raheem Sterling
A joy to watch during the first half of the season. Lacks decision-making but that will come. Deserved a rest towards the final months. Other teams may think they've found a way to deal with him, but his pacy, incisive and eager running offers something different to any other Liverpool player. Also wins a lot of free-kicks. Verdict? Stay and impress as an impact substitute against tiring sides

Oussama Assaidi
It would be easy for Liverpool fans to forget we'd signed this winger. He barely got a look-in, despite Downing's dips in form and Sterling's late-season tiredness. Either he's been caught making faces behind Rodgers' back or the manager really hasn't liked what he's seen in training. The Moroccan will be 25 in August – too old to be a passenger. Verdict? Sold for around £1m

Jordon Ibe
You spend ages looking for an exciting winger then two come along at once. Named on the bench in the Premier League defeat to Southampton, which suggests Rodgers has seen something he likes in the 17-year-old. Ibe caught the eye in the FA Youth Cup, scoring twice in the fifth-round win over Leeds United, and he'll be based with the reserves next season, but knocking on the first-team door. Verdict? Stay

Luis Suarez
Liverpool's most exciting player in the Premier League era. The Uruguayan is a superstar who wears his love for the club on his sleeve (obviously written during the halcyon final days of the league, before he was outed as a git). There aren't enough plaudits for El Pistolero when he's got his mind on the job but the amount of time he is lost to the team due to suspension is a real concern. Conversely, the infamous biting incident may make him less likely to leave and if Barcelona don't come sniffing over the summer, I hope there's nowhere else he'd go to. Would making him vice-captain help with the indiscipline? Here's praying. Verdict? Stay

Daniel Sturridge
He can swing between petulance and arrogance, but there's no denying his desire to put the ball in the back of the net. He doesn't always create much himself, but for all Liverpool's passing prowess under Rodgers, it's refreshing to have someone ready to toe punt a goal from five yards. His performance at Fulham showed he is not just a fox in the box though, and he relished leading the line following Suarez's suspension. In preparation for Gerrard's retirement, whenever it comes, Sturridge should become first-choice penalty-taker, despite his fluff in the Olympic Games. Verdict? Stay 

Fabio Borini
Difficult to judge the Italian after an injury-prone season. He looked a little lightweight in the Premier League, but he's still only 22 and we'd not get even half what we paid for him. Is he going to get a look-in with a front three of Coutinho, Sturridge and Suarez? Let's see what he can do in a full season, but likely to be only an option from the bench and for the cups. Verdict? Stay

Andy Carroll
Has done little to elevate his sell-on value on loan at West Ham, yet there's no route back for him to Anfield. Verdict: Sold for £10m (Joined West Ham for £15m)

Dani Pacheco
A mystery pretty much since he was bought by Rafa Benitez in 2007. In six seasons, no manager has seen enough in him to risk a run in the first team, with Pacheco not even making an impact when Suarez was Liverpool's only recognised striker at the start of last season. At 22, he needs to be on loan at a Premier League or Championship club, where he can remind Rodgers of his ability, not in the Spanish second division. Verdict? Sold for nominal fee

Samed Yesil
Looked out of his depth in the two cup appearances he made for the first team but time is on his side. However, it's worth remembering that Michael Owen scored on his debut for the senior side at only 17, and by 18 was scoring against Argentina in the World Cup. Verdict? Stay, but won't make an impact in the first team just yet