What Liverpool need to break into the top four next year
It was never going to be easy. Turning around the fortunes of a club that’s been in decline since it fell out of the ‘top four’ a few years ago, but with a fan base that can remember the days when it dominated Europe. Brendan Rodgers has had a bit of a job on. So, as his first season in the Reds’ hot seat draws to a close, what has he achieved and what else does he need to do.
By fairly common consent, the first season under Rodgers has shown an improvement. Fans that in pre-Premier League years were gorged on success after success, can see a little light at the end of the long dark, Manchester United dominated tunnel. Young players are beginning to assert themselves in the first team. Stirling and Wisdom are a couple that come immediately to mind, and it’s astute stewardship by Rodgers to bring these players through, as fans will always show a chunk more patience as a team is seen to have a plan and younger players promise of a brighter future.
On top of this, Rodgers has bought well in the market. Although Allen was always going to be a slow burner of a purchase, with his penchant for one and two touch, receive and play, the more recent signings of Danny Sturridge, seemingly the ideal foil for Suarez, and Coutinho are much more of the style that the Kopites appreciate. It’s also true that many of the previous regime’s expensive signings have been rejuvenated. The seemingly lost Downing is now a more regular starter and contributing goals and assists, whilst even Henderson is seen to have a role that for most of his time in a red shirt looked way beyond him.
Rodgers also quickly decided that Andy Carroll was very much not part of the way that he structured a team, and exiled the Geordie to West Ham. He will surely try to offload him permanently in the summer. Some may disagree with the decision, but the expediency with which Rodgers came to the conclusion and acted, smacks of the firm leadership that is very much at the core of a successful club – just ask Manchester United players. So this season, after a slow start will probably end as one of promise for Liverpool, but the big test now is whether Rodgers can identify and fill the gaps in his team that will make the club serious contenders next term.
It’s an established fact that successful teams require great goalkeepers, and although Pepe Reina started the season as undisputed number one, this has become less the case as time has gone on, with Brad Jones playing many more games than anyone could have imagined at the start of the season. For all his qualities, Jones is probably not the outstanding ‘keeper required, so if Rodgers is no longer convinced by Reina, a new, and top quality ‘keeper is a must.
In the defence, John son continues to mature and Agger remains a high class defender, but with doubts over Skrtel, who may be Russia-bound this summer, and the impending retirement of Carragher, a top class stopper is required. Inevitably, talk of Ashley Williams, who played under Rodgers’ charge at Swansea has been raised. Although the Welshman has had an outstanding season, it’s not yet certain that he’s in the class required, so Rodgers may need to look elsewhere, rather than settle for the ‘known quantity’. This is really not a decision that he can afford to get wrong, and reassembling his old Swansea team is decidedly not part of his remit.
In midfield, Gerrard remains the fulcrum and a fully fit Lucas to act as his ‘water carrier’ dovetails nicely. Sprinkle in Coutinho’s sparkle and the dependability of Allen, and there’s a good mix available in the centre, with Henderson hovering somewhere on the periphery. Downing and Stirling will be available to offer width, but another player, and I can’t think Henderson is the answer, will probably also be needed. A player of the type of Valencia at Manchester United, with the ability to threaten going forward, and cover defensively would be ideal. It’s a role that Rodgers deployed Jose Enrique in for a period this season, without outstanding results. A made to measure solution is required, not an off-the-peg make-do.
Upfront, as mentioned, the acquisition of Sturridge was an astute purchase. Suarez has been carrying the attack on his slender shoulders, and without help, such a burden can break a player’s spirit, but Sturridge appears to have the understanding and nous to compliment the Uruguayan, offering not only goals but assists. Behind these two however, the cupboard remains fairly bare. Borini, although in fairness suffering injuries, has failed to impress and as a striker, is not the player to overly worry defences. Should either Suarez or Sturridge pick up anything like a long term injury, if Liverpool truly are committed to being competitive, a ‘bodge it up’ solution will simply not hack it. A third striker that can slot in when needed, allowing the prime duo to rest and rotate is required. Someone of the calibre of Demba Ba, for example, would fit the bill nicely.
So there’s my shopping list drawn up for Rodgers. A goalkeeper of outanding quality is essential, unless Reina is to be fully trusted again. An outstanding stopper, a wide midfield player and a third striker are also required, and each of these need to be of ‘first eleven’ calibre. It’s not going to be cheap. To fill these with the right recruits, even in today’s depressed market will probably cost in the region of £40million to £50million, although some of this could be offset by sales. The question is whether the club’s heirarchy are prepared to stump the sort of brass that they allowed Kenny Dalgleish to largely squander – Suarez excepted when they first took charge. Fingers burnt once, and all that.
It’s more than a bit of a cliché to call a club a sleeping giant, but if it’s a little trite to call Liverpool’s position ‘sleeping’, it’s certainly at least dozing a little, and as the Northern Irishman’s task is to get the club back into the Champions’ League qualification spots at least, Rodgers is going to have to issue a fairly strident wake up call.
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