By Waleed Zaghloul
It is agonizing to Liverpool fans to see their team’s demise in a few short seasons. It was only five years ago that the Reds faced AC Milan for the second time in the final of the European Champions League. How is it that they have fallen so far behind their rivals Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and most recently Manchester City? Is it all financial? Is it all because of the top management and the sale of the club twice in recent years? What will it take and how soon for Liverpool Football Club to compete with the top four again? Let us have a look at some of the soccer related components.
Liverpool have struggled in recent years to find consistent goalkeepers. A plethora of goalkeepers have come and gone in recent history without leaving any real marks, maybe except for Jerzy Dudek and only in the Champions League win in Istanbul. Keepers like Brad Friedel and David James left Liverpool to shine elsewhere and others like Scott Carson and Chris Kirkland left the club never to be heard from again (not seriously at least). In my professional opinion, Liverpool are still struggling in this area with one of the most overrated and inconsistent goalkeepers in the EPL. Pepe Reina is a good shot stopper, but lacks in almost every other important goalkeeping area. He is short and is one of the worst goalkeepers in the EPL when it comes to handling crosses. When he comes out, he rarely picks up the ball and he usually swats at it causing more trouble to his defense than had he stayed on his line. Reina usually hesitates when faced with a one-on-one situation and many times ends being caught in no man’s land or ends up upending the striker and giving away a penalty kick.
Reina, on occasion, makes some fantastic saves, but he usually balances that out by letting in some real silly goals trying so hard to impersonate David James. IMHO, I think Liverpool should have cashed on Pepe Reina and saved his high wages while other clubs still thought he was a good buy. Also, Alexander Doni has looked good when he deputized for Reina last year and should be given a chance until a long term replacement has been found.
A solid defense was one of the few bright spots for Liverpool this past season. Solid performances from Agger and Skrtel and from Jamie Carragher when called upon where helpful for the team’s cause. The emergence of young Sebastian Coates is also a positive sign for the future. On the flip side, Carragher is well past his prime and Agger being injury prone, the defense severely lacks depth and will be tested in Liverpool’s next game at home to Manchester City (with Agger suspended). In recent years, Liverpool have suffered chronically to fill the left full-back position (after willingly letting John Arne Riise, Stephen Warnock, and Emiliano Insua all leave without finding adequate replacements). The whole on the left side sometimes necessitates playing Glen Johnson on the left taking him out of his comfort zone. Martin Kelly looks like a solid future right back, but has not has his break-through season with LFC yet. The Liverpool defense could be in for a long season because of the weakness of the midfield and specially the defensive midfield or anchor positions.
Steven Gerrard has always been one of the best performers on any Liverpool side and has delivered for numerous seasons, but expecting him to keep doing that well into his thirties is ridiculous. The loss of Xabi Alonso and then later Javier Mascherano to the two Spanish giants have dealt the Liverpool midfield two huge blows that they have never recovered from. There is clear lack of a solid anchor player that could fill in the gap in front of the defensive line. Other than Gerrard and Lucas lack any real attacking (or defensive) power! Joe Allen is a great passer of the ball, but still needs time to gel and become a useful part of the team. Jonjo Shelvey and Jordan Henderson could become very good players in the future, but should not be burnt too early with too much expectation. Last seaon, Liverpool’s midfield looked too light weight and were non-existent when Steven Gerrard and Lucas were injured. No real enforcements have been made in that area, with the exception of the addition of Joe Allen, so another mediocre season from the Liverpool midfield could be on the books. If this happens, the defense is going to suffer immensely and this was apparent in Liverpool’s league opener at West Bromich Albion.
Luis Suarez, alongside the aging Gerrard, could be the only true “world class” talent on Liverpool’s squad. Suarez usually poses a lot of danger to any defense he plays against, but would perform much better if he played alongside natural goal scorers (I would have loved to see Suarez and Torres combine up front for Liverpool for at least a season). Suarez is not a natural goal scorer and his height does not make him a prime target for crosses (if they ever come). Andy Carroll on the other hand, cannot keep possession if his life depended on it and is not that impressive in the air either making him one of the worst buys in recent club history. No young strikers seem to be coming through the youth system and the addition of Fabio Borini could turn out to be a good deal, but it is too early to decide. Other players like Joe Cole and Stewart Downing are more of a liability than an asset to the club.
Depth in the Liverpool squad is non-existent. Injuries to any of the core players (Agger, Skrtel, Lucas, Gerrard or Suarez) will spell disaster for Liverpool and they have no real replacements for any of these players. This season needed to be a complete rebuilding season to allow the club to develop depth and prepare a few youngsters and new signings for the future. This could be one of the biggest challenges Brendan Rodgers will face this season unless he makes some moves in the transfer market.
Raheem Sterling looked good in pre-season and seems to be the only youngster who could be seeing some first time playing time.
Transfer Market Dealings
By the far the worst team out of the top six teams in the past few years. Every player that was brought in by Dalglish was overpriced and never delivered. Many players were allowed to leave in recent history without proper replacements and this list includes players like Torres, Alonso, Mascherano and even Arbeloa (who plays regularly for a minor team called Real Madrid!).
The jury will be out on the style of play that Brendan Rodgers is trying to install at LFC. Of course, he should be given time to get his players ready for his style of play. My concern is that Liverpool certainly do not have the players to carry out a Barcelona-imitating style and if any of the starting eleven gets injured or suspended the problem becomes even bigger.
Last season, Liverpool seemed unable to break down opposing defenses even if they kept possession. Judging from their first game this season, this could be a recurring problem this season unless some changes are made. If Suarez does not score, it is not clear where the goals are going to come from. Liverpool are not a threat on set-pieces and are certainly not a threat in the air. Their wingers fail to make adequate crosses and Suarez is too short to be a lone target in the air. The brilliance of Steven Gerrard will provide a few goals every season, but he will not be able to carry the load on his own anymore.
Brendan Rodgers is a good young manager who might need a couple of years to get things right at LFC, time only will tell if he will get that chance and whether he will get enough money to buy the players he needs to carry out his philosophy at the club. Some Liverpool fans have vented their frustration at the choice of the new manager because he lacks enough experience at the highest level, but the journey has already started and again time will only tell who this risky choice will be evaluated. Rodger’s style of play is to be commended, but until he gets the right players, he is in for a big challenge.
Barcelona’s young winger Tello has been rumored to be a loan target for Liverpool. He would add a lot of pace and trickery in the place of Downing. Similar rumors have surfaced about Arsenal’s Theo Walcott, but I doubt this is a possibility. IMHO, Liverpool need solid players who could come in and make a difference right away. Two possibilities stand out in my mind. First, Alan Dzagoev of Russia could be a fantastic acquisition who could play a role similar to the role Messi plays at Barcelona. He has a fantastic eye for goal and fantastic vision and the passing range to go with it making him a very dangerous and capable playmaker. The other possibility is acquiring Adam Johnson from Manchester City who cannot provide him first team football.
Johnson could play on either wing providing some good crosses and the occasional goal to compliment that. That would leave two, maybe three spots to be filled on the roster. First, Liverpool seriously needs a striker who can complement Suarez, a striker in the mold of Torres, Demba or Papiss Cisse. Second, a tenacious anchor man or defensive midfielder in the mold of Makalele or Gennaro Gattuso in their prime. Finally, Liverpool might need a reliable centeral defender to provide cover to Agger and Skrtel or to start in place of one of them. A left back might also be needed, but the priorities will probably lie elsewhere in the near future. If these positions are not filled, Liverpool could be in for another very challenging season for the manager, the players and most certainly the fans!
We all have opinions. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on Liverpool in the Comments section.
Waleed Zaghloul is an NSCAA Premier Diploma coach. He has been coaching on the youth soccer scene for about 15 years. He has coached a variety of youth club, High School and all-star teams in Nebraska, Utah, Colorado and now the Northern Virginia area.