With a by and large successful preseason campaign behind them—a 4-0 victory over Borussia Dortmund at Anfield was the perfect way to sign off—Liverpool will be turning their sights to getting the new Premier League season off to the right start against Southampton this Sunday.
Brendan Rodgers may still be on the lookout for a few more signings before the summer transfer window slams shut, but his squad should be mostly complete, and his strongest XI mostly settled. The loss of Luis Suarez will have a big impact on the Reds, but this looks a squad much better equipped to take on a challenging season in four competitions.
But while there are many positives for Liverpool to take into the new season, there are still a few areas for concern facing Rodgers and his team—addressing these concerns and issues may be pivotal to their quest for a successful season ahead.
Here are 10 of the biggest concerns for Liverpool ahead of the new season. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Daniel Sturridge’s Fitness
Luis Suarez’s exit has put the striking spotlight almost solely on Daniel Sturridge’s shoulders, and while last season’s second-highest scorer in the Premier League has the ability to thrive even in Suarez’s absence, fitness will be the key issue.
Sturridge has a well-known track record of slight injury troubles—not major surgeries ruling him out for months at a time, but little niggles and knocks here and there that are enough to see him not complete a full season at any club in his career.
While his form during the International Champions Cup in the United States showed that there will be life after Suarez, his early return to Liverpool to nurse a slight knock will have shown the need to look after Sturridge’s fitness over the course of the season.
Which would explain Liverpool’s widely publicized move for Loic Remy, and Rodgers’ pursuit of a striker since the Remy move fell through. Relying on Sturridge’s brilliance and undoubted ability isn’t the issue; it’s relying on his relative fragility that is concerning.
Rickie Lambert’s Adjustment
It doesn’t much help that Sturridge’s backup is Rickie Lambert, who arrived earlier this summer from Southampton with the standard return-to-boyhood-club fairy-tale fanfare but has evidently struggled over preseason.
With the famous Liverpool No. 9 shirt on his back, Lambert has looked far more hesitant and lethargic—almost suggesting that he’s being weighed down by the expectations—and far from the all-round striking star he was for the Saints last season.
There’s also Fabio Borini among the striking ranks at Anfield, of course, but with his future at Liverpool uncertain and no sign of any imminent top-quality reinforcement up front, Lambert may well start the campaign as Rodgers’ first striker off the bench.
If that’s the case, he’ll have to get the seemingly sizeable monkey off his back sharpish and start showing Rodgers why he gave him the opportunity of a lifetime in the first place. Otherwise, the pressure on Sturridge and his fitness will be even stronger.
Strength and Depth Up Front
To address last season’s shortcomings, Liverpool need to strengthen their defence more than they need to replace Suarez. Yet their need for further striking reinforcement is evident.
For a team that has so many options in their attacking midfield and wide-forward lines, the Reds find themselves with only one top-class striker, which isn’t enough given the high ambitions and standards that they’ve set for themselves over the past 12 months.
The good thing is that Rodgers has the personnel and the tactical flexibility to tweak his formations and lineups in every game, but with just one striker good enough to spearhead this Reds setup, the manager will be well aware that this is an area he needs to address.
If Liverpool aim to go far in every competition they take part in this season, perhaps one signing up front isn’t enough.
Steven Gerrard’s Next Stage
Besides the urgent need for an extra forward, next on Brendan Rodgers’ list of concerns might not necessarily—and has not historically—found himself anywhere near any list of concerns during his entire career, in which he has proved himself a Liverpool legend.
Yet the fact is that Steven Gerrard is not getting any younger, and the captain’s stature and influence at the club has always meant that one Liverpool manager would have to face the prospect of managing his twilight years.
That manager now is Brendan Rodgers.
And it will be tough to navigate any potential management of Gerrard’s playing time across different competitions, given his obvious importance to Liverpool fans and his teammates on the pitch—not to mention the expertise and goals he brings from set pieces and penalties, and his ability to unlock defences with a pass.
Getting his management of Gerrard’s next stage right may well define Rodgers’ legacy at Anfield.
Plugging a Large Hole in the Midfield
The issue of managing the next phase in Gerrard’s career is closely tied with the performance of the Liverpool midfield last season: At times, it was simply too easy to get past a relatively static middle of the park.
Philippe Coutinho’s added pressing and Jordan Henderson’s increased stature and presence have addressed that problem somewhat, but Liverpool’s Premier League rivals have also strengthened significantly in the midfield areas, and they will be targeting Gerrard’s growing lack of mobility and pace as a weakness in an otherwise strong-looking side.
Emre Can’s arrival and encouraging preseason displays suggests that he may be the long-term option in the holding role (or may yet mature into a box-to-box player in the mould of Yaya Toure), so Rodgers’ squad management and rotation policy will need to be spot on across different competitions.
Keeping His Center-Backs Happy
It never used to be this way: Liverpool were known for having a shortage of quality center-back options last season.
Fast forward a few months—with Dejan Lovren appearing to settle impressively and quickly and Sebastian Coates possibly playing his way back into Rodgers’ thinking—and Rodgers suddenly has a task on his hands to keep his plethora of center-backs happy and content with life at Anfield.
The starting two center-back positions will likely be filled with a combination of Martin Skrtel, Lovren and Mamadou Sakho, but behind them are Daniel Agger, Coates and Kolo Toure, while there are other reserve options waiting in the wings as well.
We’ll address Agger’s role in the next slide, but Coates has already hinted at a future away from Anfield (per the Liverpool Echo) and Toure is apparently close to a move to Trabzonspor (per the Daily Mail). If both exit the club over the next few weeks, Liverpool will once again be down to four center-back options.
Daniel Agger’s Role
Of course, those four center-back options will already be a considerable upgrade over what Rodgers had at his disposal last season, but it won’t help that Daniel Agger—just a year after he was named vice-captain—now appears to be on the fringes of the first team.
Regardless of Rodgers’ claims that Agger is currently sidelined with a knee injury, which ruled him out of the friendly on Sunday against Dortmund (per the Liverpool Echo), the reality is that he started with Skrtel and Lovren, and Sakho would’ve been the first option off the bench.
Yet the Mirror reported just a few days ago that Agger broke down during a dressing-room exchange with his manager during the club’s preseason American tour, which can’t have helped their relationship or the atmosphere in the dressing room.
With Sky Sports reporting that there are no bids for Agger at the moment, Rodgers will need to arrive at an amicable resolution of the Agger situation: If he stays, he will need to manage his playing time, but if he goes, the overall depth in center-back must be addressed.
Fixing a Leaky Defence
At the heart of the center-back problem is the fact that Liverpool’s defence just wasn’t very good last season—hence the need to address its leakiness in the first place.
Lovren’s first appearance at Anfield put to bed the doubts of many vocal critics and Sakho’s performances during the World Cup showed exactly why Liverpool shelled out for his services last summer, while Javi Manquillo’s debut at right-back was also solid.
If Alberto Moreno does complete his switch from Sevilla after the UEFA Super Cup on Tuesday, as reported by the Mirror, and Rodgers does convert Lovren into a right-sided center-back, Liverpool may well start the season with an almost completely new back four from last term.
On paper, it might be a stronger set of defenders, but Rodgers still has lots of work to do if his defence is to stop conceding the goals that ultimately hurt their title challenge last year.
Simon MIgnolet’s Consistency
Behind the back four is Simon Mignolet, now the firm No. 1 at Anfield with Pepe Reina’s departure to Bayern Munich earlier this week, as reported by the Guardian.
But while Mignolet will likely concede a place to Brad Jones in the Capital One Cup and perhaps even the FA Cup, especially in the earlier stages of those competitions, the reality is that Jones has nowhere near the quality to seriously push Mignolet for a first-team place.
Wasn’t a lack of competition the same problem that was widely reported to have plagued Reina during his final average years at Anfield?
There’s no denying Mignolet’s brilliant shot-stopping ability, but his distribution still leaves a lot to be desired, while he has a few errors to cut out of his game. There’s still some way to go before he can displace Thibaut Courtois as the premier Belgian keeper in England.
Momentum vs. Freshness
With Liverpool’s long-awaited return to the Champions League comes a problem that on paper, most managers would love to have: How to manage squad rotation so momentum can be sustained, but players are still fresh every week.
Last season, the manager didn’t have this problem: Partly because he didn’t have too many options at his disposal and partly because he only had one competition to focus on for the majority of the season, Brendan Rodgers could pick a consistent starting XI week in, week out.
The flipside was that opponents could easily predict who would be starting every week and tailor their game plan to counter that (though Liverpool’s impressive 11-match winning streak was a fine answer).
This season, Rodgers has many more options to choose from every week. He will be compelled to rotate in a bid to compete on four different fronts and to keep his players motivated and match fit.
And it will be a challenge to keep his team going and on consistent runs, with possibly different lineups every week.
This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.