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5 Keys to Success for Liverpool in 2014/15

The hard-fought nature of Liverpool’s 2-1 win over Southampton last Sunday—with Simon Mignolet featuring prominently again—recalled memories of last season’s opening-day victory over Stoke City, which set the foundation for a scintillating Premier League campaign.

This time around, though, the pressure on the Reds is just slightly stronger, the expectations just slightly higher. Manager Brendan Rodgers will be looking to kick his side into gear and rediscover the momentum, form and confidence that saw them win so many plaudits last season.

News that Mario Balotelli may be on his way to Anfield from AC Milan, according to Ben Smith of BBC Sport, would be the icing on the cake for Reds fans, who have seen their team break the £100 million spending mark on eight players this summer transfer window.

If they are to take that next step and win silverware this season, here are five keys to success that Liverpool should keep in mind throughout the campaign.

 

Daniel Sturridge’s Fitness

Daniel Sturridge's Fitness

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

There’s no doubt that any move for a striker to strengthen Rodgers’ squad in the closing days of the summer window—whether it is Balotelli or not—would alleviate the massive burden Luis Suarez’s exit placed on Daniel Sturridge’s shoulders.

Yet there’s no escaping the fact that Sturridge will remain pivotal to Liverpool’s fortunes this season, and his fitness is key to him enjoying a successful season.

Sturridge has had his fair share of injury troubles—his early exit from Liverpool’s preseason tour of the United States may well have prompted the Reds hierarchy to look for another first-team striker—and having two top-quality forwards would be a massive boon to the Reds’ fortunes.

One of the Premier League’s best goal scorers when available, Sturridge’s style of play is a perfect fit in Liverpool’s attack, and even as Rodgers looks to make full use of a much larger squad this season, the fitness of his leading man up front may well dictate how their season turns out.

 

A Consistent Back Five

A Consistent Back Five

Jon Super/Associated Press

For the time being, it seems as though Rodgers has settled on a central defensive duo of Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren; however, the as-yet untried prospect of Lovren on the right and Mamadou Sakho on the left is tantalizing, if it works as it promises to on paper.

With the signings of Javi Manquillo and Alberto Moreno, Rodgers will likely start with them as his first-team full-backs, but now he has a variety of backup options on the flanks as well who will look to compete for a place in the starting XI.

After a season that saw them concede 50 goals—in the end, a defining blemish on an otherwise outstanding campaign—it should be Rodgers’ priority to sort out a leaky defence if they are to sustain their performances from last season, particularly as their rivals have strengthened considerably as well.

That Liverpool have upgraded their defence is unquestionable; the key now is to ensure that there is a consistency in starting places across the back to ensure that they can form a tight, cohesive unit through playing together week in, week out.

 

Making Full Use of Substitutes

Making Full Use of Substitutes

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

What’s a bigger squad good for if not for the manager to fully utilize it? Last year’s limited available options had Rodgers often starting with the same XI every week and left him with a dearth of genuine alternatives on the bench when he needed a spark or a game-changer late during a match.

This year, it’s totally different: Every position has competition, and good players will miss out on the 18-man match-day squad entirely from time to time, leaving first-team players with much more motivation to sustain their level of performance.

No longer will Rodgers need to throw debutants into the deep end, like he did with Brad Smith at Stamford Bridge in December, because of a shortage of squad options. He will now be able to call on good impact players from the bench when he needs to.

The Premier League allows each team to make three substitutions each match. For arguably the first time during his tenure at Anfield, Rodgers finally has the tools to take full advantage of this quota.

 

Managing Squad Rotation

Managing Squad Rotation

Michael Regan/Getty Images

Beyond making the right in-game substitutions, Rodgers will need to do something with his squad this season that he hasn’t had to do too much in his previous seasons at Liverpool: choose different starters depending on opposition.

Now blessed with a myriad of options to choose from, he will need to manage his squad rotation policy right so it doesn’t hurt the momentum of players in form, but he can still use them to their full potential and ability when the fixtures start coming thick and fast.

Then there’s the crop of players whose place in the team may be severely threatened by new arrivals: Rodgers will need to be on top of his man-management game to keep the likes of Daniel Agger and Lucas Leiva happy over the course of a hectic season.

Managing squad rotation is something every top-level manager in every top-level team has to get right. This season is a good opportunity to show whether Rodgers is up to that task to bring success to Anfield.

 

Stick to a Set Vision

Stick to a Set Vision

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

When it comes to a vision and a blueprint for the game, it’s safe to say that Liverpool fans and players alike can rely on Brendan Rodgers to have an underlying approach to the game that he insists on instilling into his charges.

Still arguably a side in transition and maturation, Liverpool showed signs of pure aesthetic perfection at times last season, yet there were also occasions when their tactical naivety let them down, as they struggled to find a few results when it mattered.

With another year gone by, however, Liverpool should be far more equipped when it comes to adopting and implementing Rodgers’ vision and approach—and it will help that he now has more tactically mature players at his disposal to do just that.

To align themselves with Rodgers’ ideologies, the Liverpool players must stick to the vision that got them to this position in the first place and not abandon it at will when time and results are at stake.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

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Strengthening Defence More Important for Liverpool Than Replacing Luis Suarez

So after a good few weeks of speculation, it’s finally official: Luis Suarez has left Liverpool to sign for Barcelona, as confirmed by BBC Sport, for a fee of about £75 million.

As Liverpool fans across the world start to come to terms with the news that one of their greatest-ever players has left after leading the Reds to within a whisker of the Premier League title last season, they might be feeling just a little apprehensive about the coming 2014/15 campaign.

And who could blame them? After all, it’s not just any ordinary forward who has left Anfield: Suarez left at the peak of his powers, having matured from a profligate finisher to a world-class forward, setting scoring records in the Premier League last season despite missing his first five league games of the season.

Yet—unbelievable as it may be—it’s not all doom and gloom for the Reds. Sure, it will be a tough ask replacing the 30-plus goals Suarez now guarantees a season, but there should be other priorities in Brendan Rodgers’ mind even now.

He must focus on strengthening his defence.

 

Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

 

 

Defence a Red Achilles’ Heel

By the end of the 2013/14 Premier League season, when Manchester City had finally usurped Liverpool as champions-elect, it was too little, too late to realize where Liverpool had lost the title.

Perhaps Steven Gerrard will forever shoulder much of the blame for his fatal slip against Chelsea, when he mistakenly put Demba Ba through on goal. And perhaps it was the throwing away of a three-goal lead at Selhurst Park that confirmed their fate.

But throughout the whole campaign, it was Liverpool’s defence that let them down. A total of 50 goals conceded—the second highest among the top eight, just a solitary goal behind sixth-placed Tottenham Hotspur—said it all about a shaky defensive unit that frequently had to rely on an admittedly all-star attack to bail them out.

Suarez’s departure will add more pressure to his ex-strike partners to come close to the astonishing 101-goal haul last season, but it will also place the spotlight on a leaky defence that has to get better.

There are always two sides to the same coin and two contrasting ways to look at a trend: Namely, that Liverpool showed both strength in character and mentality to secure comebacks and outscore their opponents by one goal to get the three points—but equally, Rodgers’ back four weren’t exactly a reassuring presence when they needed to be.

Of course, it didn’t help that due to injury, Rodgers was deprived of his first-choice back four for most of the season—though that was the opportunity that Jon Flanagan took with both hands to resurrect his career at Anfield—but the time has come now to address these problems.

 

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

 

 

Upgrades Are Needed

It seems strange to see Liverpool building bright young midfield and forward lines, especially with the signing of Emre Can and the blossoming of Raheem Sterling, on a foundation provided by an increasingly erratic Glen Johnson, an inconsistent Martin Skrtel, a hesitant Daniel Agger and a perpetually injured Jose Enrique.

Though Johnson seemed to have rediscovered his form at times toward the end of the season, it is telling that he has yet to sign a contract extension. As things stand, he will be a free agent next summer.

As prolific as Skrtel was last season, scoring seven league goals in 36 games, he was also responsible for four own goals, and his concentration and leadership have yet to truly convince.

Vice-captain Agger is a curious case. As one of the Reds’ most loyal servants in the group, he seems to have lost the faith of Rodgers, with Mamadou Sakho often preferred as the starting left-sided center back, and he is even linked with a summer exit from Liverpool, according to Spanish newspaper Mundo Deportivo (h/t Vaishali Bhardwaj of Metro).

Finally, Enrique’s brand of physical and brazen football doesn’t fit in well with Rodgers’ preference for intelligent tactical play; even Flanagan’s displays seemed to have worked better in his system.

Given the high-profile links with Southampton’s Dejan Lovren, per Gary Jones of the Daily Star, it seems evident that Liverpool have identified center back as a priority position, but the reality is that upgrades are needed all across the back four.

And we haven’t yet touched on the hotly debated position that is goalkeeper.

 

Clive Rose/Getty Images

 

 

An Unlikely Smokescreen Would Be Nice

Yet for all of the strengthening that Liverpool’s defence need, the rumor market is still in a frenzy linking the Reds with a forward to replace the goals of Suarez.

Now that Alexis Sanchez, previously a candidate either to play with Suarez at Anfield or to replace him as part of the deal taking the Uruguayan to Camp Nou, has joined Arsenal, the seemingly most adequate successor has slipped out of Rodgers’ grasp.

Cue the rumors linking the Reds with a move for Swansea City’s Wilfried Bony, via Sam Cunningham of the Daily Mail, and the apparently imminent double deal for Divock Origi and Lazar Markovic, via BBC Sport‘s Ben Smith.

All well and good, except they seem to hint that the club are preoccupied with filling the Suarez-shaped void up front and neglecting the obvious issues at the back.

Besides Lovren, Liverpool have not been seriously linked with any central defender, while an on-again, off-again approach for Sevilla’s Alberto Moreno seems to be their only lead in the full-back areas.

Which leaves arguably more than half of all the defensive positions in need of upgrading, if we include Simon Mignolet’s position between the Anfield posts.

Shave away Suarez’s 31 league goals from Liverpool’s total tally, and they would have scored just one fewer than Chelsea. Contrast Liverpool’s 50 goals conceded with Manchester City’s 37 and Chelsea’s 27—even Arsenal’s 41—and we arrive at the root of the Reds’ failure to win the league.

There are big issues to address at the back for Brendan Rodgers. Liverpool fans should be hoping that the incessant and never-ending striker rumors are but a smokescreen for the real revolution that needs to take place in defence.

Otherwise—Suarez’s goals or not—they’ll be in for a rough ride.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

The Business of Football Kits: Sponsorships, Technology, Branding and Beyond

As we enter the final few months leading up to this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, the national teams taking part in the tournament have been unveiling their new kits to ride on the wave of growing interest in international football.

Brazil, England, Germany, Spain, Argentina and France have all released new kit designs for the summer, with various big-name sportswear companies and top international stars at the helm of high-profile launch events and flashy marketing campaigns. (The Mirror has a collection of some newly released kits here.)

As with most commercial activity in football, however, not all the recent kit launches have been met with universal acclaim: Ben Curtis’ article on the Mirror is a cynical rant at the hype machines that these events have become, while Lizzie Parry’s on the Daily Mail highlights just how expensive replica kits, launched over increasingly short time periods, have become.

In February, we explored the importance of stadiums in the overall commercial strategies of football clubs. As top-level football increasingly becomes big business and a huge revenue generator, let’s take a look at another money-spinning side to the sport: football kits.

 

Vincent Yu

 

Sponsorships

One of the first things that comes to mind when football kits are mentioned these days is the staggering amount of money they can generate for football clubs, both from the merchandising side and from the corporate sponsorship side.

While club merchandise is generally dependent on the popularity and on-pitch success of the clubs themselves—and the annual Deloitte Money League results generally attest to that—the larger context is the money that sportswear companies actually pay to be the official kit providers of football clubs.

In recent years, just in the Premier League, we’ve seen many instances of eye-watering commercial deals involving kit suppliers. Liverpool’s 2012 deal with Warrior Sports, the latter’s first foray into football, would, according to Andy Hunter of the Guardian, net the club at least £25 million a year.

Just this January, Arsenal announced they would be changing their kit maker from Nike to Puma, in a five-year deal reportedly worth more than £30 million a year, per the BBC. And, as ever when it comes to business deals, Manchester United shocked the world this March with their world-record 10-year deal with Nike, which, according to Simon Mullock of the Mirror, will see the Old Trafford club earn more than £60 million a year.

Besides contracts with sportswear makers, the other big player in the football kit boom is the corporate sponsorship deals that have taken center stage in recent years. This 2013 J.J. Colao article in Forbes listed Manchester United, Barcelona, FC Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Real Madrid as the biggest shirt sponsorship deals in the world.

Another interesting marketing tactic has been employed by Tottenham Hotspur this season, as they featured different sponsors on their shirts in different competitions, with Hewlett Packard their Premier League front and AIA their cup shirt partner. According to Kevin Palmer of ESPNFC, however, even Tottenham will revert to the traditional “principal partner” model at other big clubs, having agreed a lucrative £20 million-a-year deal with AIA for the next five years.

 

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

 

Technology

But with all the money that goes into the kits, and their burgeoning price tags, do those who get to wear them actually benefit?

Specifically, do the footballers themselves get anything out of the constant kit changes, or are they just excuses to step in front of a camera for yet another photo shoot?

Just ask the Italian national team stars. According to the BBC, the high-tech football shirts they will be wearing at the World Cup this summer will be able to deliver massages during the game. The shirts contain a special tape that provides “micro-massages” for their wearers and “maximise muscle power” by allowing the body to recover from exertion more quickly.

Away from the luxury options provided to footballers these days, far more important is the shirts’ ability to keep their wearers warm in extreme cold temperatures. This article from PRNewswire.com lists a few examples of temperature-regulating technologies that are present in football shirts on the market.

Different sportswear manufacturers—the same who enter into the lucrative long-term contracts with football clubs and will rely on such technology to win such bids—integrate different functions into their shirts, but the underlying principles are the same: adding layers onto shirts that keep players comfortable, dry, warm or cool depending on the surrounding weather conditions.

With the digital space increasingly at the center of the football fan experience, besides featuring on shirts themselves, technology has also crept into the marketing side of football shirts and kit launches, so much so that organizing such events can be considered an industry in itself.

See, for example, this analysis on Liverpool’s new kit launch in 2012 on Dan McLaren’s TheUKSportsNetwork.com. Liverpool’s multichannel marketing and promotion strategy, across different social media platforms, was all about putting out a united front for the kit launch, which also had to match the club’s corporate branding.

But, as they’ve tended to do so in social media in general, Manchester City will take home the technology and marketing hybrid approach for football kits as well.

They’ve since switched to Nike as their main shirt sponsor, but City’s launch of their Umbro kits for the 2012/13 season, as covered here by SoccerBible.com, took fan engagement to a new level when they invited fans to decide how the new kit would be officially launched.

 

Ray Stubblebine

 

Branding

Using a new innovative campaign to bridge the marketing and technology worlds with branding in football was yet another Manchester City-affiliated project, New York City FC.

Since their official announcement in 2013, New York City FC have caught the attention with their cutting-edge digital-marketing campaigns despite the MLS outfit not yet officially competing in the U.S.’s highest-tier domestic football league.

NYCFC put their fans truly at the center of their business and branding strategy by inviting them to submit ideas for an official club crest, which was met with widespread acclaim and culminated in a win-win scenario where the club also got their hands on an excellent winner, shown here on the MLS official website.

An example of how the football kit itself has become more than just one of the components of a football club’s identity; it’s evolved into an integral part of the football club’s business strategy on the whole.

So eager have clubs and affiliated sponsors wanted to tap into their fanbase for merchandising dollars that they have begun creating hype cycles out of kit launches to boost profits and increase circulation among their followers—at the risk of straying into grey areas and stirring controversies.

In tandem with the ongoing, controversial narrative that football is becoming more and more middle- and upper-class and moving away from the traditional working-class fanbase that gave the sport its following and popularity, clubs and corporations have rushed into a branding frenzy and become eager to associate themselves as “premium” titles.

A major recent example was that of Adidas, who, according to Anna White of the Telegraph, may refuse to supply Sports Direct, one of the biggest sports retailers in the UK, with a variety of World Cup football kits due to concerns over its stores and customer service.

Said Adidas, “Like all manufacturers, we regularly review, season by season, where our products are distributed. We determine distribution channels for all products based on criteria such as in-store environment and customer service levels.”

In other words, sportswear manufacturers are eager for their football kits to be treated as premium consumer goods—indeed, the mooted £140 price tag for the new England kits by Nike almost automatically price themselves into that category—and they’re not afraid to incur the wrath of fans and middlemen retailers to achieve their commercial goals.

Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

 

Prior to the World Cup row, Adidas also landed themselves in hot water with Sports Direct over their treatment of Chelsea’s official club kit. In light of the public spat, Matt Scott of InsideWorldFootball.com put together an excellent and in-depth analysis of the changing role of the football kit itself.

Linking the state and rationale of Chelsea’s commercial and branding activities with the area’s wealthy and exclusive reputation, Scott consolidates a list of the London club’s highest-profile official sponsors, who all pride themselves on their elite stature within their respective industries.

The ever-changing face of the football kit, then, is not just an evolution of modern shirt design and an extension of clothing technology into sport, but is a reflection of a shift in the status of merchandise and football itself in the eyes of football clubs, manufacturers and sponsors.

And with seemingly unstoppable momentum behind money-spinning sponsorship deals, it seems that football kits will continue to be at the center of football’s paradigm shift. One only hopes that it doesn’t one day become only limited-edition items due to their exclusivity.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

How Close Are Liverpool to Being a Premier League Title-Winning Team?

How Close Are Liverpool to Being a Premier League Title-Winning Team?
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

With 57 points on the board and 70 goals scored, Liverpool are currently enjoying both their highest points total and most prolific scoring record after 27 matches in the Premier League.

Boasting a goal difference of +35, Liverpool currently find themselves fourth in the league, four points behind leaders Chelsea and six ahead of nearest challengers Tottenham Hotspur.

Safe to say, then, that this has been a league campaign that has exceeded almost all expectations going into the 2013/14 season.

While Liverpool’s focus should remain squarely on securing a return to the Champions League next season via a top-four spot come this May, there has been increasing talk of the Premier League title outright.

Manager Brendan Rodgers played down suggestions that his side could win the league this season after their thrilling 4-3 win over Swansea City last Sunday, according to the Mirror, but that hasn’t stopped the whispers in and around Anfield.

But how close are Liverpool to being a Premier League title-winning team? Let’s take a look at the Reds and evaluate their status and strength. Enjoy and have your say in the comments below.

 

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Defence: Solidity and composure needed

Let’s start off with the defence, which is clearly Liverpool’s weakest link right now.

They may be the highest-scoring team in the Premier League so far this season but in terms of goals conceded they’re in a disappointing 10th place overall.

Swansea last Sunday was the fourth time the Reds have let in three goals in a match this season, while they have also committed an eye-watering 33 defensive mistakes this term, seven more than second-placed Arsenal.

Liverpool’s defensive situation has, of course, not been helped by the injuries to their defenders: Glen Johnson and Daniel Agger have just returned to first-team action, and Kolo Toure had to fill in on the left side of central defence.

Agger’s performance back in his favored starting role on Sunday was unconvincing enough for Rodgers to replace him with Toure around the hour mark, while Martin Skrtel’s habit of grappling inside the box finally caught up with him as he conceded a penalty to Wilfried Bony almost straight after half-time.

In Mamadou Sakho (currently injured, as is Jose Enrique), Rodgers seems to have found a solid long-term option for that left-sided centre-back slot, while Tiago Ilori’s performances on loan with Granada in La Liga are providing plenty of encouragement and excitement as a potential partner to Sakho.

Which leaves both full-back slots in need of strengthening. Even at full strength, a declining Glen Johnson and an inconsistent Jose Enrique are not title-winning caliber—and Jon Flanagan, enterprising and hardworking as he may be, most certainly doesn’t have the technical foundation to be a regular in a team challenging for Premier League honors.

Rodgers might also consider adding a right-sided centre-back this summer as he continues to groom Ilori for a first-team role.

 

Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Midfield: Steel and positioning required

At present, the Liverpool midfield is a patchwork quilt, featuring a makeshift holding midfielder who’s played off the striker in his peak years (because the starting defensive midfielder is injured), a box-to-box midfield runner who is maturing rapidly, and an increasingly deep-lying No. 10 whose impact and productivity can vary wildly between matches.

As a result, they appear to be impeccable and indestructible some weeks but lacking in quality and lethally vulnerable in others.

When the pressure is on and the pressing is turned up a notch, the midfield is capable of producing some truly scintillating (and from the opposition’s point of view, truly suffocating) performances: See the demolition jobs over Tottenham Hotspur, Everton and Arsenal.

But when their opponents also boast some steel, nerves, pace and pressing, things can turn sour very quickly for the Reds.

That’s why they have struggled against the likes of Southampton and Aston Villa this season, while Everton (at Goodison Park) and Swansea City have also posed trouble—simply by going at Liverpool with pace and with an intent to press all the space and time on the ball out of them.

It’s no surprise that two of Liverpool’s most convincing defeats this season came even when Lucas, the supposed specialist defensive midfielder, was in the team: Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in November, and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in December, both had too much quality, pace and attacking threat from the midfield.

Steven Gerrard’s reliability as the regista is also directly affected by his desire—and habit—to move up the pitch to stamp his influence and contribute to the attack, which he has made his trademark over the years in a Red shirt.

We considered Yann M’Vila in January when he was linked with a move to Anfield, per Jamie Sanderson at Metro. For a Liverpool side to boast a rounded midfield capable of dominating the league, Brendan Rodgers still needs a steely defensive presence in the middle of the park.

 

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Attack: Already on the verge of greatness

Up front, though, Liverpool should be all set. (The assumption is, of course, that a Liverpool team chasing the title regularly should also be playing regularly in the Champions League, and thus Luis Suarez will still be wearing Red.)

Their forward line has carried the entire team for most of the season, bailing the defence and midfield out by outscoring their mistakes.

Luis Suarez, topping the Premier League scoring charts with 23 goals this season, is quickly being closed down in the rankings by strike partner Daniel Sturridge, who has already hit 18. Add the newfound confidence of Raheem Sterling, and Liverpool have almost a complete strikeforce capable of rotating across the frontline to devastating effect.

If Sterling continues to develop as rapidly as he has since coming back into the side this season, the SSS front three of the future will not only cause problems in the Premier League but pose plenty of headaches around Europe as well.

 

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Verdict: Why not this season?

According to the Mirror‘s David Anderson, Brendan Rodgers has suggested that Liverpool are a year ahead of schedule in their quest to qualify for the Champions League.

Given the overall ability and depth of their squad, especially in comparison to the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal, Rodgers may well be right: His team may already be overachieving this season.

He will know that this squad, in any other Premier League season, would not be able to sustain a title challenge over a 38-match campaign, and that he will have to build strongly this summer to ensure that he does have a squad at his disposal that can do just that.

He will also need to continue ironing out the weaknesses and mistakes in his porous defence.

But why not a title challenge now? As things stand, with 11 matches left for the season, Liverpool are just four points off the top, and they arguably have a smoother and more balanced fixture list compared to their rivals.

We’ve looked at the medium to longer term, but this season, Liverpool are just a few less mistakes, a few strong performances against traditional bogey teams, and 11 more inspiring attacking displays from being a title-winning team.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

5 Reasons Brendan Rodgers Deserves a New Contract at Liverpool

With just 12 games to go until the 2013/14 Premier League season ends, Liverpool are fourth in the table and just four points shy of league leaders Chelsea, and Brendan Rodgers deserves major credit for his work steering the Reds towards the top of the table.

According to Jamie Sanderson of the Metro, club owner John W. Henry and his team at the Anfield helm have been suitably impressed by Rodgers’ work and are ready to offer him a new contract to keep him at Liverpool for the foreseeable future.

Just over 18 months into his three-year contract, Rodgers has overseen a transformation in the club’s fortunes but what exactly makes him an ideal candidate to lead the Reds for the next few years yet?

Here are five reasons Brendan Rodgers deserves a new contract at Liverpool. Enjoy, and have your say in the comments below.

 

Man Management

Man Management
Jon Super/Associated PressLiverpool’s current league position is impressive considering the strength of their immediate competitors but let’s not forget that it could’ve turned out differently had Luis Suarez left the club last summer.

Suarez’s public flirtations with a move to Arsenal and his outspoken desire to play in the Champions League left the Reds at a crossroads: Whether to cash in on their prized asset and use the funds to rebuild—again—or to stick it out and make him adhere to his contract.

On this front, the manager and his bosses stood united: Both Brendan Rodgers and John W. Henry were unanimous in stating that Suarez was to stay and spearhead Liverpool’s Champions League challenge, and so far, it seems to have paid off handsomely.

Rodgers has since admitted, via the Guardian, that the Suarez transfer saga has made him a better manager, but it’s by no means the only managerial feat he’s accomplished in his time at Anfield.

Consider the rejuvenations of Jordan Henderson—which itself has claimed many headlines this season—and Martin Skrtel, from being on the verge of leaving Liverpool to integral parts of the first team.

Consider his impeccable handling of Steven Gerrard’s ageing legs and moving of the legendary club captain to a more withdrawn role to keep his forceful and talismanic presence in the dressing room.

And consider his transforming of Daniel Sturridge, previously a Chelsea castoff, into one of the Premier League’s deadliest strikers, and the growing maturity seen in Suarez’s play.

Brendan Rodgers has proved to be a man who, above all results and points, seems to possess the man-management nous to transform a player’s career and inspire a young and energetic squad.

 

Youth Development

Youth Development
Sang Tan/Associated PressHand-in-hand with man management comes youth development, and as Raheem Sterling hit two goals against Arsenal in the Premier League last Sunday, Rodgers would’ve been forgiven if he’d felt some sort of vindication for his faith in the youngster all along.

Sterling’s maturation and evolution has perhaps been one of Rodgers’ most noteworthy achievements during his Anfield reign: Catapulted into the spotlight at just 17, he tailed off after the turn of the year in 2013, rested for the majority of the year to prevent burnout and to protect him from media scrutiny amid off-field controversies.

He returned to the fold and has blossomed with a renewed sense of purpose, intelligence and productivity.

But it’s not just Sterling who has benefited from Rodgers’ education and training: The aforementioned Jordan Henderson has grown into a leader in the Reds midfield, while the likes of Suso and Andre Wisdom also made themselves regulars in Rodgers’ Liverpool team last season, while Jon Flanagan’s resurgence has been a heartwarming story for local Liverpool fans.

With Suso and Wisdom out on loan to further their development and promising youngsters like Jordon Ibe and Joao Carlos Teixeira on the way, Rodgers has clearly made Liverpool a haven for young prospects and local talent, which has always been an Anfield tradition.

 

Economic Sustainability

Economic Sustainability
Jamie McDonald/Getty ImagesBesides investing in youth development, a strong emphasis of John W. Henry’s philosophy and long-term vision for the club, Brendan Rodgers has also worked impressively within the economic sustainability mandate from top management.

The club owners have long cited Arsenal as a model of long-term vision and financial success for Liverpool, and with Rodgers’ work and record in the transfer market, he seems the right person to carry on this overarching mission.

Starting from his first season, where he agreed to release mega-earners Maxi Rodriguez and Dirk Kuyt, Rodgers had already shown that he himself is a fan of sustainable development.

This was exemplified last summer as Liverpool let go of other players on big wages, including Joe Cole, Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll (all, incidentally, to West Ham United), while deciding instead to shift his wage budget towards a bumper new deal for Luis Suarez, signed just this December.

By making use of the loan market—though admittedly with limited success so far—and focusing instead on promising raw talent, Rodgers has kept the team young, refreshed and motivated—and not too taxing on the club’s coffers.

 

Style of Play

Style of Play
Mike Hewitt/Getty ImagesIt’s one thing to have a grand vision of how things should work and another to actually see it through and implement it.

Anyone who has taken the time to hear Brendan Rodgers talk about his vision and philosophy for football will have been suitably impressed by his mantra and single-minded focus—perhaps even slightly put off by his grandiose terminology.

But while his team took a few months before the message really permeated throughout the club and started showing in their playing style, when the Reds got going in the January of 2013, they suddenly looked a purring attacking machine, firing on all cylinders.

This was helped, of course, by the astute signings of Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho that month, but with them came goals, possession play and counterattacks of the highest order.

That Liverpool are currently just two goals off the Premier League’s highest-scoring team in Manchester City says plenty about Rodgers’ success in getting his ideals implemented by his team.

And that Arsenal were completely blown away in the first 20 minutes at Anfield last Saturday was a stunning realization of Rodgers’ vision to press, press and press.

A strong togetherness and camaraderie exhibited by the squad this season shows just how united Rodgers has built his team to be. They’ll have been drilled and driven to go relentlessly at opponents to attack and score—and most importantly, enjoy their football.

 

Overachieving Results

Overachieving Results
Paul Gilham/Getty ImagesAfter a disappointing league finish last season, Liverpool fans had at least witnessed the potential of a young Reds team going at full steam in the last few months.

But to envision a strong top-four challenge—not to mention being just a few points of the top of the tree in mid-February—was surely always going to be a step too far in Brendan Rodgers’ second season at the helm.

But not only has Rodgers gotten Liverpool to their current position—and top of the league on Christmas Day—he’s produced some eye-opening and jaw-dropping results along the way.

Regular four-goal hauls in the league no longer surprise, but they are relished. Tottenham Hotspur were handed a 5-0 beating at White Hart Lane, while Liverpool disposed of Everton 4-0 in the 222nd Merseyside derby and hammered Arsenal 5-1.

This season has already been an overachievement and as Rodgers inches ever closer to the Holy Grail that is the Champions League, he is at least deserving of a bonus as recognition of his impressive achievements.

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

Breaking Down Liverpool’s January Transfer Window Business

Breaking Down Liverpool's January Transfer Window Business
Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

And then there were none.

After so many rumors, so many names and so many hopes, the January transfer window passed by without any signings at Liverpool, and Brendan Rodgers will be tackling the remaining fixtures of the 2013/14 Premier League season with the squad he had at his disposal when the campaign started in August.

Amidst their injury crisis, Liverpool needed to strengthen, not only to make up for their absentees, but to inject quality into the first team and to better equip themselves for what promises to be a tough fight to finish in the top four.

With no new arrivals at Anfield and a quintet of names to leave the club, either on a permanent basis or on loan, the Reds’ shortages and problems have been left by the hierarchy to the summer, when surely there will be questions asked again of the transfer policy.

But for now, what can we make of their past month?

Here’s a breakdown of Liverpool’s January activities, featuring exits, loans, near misses, and an analysis of their transfer approach. Let us know your thoughts below.

 

Exits: Adam Morgan

Exits: Adam Morgan
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Only one player departed Anfield on a permanent basis this January, and that was young striker Adam Morgan to Championship club Yeovil Town.

Morgan had already been at Yeovil since late November, of course, having joined them on loan with an option to make the deal permanent in January.

Long tipped as one of the most natural finishers to emerge from the Liverpool academy in years, Morgan had made three first-team appearances for the Reds, with his senior debut coming as a 90th-minute substitute in an August 2012 Europa League clash against Hearts.

But with the goal-scoring form and telepathic partnership enjoyed by Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, and the development of Fabio Borini on loan at Sunderland, Morgan’s path to the first team looked ever trickier, and a permanent departure probably always looked the likeliest outcome.

 

Loans: Tiago Ilori, Ryan McLaughlin, Michael Ngoo, Craig Roddan

Loans: Tiago Ilori, Ryan McLaughlin, Michael Ngoo, Craig Roddan
Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

A total of four players went out on loan from Liverpool this January, but their long-term futures at the club may be in stark contrast after their temporary spells away from Anfield.

 

Tiago Ilori (Granada)

Having signed for Liverpool from Sporting Lisbon on deadline day last summer, Tiago Ilori joined La Liga side Granada on loan until the end of the season in January.

Highly regarded for his defensive capabilities and searing pace, Ilori failed to make a first-team appearance in his first six months with the Reds, which, given the injury crisis that struck the Liverpool central defence, was perhaps an indicator of his status as a player for the future.

A £7 million buy in the summer, Ilori now has the chance to justify his price tag and build up his senior-level match fitness at Granada. An important few months ahead of him.

 

Ryan McLaughlin (Barnsley)

While Ilori headed to Spanish shores, just like compatriot Suso, another defensive prospect joined Barnsley in the Championship.

Ryan McLaughlin made his first appearance for Liverpool in their 2012 summer tour of the USA, where he impressed against AS Roma legend Francesco Totti in a preseason friendly against the Serie A side.

Long tipped to be Liverpool’s next right-back for years to come and a potential heir to Glen Johnson down the right, McLaughlin now has a chance to show his ability week in, week out at Championship level and will be keen to impress any watching scouts from his parent club.

 

Michael Ngoo (Walsall)

While Ilori and McLaughlin are two hot prospects looking to gain first-team experience out on loan and force their way into the squad next season, two other loan departures will in all likelihood be the beginning of the end of their Liverpool careers.

Michael Ngoo, who scored four goals in the Scottish Premier League on loan at Hearts in 2013, joined League One side Walsall on loan this January, where he will be looking to pick himself up after an underwhelming spell at Yeovil Town was cut short earlier this season.

Like his reserve teammate Adam Morgan, Ngoo might not possess the required quality to star in a top-four-chasing Liverpool squad for seasons to come. If he impresses at Walsall, he might earn himself a permanent suitor come the end of his loan spell.

 

Craig Roddan (Accrington Stanley)

Young midfielder Craig Roddan joined Accrington Stanley on a month-long loan deal in January, which will also likely lead to a career continued outside of Anfield.

With a host of established names ahead of him in the first team and a few hot prospects coming through the academy, Roddan’s days as a Liverpool player look numbered as he will surely prepare to leave the club without ever having made a first-team appearance for the Reds.

League Two football will be quite a few levels down from what he’s been used to at Anfield.

 

Near Misses: Mohamed Salah, Yevhen Konoplyanka

Near Misses: Mohamed Salah, Yevhen Konoplyanka
Adam Nurkiewicz/Getty Images

For all the exits at the club, Liverpool’s January transfer window will be remembered for their much-publicized near misses that have caused consternation among Reds fans.

 

Mohamed Salah (FC Basel to Chelsea, £11 million)

Linked heavily with Liverpool before and during the first few weeks of the January window, Mohamed Salah is a pacy and exciting winger who would’ve added quality to Brendan Rodgers’ first team.

A protracted negotiation with FC Basel officials lasted two-and-a-half months, according to Salah’s agent Sascha Empacher via the Mirror, and ultimately ended in Chelsea snagging the Egyptian forward for around £13.5 million, with a down payment of £11 million, which Liverpool didn’t meet.

Rodgers has since stated that he was disappointed that Salah joined Chelsea and that the near miss was “difficult to take,” according to the Guardian. Yet another name missed out by the Reds to add to the high-profile summer contingent featuring Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Diego Costa and Willian.

 

Yevhen Konoplyanka (FC Dnipro)

Where the Liverpool hierarchy failed and dallied in their pursuit of Salah, they certainly didn’t in their subsequent approach for Yehven Konoplyanka of FC Dnipro, according to Rodgers via the Liverpool Echo.

This time, the player had passed a medical and agreed personal terms on deadline day, but the bottleneck was instead at the refusal of Dnipro’s owner to sign the relevant paperwork.

While Dnipro and Liverpool’s versions of the confusing saga predictably differ, the same Echo article states that they have seen paperwork confirming a full fee transfer more than two hours before the transfer deadline.

Unlike Salah, though, Konoplyanka didn’t end up moving to another club, and Rodgers has refused to rule out another approach for the Ukrainian winger this summer. Better luck next time?

 

Approach: Top-Heavy and Too Little, Too Late

Approach: Top-Heavy and Too Little, Too Late
Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

From their near misses, we can observe that Liverpool’s top transfer priorities for January wasn’t to shore up their shaky defence or a thin midfield, but rather to strengthen up front: Both Salah and Konoplyanka are wingers that would have brought pace, dribbling, vision and goals from the flanks.

Whether this was because of Brendan Rodgers’ famous fondness for attacking football and desire to add to an already fearsome strikeforce, a curious lack of recognition of their need to reinforce a defence and midfield low on numbers and world-class quality, or simply a lack of available targets, we’ll never know.

But what we do know is that Liverpool took too long in securing their primary transfer targets, leaving Salah to opt for Chelsea and Konoplyanka to end up an opportunity missed.

The long time it took for Liverpool to negotiate with FC Basel led to frustration from Salah’s camp, while that in turn led to a late, late move for Konoplyanka that no doubt also frustrated the Dnipro hierarchy.

The result? A fruitless January transfer window that had promised so much but in the end delivered so little.

 

Conclusion: Massive Improvements Needed

Conclusion: Massive Improvements Needed
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

In evaluating Liverpool’s transfer record, while taken in isolation this January was disappointing, we must give credit to the business done last summer and especially last January.

While it’s fair to say that the Reds’ transfer record during Brendan Rodgers’ time hasn’t been stellar, the unequivocal success of Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho, added to the encouraging signs shown by Simon Mignolet, Mamadou Sakho and at times Joe Allen, means that there is still the right eye for a player and a transfer fee somewhere in the upper echelons of the Anfield club.

The biggest ramification of an underwhelming and frustrating January transfer window has to be that Liverpool have to approach the season-end run-in with the same squad they’ve had all season, accounting for injury losses.

Now it’s down to Rodgers’ man and squad management to see Liverpool solidify their hold on their current fourth place.

If he does and the club are able to use the funds set aside for January transfers in the summer with Champions League football in their arsenal, then it could prove to be a winter well spent.

The flipside, though, is what’s worrying.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

A Comprehensive Half-Term Report on Liverpool’s 2013/14 Premier League Season

After their 2-0 home win over Hull City to start the New Year off with three points, Liverpool are now fourth in the Premier League table with 39 points from 20 games, and just over halfway into their quest for a return back to the Champions League.

All told, it’s been an encouraging season for Brendan Rodgers’ men so far, and with the prolific Luis Suarez in their ranks, the Anfield side currently boast the second highest goal difference in England’s top flight with +23 (46 scored, 23 conceded).

Most Reds fans—indeed, probably including the Liverpool management and players—would have taken fourth in the league at the start of 2014 if it could’ve been offered to them at the start of the season, yet how do they stand for the rest of the season?

In the following 10 slides you’ll find a comprehensive half-term report on Liverpool’s season halfway into the 2013/14 Premier League campaign, where we’ll assess different aspects of the club’s performance thus far, before arriving at a prediction on how far the Reds can go this season.

Enjoy, and give us your take in the comments below.

 

Formation and Playing Style

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Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesBrendan Rodgers came to Liverpool in the summer of 2012 with a well-known fondness for a 4-3-3 formation favoring quick, short passes and constant movement of the ball. His Liverpool team showed unfamiliarity with his new methods and thus got the 2012/13 season off to a slow start.

A year on, his team roared to a perfect start to their Premier League campaign in a more familiar 4-2-3-1 formation, with Daniel Sturridge leading the line as lone striker in Luis Suarez’s continued absence due to suspension. Sturridge was to score his side’s first three goals of the season in three consecutive 1-0 wins.

Those three victories over Stoke City, Aston Villa and Manchester United were achieved in stark contrast to Rodgers’ slick possession-dominant style, as they reverted to defence first in the second halves and ground out the wins. A case of warming up to the new season, perhaps, but the Reds have only achieved three clean sheets in the league since then.

As Suarez returned in brilliant form, Rodgers encountered a selection dilemma, and eventually opted for a 3-5-2 to accommodate his free-scoring strikers and also take advantage of his strength in numbers in central defence.

Right when this surprise 3-5-2 formation was suggested as the Liverpool way of the future, Daniel Sturridge got injured, leading Rodgers to switch back to his favored 4-3-3, with Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling flanking Suarez as the central striker. This was the start of a scintillating personal campaign for Suarez that has seen the No. 7 score 20 goals in just 15 league games thus far, in the process becoming the fastest player to hit the 20-goal mark.

All this was achieved with a new withdrawn regista role for Steven Gerrard, who played alongside Lucas and provided a newly revitalized Jordan Henderson with the platform to charge forward. New signings Iago Aspas and Victor Moses both tried and failed the No. 10 role, while Coutinho has taken up a place on the left cutting in to support Suarez.

Gerrard’s relatively pedestrian contribution in the side could have been considered an antithesis to Rodgers’ all-action style, but his long balls and set-piece delivery in turn led to goals in every manner possible: Liverpool, having picked up a reputation for being weak defending set pieces, also became known for their goal-scoring prowess from free kicks and corners. (Luis Suarez’s deadly finishing from free kicks outside the box also contributed.)

When Gerrard himself was injured in the beginning of December and Joe Allen was fit enough to return to the starting XI, Liverpool began to transform into something more akin to a Rodgers staple. A midfield trio of Lucas, Henderson and Allen, while remaining in the 4-3-3 formation, pressed and harried opponents into losing possession, thereby sticking to Rodgers’ “death by football” mantra, and looks to be Liverpool’s image in the medium to long term, especially when Gerrard eventually calls time on his career.

In just six months at Anfield, we witnessed transformations and progress in Liverpool’s tactical setup and playing style while the points continued to be picked up. We’ll have more on each area of the field and Liverpool’s progress from last season in the coming slides.

 

Transfers

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Jan Kruger/Getty ImagesFor players who joined the club in the summer, find our grades and analyses on how they’ve done in their first six months at Anfield in our guide here, where we assess them on value for money, impact and potential.

We’ll cover most of the first-team players in the following few slides focusing on the Liverpool defence, midfield and attack.

 

Defence

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Clive Rose/Getty ImagesOne of the stories of Liverpool’s season thus far is the return to prominence of Martin Skrtel—if prominence can be measured by first-team starts.

Since his return against Manchester United early in the season, Skrtel has been a fixture in Brendan Rodgers’ starting XI, having made 18 appearances this season already with two goals to his name.

While he enjoyed a resurgence in form for a few months, in recent weeks he has committed a number of defensive errors—not least in the buildup to Samuel Eto’o’s winning goal against Chelsea on December 29—that have largely been glossed over. Questions will continue to arise of his blatant shirt-pulling in the box, as well as of the relative lack in vocal leadership and on-field organization when Skrtel is playing.

Alongside Skrtel, Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho have taken turns as Rodgers’ starting left-sided centre-back with mixed results, as Agger—despite having been awarded the vice-captaincy in the summer after Jamie Carragher’s retirement—hasn’t been able to find the consistency and form that previously made him an Anfield icon.

Sakho, on the other hand, established himself as first choice over Agger prior to his hamstring injury sustained at Stamford Bridge. In Sakho’s absence over the coming few weeks, however, Agger will have a chance to reestablish his place in the starting line-up. If he manages to sustain his performance against Hull City on New Year’s Day, Rodgers may well have more to think about when Sakho returns.

On the right flank, Glen Johnson has been ever-present, but sadly out of sorts at the moment, having put in a series of lethargic and uninspiring performances in recent weeks. A lack of genuine competition in the right-back slot hasn’t helped, but Rodgers will surely continue to look at Martin Kelly’s fitness and form to see when would be a good time to reintroduce him for some much needed competition to Johnson.

Jose Enrique had started to enjoy an improvement in his form at left-back before he was ruled out with a lengthy injury layoff in November. Jon Flanagan, a right-back by trade, came into the side after on-loan Aly Cissokho failed to assert himself, and the academy graduate grabbed the headlines with a standout performance in the Merseyside derby and an exciting first-ever senior goal in the 5-0 rout of Tottenham Hotspur. Cissokho’s decent display against Hull after Flanagan himself was injured will have been encouraging—and a relief.

Overall, Liverpool’s defensive record this season speaks for itself: A total of 23 goals conceded, just over a goal a game—with just six clean sheets—is not good enough, though an all-conquering strikeforce has rendered it a lesser concern for the time being.

Their proneness to concede from set pieces, as well as questioning positioning on counter-attacks—not helped by a gaping central midfield hole—will be two key defensive issues for Rodgers and his backroom team to iron out for the second half of the season.

 

Midfield

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Paul Thomas/Getty ImagesAh, the midfield—so important to the Rodgers philosophy and Liverpool’s style of play.

Before we elaborate further, we must first recognize the work and rise of Jordan Henderson at Liverpool Football Club. Just a year ago, Henderson had the choice of continuing his career at Fulham or fighting for his career at Anfield. He picked the latter, and Rodgers has been impressed enough to give him almost a permanent starting spot in his first XI.

Put simply, Henderson has blossomed. There is a newfound confidence, a refreshing swagger in his play, while he has been able to put his incredible work rate to good use in pressuring and harrying his opponents.

His passing has been positive, and his running in the advanced midfield position has been direct and threatening. If he adds the finish and the final ball to his game, Liverpool fans may finally forgive his £16 million price tag.

Alongside Henderson, another midfielder to flourish recently is Joe Allen, who is enjoying a new lease of life in his “second stint” at Anfield, if we can call it that after a lengthy injury layoff following a mixed half-season last year.

Having returned to the line-up after Gerrard’s own injury, Allen has upped his game considerably following a painful miss at Goodison Park and has become an integral part of the dynamic, interchanging midfield now delighting fans week in, week out.

And like Henderson, Allen needs to work on his composure in front of goal. As the midfield unit progressively moves forward on each attack, every midfielder has a chance to break through and arrive in the box. They need to take their goal-scoring chances.

Further back, Steven Gerrard and Lucas have had mixed seasons thus far. A common criticism leveled at the Reds this season is that their midfield has the tendency to implode against quick and powerful opponents, as was evidenced against Southampton, Arsenal and Chelsea. Both Gerrard and Lucas do not have the legs or the positional awareness to hold the midfield, and thus the central areas are badly exposed, especially against counterattacks.

Gerrard has contributed three goals and six assists in his 16 Premier League appearances this season, which suggests that he still has a big part to play at his club, but may not be a good fit in the Liverpool blueprint going forward. Lucas, meanwhile, may find his importance diminished and first-team status affected if Rodgers does sign a defensive midfielder in January.

In the first half of the 2013/14 season, we’ve seen a few different identities, as we laid out in the first slide on formation and playing style. The changes and variances are all anchored in and affected by the midfield: Gerrard’s presence allows for a more varied approach but with more potential to be overwhelmed, while the recent Lucas-Allen-Henderson combination gives Liverpool a more relentless image.

It will be interesting to see when Rodgers decides to use which option when all of his charges are back to full fitness.

 

Attack

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Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesIt would be fairer to start this section with Daniel Sturridge, who got Liverpool through the first couple of months of the season, but 2013/14 at Anfield has been all about one man: Luis Suarez.

Suarez, having publicly flirted with an exit from the club in the summer, was forced to buckle down, and buckle down he has. Not only that: He’s improved on almost every aspect of his play and seemingly on his attitude as well. A devastating improvement on his finishing has seen him rocket towards the summit of the Premier League scoring charts, setting records along the way.

In addition to becoming one of the most feared strikers in the world, Suarez has also kept his hardworking style, which makes him Liverpool’s defender from the front and an important component of a relentless, pressing unit. It’s just as well that they managed to sign him on a new and improved contract extension in December.

But before Suarez came back with aplomb, Sturridge was the one carrying the Liverpool team. With nine goals and two assists in just 12 league games, Sturridge has enjoyed a fruitful season as well, carrying on his form from last season—just not as stellar and exhilarating as Suarez.

A rapidly maturing striker in his own right, Sturridge will likely return to first-team action in January, giving Rodgers a tactical dilemma and opponents all the more reason to fear the Reds.

But Liverpool fans had been looking forward to Sturridge’s return since the confirmation of his injury layoff, so why would it give Rodgers a dilemma? The answer lies in Raheem Sterling, who has come back into the first team and showed signs of continued development and growth with a series of exciting displays on the right of the frontline.

Sterling’s pace, trickery and direct running have caused opponents all sorts of problems since his own return to the first team, and his three goals in 15 appearances show that he is starting to add the final touch to his impressively all-rounded game, something that fellow attacker Philippe Coutinho also needs to work on.

It was always going to be hard for Coutinho to reprise his excellent first half-season at Anfield after signing for Liverpool last January, as opponents would have had six months to figure him out. With that said, while he has shown the vision, creativity and pace that were so threatening last season, he has yet to hit the same heights. A paltry sum of two goals and two assists this season sums up his difficulties, though he has largely been played on the left instead of in his favored No. 10 position.

With the league’s second most prolific scoring record, Liverpool have other areas than their forward line to worry about for the rest of the season. Their existing attacking setup will continue to deliver.

 

Strengths

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Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesSo with the lengthy summaries of each on-field department now covered, let’s move towards Liverpool’s strengths in their first six months of the season.

Without a doubt, Liverpool’s set piece mastery needs to be mentioned. For a team that struggles so regularly in defending set pieces, their prowess attacking form is surprising and quite extraordinary. Nonetheless, all three of their regular starting central defenders—and, of course, Suarez and Sturridge—have scored from set pieces, largely due to the world-class deliveries of Steven Gerrard.

The evolution in Liverpool’s approach play also deserves a mention here, as they have started to dominate games completely and blow away their opponents: Their “goals scored” column is so emphatic because they have really honed their craft going forward this season. They have now scored 87 goals in their past 38 league games, 10 more than their highest-scoring full season in the Premier League era.

A product—or perhaps the foundation—of such fearsome attacking play is their excellent home record this season. Anfield has well and truly regained its “Fortress” moniker, as the Reds have stormed to nine wins out of 10 at home this season, scoring 27 goals and conceding just six in the process. Their 27 points from a possible 30 at home this season is just behind Manchester City (30/30) and Chelsea (28/30).

Finally, we must devote some column space to the youngsters at Rodgers’ disposal: A young goalkeeper in Simon Mignolet and a future star in Mamadou Sakho; the pace, industry and massive improvement of Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling; and the undoubted quality in Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge. This is a squad whose full potential lies ahead of them and whose young age needs to be regarded as a strong asset.

 

Weaknesses

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Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesThere have been a few weaknesses of note evident in their season thus far, however.

Just as we started our coverage on Liverpool’s strengths with their set piece prowess, so we must highlight their vulnerability at defending set pieces and crosses into the box. The unconvincing defending and unsure positioning in such situations have caused panic to spread among supporters and manager alike in those situations—Rodgers had already outlined his concerns back in October, according to the Liverpool Echo.

We’ve touched on this in our slide on the midfield as well, but it bears repeating here: The gaps that open in the midfield area due to positional errors, pedestrian pace and a lack of specialist defensive midfielders can hurt Liverpool badly, especially on the counterattack.

Steven Gerrard’s return from injury may be a double-edged sword and must be managed carefully by Rodgers, who has seen a revolution in his midfield performances during the captain’s absence.

For a side that possesses such a fearsome scoring record and frontline, Liverpool could do with further improvement in their finishing across the squad. While this obviously doesn’t apply to Suarez and Sturridge, the rest of the team needs major work in this area.

Allen, Henderson, Coutinho and Sterling have all missed absolute sitters this season. It’s tempting to think where Liverpool would be at now, especially in terms of goal difference, had they scored at least some of them.

 

Results

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Jamie McDonald/Getty ImagesOn to results, an area that has seen a massive improvement over last season, largely because of the improvement in Liverpool’s attack.

A prolific stretch that started in October and lasted all the way through December saw the Reds score 23 goals in just six home games, while a five-goal hammering of Tottenham on December 4 will go down as one of their best Premier League performances of all time.

It’s not for no reason that Liverpool finish round 20 in fourth place: They’ve simply outplayed opposition they’ve needed to beat and regained that useful habit of picking up points in winnable games on paper. An overall record of 12 wins, three draws and five losses in 20 games—including a few major refereeing controversies—is more than admirable.

So it is on those five losses that we will focus, but the surprising thing—and the silver lining—is that they can easily be remedied.

We’ve mentioned the Southampton and Arsenal losses in previous sections; hopefully further reinforcement to Liverpool’s midfield down the line will improve their record against teams strong in the middle of the park.

Lee Mason and Howard Webb’s officiating against Manchester City and Chelsea respectively drew widespread criticism from both Rodgers himself and the media at large. While Liverpool’s performance at Stamford Bridge wasn’t quite up to scratch—again, the midfield was at issue—their excellent display at the Etihad Stadium should have yielded at least a point, but for the referee’s whistle.

Which leaves the defeat to Steve Bruce’s Hull City, at the KC Stadium on December 1, as perhaps the lone outlier. The simple explanation is that Bruce’s side enjoyed a fine result and Rodgers’ men had an off day, and it wouldn’t be too far off as Liverpool just didn’t turn up for the match. A disappointing day out for the Reds, which fortunately hasn’t been replicated for the remaining matches until this point.

Liverpool quite clearly need further strengthening to their ranks, starting from this January, but their results thus far have highlighted areas they need to reinforce. Targeting those improvement needs should be able to bring about improved results for the remaining 18 games.

 

Progress from Last Season

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Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesTo gauge Liverpool’s position at the halfway point of the 2013/14 season, besides evaluating it against their immediate rivals and in the context of just the past six months, a useful barometer would be where they stood this time last season.

On New Year’s Day 2013, with 20 league games played, Liverpool found themselves in 10th place on just 28 points, with a goal difference of +5. A quick comparison to their current picture (fourth, 39 points, GD +23) shows just how far they’ve come in the past year.

Brendan Rodgers deserves massive credit for this turnaround in results, as does the transfer committee for securing two of Liverpool’s most exciting transfer signings in recent history last January in Coutinho and Sturridge, who have been instrumental in the Reds’ growth this calendar year.

Keeping Suarez in the summer was perhaps more important than any signing they would’ve been able to make, as he’s almost singlehandedly fired Liverpool to their lofty position this season, but even besides the impressive increase in goals scored, the maturity in their overall play—particularly in recent weeks with Rodgers’ blueprint midfield—has been evident.

No wonder they’re mulling a new contract extension for Rodgers himself (c/o Mirror).

 

Potential and Prediction for the Season

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Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesWith a side capable of switching formations at will and changing attacking approaches when required, Brendan Rodgers has at his disposal a flexible, versatile and well-drilled unit that has the world at their feet and their best years ahead of it.

The key is to unlock his squad’s potential at the earliest opportunity possible, as this unpredictable and topsy-turvy 2013/14 Premier League season represents perhaps Liverpool’s best chance yet of getting back into the top four—perhaps their best chance in the coming years.

An impressive and encouraging first half of the season will need to be at least replicated for the next five months for them to have a shot at the Champions League places, but judging from the way they clicked after January last year, we can’t possibly put a limit on what they can achieve.

The key, then, is to have a productive January transfer window that will bring important new reinforcements to the squad capable of instantly upgrading the quality of the starting XI, which will be no easy task in itself.

20 games in, they’re just six points behind league leaders Arsenal, and just three games ago they entered Christmas Day on top of the tree. If they can build on their first-half successes and iron out their weaknesses, who knows how far Liverpool can go?

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.