Tag Archives: brendan rodgers

Time for Liverpool to Rethink How to Manage Steven Gerrard’s Later Years

Two of the defining components of England’s bygone Golden Generation experienced contrasting fortunes in the Premier League last weekend: While Frank Lampard scored a dramatic late equalizer after coming off the bench against old club Chelsea, Steven Gerrard was given the runaround by former Liverpool flop Stewart Downing against West Ham United.

After what has transpired over the last few months—Lampard being released from his contract at Stamford Bridge after 13 glorious seasons and becoming Chelsea’s all-time record goalscorer, and Gerrard being nominated for the Football Writers’ Player of the Year award after his pivotal role in Liverpool’s outstanding season—the contrast couldn’t have been bigger.

While England’s dismal display at the Brazil World Cup ultimately led to two of their greatest-ever midfielders announcing their international retirement later in the summer, it seems that two modern legends of the Premier League era have since embarked on drastically different career paths.

With Frank Lampard adopting a role as a key squad player at Manchester City and making an instant impact in the penalty box on Sunday, and Gerrard finding himself targeted week after week as the deepest-lying playmaker in the Liverpool midfield, perhaps it’s time for the Reds to rethink how they are and should be managing the final years of Steven Gerrard’s career.

 

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

 

 

Steven Gerrard, the Impact Sub?

We’ve seen this with Ryan Giggs in the previous few years and, increasingly over the past few seasons, with Frank Lampard at Chelsea and now at Manchester City: As players enter the final years of their careers, their game time needs to be managed so they can stay at peak fitness and still remain productive when they do take to the field.

This is especially true for players relying on explosive pace and power to conjure up split-second moments of game-changing magic. While Gerrard has never been the pacy wing wizard Giggs used to be in his prime, the Liverpool skipper made his name with his lung-bursting runs from midfield, barnstorming drives into the penalty area and blockbuster shots from long range.

There’s nothing wrong with Brendan Rodgers pushing Gerrard deeper in the midfield to take up his current deep-lying playmaker position per se; the problem is that at 34 years of age, Gerrard is still completing 90-minute games week in, week out.

And with the Champions League now back in Liverpool’s schedule, that is simply unsustainable.

After a tough win at home against unfancied Bulgarian champions Ludogorets Razgrad in the Champions League, Gerrard’s 90 minutes at Upton Park was unsavory at best, depressing at worst. Compared to leaving his midfield area glaringly vacant for opponents to storm into time and again, getting overrun by Stewart Downing is already a less concerning headline.

Rodgers’ toughest mandate during his time as Liverpool manager arguably isn’t to have gotten the Reds back into the European big time; it was to phase Gerrard out in the right way and to manage the latter stages of his career.

Recent injuries to Joe Allen and Emre Can have forced his hand, but Liverpool fans should reasonably expect to see Gerrard feature more as an impact substitute as the rest of the season unfolds.

Only as an impact substitute, or at least a lessened status as a squad player, will Gerrard’s career really be prolonged, and not hastened towards becoming the main liability in the middle of the park for Liverpool.

 

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

 

 

Making Use of Gerrard’s Versatility

One factor that should influence Rodgers’ planning and thinking over the next couple of seasons is the fact that he is one of the most complete midfielders to ever have come out of England. In that regard, the likes of Ryan Giggs and Frank Lampard don’t even come close.

It’s one thing to have a skill set comparable to Andrea Pirlo’s (even if his positional discipline and tactical understanding are inferior); it’s quite another to have won the PFA Player of the Year award playing as an unorthodox right-winger, to have struck up a world-class partnership with Fernando Torres as a second striker and to have influenced the biggest stage of all—the Champions League final—as a makeshift right-wing-back.

Now, there is no need for Gerrard to fill in at right-back—Liverpool are comfortably sorted at the moment with Javi Manquillo proving to be an astute acquisition and a number of players capable of assuming the role—and indeed the Reds’ optimal 4-4-2 diamond formation doesn’t allow for a right-winger.

Yet as Rodgers clearly still seems to regard Gerrard as the one “undroppable” player in his team—often substituting his midfield partners when Liverpool are in need of a change in formation or approach, before he takes that drastic step to drop his captain from the starting XI and turn him into an impact substitute—there is another blueprint that he can reference.

There’s no finer example than Roberto Mancini’s favorite tactical switch during his reign at the Etihad Stadium: Sending on a defensive midfielder (often Nigel de Jong), releasing Yaya Toure’s defensive shackles and pushing him forward into a free attacking-midfield role.

That Rodgers doesn’t have a world-class defensive midfielder at his disposal is perhaps down to the fact that he regards Gerrard as his optimal regista sitting at the base of his midfield, with Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen providing protection and help around him. Emre Can’s arrival, however, is interesting and could potentially pose an alternative for the Liverpool manager.

While not a specialist defensive midfielder, Can—who ironically has a skill set most comparable to Yaya Toure’s out of Liverpool’s midfield contingent—has more than enough to offer in terms of steel, physicality, pace and defensive nous. All Rodgers needs to do, when Can returns from injury and if he starts on the bench, is send him on and let Gerrard rekindle his magic with a free-scoring forward.

Only this time it’s Daniel Sturridge.

 

Phil Cole/Getty Images

 

 

A Case for Gerrard the Forward

It’s interesting that Rafael Benitez, the manager credited with realizing Gerrard’s potential as a devastating attacker rather than a controlled midfielder, stated during Gerrard’s peak years that he saw him becoming a striker later in his career, according to The Sun (via Emily Benammar in the Telegraph). Rodgers, on the other hand, has suggested he could become a right-sided center back, per BBC Sport.

Both suggestions reflect Gerrard’s universality as the complete modern footballer, to the extent that two managers who have reinvented his game can’t even agree on whether it’s his attacking game or defensive abilities that make him stand out.

But while he has always been known as much for his match-winning piledrivers as he is for his last-ditch tackles and thunderous challenges, Gerrard has always been afforded the freedom to do essentially whatever he wanted, wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted. It’s for this reason he so frequently drove into the box in his heyday to score important goals.

That Gerrard reserves his best performances when a select duo is played as his midfield colleagues—now usually and preferably Henderson and Allen—means that Rodgers needs to tailor the entirety of Liverpool’s approach play to Gerrard by shaping the midfield, and thus forward line, around his strengths and deficiencies.

Without his famous acceleration, pace and power, Gerrard is required, perhaps more so than ever, to sit in front of his defence, command his midfield, control his area and remain positionally disciplined, which is a huge ask of a player who has always turned up to save the day when his team has needed him to.

That sounds all right until he ventures forward at his own will, leaving his area and the defence exposed—while without having the pace or stamina to track back to atone for a positional error.

Slotting Gerrard into a more advanced position akin to his prime might not see him replicate his majestic runs, but it would allow Rodgers to address a badly imbalanced midfield with more steel and defensive presence at the base, while retaining his captain’s famous vision, passing and game-changing shooting ability closer to the opponent’s goal.

After all, Gerrard is arguably the second most natural finisher currently in the first team—behind Daniel Sturridge—while the timing of his arrivals into the box have seen many a late winner, and his heading has long been an underrated facet to his attacking game.

In short, he is one of Liverpool’s few complete attacking weapons.

Moving him forward, playing him selectively and using him wisely in the wider context of the whole Liverpool team would reverse his rapid decline—and who knows, maybe Liverpool fans will be able to start cheering yet another superhuman winner from Steven Gerrard again. It’s been a while since we’ve seen one of those.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Why Fabio Borini Should Be Ahead of Rickie Lambert in Liverpool Pecking Order

For their last two fixtures, Liverpool have turned to another Italian striker for further support up front in the second half. Not Mario Balotelli, but ex-Anfield outcast Fabio Borini.

It’s a considerable turnaround in fortunes for Borini, given that he found himself in limbo after rejecting a last-minute summer move to Queens Park Rangers, according to Chris Bascombe of theTelegraph. Liverpool’s earlier pursuit of Loic Remy and subsequent signing of Balotelli suggested that Brendan Rodgers had other options in mind ahead of Borini, who looked to be on his way out of Anfield.

Yet circumstances have fallen into place for Borini to perhaps salvage a career for himself at Liverpool. Daniel Sturridge’s injury, sustained while on international duty with Roy Hodgson’s England, has forced Rodgers to rely on his bench options.

Liverpool’s first signing of the summer may have been Rickie Lambert, but the current Reds setup almost demands that Borini should move ahead of the local Liverpudlian in the pecking order—and crucially, Rodgers seems to think so as well.

 

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

 

 

Rickie Lambert, a Poor Man’s Mario Balotelli

When Lambert was recruited from Southampton, where he enjoyed a stellar career and became an England international in the process, it was clear that Rodgers was looking for something different to the Luis Suarez-Daniel Sturridge pairing that was so successful last season.

Lambert brought an interesting combination of strength, aerial prowess, composure and technique to the forward line that the Reds perhaps didn’t have last season, and he would’ve provided a useful outlet who could turn out to be one of the bargains of the offseason.

Rodgers’ highly public pursuit of Loic Remy after Suarez’s departure for Barcelona suggested that he was on the lookout for a striker with pace and direct running who would be useful on the break and alongside Sturridge, and who would further strengthen Lambert’s status in the squad as the go-to bench option up front.

Yet his subsequent chasing of Wilfried Bony—similar in style and mould to Lambert—and the eventual signing of Mario Balotelli has since moved him down the pecking order, as Rodgers now has a better and more established version of Lambert at his disposal.

Sure, Lambert made a difference when he came off the bench in the late win against Southampton on the opening day of the season, but with Balotelli firmly instilled as first-choice at Anfield, things don’t look too good for Lambert.

 

Michael Regan/Getty Images

 

 

Fabio Borini’s Strengths as a Sub

And what Fabio Borini brings to the table makes him an ideal option to change things up—not just from Liverpool’s perspective, but against tired legs in the opposition when he comes off the bench in the second half.

Borini’s effervescent running—not many people can realistically argue against his work rate—and excellent attacking positioning makes him a nuisance to deal with from a defensive point of view. In this sense, his effect may be compared to Southampton’s Shane Long, who also doesn’t boast a prolific scoring record but is prized for his contributions to the team up front.

Indeed, what Liverpool have been missing this season is Suarez’s immense work rate from a deeper-lying forward position, as Rodgers looks to continue instilling a similar work ethic into new recruit Balotelli, now tasked with that same role, according to David Maddock of the Mirror.

Borini’s good grasp of positioning and ability to get into the game with his running, regardless of his personal form, means that he gets into good positions to threaten the opposition goal—see his header against Ludogorets that forced goalkeeper Milan Borjan into a fine save not long after he came off the bench—and has the legs to stretch the play and occupy defenders.

Contrast this with Lambert’s more languid style of play: Speed has never been a hallmark of his game, while he relies more on a strong understanding of space to create and finish, rather than being a nuisance to defenders, which is now essential to Rodgers’ blueprint at Anfield.

This makes it hard for Lambert to influence the game just by being on the pitch, especially after coming on as a substitute and requiring time to settle into the rhythm of the game.

 

Jon Super/Associated Press

 

 

Two up Top Is Now Indisputably Liverpool’s Best System

A summer of attacking midfield signings in Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic to add to an already strong collection including Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling hinted at Rodgers’ interest in potentially exploring a 4-2-3-1 system at Anfield, which he has done in the first few weeks of the season.

Yet this was perhaps also an enforced switch, with Sturridge’s injury rendering Balotelli as their only fit senior striker.

Unfortunately, Balotelli still has quite a way to go before he can match Suarez’s effect on the team from a work ethic standpoint, while the lack of penetration ahead of the midfield area has unsurprisingly seen a downturn in Coutinho’s form.

Perhaps Coutinho as the No. 10 works best when there is a Sturridge alongside Balotelli to stretch defences for the Brazilian playmaker to find space to launch his game-changing passes—and perhaps Sterling isn’t quite as cut out to play that off-the-shoulder striker furthest forward as he is as behind a front two.

Lambert’s similarity—or rather lack of a real differentiation in playing style—to Balotelli means that he is much less ideal as a partner for Balotelli rather than a direct replacement. What Balotelli and his team-mates are now crying out for is movement and running up front.

Step up Fabio Borini, who has it in his locker to make a difference. He did enough on loan at Sunderland last season for them to want to take him on a permanent basis this year but has decided to fight for his place at Liverpool.

Now is his chance to prove that he deserves to not only move ahead of Rickie Lambert in the pecking order at Anfield, but to push Rodgers’ first-choice front two for a starting place.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Why Mario Balotelli Will Be Better at Liverpool Than Manchester City

Mario Balotelli is back in England with Liverpool, and he’s still attracting headlines everywhere he goes.

Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Kenny Jackett had to take to the media to reject widespread suggestions on social media that Balotelli was involved in a clash during a behind-closed-doors friendly last week, via the Mirror.

Balotelli himself will be expecting more of the same rumor creation and spreading during his time at Anfield, as the media and fans continue to operate under the mythical persona that they have all combined to create.

But as he prepares to make his home debut in Red against Aston Villa this weekend, there are reasons to believe that while he will still be subject to constant scrutiny. Mario Balotelli will be a better player at Anfield than during his time with Manchester City.

Here are five reasons why.

 

He’s Four Years Older

It seems as if Mario Balotelli has been around forever. After all, we’ve heard all about his temper tantrums dating back to his days at Internazionale, his racism controversies during his time in Italy, then his folk legends at Manchester City.

That he has been in the spotlight since 2007 when he made his debut for Inter is a testament to his talent and potential, which led to Roberto Mancini giving him his debut at the Giuseppe Meazza.

When he arrived at City for £22.5 million, he brought a considerable reputation with him—yet he was only just 20 years old.

Four years on, Balotelli has become Italy’s starting striker, with a stint as AC Milan‘s starting striker sandwiched in between.

At just 24 years of age, Balotelli should finally come of age as a professional footballer, and he will be maturing and growing into his prime years at Liverpool.

 

A Young and Driven Dressing Room at Anfield

A Young and Driven Dressing Room at Anfield

Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

 

 

In the teams he has previously played for, Balotelli was one of the most well-known, probably attracting the most controversy. Yet he was undisputedly one of the youngest stars on the team.

At Anfield, he will be playing with a group that will be hitting their peak roughly at the same time as he will—the likes of Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho, Lazar Markovic, Emre Can, Alberto Moreno and Javi Manquillo, all starting options in Brendan Rodgers’ team, are all younger than Balotelli, while Daniel Sturridge, Jordan Henderson and Mamadou Sakho are all in the same age bracket.

Last season was evidence that Rodgers has cultivated a driven and confident dressing room culture at Anfield, and Balotelli will be taking to the training field every day with colleagues all eager to prove themselves as professional footballers.

With an Anfield crowd as adoring and patient towards new and young stars as they are famous for, he will know that time is on his side at Liverpool even when the world of Mario Balotelli seems to always be spinning much faster outside football.

 

He Can Concentrate on His Own Game

Upon Balotelli’s signing in late August, his agent Mino Raiola stated that his client wasn’t born to be a leader, and that he had “searched for a team where he can be an important player without being asked to lead,” according to the Daily Mail.

Often treated as the main man of AC Milan’s attack, coinciding with an alarming slide in the Serie A powerhouse’s fortunes and performances, Balotelli is also at an “all or nothing” stage at his age and period in his career, according to Raiola.

That Rodgers has actively looked to recruit leaders and club captains in his transfer business will not have been lost on Raiola or Balotelli himself, and the Italian striker will be surrounded by other vocal presences and leadership figures in the Anfield dressing room.

Raiola also stated that Steven Gerrard will protect him and allow him the freedom to concentrate on his own game, providing him a platform to excel at what he does best.

 

A Tactical Setup Allowing Him to Excel

A Tactical Setup Allowing Him to Excel

Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

 

 

And what Balotelli does best is excel as an all-round forward with strengths in almost all areas of the attacking game.

With Rodgers appearing to settle on a 4-4-2 diamond formation as his preferred setup for most weeks, Balotelli will be a regular starter alongside Sturridge with the excitingly talented Raheem Sterling supporting the attack behind them.

A Reds side coursing with pace, energy, composure and off-the-ball pressing sets a platform for a relentless attack to excel, and Sturridge has on many occasions shown that he is much more dangerous in a strike partnership than as a lone striker.

With Sturridge, Sterling and Co. providing the pace and ever-improving tactical intelligence to occupy opposition defences, Balotelli will be given the space and freedom to create and score goals.

 

Brendan Rodgers’ Tutelage

Despite records that Balotelli has enjoyed a decent strike rate so far in his professional career, critics are coming around to the fact that he is not all that potent in open play, with his composure from the penalty spot contributing to his goal tally.

Yet this is where Brendan Rodgers comes in, a manager who worked on Luis Suarez’s finishing and goal-scoring output, transforming him into one of the deadliest strikers in world football just a couple of seasons since he was derided for wasting Liverpool’s chances in Kenny Dalglish’s team.

Add to that Rodgers’ increasingly famous knack for providing the man management, motivation, technical and tactical coaching to resurrect players’ careers, turning them into potential superstars. This suddenly becomes a mouthwatering prospect for Liverpool fans.

At £16 million, an off-the-shelf Balotelli should already prove to be good value; if he thrives in the environment that Rodgers has created at Melwood and the feel-good optimism at Anfield, he might even be able to one-up his time at Manchester City.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

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.

Assessing the Battle for the Full-Back Slots at Liverpool

With the signing of Javier Manquillo and the impending arrival of Alberto Moreno, per The Guardian‘s Andy Hunter, suddenly Liverpool look quite a bit more stacked in the full-back department than they did just a couple of weeks ago.

Manquillo and Moreno’s additions to Brendan Rodgers’ squad have been offset by the departure of Andre Wisdom on a season-long loan to West Bromwich Albion earlier this summer, as well as the likely exit of Martin Kelly on a permanent transfer to Crystal Palace, according to Garry Doolan of the Daily Mail.

But with some much-needed strength and depth added to the full-back positions this summer, Rodgers finally has genuine options to choose this season for different contexts, systems and formations.

Let’s assess the battle for the full-back slots at Anfield ahead of the new campaign.

 

David Ramos/Getty Images

 

 

Manquillo and Moreno, Regular Starters

With Manquillo going straight into Rodgers’ starting lineup for Liverpool’s final preseason friendly against Borussia Dortmund, and Moreno apparently a big-money first-choice target for the left-back position, they will likely begin the season as starters at full-back.

While a single game for Liverpool—and just six for Atletico Madrid, his parent club, at the senior level—may not be conclusive of Manquillo‘s true ability and potential, what he did show against Dortmund reflected the qualities that he will bring to the Reds’ first team in the short to medium term.

He might not have Moreno’s searing speed and renowned attacking ability, but Manquillo‘s defensive solidity, as well as a good sense of timing when it comes to venturing forward, makes him a complete full-back capable of putting a shift in at both ends of the field.

Moreno’s attacking nous brings him further forward, promising to be a key part of the Reds attack, while his quickness and positional intelligence will allow him to make up for any ground lost while bombing up and down the flank.

As such, both Manquillo and Moreno offer much more than Jon Flanagan and Glen Johnson, who looked set to start the campaign in the first team before the arrivals of the Spanish full-backs.

 

Bob Leverone/Associated Press

 

 

Other Options and Formations

Flanagan’s limited technical ability unfortunately hampers his overall appeal—his maturing tactical understanding is offset by a lack of finesse on the ball—while Johnson’s erratic positioning and questionable work rate belies an evident technical accomplishment on the ball.

Behind both Flanagan and Johnson in the pecking order is Jose Enrique, who boasts an impressive physique and is more than a match for pacy forwards with his physicality, but he needs constant guidance on the pitch when it comes to positioning and the timing of his runs.

Together, they offer decent backup to Manquillo and Moreno, as well as tactical flexibility: With fewer defensive duties as a wing-back, Johnson would be an ideal option in a 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 variant, which would free him from a more rigid defensive position and let him attack down the flanks at will.

Flanagan, meanwhile, would be a very good option to come off the bench when in need of some backs-to-the-wall defending or to play alongside a more adventurous central defender on either flank—his versatility, along with Johnson’s, will prove useful over the course of the season.

Moreno’s attacking ability, meanwhile, is an ideal candidate for a left wing-back position, which means that in any such formation that requires two wing-backs to take on Liverpool’s attacking responsibilities down the flanks, Rodgers could turn to him and Johnson as his starters.

 

Adam Hunger/Associated Press

 

 

Time for the Backups to Prove Their Worth

What this offers is much healthier competition across the squad for the first-team places at Anfield and many more alternatives for Rodgers to choose from. With the Reds looking to challenge on all four fronts this season, having both strength and depth in the full-back department will be valuable and much welcomed.

Yet as Manquillo and Moreno look to establish their places in the first team alongside new signing Dejan Lovren in a new-look and overhauled defence, there is still plenty for Rodgers and his coaching staff to do if they are to get a leaky defence fixed and build a solid platform to support their midfield and attack at the back.

As Rodgers tries out his different options and combinations across the back four, while Manquillo and Moreno will likely feature as the regular first-team starters, the sheer number of games Liverpool will be playing this season allows Flanagan, Johnson and Enrique to show their manager what they’re capable of.

Flanagan’s remarkable resurgence may have been hampered by more esteemed and technically accomplished signings, while Johnson will need a season reminding all around Liverpool what he’s capable of at his peak. Enrique, as well, will need to prove that he’s much more than just brawn on the field.

This has been the hallmark of Liverpool’s summer-acquisition strategy so far: increase the strength and depth across the squad, while providing players ample opportunity to seize a chance to outshine their colleagues for a place in the team.

Rodgers may start the campaign with a few ideas in mind, but the message has been clear already throughout preseason: There are places up for grabs in this Liverpool team.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

10 Biggest Concerns for Brendan Rodgers Ahead of Liverpool’s New Season

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

Steven Gerrard’s Next Stage

 
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

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

Daniel Agger’s Role

 
Clive Mason/Getty Images

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.

Why Daniel Sturridge Will Continue to Flourish at Liverpool Without Luis Suarez

Since the departure of Luis Suarez to Barcelona was confirmed 10 days ago, the question on the lips of Liverpool fans has been: How can we cope without Suarez’s goals this season?

Which, in reality, translates to: Will Daniel Sturridge be enough to shoulder our goalscoring burdens this season?

With Brendan Rodgers active in the transfer market and securing a number of signings already at Anfield, the obvious lack of a proven goalscorer at the highest level is glaring and often prompts worried discussions.

Yet amid all the nerves and apprehension with which Liverpool fans consider that Suarez is one of the very best players in the world and replacing him is a tall order, there is one thing that they have overlooked.

The current squad-trumps-all setup at Liverpool provides the answer to their most burning question: Yes, Daniel Sturridge will continue to flourish at Liverpool without Luis Suarez.

 

 

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

 

Pace Coursing Through Anfield

A quick glance at Liverpool’s highlights and attacking play from last season shows the stunning number of goals they scored because of the pace coursing through their side.

And while Suarez was an excellent player on the break due to his pace, first touch, close control, creativity and one-on-one ability, not to mention his much-improved finishing under Brendan Rodgers, his departure will not affect the dynamic and quick nature of this Reds side.

Because his departure, in terms of pace, has already been offset (and arguably eclipsed) by the signing of Lazar Markovic from Benfica and the likely arrival of Loic Remy from Queens Park Rangers, as reported by BBC Sport. Both players showed their acceleration—and most of all, their attacking output at pace—with their respective clubs last season (Remy, of course, having spent the campaign on loan at Newcastle United).

Add these two speedsters to the already lightning-quick Raheem Sterling and Jordon Ibe, and this is a side with pace written all over it. Sterling will be looking to further stamp his authority on the Liverpool first team after a stellar first full season, and Ibe will have ample opportunity to make the step up to senior football over preseason.

It’s this speed and acceleration with which the Reds can play that makes Daniel Sturridge so dangerous: Whether he’s supporting a main striker (for the time being, Rickie Lambert) or leading a three-pronged attack himself, his ability to play off the shoulder of the last defender makes him a tough prospect for opponents.

Suarez’s departure has deprived Sturridge of a partner who can reliably and consistently deliver the unpredictable and whose individual talent will occupy more than one defender at a time, but across the forward positions Sturridge has already gained much more he can be working with.

 

 

Scott Heppell/Associated Press

 

All-Rounded Midfielders in Support

Behind Sturridge and his forwards and wingers, the Liverpool midfield has already featured some significant upgrades this offseason, with further additions likely to arrive at Anfield before the transfer window slams shut.

Already Rodgers has added the silky skills of Adam Lallana and the versatility and all-rounded skill set of Emre Can, both of whom will be adding vision, passing and pressing in equal measure to a tactically and positionally intelligent midfield contingent of Philippe Coutinho, Jordan Henderson, Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard.

The maturation of Coutinho from a stereotypical Brazilian No. 10 into a dominant No. 8 capable of bossing the midfield, with a newfound pressing mentality and his trademark flair and passing skills, has been nothing short of impressive. And there has already been enough made of Henderson and Allen’s contributions from both a central and a more advanced position in the midfield.

The potential of Can to become Liverpool’s very own resident box-to-box dynamo is surely mouthwatering to both his colleagues on the pitch and the fans in the stands, as will the prospect of even more seamless transitioning from defence into attack.

All of which will contribute to an overall attacking approach that will be designed to unleash the collective and electric talents of Liverpool’s forwards, and Sturridge is a key part of this exciting system designed to create as many goalscoring chances as possible.

Add the considerable all-round technical ability of Rickie Lambert, whose playmaking skills from centre-forward can be as productive and devastating as his midfield colleagues’, and Sturridge surely stands to benefit even further.

 

 

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

 

Collective Intelligence and Brilliance

Throughout his reign at Anfield, Brendan Rodgers has constantly and consistently championed the importance of the team over any individual, and that message was reinforced loudly and clearly when Liverpool confirmed Suarez’s departure in July.

But those who paid attention to Rodgers’ preparations last season will know that this wasn’t just a statement to appease Reds fans in the wake of a star’s departure; he has constantly set up his team to make the most out of their collective intelligence and brilliance.

Given Suarez’s goals and scintillating match-winning performances last season, this may appear to be a statement in vain, but a clear example of the varied attacking approach that Liverpool have adopted and introduced came last season in the form of set pieces, where they were arguably the most dangerous team across the Premier League.

The team’s movement and awareness is a product of their two years drilled in Rodgers’ system, and their fearlessness and dynamism were on show during their exciting 11-game winning streak from February to April last season, all of which will surely last the distance regardless of Suarez staying or leaving.

What Liverpool have lost is a genius and a maverick capable of breaking scoring records, but what they have potentially gained in return is a hard-to-beat mentality honed by a title challenge last season—with more quality still to be added. Only this time, it’s Daniel Sturridge who stands to benefit at the tip of everything attacking coming out of Liverpool’s half.

If it’s a team working for one another and who knows each other’s moves and contributions inside out that is capable of going places, then as much as Liverpool fans may miss the individual brilliance week in, week out—they will look forward even more to the success that the Suarez-less Reds are capable of.

Germany didn’t seem to mind earlier this summer.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

How Liverpool Can Get New Signing Rickie Lambert to 20 Goals This Season

With Luis Suarez’s departure for Barcelona and Iago Aspas’ likely exit from Anfield, per James Pearce of the Liverpool Echo, as it stands Liverpool’s senior forward options to start the new season are Daniel Sturridge, Fabio Borini and new signing Rickie Lambert.

On paper, a far cry from Suarez and Sturridge’s 52-goal partnership last season, which did more than just prove prolific: Their pace, movement and dynamic creativity struck fear into the hearts of opponents up and down the country.

With Alexis Sanchez, originally a target to be included in Suarez’s deal with Barcelona, having joined Arsenal, Liverpool have missed out on arguably one of their most attainable forward options in the summer transfer window.

Yet as Brendan Rodgers continues his scour for striking talent across the world, all is not lost: In Rickie Lambert, he has a talented, all-round striker who will be giving his all upon a dream return to his boyhood club.

And as the Reds fight on four fronts this season, whether they sign a new first-choice partner for Sturridge or not, Lambert might well have it in him to chip in with 20 goals in all competitions.

Here’s how.

 

Jon Super/Associated Press

 

 

The New SAS

Out goes one half of the famed SAS partnership; in comes another to replace him. Life goes on.

Suarez may be a once-in-a-generation kind of talent, and his performances last season certainly elevated him into the echelon of the greatest players ever to have played for Liverpool, but there was another “S” that blossomed last season, also with Rodgers’ coaching.

That player, of course, is Raheem Sterling, who, having spent almost a full season in the Liverpool first team and forcing himself into thePFA Young Player of the Year candidate pool, will be looking to take off and reach his full potential.

From being whispered in conjunction with a loan outside of Anfield to starting for England in the World Cup within just a few months, Sterling showed rapid enough progression last season to potentially win over even the toughest critics. He showed a turn of pace and the dribbling technique to rival Sturridge‘s, and his vision, work rate and interpretation of space perhaps even exceeded the No. 15’s.

With Rickie Lambert in the side, Sturridge and Sterling will be flanking him as the focal point of the Reds attack. Lambert’s first touch, close control, passing, positioning and chance creation will no doubt play a pivotal role in setting the platform for the new SAS to thrive.

In return for the space that he helps put them into, their pace and off-the-shoulder runs will occupy the attention of enough defenders to create enough space for Lambert himself to get into. And Lambert is as cool, calm and collected in front of goal as anyone in the Premier League.

 

Clive Rose/Getty Images

 

 

Movement, Movement, Movement

For all of the assists that Suarez laid on for his team-mates last season, he was the undisputed individual star of the team, who frequently passed to him and relied on him to bail them out of trouble or get through a sticky patch.

That is no criticism. Far from it; it is merely an acknowledgement of the individual brilliance that he brought to Liverpool, who will undoubtedly be worse off from a magical game-changer point of view.

Yet as hard as Suarez might’ve been to mark, potentially still harder is Liverpool’s collective movement that will be on display this season. Three years into Rodgers’ reign, his team finally look confident and comfortable enough to carry out his tactical and positional plans, and it’s no surprise he has signed players this summer that will help his team achieve that as a collective.

Adam Lallana, Lambert’s captain at Southampton, may always be considered overpriced at a reported £25 million, per Andy Hunter ofThe Guardian, but he dovetailed with Lambert to great effect at the Saints and will offer plenty of movement between the lines in Rodgers’ system.

So too the effervescent Jordan Henderson and the underrated Joe Allen, as well as the electric new signing Lazar Markovic.

If there is a style of play that Lambert thrives in, it is one that is based on sound movement and intrinsic understanding of each other’s positioning. And not only will Lambert be a creator of goals just like his team-mates; he will also score them.

 

Ian Walton/Getty Images

 

 

Set Pieces

There is also the small matter of set pieces, and Liverpool, with pace and technique coursing through their side, are one of the most prolific set-piece winners in the Premier League.

Not to mention one of the league’s best at scoring from them. And adding Lambert into the equation will only help things.

First, for all the talk about Lambert’s technical ability, passing and close control, he remains a fine option in the air. He might not be quite as aerially dominant as Anfield flop Andy Carroll, but his positional intelligence and timing more than makes up for it. Getting Lambert on the end of a Steven Gerrard corner or free-kick would be a quite sumptuous prospect for Reds fans.

Then there are direct free-kicks, another area of expertise for Lambert, who has scored a few screamers for Southampton in his two-year Premier League journey with the Saints, including one against Crystal Palace last September. Suarez’s exit has deprived Liverpool of a strong alternative to Gerrard on free- kicks, but Lambert may prove just as prolific from range.

Finally, Rodgers’ squad will be strengthened by the addition of another composed mind from the spot. With 48 penalties scored from 49 attempts over the course of his career, Lambert is arguably one of the finest penalty-takers in the Premier League; his record eclipses even that of regular specialist Gerrard. Could he even usurp his new captain on penalty duty?

Regardless, Lambert’s versatility and well-roundedness offers his boyhood club a valuable option up front, both off the bench and from the start. In a team that creates chances in abundance and almost oozed goals last season, even without Suarez, Lambert stands to thrive.

An improvement on his total goal tally of 17 across all competitions last season might not be too far-fetched.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

10 Things Liverpool Learned from the 2013/14 Premier League Season

Perhaps it was just a touch too far for Liverpool in the end. Their fans harbored the hope and the romanticism, but Manchester City’s ruthless efficiency meant that as soon as Liverpool handed first place in the Premier League back into City’s hands, it was always going to be a tall order for the Reds.

On Liverpool’s part, it could’ve been a poetic end to the season on the final day. Steven Gerrard providing two set-piece assists to go clear in the Premier League assist charts, a goal from Daniel Agger on possibly his last-ever appearance for the Reds, and a goal for the understated Daniel Sturridge—all after Newcastle United took the lead through some dodgy Liverpool defending.

West Ham United—Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing and Joe Cole et al—just couldn’t play their supposed part against City on Sunday.

But while the conciliatory and congratulatory messages will be sent from the red half of Merseyside to the blue half of Manchester amid disappointment—“devastation,” Gerrard told Sky Sports (h/t Fox Sports)—at a lost chance to win a title, the overriding mood at Anfield after the final whistle on Sunday was a celebratory one.

For while City’s two goals in a clean sheet sealed their second title in three years, the Liverpool fans preferred to bask in the knowledge that their team had stormed their way back into the top four ahead of Brendan Rodgers’ schedule and preferred to acknowledge the brave but valiant efforts of their heroes.

And why not? It’s been an exciting campaign for Liverpool, and here are 10 things we learned from their 2013/14 Premier League season. Enjoy and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Attack Wins Games…

Attack Wins Games…Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Having scored 101 goals in 38 league games this season—just one short of Manchester City’s haul—Liverpool have been one of English football’s great entertainers over the past 10 months.

Without taking any penalties and having missed his first five games of the season, Luis Suarez equaled the 38-game-season Premier League goal-scoring tally of 31, while Daniel Sturridge added 21 goals and Steven Gerrard 13.

The blitzing of Tottenham Hotspur (both home and away), Everton and Arsenal—all considered rivals at the start of the season—will be remembered for years to come, as the Reds hit three or more goals in a remarkable 21 out of their 38 games. The thrilling 11-game winning streak that rocketed Brendan Rodgers’ men to the top of the table with a few games to go was especially memorable.

Rodgers has instilled flexibility, directness and dynamism into his team, who are now capable of changing tactical formations from game to game and during matches. They can score goals from a variety of approaches—counterattacks, direct free kicks and other set pieces. The interchanging of his electric forward line has added to their aesthetic appeal, which has won them fans up and down the country and around the world.

From 71 goals last season to 101 this term—a 30-goal swing over a 38-game span—it has been a remarkable improvement in attacking form from by and large the same group of players, and Rodgers deserves as much credit as his charges.

Liverpool fan or not, this has been a season to savor.

 

…But Defence Wins Championships

…But Defence Wins ChampionshipsMichael Regan/Getty Images

Yet a simple comparison of goal difference between City and Liverpool shows everything about how the season has panned out: City, who scored just one more goal in total, finished with a goal difference of plus-65, compared with Liverpool’s plus-51.

Somehow it seemed fitting that Martin Skrtel’s own goal was Newcastle’s opener on Sunday—he is the highest-scoring defender in the Premier League with seven goals this season, yet his four own goals this season set a Premier League record.

Defence has proved to be Liverpool’s Achilles’ heel, and the main reason behind their failure to win the title.

Inevitable off days notwithstanding, there were fixtures and results that hinted at their defence being susceptible and potentially damaging to their cause. Hard-fought wins over Stoke City (5-3), Fulham (3-2), Swansea City (4-3) and Norwich City (3-2) always featured three goals or more scored, but required resolute defending to hold onto their slender lead.

So as much as it was anticlimactic from Liverpool’s point of view, the draw at Crystal Palace in the penultimate match of the season was actually arguably a long time coming, considering their weaknesses in defence and tendency to commit costly mistakes.

Liverpool finished the season just two points behind Manchester City. If they had been able to turn one loss into one win or two draws into two wins, they would’ve ended on top. Their attack is near-complete; it’s now the defence that needs major work.

 

A Mental Collapse Toward the End…

A Mental Collapse Toward the End…Clive Rose/Getty Images

In this season’s title race, we saw it all from Steven Gerrard: the “crazy eyes” after his opener in the 4-0 rout over Everton, a shirt-flinging celebration after a last-gasp penalty winner over Fulham, a kiss for the camera after his second penalty at Manchester United and even emotional tears after the thrilling win over Manchester City.

And if those celebrations weren’t enough to confirm just how desperate Gerrard was to win his first-ever Premier League title, surely the team talk that he gave on the pitch after the City match did.

So it was a cruel twist of fate—and to some an inevitable turn of events—that Gerrard was the one who committed the fatal error to let Demba Ba through, allowing Chelsea an opening goal deep into first-half stoppage time and hand the impetus back to City.

From then on, we rarely saw the Reds’ nerves settle.

Instead of playing it patiently and build attacks through Suarez, Liverpool opted to cross aimlessly into the box against Chelsea’s bus-parked box while notching their highest tally of crosses in a single game over the course of the season. A draw would’ve done just fine.

Instead of holding a three-goal lead and maximizing the points return at Palace, Rodgers opted to take off Raheem Sterling, one of his best defensive players this season, and decided to leave his experienced defenders on the bench in a bid to rack up the goals. A simple three points, which they were on the way to achieving, would’ve done just fine.

An 11-match winning run was what started making the Kop dream—but conversely it was the belief and dreams that led them to a calamitous collapse in the crucial moment of the season. The five dropped points made the difference in the end.

 

…But a Clear Sign of Increasing Maturity

…But a Clear Sign of Increasing MaturityAlex Livesey/Getty Images

Eleven wins on the bounce is no mean feat, and in the context of the entire season—and considering the lack of squad depth and strength at Rodgers’ disposal—the Reds, by and large, carried and managed themselves well.

There were the nervy wins brought about by the hesitant defence and the prolific attack, and there were moments that showed Liverpool’s increasing maturity.

Holding onto a one-goal lead when the tide had turned and the momentum had shifted to their opponents was a sure sign of mental progress on the part of Rodgers’ men. In April when they held their nerve against relegation-fighting Norwich City after Philippe Coutinho’s second-half winner over Manchester City, Liverpool fans started to believe.

No two players can exhibit finer physical and mental development this season than the excellent Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson, who got their chances to impress and took them in their own hands beyond any reasonable belief.

As we consider the close-season anticlimax, a good context to keep in mind is that one of the league’s youngest squads repeatedly held their nerve to secure a second-placed finish.

It will be of some comfort that reported targets Adam Lallana and Steven Caulker are currently the club captains of their respective clubs (Southampton and Cardiff City). Leadership is being targeted.

 

“They Have Been the Most Wonderful Underdogs”…

“They Have Been the Most Wonderful Underdogs”…

Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Players and fans alike have lauded the fervent atmosphere of Anfield this season, especially during the final few weeks of the season when the Kop roared on in full voice every match and Liverpool fans lined the streets of the city to inspire the players.

The atmosphere has frequently been compared with that of Champions League nights at Anfield, and now the Reds finally have that to savor next season.

This title race even evoked memories of the miraculous Champions League final turnaround in Istanbul almost nine years ago—and Martin Tyler’s remark that the Reds had been the “most wonderful underdogs” over the course of the tournament that season surely applied to their Premier League title challenge this time around.

A young squad playing scintillating attacking football with the charismatic Rodgers and the elder statesman that is Gerrard helming the side—Liverpool’s title challenge was inconceivable but widely welcomed and supported.

For most of the season, they played with no fear and without shackles. Chelsea and Manchester City were the big spenders with big-name players and managers, while Arsenal’s fall from top of the league to fourth place, Everton’s top-four challenge, Tottenham Hotspur’s wild inconsistencies under Tim Sherwood and Manchester United’s spectacular demise captured all the headlines.

As they have proved over the years, especially in Europe under Rafael Benitez, Liverpool are at their most dangerous when the underdog tag is applied.

 

…But What Happens When the Pressure Is On?

…But What Happens When the Pressure Is On?

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The question now is whether or not the Reds can live with a “favorites” tag.

To expect a thin squad and a poor bench to sustain a top performance level over the course of a season and outcompete world-class teams proved too much this season. While their lack of European football has been claimed by many to provide them with a sense of regularity, the fact that Liverpool didn’t even qualify for Europe last season says it all about their status as underdogs.

When the pressure was well and truly on and they were expected to see out the season in first place, they buckled.

Whether it was because of Gerrard’s unfortunate slip, Rodgers’ decision to go for the jugular against Chelsea when a draw would’ve done or the naivety that they could make up for the gigantic goal difference by continuing to pile forward with a three-goal lead against Crystal Palace, Liverpool seemed to make the wrong decisions at the wrong time.

And after providing a surprise element and a breath of fresh air this season, Liverpool will be considered favorites for the top four again next year, and another title challenge—especially in anticipation of their transfer activity this summer—has already been mooted.

It’s not just about managing expectations anymore; it’s about managing themselves so they can unlock their potential, but also get results over the line when they most need them.

 

Success Built on Experience and Quality…

Success Built on Experience and Quality…

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Where would Liverpool be this May without Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard?

Together, the No. 7 and No. 8 contributed 44 goals and 25 assists, over 68 per cent of Liverpool’s whopping total of 101 goals over the campaign—and that’s including Suarez’s five-game suspension at the start of the season and Gerrard’s midseason injury layoff.

When Liverpool fans look back in years to come, their likely conclusion will be that keeping Suarez away from the clutches of Arsenal in the summer of 2013 might just have proved their most pivotal decision in recent years.

And Rodgers moving Gerrard into a withdrawn playmaking role has unlocked the best out of the captain, possibly even extending his playing career.

Suarez has added even more to his arsenal (ha): Not only has he evolved into a fearsome finisher, but he has also become prolific at direct free kicks and also ranks second in the Premier League assist charts.

Likewise Gerrard, who has taken to his new position smoothly and has been able to unlock defences through his unerring through balls and long passes. His dead-ball deliveries have been a big component of Liverpool’s league-leading set-piece goal tally.

 

…But Exciting Glimpses Toward the Future

…But Exciting Glimpses Toward the Future

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

But despite Suarez and Gerrard taking first and second place in the Football Writers’ Player of the Year awards, their supporting cast have been equally important and threatened to steal the show.

There is no need to elaborate on the maturation of Jordan Henderson, nor the meteoric rise of Raheem Sterling—likewise with the resurgence of Jon Flanagan, the consistency of Daniel Sturridge and the mercurial talent of Philippe Coutinho.

What has been made abundantly clear is that Rodgers, himself a young coach, has prized talent development and made youth a centerpiece of his Liverpool side. In taking such a young team to within a whisker of the Premier League title takes vision and guts and deserves credit.

That Henderson, Sterling and Sturridge have risen from pure potential to potentially starting alongside their club captain in Roy Hodgson’s England lineup in the World Cup this summer is a testament to their own hard work and Rodgers’ tutelage.

Add a few more quality players with at least a few top years ahead of them this summer, and Anfield could witness not just a new generation of blossoming talent, but a golden era in itself.

The possibilities are tantalizing.

 

Liverpool Face Their Most Pivotal Summer Transfer Window…

Liverpool Face Their Most Pivotal Summer Transfer Window…

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

To realize their potential, however, Liverpool must continue their encouraging momentum and take full advantage of a first genuinely exciting summer transfer window ahead of them.

For the first time in a few years, the Reds have the Champions League and a title challenge to offer—with the money that comes on the back of such developments—and can use them to attract the players that will keep them there.

Too many transfer windows have come and gone without real progress. Even last summer, after almost six months of tantalizing attacking football following the excellent additions of Sturridge and Coutinho, the Anfield club wasted a good opportunity.

Eight players were signed, but only Simon Mignolet has managed to make himself a mainstay in Rodgers’ team. Pepe Reina left on loan to Napoli, leaving the Belgian as the only realistic choice as No. 1.

The excuse that has often been offered is that squad strengthening was the priority last summer, but a quick look at the Liverpool bench shows that even that objective was not realized.

They must not repeat the same mistakes again, not in the least because their rivals will no doubt be spending big to boost their own squads this summer.

 

…But the Belief Is Back

…But the Belief Is Back

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

At the core of it all, though, this season has been about the triumphant return of belief, of lofty ideals and of giddy daydreaming for Liverpool Football Club—whether it be in the stands, on the Kop, on the Anfield pitch or in newspaper headlines around England and the world.

As we close out the season and look ahead to the World Cup—less so the inevitable circus that is the summer transfer window—we prefer not to focus on the possibility that this was perhaps Liverpool’s best shot at the title for many years to come.

We prefer not to focus on the calamitous slip that lost them their sure footing en route to winning a first-ever Premier League title.

Why focus on the negatives, when Liverpool have just finished ahead of schedule, not only in the Champions League places, but just two points short of the title outright?

While they have done so while breaking the three-digit mark in terms of goals scored, just one short from one of the most expensive squads in world sport? And with one of the youngest top-ranked teams in all of European football?

The anxiety and apprehension at how next season will pan out should come right as the Premier League resumes again in August—not now.

The anxiety and apprehension will only come about because Liverpool have made it possible to dream again anyway.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Liverpool Transfer Rumors: Why Reds Should Go All-Out for Everton’s Ross Barkley

With Liverpool having all but secured a place in next year’s Champions League, the Reds have been linked with potential summer signings right, left and center. Everton’s wonderkid midfielder, Ross Barkley, has been rumored as a shock £38 million target, according to Chris McKenna of the Daily Star.

Having made a splash in his debut season in the Premier League, Barkley has already been tipped as one of the finest talents of his generation—even a dark-horse option to make Roy Hodgson’s England squad for the World Cup this summer.

Which means that, even though Blues boss Roberto Martinez has already vehemently denied, via Paul Collins of the Daily Mailthe possibility of a first player move across Stanley Park since Abel Xavier in 2002, Liverpool fans will be dreaming at the prospect of Barkley turning out for them every week next season.

And for good reason. While not an ever-present in Martinez’s starting XI—not surprising given the amount of options at his disposal—Barkley has shown enough promise to suggest that he will be a Premier League force for many years to come. He might just have the potential to go down as one of its all-time greats.

Which is why, remote as the possibility may be, Brendan Rodgers should go all-out for Barkley.

 

Playing Attributes

At just 20 years of age, Barkley appears to already have the full set of attributes to succeed in the Premier League.

Blessed with pace and quick feet, Barkley is more than capable of taking on and dribbling past his man, while his physical power means that he is hard to shrug off, difficult to defend against and a forceful presence in the midfield.

A powerful left foot and a love for the spectacular mean that the Everton No. 20 is no stranger to long-range screamers; indeed, his goal this season against Norwich City was a prime example of him pulling the trigger and scoring with power, while given just a tight space to work with.

He has also exhibited composure in his finishing. A wonderful solo goal against Newcastle United a couple of weeks ago, in which he took the ball in his own half and proceeded to run past a few defenders before unleashing a shot into the top corner, will go down as one of the season’s finest efforts.

In the next few years, Barkley will no doubt be looking to improve his defensive and all-round contributions, while also developing the maturity that sees him make use of his technical and physical attributes to the best effect.

On raw potential alone, however, Barkley has all the tools to succeed Steven Gerrard as the pre-eminent attacking midfielder in the English game.

 

 

Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesBig-Game Mentality

While we’re on the topic of Gerrard, a lot has been written this season about his status in the Liverpool dressing room and his importance in the Reds’ impressive title run, both as a player and as a talismanic leader.

Without going as far as to say that Barkley will be England’s next captain and go down as one of the country’s greatest-ever players so early on in his career, all the signs so far suggest that he has the same big-game mentality as the current Liverpool and England captain.

Barkley has claimed, via McKenna, that big games bring out his best and that he likes “getting the chance to step up and show what [he is] capable of.”

His attacking play exudes confidence in abundance, while his unabashed attitude on the pitch perfectly complements his direct style and penchant for a long-range stunner.

As Liverpool can increasingly look forward to participating in Europe’s pre-eminent club competition next year, they could do with a few more match-winners and on-pitch leaders to add to their current swagger.

Rodgers would be hard-pressed to find a better option on the block than Barkley.

 

 

Michael Steele/Getty ImagesRodgers’ Young British Revolution

Not only would Barkley bring a rare and complete set of playing attributes and a commendable mentality, but he would also fit right into Rodgers’ young British revolution at Anfield.

His table-topping Liverpool side is one of the youngest in the Premier League, with Daniel SturridgeRaheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson—and increasingly, Joe Allen and Jon Flanagan—all playing prominent roles in their exciting charge toward the top of the league this season.

Two common characteristics of these all-star youngsters are technical proficiency and mental application, both of which Barkley has in his locker. His brand of physical and direct attacking midfield play would be an interesting alternative to Philippe Coutinho’s silky dribbling and outrageous through balls, though the all-round midfield play of the Brazilian, himself only 21 years old, has matured spectacularly in recent months.

Add in the fact that the likes of Luis Suarez, Mamadou Sakho and Simon Mignolet will be entering their prime years in the short to medium term, and Barkley would be walking into an accomplished Liverpool team still with much potential to fulfill.

Rodgers’ accomplished man management has worked wonders on his young charges in his two seasons at Anfield, and he would no doubt be able to unlock even more from Barkley’s game if he does cross Stanley Park.

The key is for Liverpool to follow up on their interest with a substantial bid to tempt Champions League-chasing Everton into letting their prized asset go, which won’t be easy. Then, there’s the whole stumbling block of Barkley being a boyhood Evertonian.

But just imagine a Liverpool attack next season featuring Suarez, Sturridge, Sterling, Barkley and Henderson on the break at pace.

Simply irresistible.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.