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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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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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

 
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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

 
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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.