07 August 2007

Liverpool – So is this the year?

This is long (fair warning), and there's a lot in here that could come back to bite me in the ass, but I’m learning that’s what blogging is all about.

The New Boys
In: Ryan Babel (£11.5m), Yossi Benayoun (£5m), Lucas Leiva (£5m), Sebastian Leto (£1.8m), Fernando Torres (£20.2m), Andrei Voronin (free) -- £43.5m
Out: Craig Bellamy (£7.5m), Djibril Cisse (£6m), Jerzy Dudek (free), Robbie Fowler (free), Luis Garcia (£4m), Mark Gonzalez (£3.5m), Florent Sinama Pongolle (£2.7m), Bolo Zenden (free) -- £23.7m

Expectations probably couldn't be higher for the coming season amongst most Liverpool fans. I've already expressed my own a number of times. All are drooling over winning the league after a 17-year drought, and hopes have been raised even higher (probably too high, but that's the modern game) thanks to the summer dealings.

For the first time, Liverpool's spent big money on a single player in Fernando Torres (Cisse and Heskey don’t count). He's got big shoes to fill with that price tag, and I'm certain Torres will improve Liverpool on the whole, but I don't necessarily think it'll show up in his goal tally. There's the standard period of time to adjust to the pace and play of the Premiership, especially for forwards, while Torres has never been known as a high-scoring striker. Don't get me wrong, he's got an eye for goal (his first Liverpool goal was a very deft touch), but he misses them as well. However, his creativity (a word that's going to be repeated a fair bit throughout), strength, and eye for a pass will help a great deal.

Torres' price tag also goes a long way towards making people forget that Ryan Babel is Liverpool's 3rd most expensive transfer. I've been trying to lessen expectations for Torres, and Babel's should be even lower. There's a reason he's so highly regarded -- we saw it at Ajax, we've seen it when he's played for Holland, and we've seen glimpses in preseason. But they've been glimpses. And he's 20. He will take time to adjust to the Premiership, to how Liverpool plays, and to living abroad. I think we'll see great things from him, but not necessarily this year. And for that reason, it's essential that Harry Kewell attains some consistent level of fitness and repays the faith Benitez has had in him.

The players Liverpool brought in for less money will have their roles as well. From the look of preseason, Voronin and Benayoun will both see a good amount of playing time, while Leto and Lucas are for the future. All will have first-team opportunities. Voronin's gotten some ink with his performances, and has an opportunity to become a cult hero for Liverpool in the vein of Igor Biscan, but he'll most likely see less time than Torres, Kuyt, or Crouch. Although from what little we saw, he has the potential to be the best link-up striker in the squad; he's strong and clever, and he's got great awareness for what's going on around him. Benayoun's going to see time on both the left and right, depending on the fitness and play of others, and if he can continue to be active and push the ball forward while spreading the field, he'll continue to get opportunities.

All in all, Liverpool replaced the players released or sold with better quality. Cisse and Pongolle didn't figure into the plans last year, while Torres and Voronin are fairly direct replacements for Bellamy and Fowler. Liverpool will make up what they've lost through Garcia (and Gonzalez and Zenden to a lesser extent) through Benayoun and Babel, who are younger, more talented, and more direct, and offer more varied possibilities.

I've written it in nearly every post over the last month, but there's not too much that can be divined from preseason matches. You get an idea about new players and general impressions of the team, but that's pretty much it. That said, it stood out that in every game Liverpool lined up with 4 defenders, 4 midfielders, and 2 strikers. With the players brought in over the summer coupled with the fact that Rafa's known to chop and change, I thought it likely we'd see a variety of different formations: 3 strikers, 5-man midfields, maybe even wingbacks. But that hasn't happened.

There's still been a fair bit of deviation in how Liverpool’s played though. Pennant and Benayoun have switched flanks at will. Babel's played on the left, right and as a striker. Kewell's versatile as well. The different combinations of strikers leads to different styles of play. Liverpool can come from a number of different angles, but from preseason play it looks like Benitez plans on keeping the formation fairly static.

The biggest problem last year, and still one of the biggest concerns given the totality of the Benitez era, was the away form. Liverpool picked up 3 points on the road against the top-7 last season (a win at Spurs). The overall record away from Anfield was 6-4-9, with a -2 goal difference. That's clearly not good enough for supposed title contenders. Often, Liverpool played too conservatively, and seemed to aim for a draw against lesser opposition on the road, especially when challenged by a physical team. It didn't help that a lot of important away games came early in the season, when players were still working towards full fitness after the World Cup and a shortened preseason, but that's a poor excuse.

Another (related) criticism is Liverpool's inability to score when the opposition plays negative, defensive football. It's partly linked to the problems on the road, but there were games at Anfield that stick out in the memory as well: 0-0 v Everton, 0-1 v Man U, 0-0 v Portsmouth, and 1-1 v Blackburn for a start. The conclusion I came to during last season was that Liverpool was short on creativity, and the absence of Garcia (and to an extent, Kewell) didn't help matters in the slightest. Garcia's gone (sigh), but the addition of Torres, Babel, Benayoun, and Voronin (and a fit Kewell?) all should change that. We’ve said a lot about Liverpool’s lack of creativity and craftiness in the past, and all of the new players should help remedy that once they settle.

It's why we've heard so much about Benitez wanting to play more attacking football, and why that and the new signings have heartened Liverpool fans so much. Honestly, I'll believe it when I see it. Don't get me wrong, with the options at their disposal, Liverpool should get more goals, but Benitez will always play moderately conservative, control the tempo football. The additions to the front line should garner more goals, but what's even more important is a better scoring rate from midfield, and more of that guile and nous that Liverpool lacked (although the two are related) when the opposition has 10 men behind the ball.

Players to Watch
Despite the blog's title, I've always emphasized that Steven Gerrard isn't the end-all, be-all of Liverpool Football Club. At times, especially last season, he needed to do a better job of fitting into Benitez's team concept, as Rafa has always focused on the unit as a whole. But I can't emphasize this strongly enough, even though it seems somewhat obvious: Gerrard will be crucial to Liverpool's season, and it's essential that he play better than he did last year. As Gerrard goes, so goes Liverpool, and that will be even truer this season.

Liverpool dearly missed Gerrard's goals during the last campaign. His 23 goals in 05-06, compared to 11 last year, were another reason for the difference in point totals between the two seasons. As said, the midfield needs to chip in with more goals, and Ste's one of the best goal threats from midfield in the world.

I know that Gerrard played mainly on the right wing (with license to roam) the season he scored 23 goals, but I'm heartened to hear that Benitez is planning on playing him in the center more often. Don't get me wrong, there's a time and a place for Gerrard to play on the right (and it will happen at times), and it's hard to argue leaving out either Alonso or Mascherano (or Sissoko), but Stevie's more dynamic (and far happier, which can't be underestimated) barging through the center. What this means for Alonso, Mascherano, and Sissoko is hard to say, but I think we'll learn within the first month or so how Rafa intends to manage his rotation. Because there will still be rotation.

The continuation of Jermaine Pennant’s progress and good form to finish last season will also allow Gerrard more time in the center, as well as giving Liverpool more width and attacking flair. Pennant’s improved in beating his man and getting to the byline throughout last season, as well as working harder to improve the defensive aspects of his game. He’s going to have an important part to play this season. However, he still needs to improve in two areas: whipping in his crosses instead of lofting them into the box, and delivering more of a goal threat from midfield.

Liverpool's defense is still their strongest area, even considering that on paper they've also got one of the best central midfields in the world. 20 clean sheets last season, 22 the year before. And despite Rafa's known love of rotation, the back line's remarkably consistent: Reina, Finnan, Carragher, Agger, and Riise. Reina and Agger are a year older and a year better adjusted to the Premiership, while Carragher's still the heart and soul of Liverpool and neither he nor Finnan have yet lost a step. Riise still frightens me defensively at times, but you can't argue with past results, and I’m fairly sure Liverpool’s stinginess will continue.

I admittedly am worried about defensive depth though. Arbeloa’s been a huge boon; he can fill in anywhere along the back line and cost £2m to boot, but there’s questions at every other position. Hyypia’s one of the best defenders Liverpool’s had, but he’s declined over the last couple of seasons. I love him as a back-up and am glad he’s stuck around for at least one more season, but strikers with pace can take advantage of him. Paletta is still young, but he hasn’t yet settled in England and hasn’t looked good enough (although he has had few chances to play with Reina, who makes all the defenders better), while Aurelio is too frequently injured, and despite my crush on Insua and belief that he’ll be a hell of a player in time, that time isn’t yet. With injuries (knocking on wood furiously), there could be questions in defense.

It's a new era at Liverpool with the new ownership. It's evident in the money spent, in the new stadium plans, and in the hype surrounding the team and the season. And I truly believe that Gillett and Hicks mark a new stage in Liverpool's fortunes.

So do I think Liverpool will be better on the road this season? Yep. Do I think they'll get more goals from both strikers and midfield? I do. Will they get more than 68 points, and be less than 21 behind the leaders? Absolutely.

But it’s probably too much to ask for the title this season. That's not to say it’s out of the realm of possibility, or that's it's even unlikely. And I’m sure the Premiership trophy will be paraded around Liverpool during Benitez's reign (and hopefully it'll be before they leave Anfield). But maybe, despite all I've written and the high hopes I've helped to foster, expectations should be a little lower than they are right now. At least until the Villa, Toulouse, and Chelsea matches. After the first month of the season, we’ll know a lot more than we do now.

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