In lieu of a longer (much longer) narrative, I’m going to go with bullet points for different thoughts, similar to how I treated the Aquilani transfer. Even in this format it clocks in at almost 1300 words. I can’t help being verbose, and there are a few factors to take into account.
On Monday, I actually predicted Liverpool would win the league. I had avoided reading other season previews before guessing the table, but now I’m seeing similar picks popping up in mainstream outlets like the BBC, Guardian, and Daily Telegraph. There probably will be more. Yikes. Nevertheless, we’ll soldier on.
The loss of Alonso hurts, but Ronaldo’s harder for United to replace. Chelsea is a strong side, but older than their competitors, and will miss key players during the African Cup of Nations. Liverpool’s coming off their best season in twenty years, and, even with the loss of Alonso, there’s still room for improvement.
Why Liverpool can be better:
• A fit Fernando Torres makes a world of difference. 33 goals in his first season, 17 last season. Torres only started 20 league games in ’08-09 (coming off the bench four times). Liverpool won 13 of those games and drew seven. And the stats look even better when both Torres and Gerrard started: 11 wins, 3 draws. If they can play together in the majority of Liverpool’s matches, the sky’s the limit.
• Glen Johnson will add a new feature to Liverpool’s attack, one that’ll coming in handy when trying to break down those packed defenses. We’ve already seen glimpses in looking to overlap at every opportunity, linking up with Kuyt, and running at defenders. Arbeloa brought a lot to the table, and it remains to be seen whether Johnson can be as consistent defensively (especially in getting back as well as maintaining the offside trap), but Johnson’s forays forward will be far stronger.
• The experience Insua gained in the final third of last season is like having a new player. He’s established himself in the side, starting in nine league games last season. Liverpool won eight and drew one. And he will continue to develop. With Aurelio, Insua, and Dossena, Liverpool probably is the strongest side in the division at that position.
• The final 13 or so games demonstrated how potent this team can be. For all the complaints about lacking in goals (especially against inferior opposition), Liverpool scored 77 in the league last season (top scorers by nine), and 41 in the final 13 games, beginning with the 4-0 romp over Real Madrid. The problem was that in took until March to really kick in. I don’t expect Liverpool to keep that up over the course of a full season, but if they can play that way more often…
Okay, now the concerns:
• I thought Xabi Alonso was player of the season for a reason last year. A few, actually. And now Liverpool has to replace him. Lucas is a better player than he gets credit for and I’m nervously optimistic about Aquilani, but stepping in for Alonso is a big ask. He made the center circle his own and dictated Liverpool’s play from there.
No one else in the squad can do that (although Mascherano had a couple of nice efforts during preseason), and Liverpool’s second-best long passer, Fabio Aurelio, is out for at least a month. The long-range pass, whether pumped out of defense (Torres’ goals against Blackburn – the goal of the season – and United came from long balls from Carra and Skrtel respectively) or a cross-field ball to open up the attack, has served Liverpool well in the past. I’m interested to see how often that’ll be the case with Alonso’s departure.
• Squad depth is still an issue. The knocks to Carragher, Agger and Skrtel in preseason highlight a lingering issue, and one Rafa will hopefully remedy before the window closes. I think Martin Kelly’s an excellent prospect from what I’ve seen, able to fill in at right back and center back, but he’s 19. Liverpool might end up missing Hyypia more than Alonso. Ngog and Voronin are the reserve strikers (behind Torres, Kuyt, and probably Babel). The amount of time Spearing received in preseason shows that Benitez thinks he might be needed. Liverpool will have to stay relatively injury-free (I cannot knock on wood hard enough) if #19 is in the offing.
• Despite coming in second in a season where I thought Liverpool could and should have won the title, a lot of things went Liverpool’s way. Most significantly, the team probably won’t take six points off both United and Chelsea, and those points will have to come from somewhere else. May I suggest not drawing seven games at Anfield?
Other odds and ends:
• So, who’s on the left? I really thought Liverpool would buy an attacker to compete on that flank. There’s still time, but Babel remaining on Merseyside combined with how much time Benayoun saw there during preseason makes me skeptical. But I really believe Benayoun’s a better option on the right and in the Gerrard role in the 4-2-3-1. And, for all his ability, he’s probably the back-up in both positions, able to come off the bench if Liverpool needs his guile. I could be convinced that there are games where Liverpool is best served by Benayoun starting on the left, games where that guile and eye for a throughball in traffic is needed. But more often than not, Liverpool could do with a player that actually stays wide more often than not, and Benayoun drifts inside every time he’s ostensibly deployed on the left.
• What about Babel? As said above, the amount he played in friendlies and the absence of his name from transfer gossip implies he’s still in Benitez’s plans. If he improves, which didn’t happen last season, he could be the player needed on the left and could fill in as a back-up striker. There’s a reason Benitez shelled out £11.5m for him. But we need to start seeing that potential realized. Along with Lucas, Babel will be the player most needed to make the leap if Liverpool is going to succeed.
• Yes, I will continue to harp on the formation until we see enough to get answers. I was skeptical of Keane because I thought he’d disrupt the 4-2-3-1 and the Gerrard/Torres partnership. And the loss of Alonso as a deep-lying playmaker, ostensibly replaced by the more attacking Lucas and Aquilani, means that Gerrard might have to drop deeper, and even fill in as a typical central midfielder if injuries or ”rotation” require it. This makes me uneasy.
I think this style of play could work. I really want to see it in action. But one player who will be essential is a disciplined Mascherano. He’s used to the freedom to do what he does best: run all over the field in search of the ball when Liverpool’s not in possession. Masch sees ball, Masch chases ball, Masch gets ball. It’s why we adore him; there’s no tackle he won’t try to make, and he usually comes out on top. That worked well with Alonso sitting around the center circle, because there was always another “holding” midfielder to prevent Liverpool from being exposed. If Lucas/Aquilani are playing higher up the pitch, there could be gaps in the middle if Mascherano goes chasing. And that solid central midfield was what usually led to Liverpool’s dominance of possession.
As always, the title will not be won in the fall. But how Liverpool starts the season, and how players such as Lucas, Insua, Benayoun, and Babel adapt to their roles, will go a long way toward determining the outcome of this campaign.
Spurs on Sunday.