This is the fourth season preview I've done since starting this blog. Every year's felt like an evolution, not a revolution – even last year – and they've been fairly cut and dry with the previous season's results in mind. Not this year. I've absolutely no clue what to expect, which makes this analysis lark a little bit trickier.
The New Boys (so far)
In: Milan Jovanovic (free), Joe Cole (free), Jonjo Shelvey (£1.7m), Danny Wilson (£2m), Fabio Aurelio (free), Christian Poulsen (£4.5m)
Out: Yossi Benayoun (£6m), Mikel San Jose (£2.6m), Albert Riera (£3.3m)
Skies may be a little brighter than a month ago, with the signing of Joe Cole, good results in the first Europa League qualifier, and constant rumors about the end of Hicks and Gillett's tenure. But this is the first season where my hopes aren't sky-high. Yes, I absolutely expect better results and a better finish than last season – it seemingly can't get much worse (emphasis on seemingly; life's taught me it can always be worse) – but I'd expect better because of last season's circumstances no matter the manager, which is no slight on the current or previous gaffer.
Expected Formation and First XI
Johnson Carragher Agger Aurelio
Kuyt Cole Jovanovic
The above is a team than can compete with any in the league. But there are obvious worries about solidity in midfield and how Liverpool will cope with injuries, especially at striker and left-back.
I've drawn it up as 4-2-3-1 for convenience, but it'll be 4-4-1-1, 4-1-4-1, and 4-4-2 at times this season. Fulham and Liverpool are two very different teams with very different expectations, but I still expect Hodgson's conservatism away from home to remain consistent. Liverpool had an under-strength team in the first leg at Rabotnicki, but you have to look at how much deeper the attacking wide players were deployed and the paucity of chances compared to the home leg. Liverpool will be more expansive at Anfield, as was often the case under Benitez. It's often the case for most teams.
In defense, Liverpool are more than solid at center-back and goalkeeper, while questions remain about both full-back spots. With Carragher, Agger, Skrtel, Kyrgiakos, Wilson, Ayala, and Kelly, Liverpool has greater depth and talent at CB than almost any side in the league, although there are definite fears about everyone's aerial ability outside of Kyrgiakos (especially on set plays). Reina remains the best keeper in the Premiership (this is not up for debate). Johnson's certain to be the first choice right-back, but Hodgson's pursuit of Luke Young makes me wonder whether he's convinced Kelly can be first-choice back-up. And left-back, whether or not Insua finally departs, is a huge concern. There's Aurelio, a fantastic player but permanently on the injury list, while Kelly, Darby, and Wilson are all untried and none of them prefers the position. I have to believe Liverpool will sign someone (probably once the Insua, or Mascherano for that matter, money comes in), but whether it's the likes of Figueroa or Konchesky or Young remains to be seen.
Central midfield is another question, one that's wholly dependent on Javier Mascherano. Everyone, including me, seems to be taking his sale for granted. No one wants to see him go, but he's agitated for a move for more than a year now; it's unbecoming in the extreme. I think Lucas and Gerrard can and will work against the majority of teams – I'm less convinced about Gerrard/Aquilani or Lucas/Aquilani – but Liverpool would be without an important shielding presence in an era where holding midfielders are absolutely vital. Which is where today's Poulsen signing comes in, but there's always a question of how foreign players will adapt, especially when they're 30. At least the flanks seem well-stocked: Kuyt and Maxi can do a job on either wing, Jovanovic will see a majority of games on the left, and there's Babel and Pacheco, as well as Cole if need be, in reserve. I still expect Cole to get the most games as a second striker, similar to the role Gerrard had for the last two campaigns.
Regardless of Cole's signing, there's still another huge hole up front, similar to the one at left back. Liverpool's still completely, totally, utterly reliant on Fernando Torres – one of the world's best players, let alone strikers, on his day, but one with increasing injury concerns. We saw how Ngog, while an improving young striker (who did well in both legs against Rabotnicki), struggled to find his feet when thrown head-first into the deep end last season. Babel and Kuyt can play up front, but both have been better from the flanks, and I worry about both of them as a lone striker if Liverpool sticks with the 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1. If Mascherano does leave, I sincerely hope that most of the money will go towards another striker. Once again, Torres' fitness will be integral.
As of now, with further ins and outs likely (yes, you'll notice I included Mascherano for formality's sake)...
GK: Reina, Cavalieri, Gulasci
RB: Johnson, Kelly, Darby, Carragher
CB: Carragher, Agger, Skrtel, Kyrgiakos, Wilson, Ayala, Kelly
LB: Aurelio, Kelly, Agger, Darby, Wilson
DM: Lucas, Poulsen, Spearing, Mascherano
CM: Gerrard, Aquilani, Lucas, Poulsen, Shelvey, Spearing, Mascherano
AM: Cole, Aquilani, Gerrard, Pacheco
RW: Kuyt, Maxi, Cole, Babel, Pacheco
LW: Jovanovic, Cole, Maxi, Babel, Pacheco
CF: Torres, Ngog, Kuyt, Jovanovic, Babel
No matter the strength of the first XI, this is still a very shallow team. Squad depth was one of the major issues last season (not that we don't have a plethora to choose from), and it's little better this year. Obviously, I'm of a mind to blame funds and owners, but again, that's been the case for some time now, and, even at best (I rarely expect the best), I highly doubt that's changing before the end of the window.
However, you'll notice how many players I list in multiple positions, especially in attack. Yes, it's a sign of the lack of depth, but that versatility could also be a huge boon, primarily at the sharp end of the pitch. We saw a glimpse against Rabotnicki a week ago: Cole floating behind the striker and from flank to flank, Jovanovic and Pacheco constantly switching wings. Add Kuyt, Maxi, and Babel – all capable of playing in multiple positions – to the mix, and the opposition will have a hell of a time telling where the attack's coming from. Hopefully, it'll be a welcome change from the static "Hey, where are Gerrard and Torres? Hoof it to them!" that Liverpool relied on all too often last season.
But Liverpool's injury record is going to be crucial this season, just like it was crucial, and ultimately too high of a hurdle, in the last. Dr. Peter Brukner, the new head of sports medicine, might be this summer's most important signing.
I hit the highlights of this in Tuesday's league table guess, where I "predicted" Liverpool would finish fifth, but some of it bears repeating.
A top-four place was there for the taking last season. Despite the torturous campaign, and despite the fact that Liverpool finished seventh, seven points behind Spurs, they were still in the hunt until the final few disappointing weeks. But following this summer's spree, City has to be better, while Spurs remain tough. Chelsea, United, and Arsenal should all be as good as last season, if not better in the case of Chelsea (Essien back, potentially adding Ramires, Drogba post-hernia surgery) and Arsenal (Koscielny, Chamakh). On paper, Chelsea, Arsenal, United, and City look more talented than Liverpool, especially when it comes to squad depth, while we can't rule out Spurs, Everton, or even Villa, no matter how O'Neill exited. It should be a very strong and very competitive league this season, even moreso than last year. Thank God the season's not played out on paper.
"Start immediately. Do it flamboyantly."
Liverpool opens the league campaign with a match against Arsenal, a side they haven't beat in the Premiership since a 4-1 victory at Anfield in 2007. Including cup and league matches, Liverpool won two, lost three, and drew five of the last ten matches against the Gunners. All three of those losses came last season. And then it's City the week after, followed by United in mid-September, both in Manchester. They play Everton in October, Chelsea in early November. With Europa League games and an couple of international breaks, it's arguably the hardest start to the league since I started this blog. I'm sure I don't have to remind how Liverpool suffered from the first game last season, losing to close competitors Spurs and Villa before the end of August, which set the tone for the next nine months.
It also frighteningly brings to mind the '06-07 season. Liverpool had finished with 82 points the previous season, a point behind the Mancs, and won the FA Cup. But a failure to win away from Anfield until December – including losses to United, Chelsea, and Everton – doomed the campaign, even though Liverpool ended up righting the ship to finish third and make a second Champions League final under Benitez. To continue the comparison, I distinctly remember blaming a World Cup hangover that year. Fun times.
We'll know fairly soon how this team will fare. And with a new manager as well as the aforementioned World Cup hangover, that's a petrifying thought.
If everything comes up Milhouse – if Liverpool starts flamboyantly, if injury woes subside, if Murphy's Law eases its grip, if young players like Lucas and Ngog make the leap, if Liverpool makes one or two more purchases in the transfer market, and if the off-field ownership saga doesn't tear down the club, we could be in for an excellent season. But the amount of ifs in that sentence, at the same time when Chelsea and United look as strong as last season and City and Arsenal have improved, scare the hell out of me.