11 August 2011

2011-12 Liverpool Season Preview

The difference a year makes. From Hicks and Gillett setting the club's money on fire to FSG opening the checkbook at will. From an owl-faced over-matched media darling who "deserved a chance" as manager to the club's greatest living legend. Checking under couch cushions for the privilege of buying Konchesky and Poulsen to slightly less than £50m spent on Adam, Doni, Downing, Enrique, and Henderson. All this optimism is starting to make me pessimistic.

Business Time (so far)
In: Jordan Henderson (£16m), Charlie Adam (£8m), Stewart Downing (£18.5m), Doni (free), Jose Enrique (~£6m)
Out: Daniel Ayala (£850,000), Milan Jovanovic (free), Paul Konchesky (£1.5m), Chris Mavinga (£1m)
Fees taken from LFC History, except in the case of Ayala and Enrique, which haven't been finalized yet.

With news today that Liverpool and Newcastle have agreed a fee for Jose Enrique, another problem area can be checked off Comolli and Dalglish's list. Liverpool now have a completely new left side, far more threatening than any deployed on that flank in ages, to go with added depth in the middle.

Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam, Jose Enrique, and Jordan Henderson represent an excellent summer's worth of business, while adding the experienced Doni allows prospects Gulasci and Hansen to go on loan. Downing and Enrique were crucial, giving the club proven quality at positions where Liverpool often had to cram round pegs into square holes last season. The squad desperately lacked left-footers last season; Downing, Enrique, and Adam all have gifted left pegs, and all three are outstanding crossers of the ball, which probably pleases Andy Carroll. Henderson – the first player signed the summer, with the most surprising fee – seems solely for insurance this season: capable of replacing Gerrard if he spends any extended spells on the sidelines and able to play multiple positions in midfield to cover for others. It is an outstanding haul, even without adding mooted depth at center-back or striker.

But with three weeks left in the window, business time hasn't quite ended. The flashing neon "Free To A Good Home" signs hung around the necks of Cole, Poulsen, et al haven't enticed one of those suckers born every minute yet. For some reason, other clubs don't want to pay hard-earned money for Liverpool's misfits, especially considering what a certain few (coughJoeColecough) earn in wages.

Center-back may still be addressed, although talk of another striker has died down since Wickham signed for Sunderland and Ngog's remained at the club. Dann and Cahill continue to be suggested targets, with Phil Jones pursued before United lured him to the dark side. But CB is much less a priority than left back is/was. Liverpool could certainly do with more top quality, but in Carragher, Agger, Skrtel, Kyrgiakos, Wilson, and potentially Kelly, Liverpool at least have strength in depth. Even if that depth is fragile, aging, or inexperienced.

Expected Formation and "Best" XI

Like at the best of times under Benitez, it's difficult to forecast next season's formation, let alone line-up.

The diagrams I posted following Adam's purchase – for potential 4-2-2-2 and 4-3-3 – still hold water. I've drawn it up above as 4-2-3-1, which we've seen most frequently in preseason and is the formation the Academy and reserves have been using for the last two seasons. The difference could well be negligible, dependent on which central midfielders and wide-men play.

However, it's even harder than usual to use preseason as a gauge because two of the most important players – Suarez and Gerrard – were unavailable throughout. Lucas, the lone out-and-out defensive midfielder (Poulsen does not count), featured for the just final 45 minutes. Including those three players could necessitate an entire change of system – where does Suarez fit in the 4-2-3-1?

By my reckoning, Liverpool only used the 4-2-3-1 formation twice in Suarez's 12 starts – the 5-2 win over Fulham and 0-1 loss at Villa. He was the out-and-out striker in both, a position Carroll seems likely to fill more often than not. Suarez is as much creator as well as scorer, but I worry that playing him on the flanks in that system could put him where he's less dangerous. That Carroll is an every-game starter is by no means a given, but it'll take all of Dalglish's chutzpah to render a £35m player a spot starter.

The other elephant in the room is the obvious central midfield glut. Stockpiling in that area suggests either 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3; Liverpool would struggle to shoehorn Gerrard, Lucas, Adam, Henderson, Meireles, Spearing, etc in the 4-2-2-2 we saw during the latter half of last season. Aquilani's also lingering on the periphery, somehow still with the club, tempting us with whispered suggestions of potential. I still find it hard to believe he'll be on Merseyside come September.

It may seem too much muchness when other fields lay fallow, but it's both strength and depth in the most important part of the pitch, where the game is often won. Liverpool's best season in recent memory came with its strongest central midfield – a base of Mascherano-Alonso-Gerrard. That trio stuck to the "destroyer-passer-creator" archetype perfectly: Mascherano tackled, Alonso played chess, Gerrard made and notched goals.

This season's version is similar. Yes, it's probably weaker when everyone’s fit – Alonso is one of the best deep-lying passers in the world and Gerrard is three years older – but it's also less specialized and more versatile. Lucas isn't all snarls, tackles, and cards like Mascherano, Adam gets forward and scores more than Alonso. Gerrard's injury problems have only increased with age, but Liverpool has the likes of Henderson and Meireles (and possibly Aquilani) – each with different qualities – if the captain's (inevitably) unavailable. Both those players can also play wide if needed, as proven last season. This corps is far deeper than the '08-09 version, with Liverpool much less effective if one of Gerrard, Alonso, or Mascherano were missing. In the early, early stages of Hicks and Gillett's financial shenanigans, one of that side's biggest weaknesses was its lack of depth.

It's also worth noting that Liverpool's academy prospects are in better shape than ever. Spearing, Kelly, Flanagan, and Robinson have all successfully graduated to the first team, while Sterling, Coady, Wisdom, Ngoo, Suso, and others wait in the wings for their opportunity. I'll be amazed if fewer than 3-5 become first-team regulars in coming years, and we should start to see the likes of Sideshow Raheem et al make their debuts in this season's cup competitions.

The Chevrolet Keys To The Game
Subterranean Homesick Blues: Liverpool were indescribably atrocious away from Anfield under Hodgson. Dalglish's record was unsurprisingly better, but not better enough. Yes, under Dalglish, Liverpool did manage to win away more than once, and did manage to score more than one goal in multiple away matches. Dalglish's side even scored five in one match; Hodgson's Liverpool scored seven total in ten away matches. However, losses to relegated West Ham and Blackpool under Dalglish, as well as at West Brom and Villa, remain drilled deep in the memory.

With Liverpool's recently-acquired midfield versatility, we may well see different line-ups home and away. Dalglish's willingness to vary systems was evident in changing to three at the back against Chelsea, Stoke, and West Ham. That flexibility allows Liverpool to test multiple formations. As an example, Carroll could be used as an away day weapon/super sub – holding up play and bruising defenders away from Anfield comforts, with Liverpool reverting to a more mobile style on its own ground (as in the late season romps against Birmingham and Newcastle). But regardless of the solution, it's one of the problems most in need of remedy.

Keep On Keeping On: Liverpool were the third best side in the league from the date Dalglish took over through the end of the season. Only Chelsea and United gained more points than Liverpool from January 8 through mid-May. Remaining that strong is far easier said than done.

Liverpool never truly played without pressure after Dalglish's appointment, as some have suggested. But the pressure of expectations is both different and heavier than the pressures of playing for pride and a new manager. Not only that, but Liverpool will have to bed in new and important players into a potentially new system. And quickly. Last season's perennial starters Kuyt and Meireles look likely to lose their guaranteed places to Downing and Adam (and Carroll, in the case of Kuyt). Liverpool will need to start fast to prove to themselves and the chattering masses that they belong in the top tier of the top tier.

What is Liverpool's Best Side?: That aforementioned versatility could come at a cost. The extended, rambling discussion above hints at the fact we've no clue what Dalglish thinks is his best team. But Liverpool don't have the luxury of growing into the season at a leisurely pace. The team needs to gel quickly before the knives come out. And make no mistake, the toothy media horde are already sharpening said blades. The first six fixtures of the season are Sunderland (H), Arsenal (A), Bolton (H), Stoke (A), Tottenham (A), and Wolves (H). Two top-six trips London are no small matter, but it's a vastly easier start than last season, when Liverpool hosted Arsenal and traveled to City and United before the end of September.

No European Distraction: Yes, I'd rather be distracted, even if only by the Europa League. But I completely understand (and somewhat endorse) the argument that Liverpool's league form will benefit from a lack of continental competition. The still shallow side will have fewer games to play than their closest rivals, allowing for more training and recovery time between matches.

Liverpool's goal has to be a return to European competition, specifically THE European competition. Anything more is a pipe dream after finishing 22 points behind the leaders last season. And it'll be difficult to argue that anything less is a successful season. Liverpool have spent like a top four side, have the wage bill of a top four side, and finally seem to have a squad capable of being a top four side. But after the drama and trauma of the last two seasons, just seeing some stable progress is what's essential. Evolution, not revolution, and so on.

Just be better.

Update: As David helpfully reminded in the comments below, I've only mentioned the OYB Fantasy League on Twitter. And in case you're not following on there, I am "running" the league again this year and will try to maintain interest in it, with the potential of prizes at the end. I am sorry there were no prizes last year. There might not be prizes this year. But if I have some extra funds or advertisers send me free stuff, there will be at least one prize.

Anyway. The details. As always, the league is at the Premier League's official game. Create a team, then click "join a league." The entry code for the OYB League is 302898-189271. If you were in the league last year and create a team, I think you'll automatically be re-entered.

I'll put up another reminder in tomorrow's preview of the opening match against Sunderland.


David said...

Great preview as always.

I'm honestly, genuinely excited about this season. A welcome change from last year. Let's go Reds.

Also, is the OYB fantasy football league going on this season?

nate said...

Thanks for reminding me. Fantasy League details are above, in an update at the bottom of the preview.

Gabe said...

Great stuff.

You really don't see Kuyt starting regularly?

drew said...

First XIs are always deceptive thanks to injuries, though less so this year with the smaller number of matches. Kuyt will get plenty of starts.

Anyway, still hoping we can bring in a younger CB to ease Carra into coaching. And would really like to have seen one more experienced striker on the books, just someone who can go in and be a nuisance off the bench or when Carroll's out/rested. Maybe Ngoo will get a shot come Carling Cup time? (Draw's today, incidentally, we're in it at the second round for the first time in ages.)

Still I'm champing to get this campaign underway. If we can get off to a good start--take care of Sunderland, which will be no easy matter, and then u Arsenal while they're still unsettled--well, shit, that's at least a good start, innit?

In addition to the above, things I'm really hoping go right:

1) Carroll on the scoresheet early, rather than in the book. Honestly think Liverpool fans are underrating him a bit, thanks to how good Suarez has been. Will have to see how he adjusts to greater attention from the refs.

2) Agger healthy. God in heaven, please.

3) Youth blooded a bit. Cup runs should be great for this but also hoping to see some of the youngsters off the bench now and then. So much talent in the younger ranks.

4) Pass and move. 'Nuff said.

ndc said...

Nice post, nate. You seem to really get it in a way that a lot of others don't, for example not confusing our new depth with an increase in class and the remaining needs for a CB and striker. Well done.

Andy said...

With Per Mertesacker on the market there should be no question as to who we should be going after for CB. Sami Hyypia Part Deus.

Anonymous said...

I love the starting 11 what ifs. I would make three changes to your side. Two are very hard to truly say. I think Aquilani should be in the squad over Gerrard and Skrtel over Carra. Age has caught up with both legends and I don't think the heart they put in covers up for the diminishing skills. The third change would be Meireles over Adam. Meireles had a great season and remember he was a defensive midfielder at Porto. I think sitting next to Lucas with the ability to move forward fits in better with the pass and move.

nate said...


Yeah, agreed with Drew. Kuyt will get plenty of starts. Up front and on flanks. Won't start 50 or so games like usual (mostly because Liverpool won't play 50 or so with no European competition), but my very rough estimate would be around 25 starts.

Also, agreed with Drew on all that other stuff too. Especially that bit about Carroll. And Agger. And youth sub apps. And the pass and move. So yeah, all of it.


Mertesacker's a name often linked with Arsenal, but haven't seen him (seriously) mentioned for Liverpool, at least since Hodgson left. But aerially dominant center-backs are what LFC should be looking for. Agger's excellent at playing the ball on the ground, as is Wilson (at least for Scotland and in SPL), while Skrtel's passable until he gets the inevitable rush of blood to the head. Height and heading are the bigger concerns.

Abhiram said...

Kuyt has been the first name on starting 11 of both previous managers. I am sure he will be even in King Kenny's team as well, for this season.

Instead of Gerrard who's injured, i think it'll be Kuyt in the team you mentioned Nate.

I also feel, Downing, Henderson, Adam, Aquilani and Meireles will get their chances depending on their performances in the absence of Gerrard. Of-course it also depends on their staying on come September.

Anonymous said...

I think its a 4-2-2-2, but essentially a lop sided 442 reminiscent of '87






Enrique - Agger - Carra - Johnson
Robinson - Skrtel - Soto - Flanagan
Aurelio - Wilson - Kelly


So Downing will play further up the pitych, Suarez dropping deep - like Barnes/Beardsley.

I expect Gerrard to tuck in from the right (ala Houghton) and Hendo to fill in in the skippers absence.

Lucas is the McMahon to Meireles/Adams Whelan.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately it looks like there's no place for the Aquaman....

Anonymous said...

Makes interesting reading now