15 August 2012

2012-13 Liverpool Season Preview

Year Zero? Year Zero.

Is this the third year zero or the first? It's the third year in a row where Liverpool have started the season with a new manager, something that's never happened in the club's 120-year history. Brendan Rodgers replaces Dalglish who replaced Hodgson who replaced Benitez. But if Hodgson wasn't year zero and Dalglish wasn't year zero, why is Rodgers?

Hodgson was the last dismal dying breath of the previous owners' malignant regime. Dalglish was never FSG's choice for Liverpool's renaissance, with their hand forced by the surprisingly improved results during the 2010-11 run-in. Brendan Rodgers is FSG's first manager, and their ownership will be defined by his results – not necessarily this season's results, but over the long term. Because this is a long-term hire. Which is why this is much more a year zero than any Liverpool season since 2004-05.

Summer Business:
In: Joe Allen (£15m), Fabio Borini (£10.4m) = £25.4m
Out: Alberto Aquilani (£7m), Fabio Aurelio (free), Craig Bellamy (free), Dirk Kuyt (£1m), Maxi Rodriguez (free) = £8m

Rodgers impressed FSG so much that they did away with their notion of a director of football, although Damien Comolli's almost-wholly inauspicious tenure may have made that an easier decision.

Comolli's one true success – aside from signing Luis Suarez, of course – was last summer's deadwood clear-out. Joe Cole somehow found his way back, but Konchesky, Poulsen, Jovanovic, Kyrgiakos, El Zhar, and Degen got gone and stayed gone, saving Liverpool millions after Hicks, Gillett, Purslow, and Hodgson wasted more millions on their purchases and salaries.

And as with last summer, Liverpool prioritized clearing out older players on relatively high wages, slash-and-burn agriculture so new fields can start from scratch. Or as close to scratch as possible.

If reports are to be believed, Rodgers didn't want to lose either Bellamy and Maxi – both would have fit fairly flawlessly into the new system – but relented to let them join boyhood favorites in their home countries. How touching. Kuyt was one of Liverpool's highest earners and a fan favorite, but his increasingly decreasing output made him more than expendable. We've finally passed the point of no return with Alberto Aquilani: no more band-aid loans, no more false hope that this might be the year where he returns to save the world. All, along with the sadly perpetually-broken Fabio Aurelio, cost Liverpool more than they were worth to the club or Rodgers' squad.

Rodgers first two signings followed this new template. Both are under 22, Premiership-experienced, teeming-with-potential starlets who've already made international debuts. Both are prototypical Rodgers-style players who Rodgers has managed before, and both fill problem areas from last season's Liverpool squad. And, incidentally, neither happen to be English.

The summer's business isn't over by any stretch of the imagination, and probably won't be until the last minute and last second of the transfer window. Liverpool will continue to try to sell Carroll, hoping that someone will pay somewhere near £20m and Carroll might actually agree to the move. We can scream, shout, and threaten all we want, but if City stump up £27m, Daniel Agger will probably depart as well. I am not liable for my words or actions if that happens, but we'll burn that bridge if we come to it.

Despite a still somewhat-too-shallow squad, there's only one huge hole apparent. And it's the drum I've been banging all summer: Liverpool needs needs needs at least one more wide forward to compete with Borini, Downing, Sterling, and Cole (and sometimes, possibly, Suarez). We've seen Clint Dempsey, Cristian Tello, Theo Walcott, Adam Johnson, and Gaston Ramirez mooted, but we've no idea who, if any, the club prefers. Or could get. Which, I guess, it how it should be. That Shelvey was used there for 45 minutes in Sunday's friendly – a position he played while on loan at Blackpool but assuredly isn't his best – demonstrates that the manager's cognizant of the issue as well. But whether he's able to rectify it before August 31 remains to be seen.

Expected Formation and Suspected Depth Chart:

Otherwise, Liverpool has a fairly strong first XI, and a fair bit of depth in certain positions. With the signing of Joe Allen, Liverpool has an impressive, versatile, and relatively youthful central midfield. Nearly every three-man midfield is built on the creator-passer-destroyer archetype: Gerrard, Henderson, Shelvey, and potentially Adam can play as the attacking midfielder creator; Allen, Henderson, Shelvey, and Adam can fill the passer role; and Lucas, Allen, and Spearing can play as the deeper destroyer. All but Gerrard are 26 or younger; Adam is 26, Lucas 25, Spearing 23, Allen and Henderson 22, and Shelvey is 20. If Liverpool sign Nuri Sahin on loan, as has been heavily rumored, the midfield will be even stronger, but that would seemingly demand someone make way, whether it's Shelvey loaned out or Adam sold.

If Agger stays (pleasepleaseplease don't make me beg), Liverpool's first-choice defense should remain one of the strongest in the league. He and Skrtel are arguably the best center-back pairing in the Premiership, while Glen Johnson is one of the best right-backs and Jose Enrique – for all his faults, especially in the opposition half – is at least "above average." Only City and United conceded fewer goals last season, with 29 and 33 to Liverpool's 40 (Everton also conceded 40). As with everywhere else in the squad, depth is a concern (except at right back), but Carragher remains serviceable – and, on the whole, impressed in preseason – while Coates has clear potential. Danny Wilson, Stephen Sama, and Andre Wisdom all made preseason appearances as well, and could all benefit from loan moves. Jack Robinson is another for the future, while both Johnson and Kelly can also deputize at left-back if need be.

Suarez, Borini, and Carroll (with the now-usual "if he stays" caveat) can all play as the central striker, with Morgan as fourth-choice back-up if the other three are somehow absent. None can replicate Suarez's all-around brilliance, but Borini has played as the focal point in Rodgers' system before, while Carroll demonstrated that there's at least a chance that he can fit in this style of play against Bayer Leverkusen.

However, the flanks remain an rather large issue. If Downing can continue in the form he's shown on the right in these very early matches, the Borini-Suarez-Downing troika could be very impressive; how they linked up against Gomel is the template, and in theory, should get even better as they familiarize with the system and each other. But if Borini or Suarez are missing, Liverpool could well be in trouble. Deep trouble.

Liverpool are going to play 4-3-3. Whether it's a 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-2-3 variant remains to be seen, but the last three matches suggest the former will be the dominant version. Even if Suarez or Gerrard or Lucas or Borini or Allen or whomever is missing, that will almost certainly remain the preferred formation. Liverpool will have to find a way to plug those holes if key players are missing, because the pattern of play will likely remain the same. On the whole, Liverpool should be able to compensate if one or even two of those players are absent, as long as it's not for an extended spell. Any more than that, however…

Miscellaneous Thoughts, Comments, Concerns…
• Whither Fortress Anfield? If we're starting from square one, the first task is improving Liverpool's home form. Liverpool's Anfield winning percentage last season was an abhorrent 32%. Six wins, nine draws, and four losses. A possible 57 points and Liverpool earned just 27, an average of 1.42 points-per-game. The last time Liverpool failed to win less than half of its league matches at Anfield? 2002-03. Prior to that? 1969-1970. Despite the multiple, egregious failings in 2009-10 and 2010-11, Liverpool still won 68% and 63% of its home matches. Hopefully the new red nets portend a better future. It can't get much worse.

• We always complain about the difficulty of the first few fixtures and the necessity of a strong start to begin the campaign on the right foot. But it's exceptionally true this season. Liverpool will face last season's top three within the first five games, albeit at home, with trips to West Brom – against Liverpool's previous assistant manager – and Sunderland – where Liverpool have lost in two of the last three seasons – rounding out the bunch. Incidentally, Sunderland away was the last opening day fixture which Liverpool won, way back in August 2008. Since then, Liverpool have lost, drawn, and drawn its first league match.

The Europa League will also impact those league fixtures. Matches against Manchester City and Arsenal will take place three days after the two legs against Hearts; neither City nor Arsenal will have Champions League matches that week. If Liverpool qualify for the group stage, they'll play United (H), Stoke (H), Everton (A), Chelsea (A), Swansea (A), and West Ham (A) after each of the six group matches. Liverpool's schedule will be far more compressed this season – matches will come fast and furious, on the dreaded Thursday/Sunday schedule more often than not – and it's still more than debatable whether Liverpool has the squad to cope.

• And whether or not Liverpool has the squad to cope with the amount of matches, the club will also remain fairly reliant on Suarez and Gerrard. That's not to downplay the importance of, say, Lucas – especially Lucas, which last season painfully proved – or Agger or Reina, but only those two lightning rods can grab the game by its cliched 'scruff of the neck,' evidenced by the dramatic difference in the home and away legs against Gomel. The two started together in just nine league matches last season, and Gerrard played as a deeper 4-4-2 midfielder in most of them; it should be a much different story if he remains in a more attacking role. Liverpool should be a more cohesive team this season, one of the hallmarks of Rodgers' system, but its fortunes will most likely stay dependent on Gerrard and Suarez's successes. The two combined for 34% of Liverpool Premiership goals last season, 33% of the goals in all competitions. Even if Liverpool gets better production from the supporting cast – and honestly, there's seemingly nowhere to go but up in that category – as those two go, so goes Liverpool. Plus, Lucas. Always Lucas.

• Sometimes, it's better to be lucky than good. And Liverpool had less than zero luck last season. The woodwork, the missed penalties, Suarez's suspension, Lucas injured for two-thirds of the season. If Liverpool can convert more clear-cut chances, if Liverpool can keep key players fit and available, then Liverpool will be better. If Liverpool are "luckier" than average, whatever your definition of luck, then Liverpool could be really good. Those are obviously fairly big ifs. Honestly, all I'm asking for is regression – or, more aptly, progression – to the mean.

The usual mantra of "just be better," that all that's required is evolution from the previous season, won't suffice this year. Liverpool should better last season's return, at least in the league, just by showing up. There seems little way that Liverpool could hit the woodwork 33 times or miss five penalties. Liverpool cannot possibly draw 150% more home games than they win.

However, I'm sick of hearing about the importance of fourth, the importance of the Champions League. I imagine you're sick of hearing it too. Of course that's a goal, but it's not an expectation. It can't be an expectation when Liverpool haven't come close to achieving it in the last two seasons.

Still, the core of Suarez, Gerrard, Lucas, Reina, Skrtel, and Johnson (and Agger!) rivals almost any other club at those positions. Borini and Allen are valuable additions, Henderson, Shelvey, and Sterling could well be stars of the future. Once Liverpool's best players became involved, Liverpool looked incredibly promising against both Gomel and Leverkusen. While that's not saying much at this very, very early stage, it's cause for optimism.

And after the last few years, we could certainly do with some optimism.

Tradition dictates that I restart the OYB fantasy league, after a couple of people asked about it and I got a handful of replies on Twitter. There are almost assuredly no prizes unless advertisers send me free stuff (ps: send me free stuff), and I will probably stop remembering to update my team around November, but dammit, tradition is tradition.

I use the official Premier League game. Create a team, then click "join a league." The entry code for the OYB League is 853013-274016. I'm pretty sure if you were in the league last year and create a team, you'll automatically be re-entered.


Keith said...

As always, thanks for your musings, nate. Really looking forward to the season.

A tactical question -- do you think it's necessary to have a typical speedy-type somewhere at the front of a 4-3-3? It seems to me that most of those guys -- the Lennon's, Navas', Walcott's and, to an extent, Downing's of the world -- are one-trick ponies. That's obviously a bit of an exaggeration, but while it's nice to have a guy who's fast and can take a full-back on, I don't like those qualities at the expense of ball and player movement. The argument for these players usually goes that width is needed and that they stretch the defense, but in Liverpool's current set-up, I think I'd be content if a combination of Borini, Suarez and the full-backs are the ones making touchline runs.

I have Sahin in mind with this question. I'm sure you'll have a post if the rumors are true and he signs, but my initial thought would be Gerrard taking Downing's spot (albeit with more freedom to work inside), Sahin slotting in as the furthest of the middle three, and Allen + Lucas as your deeper, ball winning and possession keeping midfielders.


Edward said...

Thanks for the pre-season thoughts, Nate.

Cracked out on anticipation. YNWA.

nate said...

I think the 4-3-3 system allows the likes of speed-merchants such as Navas, Lennon, Walcott, Tello et al more leeway, because they usually have less defensive responsibility with three central midfielders and slightly-more restrained full-backs.

But I don't think it's necessary to have guys like that. Especially in Rodgers' 4-3-3, which demands that the wide forwards/wingers/whatever you want to call them also track back. You can see this in how Sterling played against Toronto/Roma compared to Leverkusen. He was far, far better in the last friendly.

With Borini-Suarez-Downing, the plan seems to be using inverted wingers, allowing Borini and Downing to cut inside while Suarez moves wherever he damn well pleases, overlapped by the fullbacks on occasion (Johnson more so than Enrique). Which seems a decent idea to me. Having Sterling as Borini's back-up would support this notion. As would adding Dempsey, a right-footer who often plays on the left, or Adam Johnson, a left-footer who often plays on the right – two names we've seen mooted during this window.

Glen Johnson would continue to stretch play on the right, Enrique would ideally do so on the left – hopefully more impressively than he did last season. But it's still very early, and we don't know what kind of wide forward Liverpool will end up with. I'm fairly certain they'll get one of the mooted targets, just because it's such a need position, but I honestly have no clue who. We've seen both one-trick speed merchants (Tello, Walcott), and versatile forwards who can play on either side (Dempsey, Adam Johnson).

As much as the idea of Gerrard on the right interests me, I just don't see it happening. Of course, a month ago, I would have guessed that Gerrard would mostly play like he did last season, in a deeper role, so I'm willing to be pleasantly surprised. If Sahin comes, I think he'd split time with Allen and Lucas. Four guys for three spots. Allen's still young, Lucas is coming off a devastating injury, and Sahin had his own injury troubles last season. Then spot starts/sub appearances for Henderson and Shelvey. Liverpool will need that sort of squad rotation if they advance in any (or, ideally, all) of the cups.

Mike Georger said...

Zero? Who the fuck is Zero?

Year Zero! The Avenging Year!

Anonymous said...

Anyone tell me, where is Pacheco? :(