This isn't quite a "make or break" season, but we're getting there.
Last season was something of a write-off. New manager, a new playing style, and a handful of new players. All we really wanted was some sort of tangible progress we could point to, to say "yes, there might finally be some light at the end of this interminable tunnel." Which we got, especially in the second half of the season, despite finishing a disappointing seventh.
In: Luis Alberto (£6.8m), Iago Aspas (£7m), Simon Mignolet (£9m), Kolo Toure (free) = £22.8m
Out: Jamie Carragher (retired), Andy Carroll (£15m), Stewart Downing (£6m), Pepe Reina (loan), Jonjo Shelvey (£6m), Jay Spearing (£1.7m) = £28.7m
If you count January transfers, all of Liverpool's business has been straight swaps. Sturridge for Carroll, Coutinho for Shelvey, Mignolet for Reina, Aspas for Downing, Toure for Carragher, and Luis Alberto for Joe Cole. Spearing, on loan, didn't feature in last season's side, and probably doesn't need replacing in Rodgers' eyes. Each new signing is arguably better than the Liverpool player they're taking over for – except Toure for Carragher, although Kolo's looked a more than decent player during preseason. Just as importantly in FSG's view, each is younger, and is on substantially lower wages without reducing the overall quality in the side. Coupled with January's deals, Liverpool's net transfer spend in the calendar year is around £15m, not counting the massive reduction in wages.
Unfortunately, despite the excellent start to this summer's business, Liverpool haven't added anyone since July 1, with Alberto, Aspas, Mignolet, and Toure all wrapped up before the transfer window even opened.
Mkhitaryan? Nope. Diego Costa? Staying at Atletico on an improved contract. Papadopoulos, or some other colossus center-back? Nope. Competition for Lucas? Incredibly unlikely. Competition for Enrique? Not yet, although there are rumors that Granada's Guilherme Siqueira could be imminent.
If the above is the end of Liverpool's transfer dealings, so be it. The squad is better. And younger and cheaper, but more importantly, better. But it could be even better than it is. There have been too many lost opportunities over the last five years.
And then there was the whole Suarez fiasco. At least Liverpool seemingly played that well. No bid came in from Real Madrid or Bayern, and with Arsenal the only suitor, Liverpool refused to sell. Rightfully so. I'd have sold an unhappy Suarez to Real for £40m. I wouldn't have sold to Arsenal for £140m. You don't strength direct competitors, something Arsenal painfully learned with van Persie last season.
But I'll be honest. I still don't necessarily see where Luis fits into the team that Rodgers is building.
Expected Formation and Suspected Depth Chart:
I truly expected Suarez to leave this summer, and while it may still happen, it does not look likely. The signings of Aspas and Luis Alberto, and the pursuit of players such as Mkhitaryan and Diego Costa only fed into that notion. All seemed signings meant to help replace Suarez rather than co-exist with him.
Liverpool with Sturridge and Coutinho looked a completely different side in the second half of the season. And Suarez looked a different player, one who was beginning to fit into a team rather than being the team's sole shining light: averaging more than a shot less per match after Sturridge's debut – 5.75 compared to 4.6 – but putting more of his shots on target – 2.0 compared to 2.62– with only a small drop in goals per game and almost exactly the same number of chances created per game. Meanwhile, Sturridge chipped in with 10 league goals over 14 games, putting 62% of his shots on target, while Coutinho picked up the slack in chance creation, totaling the same number of assists in 13 games as Suarez did in 33. Only Santi Cazorla averaged more accurate throughballs per match than Coutinho last season.
When you have world class players – and Suarez remains a world class player, no matter his baggage – you make it work. But Sturridge has looked most effective as the spearhead. Coutinho has looked most effective when playing as the #10. Suarez has been vastly more effective in those two positions. Does that mean Suarez is relegated to the flank, where he's frequently failed to impress, or Coutinho is?
The easy answer to that question is "it depends on the opposition." And that will probably be the case. If it's, say, Arsenal away, maybe Liverpool line up like they did last season, with Suarez on the left, Sturridge central, and Coutinho on the bench in order to use three central midfielders. But if it's Norwich or Palace or Hull at home, we could see similar to the team which beat Swansea at home in February: Sturridge and Suarez central, with Coutinho cutting inside from the left. While neither Suarez nor Sturridge looked anywhere near their best the few times each was used on the flanks, using either there remains a possibility, one that may well improve with time. And if one of Liverpool's multi-functional attackers are missing – say, due to suspension – Liverpool have a variety of replacements, the option to change either personnel or formation. Options aren't a bad thing to have.
Brendan Rodgers is building a team full of multi-functional attackers. Besides Suarez, Coutinho, and (to a lesser extent) Sturridge, Aspas can play on the right or as the main striker. Supposedly, Luis Alberto can play pretty much anywhere in attack. Both Sterling and Ibe can line up on either flank. Fabio Borini played in all three attacking positions last season (we'll avoid mentioning how well he did in those roles, mind). Henderson and Allen can play any of the three midfield positions, while I still think Henderson's best position in this Liverpool side might well be on the left.
But, yes, there are still glaring weaknesses. Most notably, another center-back, especially given Liverpool's weaknesses last season – especially in the air – as well as a left-back to challenge Jose Enrique, but also cover for Lucas – unless Rodgers believes that Allen and/or Henderson are more equipped to fill that role than they were in 2012-13.
Could Liverpool finish fourth, even without any more additions? Actually, yes. The squad's marginally better, and had a decent offseason and preseason to build on the gains made from January on. In the last 19 games of last season, Tottenham were only three points better than Liverpool, Arsenal four. Arsenal haven't strengthened (yet) – partly thanks to Liverpool. Tottenham have, but their squad isn't that much better than Liverpool's, and they're ostensibly in the same position as Liverpool in keeping a potentially unhappy talisman, with fewer possible replacements in the squad. Who knows how the Bale situation plays out. In complete contrast to last season, Liverpool have one of the easiest opening halves of their campaign, and could build up some serious momentum by January. Winning begets winning, after all.
But could Liverpool finish sixth? Easily. That's probably the more likely result. And if it happens, it may well be cause for alarm. But it also may well be the fair result. Liverpool have a lot of ground to make up to catch up with Tottenham and Arsenal, let alone the best three clubs in the division. Liverpool could make up a fair bit of that ground and still finish behind them. Like last season, what will matter is progress: if we saw it, and how much of it.
• Shooting: Just read this. Also, see this image from Dan Kennett's excellent season preview on Stats Bomb.
• Aerial duels: Only Wigan won fewer last season. And, statistically, Kolo Toure's even worse in the air than Carragher. Gulp.
• Mentality: WBA (a), Arsenal (h), Tottenham (a), Aston Villa (h), United (a), WBA (h), Southampton (a)
Those are the matches Liverpool lost after conceding first.
- Sunderland (a), Newcastle (h), Chelsea (a), City (a), Chelsea (h)
Those are the matches Liverpool drew after conceding first.
- Aston Villa (a), Fulham (a)
Those are the matches that Liverpool won after conceding first. Just two, both in the final two months of the season.
When Liverpool scored early, Liverpool usually ran riot. Norwich (twice), Wigan, Fulham, Swansea, Sunderland, QPR, and Newcastle. The only match Liverpool lost after scoring in the opening quarter of the game was at Stoke, a 1-3 defeat after Gerrard's 2nd-minute penalty; as usual, Stoke's the exception that proves the rule. The only other loss after scoring first was the home match against United, where a ten-man Liverpool took the lead early in the second half but lost 1-2 after a contentious winning penalty from van Persie.
But when Liverpool concede early, Liverpool all too often struggle. The above list of fixtures, and – if, for some reason, we're putting stock in preseason – last week's friendly against Celtic spring immediately to mind. Draws from that situation against the likes of Chelsea (twice) and City at least demonstrate that the side was more resilient than the soul-killing 2011-12 model, but there's still a too frequent pattern to Liverpool losses, especially losses against teams Liverpool should expect to beat. Allow an unlikely opener, then fail to break through a resolute defense despite overwhelming possession and numerous chances. Liverpool will need to continue the slow but steady improvement in this area that we saw as last season went on.
But that's pretty much the mantra for every facet of this campaign.