After losing Luis Suarez from an already thin squad, Brendan Rodgers has set about cultivating greater flexibility in attack but must buy further to decide upon a settled defenceANALYSIS
By George Ankers
This summer has already been one of the most interesting at Liverpool in years and could yet get more so. After the phenomenal achievement of finishing second in the Premier League last season, Brendan Rodgers faces his toughest challenge yet in losing his best player and simultaneously expanding the squad to meet demands increased in both frequency and difficulty.
The departure of Luis Suarez to Barcelona will have huge ramifications – both positive and negative - and one of them is the amount of money with which Rodgers has to play.
The Reds manager has wasted no time in getting started on addressing one of the biggest problems for Liverpool last term – a thin squad helped to stimulate some tactical trickery but did leave them exposed at times. It does, however, bode well that a first-choice XI (at least further forward) is difficult to predict with certainty.
One of Rodgers's tests will be dealing with the problem that Tottenham fumbled post-Gareth Bale: juggling several new, expensive faces all arriving in place of one guaranteed starter.
Suarez was both Liverpool's best goalscorer (with 31 in all competitions) and second-best creator, with 13 assists. Those separate qualities are most directly being replaced by Loic Remy, who is set to join from QPR for £8 million, and Adam Lallana but both cannot be integrated without a shuffle elsewhere. Then, of course, you also have Rickie Lambert and the very promising Lazar Markovic added to the mix and the impact on Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling’s roles to be considered.
The result, though, should be similar to last season. Liverpool's play during their best periods of 2013-14 was characterised by vicious, direct counterattacks, started from deep by Steven Gerrard and executed further forward with searing pace and ruthless finishing. The likes of Remy and Markovic, in particular, can maintain that pace and directness while Lambert and Lallana will encourage better combination play where before the Reds' strikers could, at times, be too individualistic.
While the midfield is built around Gerrard's regista role, two will continue to join him in the engine room, which leaves two real options for the shape of the forward line: either a tip of a midfield diamond and two out-and-out strikers or a wider three with one through the middle. Usefully, Rodgers now has the depth of talent to pick and choose depending on his opponents.
Whatever happens, Sturridge will have primacy and the rest of the pack will move around his usually central role. Even Lambert, still written off by some as a straight target man, offers a great deal of variation thanks to his intelligent movement and eye for a pass. Not only has the 32-year-old been effective further on the right flank at times for the Saints but he could also conceivably play at the top of the diamond while two quicker feet dash into the channels ahead of him.
Lallana's role, too, will be an interesting one. While trying to fit in the others further forward – as well as Philippe Coutinho – Rodgers might be tempted to bring the £25m man back a little to slot into the midfield.
Though Jordan Henderson is sure to start, who will take the other place as a busier central player easing Gerrard's burden is an open question. Appearances there were split fairly evenly between Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen in 2013-14 but the former looks set to join Napoli after an injury-affected couple of years and the latter is improving but not yet what you would call Champions League quality.
Though he rarely completed 90 minutes for Southampton last term, Lallana was fifth in the list of players who covered the most distance in the Premier League – Henderson was one of those ahead of him. While not his ideal position, the flexibility of a midfield three would allow him to get forward and get creative when on the ball and that could appeal to Rodgers.
Allen aside, the only other candidates for the position are Coutinho (even less natural) and Emre Can (who will need more time to adapt and is likely better suited to being Gerrard's standby-come-successor). Again, though, the Reds benefit from having so many options.
The only perplexing thing about their summer business is how it has taken so long to start to address their defence. With a more settled, competent back line, Liverpool would probably have won the league last year and only now, after four confirmed recruits up top, are they on the verge of making one defensive signing.
That man is Dejan Lovren as Rodgers once again raids Southampton and, when a deal expected to be worth over £20m is completed imminently, the Croatian should slot in as Liverpool’s first-choice centre-back. He will likely be joined by Martin Skrtel after the Reds' other options – Mamadou Sakho, Daniel Agger and Kolo Toure – all failed to nail down a regular spot last season.
Playing 16, 15 and 14 times, respectively, at centre-back in 2013-14, the trio's struggles contributed to a defensive record of 50 goals conceded which was worse than 11th-placed Crystal Palace (48). Lovren's Saints, meanwhile, let in only 46 thanks to his solid partnership with Jose Fonte.
Full-backs are the final concern and Liverpool would do well to bring in at least one extra body here before the window closes. If, as reports suggest, they are out to gazump Arsenal for the loan signing of right-back Javi Manquillo, that would be a step in the right direction – Glen Johnson has lost the consistency of two or three years ago and his struggles with England this summer only underlined his positioning issues.
Jon Flanagan was one of the revelations of last season as an unorthodox left-back and the 21-year-old merits being first choice on either flank this time around. Whether or not that should be on his natural right side will likely come down to whether or not Rodgers also brings in a left-sided defender but the new England international deserves a crack at Johnson's role.
Overall, though, Liverpool's early moves to replace Suarez and build upon what was the most exciting team of 2013-14 look very shrewd indeed. Where before there was one unstoppable star, Rodgers now has an array of options at his disposal; it will be fascinating to see exactly how he deploys them.
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