With the 2012-13 English Premier League season on the horizon, Tezini’s crew of soccer experts is here to get you ready for all the cracking finishes, devilish challenges and unforgettable drama. Over the next two weeks, we’ll give each club its proper due in a free-flowing roundtable discussion. We continue with Liverpool.
AJ: OK, guys. We’ve finally made it. Time to talk about the biggest clubs in England, which means more debate, jokes and long-winded emails, and, in the case of Liverpool, an overdose of schadenfreude. None of us are Reds fans here, so let’s all take a minute to point and laugh at their 2011-12 season. Eighth place. Andy Carroll. Luis Suarez’s suspension. £19 million for Stewart Downing. Haha. Ahahahaha. Ha. As a Newcastle fan, I think my favorite sight was Jose Enrique ending up in goal at the end of their 2-0 loss in the Toon, but I’m sure we all have our cherished memories from the LOLverpool Schadenfreude Tour of 2011-12.
I’m enjoying all the memories, and fondly, especially because I have this feeling that it won’t last. Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher notwithstanding, there’s actually quite a bit of youth here in the form of Jonjo Shelvey, Martin Kelly, Jay Spearing, Sebastian Coates and, yes, Jordan Henderson. I can’t imagine Henderson or Downing being as bad as they were last season. Charlie Adam is back from injury. Who knows, Suarez might even be able to keep himself from hurling racial epithets at opponents and thus not miss a big swath of the season. I’m cautiously optimistic about Liverpool because just about everything seemed to go poorly for them last season.
That comes with a sizeable caveat of course because we don’t know how new manager Brendan Rodgers will be able to integrate his distinct passing-oriented style with what amounts to Kenny Dalglish’s players. We also don’t know where the goals are going to come from up front, and that’s probably the bigger ongoing issue with this team. Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll, as unplayable as they are when they’re in-form, can be incredibly wasteful in front of goal — and they were just that for big parts of last season.
Liverpool ranked 11th in the Premier League with 47 goals last season. Norwich, Everton, Fulham and Blackburn(?!?!?) all found the back of the net more times. If Rodgers solves that particular riddle, Liverpool might find their way back to where their fans think they belong.
Sam: I think it’s safe to say that literally everything that could have gone wrong for Liverpool last year, did. What a bunch of pathetic losers. As an Everton fan, it was particularly satisfying for me to see the depths of the messy Liverpool season last year.
AJ, your point about goals is well taken, but it’s my opinion that the larger point with Liverpool is the fact that they’ve systematically sold off all of their players in the last five seasons, and their replacements have simply not been as good as their predecessors.
Liverpool has never, in my short memory span, had anything more than a serviceable winger (everyone remembers Jermaine Pennant) so it’s not that surprising to me that Downing and Henderson blow. Everyone expects both of them to be better this year, and while I think it is likely, the other possibility is that neither of them were ever that good. This gets back to what I was saying about the systematic dissolution of a solid core of players at Liverpool. For all the cash they splash each offseason, they either couldn’t manage to keep hold of their truly elite players or didn’t recognize their true value. Both of those explanations are very, very problematic for their fortunes going forward.
The larger issue is that they’ve both let their young players walk from the spine of their team, and retained their aging, injury-prone members of the old guard. There’s nothing to be done about retaining the likes of Carragher and Gerrard because of their importance to the team over the past 10 years. The problem is, by letting Xabi Alonso, and to a lesser extent Javier Mascherano, walk, you’re likely shortening Stevie G’s career, and definitely reducing the number of matches that he’s able to play on a year-to-year basis. The beauty of what Liverpool was able to do when they finished second in the league was that Mascherano and Xabi were so solid and incredible at distribution, respectively, that they were able to take defensive responsibilities away from Gerrard — making his balky hamstring less of an issue. Add into this Fernando Torres in the prime of his career and Jamie Carragher at the tail end of his best years, and you can see why they once challenged for the title.
At this point this is all ancient history, and the collapse of that Liverpool team has been autopsied by better (and worse) analysts than me, but, personally, I can’t separate their current situation with the decisions they made around dismantling that team.
Yes, their young players have a lot of deserved hype surrounding them, and we’ll see which of them pans out. Coates is my personal favorite, mainly because he’s Uruguayan, his name is really fun to say and he was young player of the tournament at the 2011 Copa America. I’m going to be upset if he doesn’t get playing time this year, because he looks really awesome.
I’ll leave the Rodgers talk to other people since I’ve already written about what I care about, but it will be nice to see attractive football come out of Liverpool, even though I will be hoping the losses continue to pile up.
AJ: If we assume that you and I hit two sides of a narrative that explains Liverpool’s stunning eighth-place finish last year — that they were comically unlucky and they also just weren’t that good — then we have to answer one main question about them going forward. Are they any better than they were?
I would argue that they aren’t, at least not in the short-term, and mostly because this is a team in total flux. Rodgers has a specific style he wants to play, but he doesn’t have the players needed to implement it completely just yet. [Ed. Note: New signing Joe Allen should help.] That probably means we’re in for another round of big spending and mediocre results, at least initially. If the Reds get a little luckier than last season, I can see them jumping above Everton and into seventh place but not much further. They finished pretty far adrift of Newcastle and Chelsea, so far in fact that luck doesn’t explain the gap in the standings.
Separately, and building on your awesome point about their lack of quality wing play as well, Sam, the reason I tipped Liverpool for trouble last year was their backline, which was actually a complete strength — their 40 goals being the fewest conceded aside from the Manchester clubs. (Shows what I know). The midfield was surprisingly poor and their striking was unreliable at best. Is Joe Allen the cure-all in the middle of the park? I don’t see it, especially not at the quoted £15 million fee — a price which I’m surprised the Fenway Sports Group is stomaching at this stage. Is Fabio Borini going to give them a steadier presence at forward? Again, I don’t see it.
This could get worse before it gets better.
Mark: I’m on the record as being incapable of talking logically about Liverpool FC, but given what happened last year I think we can all simply just throw out all sense when it comes to the Reds. Let’s run out a few more facts, shall we?
I’m surprised there wasn’t a petition stemming from Merseyside to widen the goal this season, seeing as how Liverpool hit the woodwork 33 times last term, more than any other team. Somewhat related, they were putrid in front of goal, turning just nine percent of shots into goals, which was good for dead last in the league. They won the most corners and had the most headed shots on goal than any other team, and yet inexplicably could not turn them into points at nearly every stretch. The ladies at Anfield were also historically unlucky as well, seeing as how Liverpool could have comprised an all-ugly team last year with Jay Spearing, Martin Skrtel, Luis Suarez, Charlie Adam, Dirk Kuyt, Lucas, and Jonjo Shelvey clunking about. If you square away Suarez’s eight-match ban and the loss of legitimate midfield creator Lucas (something I never thought I’d say in my life) as “unlucky” or at least “unfortunate,” you have a team that just has to be better this season.
Yet, just when you think they could not have been unluckier last term, you find out that they benefited from five opponent own goals (tied for most in the Premier League). Also, in what universe is this team set up for anything like the tika-taka escapades that Brendan Rodgers plans to implement? It’s a leap of faith to assume that Gerrard is going to have a career renaissance or that Adam is going to find the magic touch from the Blackpool days, which seemingly is why there was a monstrous bid in the offing for Joe Allen. I’m with you AJ, I had a hard time seeing John Henry and the like throwing out a £20 million bid for Joe Allen given the unempressive Andy Carroll/Suarez/Henderson/Adam outlay, but the funny thing is I think Allen could really add value as both a player and a bridge to the new era for which fans at the Kop are so desperate.
Sam, I think you can officially add Raul Miereles and Dirk Kuyt to the Liverpool core that has yet to come close to being replaced. Borini is a nice piece that fits into Rodgers’ presumed scheme better than Kuyt, but I always appreciated Kuyt for what he was — a line-to-line player who did enough chasing for Gerrard and Co. to do what they did best.
AJ: I love Dirk Kuyt. Love him. I’m not a tactical expert, but it seems like he has a place in almost any system because of his fanatical work rate. Maybe he’s not a starter anymore, especially at 32, and maybe that’s why he’s off to Fenerbahce, but he’ll be missed all the same.
As a near complete aside: I’m also fascinated by the sheen being completely off John Henry at this point. Without Theo Epstein as a general manager, he has a shitty track record of success as an owner.
Sam: I don’t even think that Theo Epstein could have saved this Liverpool squad construction. Oh wait, yes he could have. #stillthegoldenboy
AJ: He wouldn’t have spent £19 million on Stewart Downing, to be sure. #IgnoretheCarlCrawfordintheRoom #IgnoretheJulioLugointheRoom
Getting back on track, what is it about Liverpool and silly numbers? Going out or coming in, the transfer fees quoted around Anfield have been utterly ridiculous over the past 18 months and this summer seems to be no different. To wit, they paid that big fee for Joe Allen (*rubs eyes in disbelief*) and are asking more than £20 million from Manchester City for Daniel Agger. Maybe I haven’t been paying as close attention to these players as I should have been, but am I alone in thinking that both of those fees seem absurdly inflated?
I don’t really understand what Liverpool is doing from a mile up and looking back on the entirety of the John Henry era. The only counterbalance to that is Rodgers, who I think deserves, and will get, a fair shake to completely remake this side.
Mark: Simply put, I think the ridiculous transfer fees are explained by a nasty combination of two (related) things:
First, the cheek-clenching nerves around Anfield, where supporters, owners, coaches and players alike feel an absurd amount of pressure to return Liverpool to their “rightful glory,” and the rapid managerial turnover that results from a string of disappointing seasons.
And second, new coaches want to implement their program and are always going to pay a premium for players who fit in best (see Allen, Joe, £15 million), particularly when there’s no guarantee that they’re going to be granted patience from a fanbase that go to great pains to talk about their 18 titles.
That said, if Daniel Agger is worth close to a cool £20 million, then I’m considering putting myself on the Washington, D.C. think-tank open market to see if my current employer can fetch six figures by selling my services. Whoo boy.
You have to think with Allen’s arrival, that Adam must be feeling the squeeze a little bit. Allen probably plays in a deeper-lying role for this team, but I see no reason why the offense won’t run through him, particularly given Adam’s unspectacular first season at the Kop.
In all honesty, though, have we ever been less sure of how a team is going to perform than Liverpool? Their range in the table is remarkably wide for a “good team” — they’re not going to be worse than 10th and they’re not going to be better than 3rd or 4th (though the latter would be a minor miracle) — but both tactically and psychologically, I don’t even think they know what to expect.