By Kevin Koczwara
There are only a few team specific blogs on the Internet that I read. I’m picky. I want quality writing and quality analysis. I don’t much care for rumors or hypothetical. I want meat when I read. That’s why I read Oh You Beauty, a Liverpool centered blog run by a man named Nate.
A few weeks ago I asked Nate if he’d be interested in writing a guest post for The Red Letter and he seemed hesitant. Then I proposed we do a little e-mail exchange for a post about the upcoming season. We could have some discussion on what to expect and ask one another a question or two. It worked out pretty well.
Here’s what came from it.
First, here’s a link to Liverpool’s 2012-13 schedule if you need some refreshing.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me about Liverpool’s upcoming season. This should be fun and full of good banter. First and foremost, I want to applaud your blog Oh You Beauty. I can’t think of another independent team specific blog on the Internet that’s as good as yours — some come close.
So thank you for doing this for The Red Letter. It’s much appreciated.
To start this off let’s talk about a realistic finish for Liverpool this season. I know at this time you’re writing up your season preview for OYB, so I can only imagine how many times you’ve already thought about and written about this subject this week. With that said, I want a rundown of a realistic finish for Liverpool in the Premier League table and why.
I got Brendan Rodgers’ side finishing 6th, with a real chance at 5th.
Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal are all above in class right now — and all have settled managers with players that fit their style and ideology. Chelsea has some glaring holes in defense that needs some help — it’s old, rickety and a bit injury-prone at this point — but it should finish in the top four with all the young attacking potential it has.
That leaves leapfrogging Tottenham, Newcastle and Everton.
Spurs don’t have an out-an-out forward yet. If Emmanuel Adebayor doesn’t agree to personal terms and André Villas-Boas can’t find someone other than Jermaine Defoe, he will find it hard to score goals. On top of not having a forward, it looks like AVB could be without his best player shortly with Real Madrid getting closer and closer to signing the little witch Luka Modric. Put that on the cake with AVB being in his first season at Tottenham and how his high-pressing style can be tough to adapt too (as Chelsea fans saw first hand last season) and it’s good betting that Spurs don’t finish top four again.
Newcastle surprised people last season, but will that happen again? I don’t know. That team is nicely built, but if any injuries happen to its two goalscorers Demba Ba and Papa Cisse, then all bets are off. Newcastle has arguably less back-up at forward than Liverpool does. Newcastle has a good core in defense and Tim Krul in goal, so it will be tough to beat, which is a big plus. Liverpool will be battling them for the 5th spot all season.
Everton, well, the Blues are whatever David Moyes can pull out of his magic hat.
Now for Liverpool.
Rodgers has a lot of work still to do. There have been good signs recently that his “revolution” (or whatever people are calling a new manager going to a club these days) is well under way. The home leg of the Europa league playoff with Gomel was more than encouraging. Liverpool pressed from the get-go and Luis Suarez was back at is “be everywhere at once and give defenders nightmares” best. Steven Gerrard looked fit in a Liverpool shirt for the first time in a long time. And Lucas was back — something you’ve been more than excited about. A few days later, Liverpool did a great job of putting three in the back of the net against Bayern Leverkusen and lasting out the 90 minutes after only playing the Gomel game a few days earlier.
In both games Liverpool looked more organized than it has in a few seasons. The team pressed high up the field and moved the ball relatively well. The defense had a good shape and the three-man midfield worked well as a unit, the two players (whoever was there) playing behind Gerrard did a good job pivoting and distributing the ball wisely from the midfield (thank the heavens for Lucas’s return).
All that said, Liverpool still needs another forward to cover for Borini and Suarez. Downing looks more comfortable higher-up the field, but there still isn’t a lot of faith in him. Cover is key. Depth is key. It was evident last season that this team needed another goalscorer and depth because when things weren’t going well there weren’t enough options to change the outlook of the game.
What do you got? And which player will surprise people this season?
Thanks for the kind words about OYB and the opportunity to respond on The Red Letter. It’s greatly appreciated.
I see the top four the same as you do. I think almost everyone’s predicted that top four, although I’m not sure whether that makes it more or less likely. City and United should remain at the top, while both Arsenal and Chelsea dramatically improved during the offseason, at least so far.
But I think fifth is a reasonable expectation for Liverpool.
Manchester City are Manchester City. With the money they’ve spent and the talent they have, there should be a massive inquest if they don’t win the league, and probably by a handful of points. I’ve read others question Chelsea’s defense as well, but I don’t necessarily see it. John Terry is 31, which isn’t ancient as center-backs go. Ashley Cole’s the same age, but Chelsea have Ryan Bertrand – who I’m a big fan of – as back-up. David Luiz is error-prone, but improved as the season went on and should only become more familiar with his counterparts. Similar goes for Gary Cahill. If anything, right-back is the only trouble spot, as Ivanovic is far better as a center-back, but Ferreira’s still capable, and the likes of Ramires or Essien can fill in there if need be. It’s a crime that Abramovich spent so much on the attack yet failed to address that position. But I digress. On paper, their squad is almost the equal of City’s, and if they fail to contend, Di Matteo will find himself fired just as quickly as Villas-Boas was. United may have added Kagawa and, this week, van Persie, but they’re still incredibly thin in central midfield and at right back. But United will still be United as long as Ferguson is around. I like Arsenal’s summer purchases – especially Cazorla – and think they’ll cope well enough despite losing van Persie. That’s my expected top four, in that order, but I think it’ll be very close between Chelsea, United, and Arsenal.
Tottenham could be great or could implode in wretched, brilliant flames. That seems the only two outcomes with Villas-Boas. Modric leaving would be a big miss, but as of now, he’s still at the club. Levy may well play continue to play hard-ball. Vertonghen should be an excellent addition, a big help in shifting to Villas-Boas’ high back four, while Sigurðsson will improve the midfield whether or not Modric stays. I don’t know how quickly or how comfortably Spurs will adjust to Villas-Boas’ tactics, but I’m pretty sure that Villas-Boas won’t adjust his tactics to Spurs. In theory, a back four of Walker, Kaboul/Gallas, Vertonghen, and Assou-Ekotto should have far less problems adjusting to a higher line. Also, City need to get Adebayor off their wage bill; I’ll be very surprised if he’s not back at White Hart Lane this season. I still suspect Tottenham will be Liverpool biggest rivals for fifth.
In contrast, I’m almost certain that Newcastle will regress. But I was certain that Newcastle couldn’t possibly keep up the pace last season, and would begin to fall back into the pack in February, then March, then April, then May. But they didn’t. Maybe I’m still disbelieving of last season’s success, but last season still seems an aberration. Ba and Cisse can’t continue to score at the same rate. Maybe this is the year, unlike last year, where the African Cup of Nations damages Newcastle’s somewhat thin squad. They’ve also added naught but prospects in the transfer market so far, and lost a little bit of depth in Leon Best and Danny Guthrie. There seemingly has to be a regression to the mean.
Everton is more of a question mark, dependent on how (or even if) Moyes uses the money gained from Rodwell’s departure. I don’t think he’ll be that big of a loss, and if Everton can add strength in depth, they might actually improve. But Moyes’ record with big money isn’t incredibly impressive (see: Bilyaletdinov, Diniyar; Johnson, Andrew). And Tim Cahill will be a far bigger miss. Chances are it’ll be the same as almost every Everton season under Moyes: they’ll start slowly, find form after winter, and finish 7th or 8th. It’s like clockwork.
As for Liverpool…
I’ve been very pleased how well the team adjusted to Rodgers’ preferred playing style in the last two matches, once Suarez returned from international duty, once Lucas began starting matches, once Gerrard shifted into a more attacking role. As those three players go, so goes Liverpool. Suarez had that long suspension last season – and didn’t seem the same player upon his return – Gerrard constantly battled injuries and rarely played in an advanced role, and Lucas’ last match was in November. It’s no surprise Liverpool struggled mightily, although I’m still surprised just how much they struggled.
Growing pains are inevitable, and the optimism from the last two matches just makes me more worried about when the other shoe inevitably drops. Like you, my biggest fear is also Liverpool’s depth. A starting XI of Reina; Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Enrique; Lucas, Allen; Downing Gerrard Borini; Suarez can rival almost any other side in the league, but the drop-off is fairly severe at a few positions. Especially on the flanks. After Suarez, Borini, and Downing is Sterling, Cole, and possibly Shelvey. That seems the position which most needs strengthening during the last two weeks of the transfer window. The addition of Borini should take some of the pressure off Suarez on the goal-scoring front, but the change in system should do that as well. Liverpool should have more support in the box from both the flanks and from midfield runners. Liverpool’s front six playing higher up the pitch, pressing higher up the pitch, should mean players like Gerrard, Allen, Henderson, and Lucas are in a better position to add goals. Liverpool only got 10 league goals from central midfield last season: Gerrard 5, Adam and Henderson 2, and Shelvey 1. I expect that tally to be far better this season. It has to be.
As for the player who could surprise people this season, the last two matches have made me hope that it just might be Stewart Downing. He’s far better when used on the right, and has looked more competent and confident against both Gomel and Levekusen. He was Liverpool’s unluckiest player during Liverpool’s unluckiest season in the last campaign. 72 shots in the league with no goals (five off the woodwork), 55 chances created with no assists. That’s remarkably unfathomable. Simple laws of probability suggest he’ll improve – there’s nowhere to go but up – and playing in a front four with Suarez, Borini, and Gerrard should allow for even more improvement. Of course, he might not even get the chance if Liverpool adds someone like Dempsey, Walcott, Adam Johnson, or Tello, as they’d probably take Downing’s starting spot, but as of now, he’s my pick. I’m also very excited about the addition of both Borini and Allen, and expect very good seasons from them.
Sure, there’s a slight possibility that Liverpool could sneak into the top four. Injuries to key players in key positions could doom Arsenal or United, but that’s the case for every side except Chelsea and City’s. Money makes the world go round. At the same time, if Liverpool suffer those types of injuries, they could fall back into the same 7th or 8th position occupied last season.
My question for you is this. We’ve discussed Liverpool’s ceiling in these last two emails, but what’s Liverpool’s floor? What’s the minimum expectation? How much improvement is enough improvement? Does Liverpool just have to be better than last season, or does Liverpool have to be dramatically better; if not fifth or even fourth than it’s another wasted season? And what do you think Liverpool have to do to meet that minimum expectation?
I like the thought that Downing could really break out this year. Last year he was terribly unlucky at times and just plain terrible at other points. He’s a winger who has struggled with staying in good form, even since his Middlesbrough days. If he has a good season, Liverpool could be knocking closer to fourth because teams will have a hard time game planning for Rodgers’ side with the added danger of another player capable of scoring and creating goals.
Henderson is my pick for player to shine a bit brighter than last season. He has the technical ability to play in this system and has looked more at home playing deeper in the midfield as he can get on the ball with space. He also likes to play the ball quickly and efficiently, which is what Rodgers wants and what this team needs when trying to keep possession and knock the ball around.
As for the floor for this team, it’s higher than what Rodgers would probably like. It’s fighting for fourth and fifth, making a good run in a cup competition and progress on the field. The last is the most important, though. This team needs to show that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Progress is the name of the game in year one for Rodgers. This still isn’t his squad and he hasn’t had a lot of time to make many improvements. He still has a bursting at the seams wage bill to deal with, even though it has gone down a bit, and a lack of depth, which we’ve both noted. If Rodgers can get Liverpool to win at Anfield and impress the crowd week in and week out with good play and positive signs, it’ll be seen as progress, which is what is needed right now.
Rodgers needs to get this team playing as a unit again. He needs to get it to win at home again. And he certainly needs it to beat the likes of Wigan on a regular basis. Fans can take losing to Manchester City and it’s bags of gold, but losing to the likes of Wigan and West Brom is painful and what has haunted this team over the last few seasons.
The other thing is potential. There needs to be hope at the end of the season. Ending on a sour note and bad run of form will be tough to swallow. This team needs to show that the young players it has been touting and developing can soon find their way into the team and that this new project has a future in the ever-evolving world of soccer.
Under Dalglish, Liverpool made it to the finals of the FA Cup and won the Carling Cup. Rodgers needs to not only stress finishing well in the league, but also working towards making a run in at least one of those cups, preferably the FA Cup. He also needs to find a way to balance out the Europa League. It’s not the Champions League, but it’s still Europe and a nice way to gauge the progress being made in the first team. With his selections in the games against Gomel, it looks like Rodgers won’t be taking that competition lightly.
So, a good finish in a cup competition and a good run in Europe would be welcomed, especially because winning the league is almost certainly out of the question unless a miracle happens.
As for the league, finishing below Everton is out of the question for Rodgers this season. Unless David Moyes parts the Red Sea and Everton miraculously finishes top four, then it may be forgiven. Maybe.
What’s your floor for this team? What player does this team need to acquire to reach its goals? And do you think Rodgers is up to the task?
I see it very much like you do. I don’t know that there’s much difference between Liverpool’s minimum expectations and maximum expectations. Sixth is probably the floor, fourth is probably the ceiling, and if the last few seasons are any indication, there probably won’t be many points between the two places.
One thing I’d quibble with is that I’m not all that bothered about cup progress, at least domestically. We saw how little that helped the side last season. The Carling Cup win and FA Cup final were consolations, scant consolations by the end of the season, as they did little to improve the side or save Dalglish’s neck. I’d like Liverpool to do well in the Europa League, because it’s Europe but more because it’d give the likes of Shelvey, Coates, Henderson, even Carroll more matches, but that’s the extent of my cup concerns.
It’s improvement in the league that really matters. Whether 6th, 5th, or 4th would be the required improvement is debatable, but I think those are the minimum and maximum hopes for this season. And that’d be a definite improvement on last season’s dire league form, where problems begat more problems, and more than a few players simply stopped looking bothered in league fixtures come February or March, when 4th place became a lost cause and the cups became the only priority.
And you’re absolutely right in that improvement in the league will come by beating the likes of Wigan and West Brom, when Liverpool have failed to do so all too often in the last two seasons. In 2009-10, Liverpool’s record against the bottom 10 sides was 9W-3D-8L – 30 points from an available 60. Last season it was 7W-7D-6L, a grand total of 28 points. Two seasons where Liverpool took 50% or less of the available points from the bottom half of the table. That’s unconscionable.
Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I don’t think Liverpool will have anywhere near as much of a problem in “playing as a unit.” It certainly was an issue in far too many matches last season, where Liverpool was often reliant on Suarez (or, less frequently, Gerrard) to conjure something from nothing, but it was one of Swansea’s greatest strengths under Rodgers, and the signs from Gomel and Leverkusen suggest Liverpool might finally be better as a whole than the sum of its parts. The link-ups between Suarez, Gerrard, Borini, and Downing were phenomenal in the second leg of the Europa League qualifier. And both Allen and Borini are players who fit in with that ideal.
This has been the long way of saying that I do think Rodgers is the right man for the job. I was unhappy with Dalglish’s sacking, and still am – at least the manner of it – but this is the sort of fresh start which FSG required. Rodgers is a young, intelligent manager with a forward-thinking, aesthetically pleasing style of football who’s said all the right things and made all the right moves so far, even if it’s incredibly early for those sort of grand pronouncements.
As we’ve both said, the only type of player I think Liverpool lacks is one more wide forward, whether it’s a speed merchant such as Walcott or a versatile veteran like Dempsey – both names who’ve been mooted in the ubiquitous transfer rumors. Otherwise, Liverpool’s first XI has great potential, if key players stay fit and if Liverpool keep key players such as Agger. If just one or two of the teams around Liverpool slip up, whether due to poor form or injuries of their own, Liverpool’s first XI is talented enough to sneak into the top four, and I think Rodgers’ style of play will make them even better and more importantly, more consistent.
Of course, that’s an awful lot of ifs. It wouldn’t be Liverpool otherwise.
Nate is the creator and editor of Oh You Beauty, a blog dedicated to Liverpool. You can follow him on twitter @natefc.