Brendan Rodgers’ first signing as Liverpool manager, Fabio Borini, joined the club a couple of weeks after Rogers himself did. It was a transfer which was on the cards from day one, held up only because of the co-ownership situation between Roma and Parma which had to be resolved before Liverpool fully bought his rights; nonetheless it was the first foray into the market from the new boss.
It was expected to be the first of several. 21 days later, and Borini remains the only addition to the Reds’ first team, whose numbers have been lessened since the end of last season by the departures of Fabio Aurelio, Dirk Kuyt and Maxi Rodriguez—not to mention the strangely as-yet unexplained disappearance altogether of Alexander Doni.
Craig Bellamy and Andy Carroll continue to be linked with moves away, with the former potentially less than a week away from a Liverpool exit for the second time, now that Team GB’s involvement in the Olympics is over.
By the same token, Swansea City midfielder Joe Allen could be similarly close to becoming Liverpool’s second summer signing.
Luis Suarez, of course, will remain a Liverpool player having signed a long term contract extension today.
There is, however, still much work to do to shape the squad more to Rodgers’ liking before the closure of the window, where Liverpool will have to make do with what they have.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at what the Reds currently have, and what yet needs to happen in the remaining three weeks of the transfer window for Liverpool to achieve their target of a top four position in the Premier League.
First up, the six “defensive” positions of the starting XI in Brendan’s 4-3-3: goalkeeper, right- and left-backs, central defence and defensive midfield.
Liverpool are set here. Doni might be on his way out, but Brad Jones has proved an able deputy and Peter Gulacsi will either stay at the club as third choice, or seek out another loan spell. Pepe Reina, with his excellent positioning and distribution skills, is the archetypal goalkeeper who suits a high defensive line and a possession based game.
We can move swiftly on to the outfield positions.
No additions are required, but some restructuring might be.
Glen Johnson goes into the season as the first choice at right back and deservedly so after a year of improvement in his defensive work, but Liverpool could do with him being a little more effective in the final third on a more regular occurrence. Johnson has the footwork and the calmness on the ball to make things happen high up the pitch, and the hope must be that he forges a strong relationship with whoever is regularly playing the right forward’s role.
For Martin Kelly, this could actually be a very important season.
There’s a huge amount of talent there, no question, and Kelly has made sure he’s an able deputy who is probably deserving of a first team spot on a regular basis… but he hasn’t actually got one yet.
Almost 50 Reds appearances so far is a healthy enough sum, but the 22 year old needs to have a breakthrough season and play close to that number in a single campaign to make himself a fully fledged first teamer.
He easily has the talent, but injuries and an England international defender have prevented him from making that particular position his own so far. Though at right back is where he has excelled for the Reds so far, perhaps switching back to his preferred position, centre back, will help Kelly accumulate more matches.
Nobody should suggest he’ll make that position his own immediately either, but if he gets a dozen games in the cups playing centrally then he both builds his experience in that role and also keeps himself as part of the squad. Long term, many fans see Kelly as Liverpool’s centre half of choice, so making a few appearances this term will present an intriguing insight as to how he could fare there in the future.
Then there are two more to consider: Jon Flanagan and now Ryan McLaughlin. Simply put, the former needs to go out on loan.
Flanagan is better than reserve level now and will learn not much more by continuing, but he has too many players ahead of him en-route to the first team to make 15-20 appearances a likely scenario. If, therefore, Liverpool were able to arrange a half-season, or even full-season, loan spell for him to another Premier League side it could be extremely beneficial to all three parties.
Flanagan would get the chance to play regularly, gain experience and improve his footballing level. Liverpool would be able to judge his progress on a regular basis, and the loaning club would gain a committed character already tested against some of the league’s biggest names, with a point to prove and the time in which to do it.
He’s not a world-beater, but he is calm in possession, strong in the tackle and not afraid to get forward. Technically speaking he could do with further improvement, especially in a side which will now look to it’s full-backs to provide regular support in the final third, but Flanagan still has a chance to show he is capable of competing at the top level for the Reds.
McLaughlin on the other hand is utterly unproven in the Premier League but is a forceful, athletic and adventurous defender who really took his chance to grab the eye in his cameo role on Tour with the first team. Not only did he put in a sprightly performance in his one match, but in training he also performed, leading Jose Enrique to name him as the one youngster who had impressed the most.
We might not see much or any of him this season—but Europa League and Carling Cup commitments, coupled with the Kelly and Flanagan situations above panning out, could see the young Northern Irishman getting his chance sooner rather than later.
Liverpool are solid in this area, with no real additions needed. Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger forged a fantastic partnership last season, with the Dane’s presence in the team an irreplaceable commodity.
Forget squad improvements, raising money and all the rest of it, Agger simply cannot be sold. His technical ability is second to none and he not only organises the defence around him well, but possesses the characteristics that Rodgers will prize most in his preferred line-up.
Jamie Carragher and Sebastian Coates provide plenty of cover, as well as the aforementioned Martin Kelly being able to play the role.
Danny Wilson needs to go back out on loan. He hasn’t shown form in pre-season to suggest he can push any of the four or five ahead of him for a place in the team in the centre, and he is absolutely not a left back.
If… if either one of Agger or Skrtel do leave, they will need replacing. It could also, of course, provide a foot in the door for Kelly and Coates to challenge, but in aiming for the Champions League spots again the Reds are going to have to defend very well this season. Another reliable senior player would be needed.
Liverpool have a big gaping hole in the quality of their first choice back six players, and it comes at left back.
Jose Enrique is the only senior defender at the club who plays in that position, and despite his fine form of early 2011-12 he tailed off alarmingly in the second half of the season and his faults have continued over into this summer.
Playing too many games was doubtless a part of it; the injury-prone Fabio Aurelio barely got a look in even when he was fit last season and Jose Enrique was forced to play most matches as a result.
However his on the ball tendencies have gone from being an irritation to an actual problem with the change in emphasis that Rodgers will try to impart throughout the squad.
Blind runs infield into closed avenues, a reluctance to release the ball early and his insistence on dribbling the ball rather than looking for a quicker, more effective give-and-go are going to impact heavily on how Liverpool fare down the left this season. Playing with wide forwards who are going to look to come infield to attack, full backs must keep the width in this system, and Jose Enrique doesn’t do this often enough.
He can do it; his byline runs and driven crosses against Gomel were a good example of what will be required from him on a more consistent basis, but it’s not really his game and not what his natural inclinations will lead him to trying.
The Reds’ other left back is Jack Robinson.
After spending almost the entire 2011-12 season sidelined with injury, Robinson has had a decent impact on the pitch in pre-season and will be hopeful that he can add to his few first team appearances this coming term.
Cups he should certainly be looking to start in, at the very least. He has huge potential, is a fast runner, can tackle with the best of them and links well with the ball on the ground. The reserves team could look tasty indeed this season if McLaughlin and Robinson line up opposite each other, attacking from deep.
Liverpool however still need better competition for this position on the pitch.
There are two options open down that route: bring in a second senior left back, to replace (but presumably play more often than) Aurelio, or else sell Jose Enrique and replace him with a new first choice, of (supposedly) better quality and better suited to Brendan Rodgers’ methods.
With Glen Johnson perfectly capable of playing left back—which leaves more game time for Kelly on the right—Liverpool are covered if they have three quality first team full backs, with a couple of possible appearances for the younger lads when needed too.
The key is, of course, in finding a suitable replacement for Jose Enrique, or in finding someone to challenge him good enough to be a part of the squad going forward but who will be happy to push the Spaniard all the way.
Lucas Levia’s return marks an important period for Liverpool. In Rodgers’ 4-3-3 system, the holding midfielder is arguably most important.
It is he who begins possession periods by picking the ball up deep from the defenders or goalkeeper, it is he who must always, always be available to receive a pass from team mates being closed down, and he must distribute the ball again and again, quickly and accurately.
Off the ball, the player in this role must close down fast without losing his position, must be able to tackle and win the ball back, and control the central space in front of the defence. It’s a pretty impressive player who can do all of that at once.
Lucas is impressive, though. In many ways, least of all his mental strength.
Sure, he has his failings; once in a while there will be a sloppy pass to the opposition which lets in a shooting opportunity, and the shirt-tugs while running back give away a fair few free kicks. He’s not one of the top few in the world who avoid all of those normal errors of judgement on all but the most irregular of occurrences, but Lucas is far and away Liverpool’s most reliable midfielder in terms of retaining the ball, winning the ball and using it wisely.
An absolute stonewall certainty for a regular place, and to play superbly.
After him though comes nobody else; or at least nobody else who is naturally comfortable in defensive midfield.
Jay Spearing has played there in Lucas’ absence, but he is not this type of player. Spearing is a second midfielder, the box to box player who can pick up loose balls, aid in the closing down and tackling, pass quickly off to a team mate and make up an extra body in the centre of the park—but he certainly can’t do it alone.
At his best, at the back end of the 2010-11 season, Lucas and Spearing formed a pair in the centre that few could navigate a route between. This led inevitably to the latter being played in the former’s position when he was unavailable, but it’s not his natural role and he doesn’t have the ability to do it as well as Liverpool need him to.
Liverpool’s back six:
Reina; Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Jose Enrique; Lucas. The first choice is solid, offers good attributes on and off the ball and are Champions League quality, which is ultimately what the Reds are searching for this season.
Jones; Kelly, Carragher, Coates, Robinson; Spearing. There is a noticeable drop in quality, though this is to be expected to an extent where several important positions (such as the goalkeeper) would not see a lot of squad rotation.
Requirements: only the left back situation needs resolving, and a couple of youngsters to get loan spells. Liverpool are in good shape at the back. Should Jose Enrique prove more adept at altering his game slightly, the Reds need not spend at the back at all.
**Stay tuned for part two on TLW shortly where we will analyse the front five positions: central midfield, wide right- and left-forwards, and the centre forward.**