Connect in the back of the net

For the second consecutive summer Liverpool have lost their biggest names, confirming how far they’ve slipped down the football food chain. Despite the protestations of their fans and many ex-players in the media, the Reds are now effectively a selling club, living precariously in the corridor of uncertainty between qualifying for the Champions League and warding off interest in their players from the richer clubs.

If Luis Suarez’s departure to Barcelona was inevitable given his off-field troubles, the manner and effect of Raheem Sterling’s Manchester City move is particularly alarming: Liverpool can no longer dine with the big boys. They are, in a nutshell, what Arsenal used to be a few years ago but without the Gunners’ annual participation in the Champions League.

With the new season set to kick-off, Brendan Rodgers is faced with the enormous task of getting Liverpool back in the Champions League and it seems trite to say, but the Northern Irishman goes into the season with huge pressure on him to deliver the targets set by their owners, the Fenway Sports Group.

The FSG, as they did last summer, have backed Rodgers this summer with a significant transfer outlay and the onus is now on the Liverpool manager to get things right in the coming season.

Rodgers has added reinforcements in defence, midfield and attack as well as in the goalkeeping department in what is a major overhaul of his playing staff. Adam Bodgan, Nathaniel Clyne, Roberto Firmino, Joe Gomez, Danny Ings, James Milner and Christian Benteke have all joined the Anfield side, the club’s second consecutive summer of transfer merry-go-round, or in layman’s terms, yet another transfer window of doing a Tottenham.

 

Fitting in the new recruits

The problem that lies ahead now for Rodgers is how to fit his new recruits and the old guard into a functioning system that his Liverpool side will benefit handsomely from.

“In our job, there is a technical risk when you buy more than three players, always, because you unbalance a little bit the stability of your squad,” said Arsène Wenger in 2013 when discussing Tottenham’s transfer strategy in the wake of Gareth Bale’s exit to Real Madrid.

Rodgers is not unfamiliar with this headache, as he constantly chopped and changed last season in a bid to find the right formula for his squad. It’s a problem he must find a solution to this season, if Liverpool harbour hopes of finishing higher than they did last season.

During the heady days of a Luis Suarez-fuelled Liverpool when the Uruguayan bestrode the Premier League like a colossus, Rodgers’s preferred system was a variant of the 4-3-3 with Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and one of Lucas Leiva or Joe Allen occupying the midfield slots. Suarez’s departure meant Rodgers toyed with several formations last season, all to limited degrees of success.

In the aftermath of December’s 3-0 reverse at Old Trafford, Rodgers began implementing the 3-4-3 system that saw Liverpool embark on an unbeaten run until they succumbed to the same opponents in March’s reverse fixture. Rodgers’ continuous tactical tinkering saw a number of players play out of position and understandably out of their depth in a manner that was amusing to neutral observers.

Who could forget Emre Can toiling at right back and in the process looking like a man bereft of the basics involved in playing football? Sterling’s manner of exit to Manchester City will continue to raise unending debates, but the one matter we can all agree on is that the Englishman was wasted playing right wingback in Rodgers’s brave new world.

It is therefore imperative that the Liverpool boss finds the perfect fit tailored for the abilities of his squad. Milner rejected a new deal at the Etihad in favour of regular first team football and perhaps more importantly to reprise his central midfield role for Aston Villa that made City fork out £26m for his services in 2010.

 

Milner and his role at Liverpool

After five seasons of being City’s jack-of-all-trades, playing centrally was a key factor in Milner’s decision to swap Manchester for Liverpool. “I want to play football and play more centrally if I can – and that’s where the manager said he sees me playing,” Milner told Liverpool’s official website.

Can who played in a variety of positions last season has also stated his desire to play in central midfield. The German U-21 international was instrumental in the club’s unbeaten patch as one of the three centre-backs but a switch to a conventional back four saw his limitations as a full-back brutally exposed.

“The most important thing is I feature in the games for Liverpool – that’s my number one intention. A midfield role is preferable; of course it is the manager who decides who plays where,” he told LFC GO. “We’ll see where he chooses to play me this season. It is up to the manager but my preference is in midfield,” Can concluded. Henderson is a guaranteed starter in central midfield, with his role as club captain also helping his cause significantly.

Phillipe Coutinho, Adam Lallana, Lazar Markovic and new boy Firmino are all attacking midfield options and Rodgers finds himself with a selection headache. With Can and Milner having publicly expressed their desire to feature in their favourite position, it remains to be seen how Rodgers solves the problem at hand.

The obvious retort is that the season is long and there are games aplenty for most members of the squad to get a run in the side but in the games that matter, Rodgers has to find a way to make his team play in the best manner possible rather than haphazardly shoehorning players into the side as was the case all too often last term.

 

The burden weighing on Benteke’s shoulders

Rodgers’s biggest worry, however, is further upfront. With Liverpool’s striker assortment of Mario Balotelli, Rickie Lambert, Fabio Borini and Daniel Sturridge all scoring just 13 goals between them last season, Rodgers will be hoping his latest band of goal-getters weigh in with more goals this season.

The team’s goalscoring burden will be hoisted mainly on the broad shoulders of Christian Benteke, the £32.5m recruit from Aston Villa. Benteke thrived at Villa with crosses aimed at him from either flank while Liverpool attempted the least number of crosses last season – player and club at different ends of the spectrum. That statistic is slightly skewed considering the fragile frame of Sterling was mostly in the centre-forward position for Liverpool and Villa, a relegation threatened side, were more likely to lump cross at their big man up top rather than attempt to silkily carve up teams with possession based football.

To simply dismiss Benteke as a battering ram that feeds off crosses would be a huge disservice to his array of abilities and his goal in December’s 1-1 draw against Manchester United is indicative of what the Belgian his capable of with his feet. 2-1 losers to Villa in the Cup semi-final back in April, Liverpool have witnessed first hand what their shiny new thing is capable of.

That being said, there’s still the need for a slight recalibration of approach on both sides for Benteke to thrive as Liverpool’s main striker. It is not far-fetched or hyperbolic to suggest Rodgers’s future as Liverpool boss hinges in part on his striker’s goal return.

 

Tough run of games

With a tough run of games at the start of the season – Stoke, Arsenal, United, Everton and Spurs – the pressure on the Rodgers to hit the ground running is enormous and if bookmakers are to be believed, he’ll be the first manager to get the boot.

Liverpool already head into the season as outsiders to finish in the top four, with their manager having to bed in new recruits and also implement a system where his varied squad flourishes.

It’s not the easiest of tasks and it is a fact Rodgers himself is all too aware of.

 

Written by Aanu Adeoye

Follow Aanu on Twitter @aanuadeoye

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