Welcome, Ladies and Gentlemen, to the first ever Liverpool Roundtable, an event I hope to make a monthly occurrence here on Bleacher Report.
With Liverpool sitting atop the Premier League mountain, and the January transfer window now open, the next six months or so could be very interesting, and very important, for Liverpool FC.
So I asked some of the top writers in the Liverpool community for their opinions on the club's current situation. Two of the writers I asked are Liverpool fans themselves (Jamie and David), while I also asked a fan of another club to get an "outsider's" point of view (Willie). This is something that will be done for every Liverpool Roundtable.
So, without further ado, lets get to the questions and answers!
1. What positions, if any, do you think Liverpool need to strengthen in order to maintain their title challenge?
Jamie Ward - I honestly believe that the Liverpool squad is the closest to being ready to challenge for the title than its been for a great many years, of course every squad could be strengthened with better players, but taking the money factor into account, especially for Liverpool, I have to be realistic and say that I am pretty much happy with the majority of the squad.
I think our weak areas at the moment are that extra special something in the fullback department. Arbeloa is doing a great job at right back but I think we lack an enormous amount of cover at the moment, Steven Darby looks great for the future, I just feel we don't have anyone as cover until he becomes the finished article. Unfortunately I haven't seen enough of Phillip Degen to pass judgement on him.
At left back I think we lack a decent defender, Aurelio and Dossena are great going forward, just not consistant at the back. Insua looks great for the future, but once again, I think we lack a complete full back until he comes of age.
Another weakness for me would be the cover and a different option for right midfield/wing. El Zhar looks fantastic and I cant wait to see him on a regular basis, he is the exact type of player, opposite to that of Kuyt, who can be used when the tactics require a pacey winger with the skill to beat the defender.
The last area for me would be another great centre back, come the end of the season, Hyypia will be used hardly at all, Carragher will be coming to the end of the road in the next couple of years and when Skrtel and Agger are the main centre backs, we will need someone else to cover, alongside Jack Hobbs. This wont be a necessity until the summer.
I believe we have more than enough in pretty much every area, with some fantastic young prospects to come through in the next year or two: Leiva, Insua, Darby, Spearing, Anderson, Hamill, Pacheco, Nemeth, El Zhar, Crowther, Hobbs, Saric, and Leto. Just a few I would suggest to watch out for in the future.
David Gore - I think the squad, on the whole, is the strongest it’s ever been, but one or two injuries and players in poor form have exposed a shortage of cover in a few areas.
For example, Torres. Before the season got under way, I would’ve thought that Kuyt, Keane and Babel would be plenty of backup for the prolific Spaniard, but I didn’t count on Babel’s really disappointing form. Of course, that will change and he will start playing better, giving the manager his pace in reserve, but with no telling when that’ll be and with persistent rumours of his unhappiness in the press, perhaps it’s time to bring in support.
Elsewhere, Arbeloa’s become the new Finnan, shouldering the right-back responsibilities single-handedly without fit cover, due to Philip Degen’s torrid time with injury. Again, ruthlessness may be required, as the full-back positions clearly need addressing with the injuries to Fabio Aurelio and Degen. But even with Emiliano Insua seemingly ready to fill the gap on the left, he’s too young to burden it on him with Dossena still adapting.
Willie Gannon - The most worrying positions are the full back berths, Dossena, Arbeloa, Aurelio and Degen are not Liverpool players. And are not the kind of players you need to mount a title challenge, they're all average at best.
When you sit down and analyse the Liverpool squad, you realise that it's not that strong, there's very little strength in depth. The spine of the team needs strengthening straight away. For this season, Hyypia needs replacing immediately, he's finished at this level as far as I'm concerned. Another centre half is imperative for a title challenge, I don't think Rafa or Liverpool can gamble on Skrtel coming back as good as he was, and Agger is ok at best.
The problem on the left seems to be solved with Albert Riera, he has settled well. But now the problem has switched to the right...I'm not sold on Benayoun, a useful squad player at best. And although Kuyt played well in the early part of the season he is playing out of position so he won't be capable of maintaining this form over the season.
Rafa tried to fix central midfield in the Summer by signing Barry, but had Barry signed it would have been a case of one step forward one step back, because Alonso would have had to be sold. I don't think the club have money to sign a quality midfielder so I think Barry will be chased again in June, but Utd, Arsenal and God knows who else will be interested by stage so it'll be tough to sign him. So I think they'll persevere with Lucas for the time being, I don't rate him at all, so if Liverpool pick up injuries to Mascherano or Alonso it'll be a big worry.
Torres' injuries have caused real problems this year. There just isn't a replacement there, Keane is good but he's a different type player to Torres and although he works hard up front he will never score enough goals, Kuyt is the same. Another forward is needed, I think someone like Kenwyne Jones would compliment all three forwards and would be a much better option than Heskey, if I'm to believe the papers.
Barney Corkhill - Without a doubt, the area that concerns me most are the full-backs, more specifically, the left-back slot. Insua looks good, and could be a very good player in the future, but I don't think he is ready to be considered a first choice yet.
Dossena has been hugely disappointing for me so far. I expected more from him, but he looks slow and lacking in confidence. If you compare him to the other left-backs from the top teams, there is no contest. Evra, Cole and Clichy are far superior players.
In goal we have the man I consider to be the best 'keeper in the league, but I'm not sure we have adequate cover for him. If we look again at the top teams and their back-up 'keepers, you have the likes of Cudicini and even Kuszczak, both of whom I consider to be better than Cavalieri.
Perhaps getting a more orthodox winger for the right side is an option, but that means losing Dirk Kuyt, who is becoming increasingly important for us. His work ethic is among the best in world football, and losing that will have an effect.
2. Who would you like to see come in during the January transfer window? Why?
Jamie Ward - I hope that the rumours of Pennant going to Spurs and Lennon coming this way are true, I am a big admirer of Lennon's, I just dont ever see Redknapp letting him go when he is so effective for spurs.
I think Lennon is exactly the sort of player we need in the squad, very pacey and with the ability and confidence to run at any defender that's in front of him. Sometimes we need the type of player like Kuyt, other times we will need someone like Lennon--its always great to have different options on the bench.
I would also like to see Gareth Barry come to Liverpool, he is a fantastic and incredibly versatile player who would fit in perfectly with Rafa's philosophy. He can provide cover at centre back, and cover at left back during the game when Aurelio or Dossena get forward, meaning they won't have to rush back to defend when we lose possession. I don't think he would ever come in January, possibly (and hopefully) the summer.
David Gore - Well I’ve already mentioned Michael Owen in a post on Bleacher, since I think he’d be a snip at a few million quid. But, his injuries make him less reliable than, say, the big man Emile Heskey, who no doubt would link up fantastically well with Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard, and even Torres upon his return.
I think this January will be all about pace as Rafa looks to back up Torres’ out-and-out striker role, which no one else right now can fill. A right sided wing player would also be ideal, someone like Ashley Young, who I rate very highly.
Willie Gannon - I don't think it's a case of who you'd like to come in, I think it's more a case of who you'd like to keep.
The list of players capable of playing for a club like Liverpool is long, but they'll be over-priced in January, so I can't see many coming in. To bring in three quality players like Barry, Jones, and Brede Hangeland could cost around £25m to £30m and I don't think the club have the money.
Barney Corkhill - Michael Owen, for about £4 million, would be a great bargain, but only if he can stay fit. It is a risk we will have to see whether Rafa is willing to take. Any full-back who could rival those of Man Utd or Arsenal would be great, but they would also cost a lot of money.
I think the perfect signing for Liverpool would be Ashley Young, but I doubt we'd get him this January. It could well be worth putting an offer in for him in the summer, however. Yes, his price has sky-rocketed due to his fantastic performances this season, but he would be worth the £20 million or so he would cost.
The less-than-perfect relationship between Rafa Benitez and Martin O'Neill could scupper this potential deal, though.
3. Is there anyone you think will leave, or would like to leave? Why?
Jamie Ward - I like Benayoun, I think he is a great bench player who provides a lot of experience during a game and also to the youth squad. He also offers a different type of attack when we need him, but if he is not happy with being a bit part player then I'm okay with him moving on. I have never been overly impressed by Pennant, he has a great cross, but to me thats about all he does and I think there are much better players we could have in his place, especially our own youth players.
David Gore - I don’t really want anyone to leave per se, since there isn’t anyone I particularly dislike in the squad. But I do have question marks over the futures of Ryan Babel and Philip Degen. I’m not sure that either of those players would damage our assault by leaving, since neither have really contributed as yet this season and they will be replaced.
Unlike a lot of people, I’m not sure Yossi Benayoun will leave. He’s been getting a lot more playing time recently and been putting in some really good work. With our creative issues at home this season, I find it very unlikely that Rafa will let him go without a fight.
Pennant is a strange one. It’s clear he’s surplus to requirements and will go in January, but just a couple of seasons ago he was first pick against AC Milan in the European Cup final. With our slight struggle to open teams up in recent games, it seems odd that Pennant would be so far out in the cold. All I can think of is a problem between the player and the manager.
Willie Gannon - One rumour doing the rounds is that Rafa has been told to sell before he can buy, so if some squad players could be sold it might make funds available. Players I'd move on would be Hyypia, any of the full backs, Pennant and possibly one or two others.
I think teams like West Brom and Fulham would interest Hyypia and Pennant and they could bring in around £6m, not a lot I know but it could be enough to tempt a club to sell a player who is almost out of contract.
Barney Corkhill - Well, Jermaine Pennant is almost certainly on his way out now, and I don't think it will be that big of a loss personally. Other than him, I don't see any players leaving. The speculation over Robbie Keane's future was ridiculous and he isn't going anywhere, and there will no doubt be rumours regarding Xabi Alonso, but I don't expect him to go anywhere.
Ryan Babel and Benayoun have potential to come on and open a team up, so I can't see Rafa parting with them, unless an irresistible offer comes up, while the only other areas which may seem a bit suspect contain new signings, who will be given more than a few months to prove themselves.
4. What are your views on Robbie Keane's time so far at Anfield, and what does the future hold for him?
Jamie Ward - I honestly wanted Robbie Keane long before he came to Liverpool, he is a fantastic player with an incredible amount of Premier League experience, something which we lack a great deal in. I think he has done a great job so far, he has become what Kuyt was for Torres last season—the provider, the man who quietly creates space and opportunities for someone else to score. It is never counted as an assist, but off the ball runs—the type no one ever bothers to mention—are what provides opportunities for others to score. Kuyt did that perfectly last season for Torres.
Im not someone who simply judges an attacker on goal returns, Liverpool are the type of team where the goals are shared out across several players instead of just two strikers. And just because a player is called a striker, it doesn't mean they have to provide goals, the idea for me is to have two front men who compliment each other.
I believe given time (and the confidence from his own supporters) that he will continue the goal return he gained at Spurs and become a legend at Anfield.
Football is unfortunately a fickle thing nowadays.
David Gore - I will say now, as I have always said, that Robbie Keane has a big future at Liverpool. He has a great attitude and a will to be the best, and so far, despite the relative lack of goals scored, he’s contributed well to team performances and worked very hard for the club. By the end of the season, he’ll have gotten at least ten or fifteen goals, and created chances and assists for other people that could carry us all the way.
Willie Gannon - Keane's time at Anfield hasn't been the success he or I had hoped for. I think it's fair to say that he hasn't set the world alight, and that he has struggled to come to grips with Rafa's system at Liverpool. The problem with Keane is that he is neither a striker or a link player, he's somewhere in between, and Rafa has also struggled to find the best place for him.
With Torres out, Keane has played up front by himself. It's not a position he excels in, but he has had his moments, particularly a great performance against Chelsea. Unfortunately most of the time he has been average at best. When Torres was in the team, they looked like they could do well together, but it's a relationship that will have to be worked on, rather than the two of them complimenting each other straight away. Regrettably for Liverpool, they need the pair to mesh this season to mount a challenge...it might be a season too soon, and Rafa can't wait that long.
I think the rumours about Keane's departure have a hint of truth to them, but with the L19 rule coming into play I can't see them usurping the rule and selling him back to Spurs, who are the only real option on the table. So Keane will remain a Liverpool player for the time being.
Six goals from 19 games is not the worst record in the world, and it's about Robbie Keane's average as a player (1:3). It was acceptable at Spurs, but not at a title chasing team, saying that though it would be a good record for a "partner" and he has missed Torres.
I'd rate Keane's time at Liverpool as below average, he hasn't performed to the heights he is capable of, maybe the goal at Arsenal could be the start of a good run of form?
Barney Corkhill - Robbie Keane's start at Liverpool has been blown out of all proportion. I think the problem is, in fact, Fernando Torres being out. Keane was brought in to link up with Torres, and with the vision that they would create a great partnership, but Torres has been out for the majority of the season.
That left Keane up front on his own most of the time, a position he isn't that used to. With no Torres in the side, the pressure on him to score goals became greater, and, although he isn't far off his usual average, everyone thinks he is suddenly a flop.
Then, when Rafa Benitez left him as a sub for a few games, because he couldn't play him in his favoured position, everyone made a mountain out of a molehill and claimed he would be leaving in January. Mark my words, Robbie Keane will turn out to be a great player for Liverpool.
There you have it! The first ever Liverpool Roundtable! I'd like to thank Jamie, David and Willie for taking the time out to answer the questions, so thank you!
And good luck to Liverpool in the coming year!