Liverpool 2012/13 Season: A Player-by-Player Guide
The offseason is far from over on Merseyside. Expect Brendan Rodgers to continue his tinkering until deadline day as he seeks to get the most out of his new club.
Thus, today's team may be very different from the one we see come the end of August. That said, with the EPL kick-off looming, we can begin to make some judgements about Liverpool's outlook for 2012/13.
While the defense remains somewhat static, there will be seismic shifts in the front six from a year ago. Senior players have moved on, youth will get its chance, and a few recent imports may just tip the scales in Anfield's favor.
Here is an overview of the talent at hand. Whether or not the Northern Irish manager can coax a top finish out of this group remains to be seen.
In the 4-3-3 we trust.
Expected Back Five: Reina (GK), Johnson (RB), Agger (CB), Skrtel (CB), Enrique (LB)
The most impressive feat accomplished by the Fenway Sports Group (FSG) on the defensive side of the ball is simply retaining the side that did so well last year.
Liverpool finished tied for third in goals allowed. Thus, avoiding a major exodus was a considerable accomplishment.
Certainly, some of Europe's best clubs have come calling.
As reported by BBC Sport, Manchester City may have offered as much as £18 million for Daniel Agger's services. This was apparently the second of two inquiries, one of which featured a cash-plus-player offer that included Adam Johnson.
Spain's second choice goalkeeper would start just about anywhere else at both the club and international levels. He is a stout defender who rivals the likes of Cech and Hart for the league's best. Ignore those rumors about a decline in form. It is not easy to stay on top of your game while the club slides to eighth in the table. He will be back this year.
Johnson has long been touted as out-classed within the English national setup. Yet despite a few hiccups against Sweden in group play, the right-back proved many doubters wrong. His offensive ability has long been vaunted. Now his defensive prowess is coming along as well.
With Carragher aging into a squad player, Agger takes over as the heir apparent to the captaincy of this back line. His style plays perfectly into the new "tiki-taka" style. Like with Barcelona, the new-look Barcelona will expect one of its center-backs to play the ball at his feet and direct play from the back. Liverpool's Danish star will fit this Carlos Puyol mold perfectly.
If Agger is the tactical center-back, Skrtel is the enforcer. Think Gerard Pique. While he may not have the dribbling quality of vision of his counterpart, the Slovakian makes up for it with his toughness. He is sturdy in the back and does his less-than-glamorous job to perfection.
If there is any weakness in Liverpool's defense, it is at left-back. For one, Enrique's performances dipped noticeably towards the tail end of last year. Second, there is no suitable substitute outside of Jack Robinson should his disappointing play continue. Hopefully the Spanish speedster will be able to maintain top form through the year now that he has a full campaign under his belt.
Expected Mid-Three: Lucas (CM), Allen (CM), Gerrard (CAM)
Rodgers deploys a midfield triangle that can be inverted to support either two attacking or defensive-minded players conversely.
At this point, Gerrard and Lucas would seem to be the constants. The signing of Joe Allen, at least for now, appears to have locked up the final starting place.
Lucas went from Kop pariah to Anfield favorite in a single season.
Billed as Mascherano's replacement, few Reds fans liked what they saw at first. After all, the Argentinian and Brazilian do not really look anything like one another.
Yet, slowly, over time, Leiva's prolific work one over Reds fans. Barring recurring injury to that hamstring, Lucas is about as solid as they come.
Rodgers just inherited a far superior version of Leon Britton. He is built for this job.
Joe Allen is an efficient passer, underrated defender, and composed individual. All of the above are prized within the new 4-3-3.
The only thing standing between Allen and instant success is his ability to play that last creative ball forward. He does not have to be Charlie Adam and go for the Hollywood pass every time—yet he will need to exhibit that touch of class when called upon.
His development should be a fascinating storyline on Merseyside this campaign. Many will hope this promising 22-year-old Welshman reminds them of Xabi Alonso sooner rather than later.
Captain Fantastic once again leads the line. In addition, he may have never looked better given his early season form.
I was among the many critics who anticipated a learning of curve of sorts coming into the new formation. However, anyone who watched Gerrard, Borini and Suarez interact in the second leg of their opening Europa League tie knows otherwise.
There is a palpable understanding at work. Gerrard may just achieve a renaissance under his club's new manager.
Expected Starters: Suarez (W), Downing (W), Borini (ST)
Liverpool's front line is subject to change. The position allocated to Downing in this graphic is anyone's to win at this point.
Certainly, Andy Carroll will be doing everything in his power to push others out onto the wing while he seeks a starting spot up front.
There is also the distinct possibility of an additional signing this summer.
The Uruguayan has quickly distinguished himself as the club's most formidable offensive weapon. Perhaps Liverpool's biggest success this offseason was simply re-signing him.
In short, he can play for any team in Europe if he wants to. His constant movement and daunting tactical ability ties defenses in knots. He is the creative spark that makes everything go.
Within the new 4-3-3, he is allowed the freedom to roam as he does for his own national team. There are promising signs of a growing understanding between he and Borini. That is a very good sign for those looking for more offensive output in 2012/13.
Downing is still a project. While his play is already noticeably improved from a year ago, he does not yet seem to have the total confidence of some of his counterparts.
The big question is whether or not Rodgers has enough belief in Downing to give him enough minutes to regain his top form. In that case, I am not envious of the manager's difficult decision.
On the one hand, Downing scored a fantastic goal in Belarus to open his account against Gomel. On the other, he was completely absent from long stretches of proceedings otherwise.
Should the likes of Clint Dempsey or Cristian Tello come to Liverpool this August, Downing will likely occupy the bench.
If they do not, and Cole's injury problems persist, we may just have to roll the dice.
For £10 million, you do not get Neymar or Eden Hazard. You get raw developmental types like Borini. Rodgers obviously sees something this kid and certainly the potential is there. His opening goal at Anfield attests to that fact.
However, it will be some time before he is lighting up Europe. How long that maturation process takes is anyone's guess.
Here is a look at a few players on the outside looking in who figure to make their mark in one capacity or another.
Kelly is the go to full-back reserve on either flank for the moment. He is a foreseeable future starter for Liverpool—likely at center-back. For now, he is just getting his minutes where he can and biding his time.
The Englishman is an immensely solid reserve and should make at least 15-20 appearances in a variety of roles.
Should Agger go out with injury (as he often does), Coates is his understudy. The Uruguayan has that tactical ability discussed earlier when lauding Agger's ability. Over time, he should develop into a strong defender for the Reds.
Carragher has made over 700 appearances for the team. At this point, he is part defender, part ambassador. For now, he vies with Coates and Kelly for minutes when the center-backs do not play. However, at his age, it is doubtful that he can consistently contribute.
The Joe Allen signing is bad news for Henderson who seemingly saw his starting position evaporate just a week before the EPL kickoff. That said, Rodgers likes to rotate his midfielders. Henderson will get opportunities to prove that he is worth a consistent run-out.
Spearing is also detrimentally effected by the Allen signing. The former Swansea man played Lucas' role for Great Britain at the Olympics. Unless he is already on the field at CM, and Lucas is hurt, Spearing should not see much time.
Shelvey had an admirable preseason during which he may have been the club MVP. He is still raw, but his confidence on the ball is undeniable. Shelvey is going to be a big part of the club's future, but who knows how much time he will get on the pitch in 2012/13.
His lack of composure and tendency to go for the home run too often will hurt him in the 4-3-3. Expect a loan if there are any takers.
Many see him as the future on the wings for Liverpool. At his age, I think he is still a bit raw. As a super-sub, his speed offers something to consider. But I do not feel that he is ready to play every week.
At this point, Cole represents an awfully expensive injury liability. He has to recover both fitness and form fast if he expects FSG to continue rationalizing this expense.
Carroll's obdurate refusal to leave is either admirable or quixotic depending on your vantage point. He has undeniable talent and is a force to be reckoned with when he is on his game. Nevertheless, the 4-3-3 seems to completely contradict his preferred playing style.