Liverpool: 5 Things They Need to Return to the Top
Liverpool are on a long and winding road as they bid to work themselves back to the top end of the Premier League. Manager Brendan Rodgers knows he still has an awful lot to do to achieve it, despite a recent upturn in results.
The Reds have won seven of their past nine games, and have added Daniel Sturridge to their squad in January, as well as offloading Joe Cole. But the playing staff is still some way short of the quality it needs to compete in the top four of the league.
Over the next 18 to 24 months the Reds will have a number of challenges to face if they want to be competitive at that level once more, not all of which will be easily overcome.
The work and the challenges continue with three huge fixtures over the next months. In the grand scheme of things, those three results in isolation, whether positive or negative, will be far from the biggest factors in deciding how long the Reds take to reach the top again.
Here are five things Liverpool need to finally reach the top end of the table again.
Continue Earning European Football
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The Europa League has been a mixed competition for Liverpool; some impressive results have been combined with the odd poor performance or defeat, and some big-name lineups have made way at times to almost a second-string team.
Journeys to far-flung reaches such as Moscow and St. Petersburg might not be ideal, but Liverpool need the added cache that comes with being a club regularly competing in Europe, however small it might be from the Europa League.
They also need the continued experience.
Not just for the youngsters at the club who have been handed their chances in the competition, but also for the manager.
Brendan Rodgers is still a relative novice compared to other Premiership managers. He is competing in his first season of continental football, and he needs more time to get used to experiencing playing against other clubs. All this will stand him in better stead when the club does eventually return to the top.
The Reds can do it by a high league finish, by winning the FA Cup, or even the Europa League itself—but they need to do everything possible to secure European football again next season.
Have a Strong Summer in the Transfer Window: Ins and Outs
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Though Liverpool's January business might not have been entirely revealed yet, it is a fair assumption that Rodgers will need to do extensive work in the summer transfer market.
The Reds have a big, big opportunity in the summer of 2013 to ensure they bring a number of very good quality players to Anfield, and they absolutely cannot afford to pass it up.
Not only are there a number of players out of contract and available on free transfers, but an entire platoon of them will be entering the final year of their deals, making the cost of signing them considerably lower and giving the club a great chance to bring in quality.
Igor Akinfeev, Benedikt Howedes, Toby Alderweireld, Marko Arnautovic, Christian Eriksen, Georgi Schennikov—all of these players' contracts will have just one year to run come the summer, and there are many, many others like them.
Some or none may be on Rodgers wish-list, but the point is there is a lot of good value, high quality, Champions League-standard talent out there, which Liverpool have to be taking advantage of in the summer.
Not only that, but the boss must not be afraid to trim the first team scene where he feels necessary. Whether that means a long-serving first-choice central defender leaves the club, or merely two or three of the promising youngsters are sold on, Rodgers will need to raise both funds and the level of quality at the club.
Both can and must be achieved this coming summer.
Back the Current 'Project' If the New Season Doesn't Start Well
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It will be a hope that Liverpool make a flying start to next season if they are able to invest wisely in the summer, but the one thing which must not happen is for confidence and expectancy to fall away if the opposite occurs.
Liverpool can lose their opening five matches and still qualify for the Champions League, no problem, so any kinks which need to be ironed out must be worked hard at—with full backing of the manager and his methods apparent.
The Reds are trusting in Rodgers, and he has to deliver of course, but a disappointing first month or two of the campaign does not, or will not, necessarily reflect a failure of a season overall.
Rodgers must be made aware that he is being given the season as a whole to show that the foundations put in place this year, and the added quality from the summer, were borne of the right choices, have led to continual improvement, and will eventually give the rewards that the entire club wants.
Changing managers or targets midway through the season will not help Liverpool at that stage, it will merely regress the club back to the Hodgson-Dalglish holdover season of 2010-11.
Champions League Qualification Essential at the End of 2013-14
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Having said that the coach needs to be backed, it must also be made abundantly clear that failure is not an option after two years in charge.
Liverpool have plenty of work to do to get themselves back up amongst the top clubs on a regular basis, but a Champions League berth is not out of the question after four transfer windows and two solid years of working towards a common goal.
Brendan Rodgers knows that much is expected of him, and though the likes of Luis Suarez might be giving the club everything he's got at present, he along with everyone else will want to see results.
The fans don't have the luxury of wading off elsewhere if things aren't going well, but the top-class players certainly will.
Liverpool need to be back competing in the Champions League, and they need to ensure they have achieved it come the end of 2013-14.
Ensure Quality Additions Lead to Competitive Squad to Maintain Status
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And, of course, if they do achieve it they need to make doubly sure that it does not become a one-time thing.
Further reinvestment will be required, a different calibre of player must be called upon in certain areas, and the club will need 15 or 16 players of the same level in the first team squad, not merely a first XI and a backup one.
Looking three transfer windows into the future makes guessing at what the Reds will require hazardous, but it is fair to assume that more quality players will be interested in joining them once the club rejoins Europe's elite.
Certain parts of the team must be upgraded and the net amount of players in the squad will probably have to increase too, to cope with the demands of playing both domestic and continental football at the required level.
There will be cause for celebration when Liverpool return to the Champions League; even if Rodgers manages it next season it would have been five years since the Reds last competed in the tournament.
But once they reach it they will need to work even harder to stay where they are and compete on all fronts, making themselves once more one of the teams capable of challenging at the top end of the English game.
Contractual data from TransferMarkt.co.uk