Liverpool Transfer Prospects: Identifying Early Summer Targets
Liverpool can count themselves relatively satisfied with a January transfer window in which they allowed two seniors to depart, brought in two to replace them and saw a variety of youngsters depart on loan for further experience.
While the loan of Nuri Sahin came to a disappointing early conclusion, the exit of Joe Cole was the best move for all parties and was perhaps long overdue.
New arrival Daniel Sturridge has already proven his worth with four goals in a month, while fellow new signing Philippe Coutinho brings immense promise of little actual consistency in the end product thus far.
These latest recruits are still only a small part of the restructuring of the senior side that manager Brendan Rodgers will want to undertake; his most important transfer window of all will open up at the end of the present season.
Three transfer windows was always likely to be the required time for the boss to reshape the team in his own image, having had a season to assess which regular first-team players might have to be moved on to accommodate improvements.
Here are some of the main targets, or in some cases positions of the team, that Rodgers will be looking at improving over the summer.
Goalkeeper: Is It Time to Replace Pepe Reina?
Following another high-profile mistake by Pepe Reina in Liverpool's last Premier League match, there continues to be questions asked of the longtime first-choice stopper.
Since joining the Reds in 2005, Reina has been virtually unchallenged in being the No. 1 for the Reds, yet a couple of seasons at well below his best level—and the same goes for that of the team—have seen him, for the first time, have to look at names of possible replacements being mentioned in the media.
For Brendan Rodgers, and presumably still for Reina himself, the ideal scenario is that he regains his confidence and best form between now and the end of the season, establishing himself once more as one of the world's top stoppers.
However, time is ticking down and Reina is visibly not as assured as he has been in years gone by, either in making fairly routine stops or in his decision-making. Come May, Rodgers will have to decide if he sticks or twists in one of the most important positions in the team.
Any replacement will have big shoes, and gloves, to fill.
Being first class in possession of the ball, domineering in the air and capable of organising a defence are all more important than being able to make athletic saves, though of course all goalkeepers should come with a skill of handling as standard.
Asmir Begovic and some other Premier League goalkeepers do not tick all of those particular boxes.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Igor Akinfeev and Rene Adler are some of those who do—but this will not be a cheap position to fill.
Full-Backs: Maxwell, Luke Shaw, Davide Santon
It is an unfortunate circumstance of global football at this moment in time that there is a paucity of readily available, top-class attacking full-backs.
The very best are of course already established at the biggest clubs, and would in any case command huge transfer fees if Liverpool wished to attract them.
It is an altogether different approach then that the Reds must take to shore up their back four.
Whether they look for a talented younger player in the age range of around 21-24 (as have been most of Rodgers' signings to date), or take the approach of signing a cheaper but more experienced player to act as mentor to an up and coming youngster, Liverpool certainly need to bring in a top-class left-back in the summer.
Jose Enrique has had some good games this season, but four or five months of playing at an acceptable level out of more than a season-and-a-half does not mark him out as a long-term choice. Indeed, even his better games are littered with errors and poor decision-making.
Jack Robinson may well require a season out on loan to get himself regular match time.
For more experience, PSG's Maxwell could be leaving the club in summer and would be a terrific signing to add more know-how without sacrificing quality, while Jorge Fucile is currently a free agent and is versatile enough to play on both sides of defence.
Central Defence: The Reds Have to Go Big
The re-emergence of Jamie Carragher at centre-half for Liverpool tells us two things; the team lacks leadership, and Martin Skrtel's erratic form can no longer be considered the way back to the top.
Not that Skrtel is not a very good defender; when he is on top of his game, few forwards get the better of him and he has already forged a very strong partnership with Daniel Agger.
The Slovakian defender is, however, prone to the odd meltdown of his game and Liverpool's defence is not so strong that it can cope with the loss of form of a key component.
Central defence is, quite simply, an area that Brendan Rodgers needs to spend big in if he wants to improve the current level.
Liverpool can remain with the Skrtel-Agger partnership in place, calling upon Carragher for another year and giving a fourth defender—Seb Coates, Martin Kelly perhaps, whoever—a run-out whenever possible.
Skrtel and Agger have already proven they can play for Champions League-standard teams; that is not an issue. The question is of whether a step up in quality can be acquired and if it can be, in terms of solidity, reliability and commanding organisation, then such arguments of but other areas of the team need improving first are completely and utterly pointless.
Great teams don't always have to be built from the back first, but they certainly have top defenders in place.
As such, there are few who might fit the description of being younger, as good or better technically and also available on the market than the options currently available to Rodgers.
If the Reds retain some form of European competition next season, then one name who should certainly not be ignored is Benedikt Howedes. The Schalke defender will have one year left on his deal, is 24 years old and is proven at the highest level.
He could arguably be billed as one of the most important signings of the club in recent years.
Central Midfield: Powerful Destroyer Evidently Required
Liverpool have finally, in the past month or so, managed to strike a balance in midfield between their technical approach to the game and the need to compete on a physical level in the Premier League.
Lucas Leiva in the holding role, Steven Gerrard as the deeper playmaker and Jordan Henderson doing the leg-work in a more advanced role has worked wonders, giving the Reds a mix of creativity and discipline, technique and control.
Henderson has of course flitted between the centre and the left, but he offers a vital physical threat in both attack and defence which at present is the only real source of athleticism for Liverpool in the centre of the park.
This lack of power is something Liverpool have lacked ever since Momo Sissoko and Javier Mascherano left the club and it is probably the one component in the middle that the present midfield lacks.
Joe Allen adds more control and technique and can fill all three roles in different games, but the Reds need someone who can dominate opponents with power when need be, as well as be quick to the second ball, tough in the tackle and able to shift from the edge of their own box to that of the opposition in short order.
There's nobody left at the club who can do all of that, short of Jonjo Shelvey suddenly developing much more in terms of his tactical awareness and self-restraint, so it's something the Reds must consider in summer.
Yann M'vila was a missed opportunity to fill this void but Leroy Fer, Etienne Capoue and Victor Wanyama might all be considered players to fit that mould.
Morgan Schneiderlin and Ignacio Camacho should also be in the frame, though neither are quite as aggressive as perhaps the description above, despite their considerable talents and impressive defensive midfield statistics.
On the other hand, perhaps that's the perfect marriage of the technique and destroying ability Liverpool need.
Attacking Midfield: Places Look Sewn Up
Suso, Henderson, Jonjo Shelvey and now Philippe Coutinho: The attacking midfielder is perhaps one of the areas of the team that Liverpool don't need to specifically target anybody for at present.
The next few months might tell us more about what Rodgers intends to do with the third part of the midfield, with Luis Suarez occasionally filling it and Joe Allen also capable.
At present it seems as though there is no additional space in the squad for someone who can only fill this role, though all the players noted above can and do play in other areas of the team as well.
Forwards: Only Quality Additions Need Apply
Just 10 weeks ago most Liverpool fans were despairing at the thought of heading into another long run of games with Luis Suarez as the only striker and relying on the out-of-form Stewart Downing, the left-back Jose Enrique and the untested 17-year-old Raheem Sterling as the only other attacking options.
Fast forward to the beginning of February and the final third is suddenly the area of the team most bulging with players who are fit, confident, in-form and producing quality.
Suarez, Sturridge and Downing occupy the three roles at present, with Sterling and Fabio Borini offering options off the bench.
Then there is also Suso to consider and, presumably, Oussama Assaidi to re-enter the fold at some point.
It is entirely probable that there will be at least three departures in this area of the team during summer, comprised of temporary and permanent deals, meaning at least one player will have to come back in to make up the numbers.
Quite simply, the Reds should now only be looking at the very highest quality players to make an impact alongside Sturridge and Suarez, who have shown they have a good understanding and can play together for some time.
Adding a new third player to that partnership cannot come at the cost of team balance, work-rate or allowing the duo the space in which to operate, but similarly Liverpool must add new blood and quality when they can.
Coutinho might be faced with the task of filling the right side of attack.
Take your pick for who would bring enough quality to challenge, replace or improve any aspect of that front line. Piece by piece, Rodgers' squad is coming together and it looks set to be a busy and exciting summer of 2013 as he adds more components to complement what is already in place.