Liverpool: What Do Reds Need to Be a More Consistent Side Next Season?
Liverpool have made steady and gradual progress this season under manager Brendan Rodgers, but there is still a long way to go for the club to reach the level they are aiming for and challenge for top honours on a regular basis.
Over the remaining 10 games of the season the manager will continue to guide his troops in the methods and tactics which he wishes to see implemented on the pitch, with a view to significantly strengthening the squad when the summer transfer window arrives.
It's not just in the transfer market where Liverpool can make improvements, though, but in every training session and each game, putting into practice that which they are learning each day.
Consistency all over the pitch is needed for Liverpool to move on from being a top-seven side, capable of beating anybody and losing to anybody else, to being a club which can feel secure and comfortable in the top four once again.
Defending Set Pieces
First and foremost, Liverpool need to defend certain situations far better.
The attack has been improved significantly compared to the last couple of seasons, both in terms of personnel and also end product during the matches, but the effects of this have been tempered at times by slack defending.
While the responsibility for defending falls on the team as a whole, from set pieces specifically there have been instances where individuals have not been on top of their game.
Daniel Agger has, by and large, had a decent season without being at his very best, but he has been found wanting from corners on more than one occasion, and he's not the only one.
Liverpool should concentrate on improving immensely this basic and important defensive tenet; not just an improvement in positioning and concentration, but also in the strength, power and reliability that the squad offers in these situations.
Find A Better Balance In Midfield
The second situation that the Reds have to improve in is to defend against opponents who break quickly.
Liverpool aim to have as much of the ball as possible so it is natural that they will have plenty of players committed forward in the final third, making them susceptible at times to being outnumbered after turnovers of possession.
Even when they are not outnumbered, too often a simple pass and good off-the-ball movement has split the Reds open, with the defence unable to cope and prevent goals being scored on the counter.
The absence of a true defensive midfielder early in the season was partly to blame for this, but even since Lucas Leiva's return from injury Liverpool have suffered the same way. A better balance is gradually being struck in the centre of the pitch, but perhaps the Reds need a little more mobility and power in the holding role to compete with sides who are strong and quick on the break.
Improved Squad Depth
No easy task when funds are not readily available, but Liverpool need to improve their squad depth further.
Not simply in terms of numbers, but in bridging the gap between the quality of the first XI and the quality of the players who come in to replace those senior players. It is no longer enough to think in terms of a first XI; rather, Liverpool need a first 14, or even 15, giving an extra player in each area of the pitch who can slot in without any noticeable drop in team ability, tactical cohesion or match experience.
Right now, if, for example, if Lucas gets injured again, the Reds have to shuffle the team to play someone out of position in the holding role. There is no cover. The same applies at left-back, without using an inexperienced younger player.
Up front has been the same issue for a long time; when Fernando Torres was injured, David N'Gog was the only available alternative. Now, the addition of Daniel Sturridge means Luis Suarez isn't a one-man band at the head of the team, but other areas of the pitch need similar high-quality competition and cover.
Brendan Rodgers has spoken about having a first team, a developmental team and some reserves. While it is inevitable that some players will have to make do with a back-up role, more regular first team players are required.
For the three forward roles, for example, Liverpool should have four high-quality players. Suarez, Sturridge, perhaps Philippe Coutinho and another. It remains to be seen if that is Stewart Downing after the summer. Those four are then interchangeable within the tactics of the team without losing quality, creativity or goal threat regardless of which one is left out.
Raheem Sterling becomes the exciting option off the bench to change things, and another player would act as cover.
In The Transfer Market
Following on from the need to improve squad depth is to operate more wisely in the transfer market. The January signings of Sturridge and Coutinho give hope that Liverpool are beginning to identify their targets far better, and perhaps earlier, than previous transfer windows have given evidence of.
The combined £20 million fee for both players is also a more fair-seeming payment for the immediate value Liverpool will receive, with the possibility of seeing those deals turn out as perceived "bargains" if both players maintain their impressive starts over the course of several seasons, improving as individuals and within the team spectrum.
This coming summer is of huge importance to the Reds, and to Brendan Rodgers. This will be his third window, the accepted number of opportunities that he needed to re-shape the squad in his own image.
After a year of working extensively with his squad he should by now have a firm and clear idea of which players will not quite fit, which can continue to be moulded and improved, and which areas he needs to improve in.
Some should be self-evident, and some might be improved this summer simply because an unexpected chance comes up to sign a key player, even if it doesn't immediately seem that any given position should have been the priority.
Maintain Upward Trend In Final Third Effectiveness
Finally, Liverpool have to keep improving in the final third.
Compared to last season, the Reds have seen improvements in many key metrics between the entire squad.
Minutes per chances created and per clear-cut chances are both down, increasing the likelihood that the team will score a goal during any given game. Likewise, the shooting accuracy of the team and, vitally, the chance conversion rate are both up.
Liverpool are on course to have more shots in total during the season, have already scored more goals than last year and they are close to equalling the total number of goals scored from set pieces, which is another area which could still be significantly improved.
What is important, as laudable as all these small but significant improvements are, is that the team as a whole continues along this path, and not merely maintains these levels, but gets even better.
More goals. More accuracy. More pressure in the final third at the right moments, in the right areas.
Signing better players is one obvious way of looking to improve, but every single player at the club has to be mentally focused on improving their own performances every time they step onto the field.
Mental strength is a key element which has been missing from Liverpool's play for too long, but bit by bit it appears to be reappearing.
Every time the Liverpool players step off the field having performed well and won the game, confidence increases and consistency becomes something which the players become accustomed to dealing with, and providing.
These are all small, individual improvements which the team, and the players within the team, need to take responsibility for—but they are getting there, and will keep moving along the path towards success as they work hard to eradicate the errors, improve the deficiencies and build upon the strengths of the team.
The foundations are being put in place for an impressive future. Consistency is key. Achieving it is the hard part, but everybody has their bit to contribute and improve upon.
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