With the home farewells of Sir Alex Ferguson and Paul Scholes ending in an elaborate title celebration at Old Trafford last weekend, the spotlight can now shift to another retiring Premier League servant: Jamie Carragher makes his last appearance for Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday.
Carragher has always wanted to go out on a high. He started the season on the Liverpool bench but has powered his way back into Brendan Rodgers’ starting XI in recent months, and in Steven Gerrard’s absence due to a shoulder injury, Carra will lead his team out at Anfield when they welcome the visit of QPR in their last league game on a season.
So Carragher will get his wish. But while he leaves a legacy behind, he also leaves a gaping hole in the defence that Martin Skrtel and others have failed to plug. And so Rodgers, understandably, has a lot of work to do to reshape a creaky defence strengthened this season by the return of the veteran.
But it’s not just the defence that needs improvement. Throughout the season, a young and at times exciting Liverpool team has shown its weaknesses, and it is no surprise that as the summer transfer window looms, the rumor mill has intensified.
Now let’s look ahead to the changes that Rodgers might make to his squad during the summer.
Here is how Liverpool might line up in the 2013-2014 Premier League season—a first-choice XI after Luis Suarez completes his 10-match ban, and in a 4-2-3-1 formation despite the recent experimentation with 3-5-2.
Perhaps he might not be as world-beating a goalkeeper as he was a few years ago under Rafael Benitez, but Pepe Reina is still an important component of the Liverpool team, whether it is inside the dressing room or on the pitch.
He has been linked with a move away—mostly as a replacement for Barcelona’s want-away Victor Valdes, as The Telegraph reports—but given that the Spaniard’s keeping style is a perfect fit for Brendan Rodgers’ playing system, it is unlikely that Reina will be ending his Anfield career just yet.
Reina will also likely assume the vice-captaincy from Jamie Carragher, such is his influence in the Reds squad and will be charged with helping usher in a new era at Anfield.
Ajax’s Toby Alderweireld has been heavily linked with a summer move to Liverpool according to Metro, but in the spirit of continuity, especially considering that continuity is crucial in any defence, we will stick with Glen Johnson as the starting right-back.
Rodgers’ attacking style favors his wingers cutting in with full-backs bombing down the flanks on overlapping runs, and there are few right-backs around better at operating like this than Johnson, whose pace and dribbling cause untold problems for opposition defences.
Of course, Alderweireld’s addition would be a welcome one, but given their different attributes, it is conceivable that they are rotated depending on the opponents on the day.
Left-back, however, seems to be an area that Rodgers wants to address, with the Mirror reporting Lille’s Lucas Digne as a heavily linked option.
Jose Enrique deserves credit for turning around his disappointing early-season form, but during his time at Anfield, he has always split opinion: Is he one of the best left-backs in the Premier League, or does his impressive physical strength cover the deficiencies in other areas of his game?
Enrique would become a strong bench option if Digne signs, with young Jack Robinson stepping up when required. Such is the hype around Digne, though, that securing his signature will by no means be easy.
With Jamie Carragher’s impending retirement and Martin Skrtel’s poor form this season, it is not inconceivable that Liverpool’s two first-choice right-sided center-backs for the past few years might no longer be at Anfield come September.
Plenty of options have been bandied around to great debate, but amidst all the transfer speculation, perhaps there is one ready-made option ready to step into the role on a full-time basis.
Martin Kelly has plied his trade at right-back during his appearances for the Liverpool first team, but his most natural position remains in the center. To preserve his injury-prone hamstrings, Rodgers might move Kelly back to the middle.
Andre Wisdom would be a stand-in for the long term.
On the left of Martin Kelly, there should be no change as Daniel Agger continues his status as a first-choice defender.
It would take a player of great standing and quality to dislodge Agger from the side, and given the pressing need to address other areas of the pitch, this looks unlikely.
Sebastian Coates put in an encouraging shift against Fulham last weekend, and if he continues his upturn in form, he might well be Agger’s backup.
No matter his form, Lucas remains one of the weak links in the Liverpool squad, especially if other areas are upgraded this summer.
His lack of physical stature, proneness to unnecessary tackles and poor defensive positioning means that alongside a mostly attacking central midfielder—which Steven Gerrard is—his work is not nearly enough to cover the middle of the park.
Without the on-field organizer in Jamie Carragher next season, Steven Gerrard’s role as captain becomes more crucial than ever.
Known more for leading by example than by shouting orders like his current vice-captain, Gerrard has been an inspirational figure and leader on the pitch, especially in a young Liverpool team looking to mature into a fine attacking side.
Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho have shown signs of exploding onto the Premier League stage, and Luis Suarez will reprise his talismanic role up front—and Gerrard will be orchestrating the attacks deep from midfield.
Stewart Downing has enjoyed a fine few months on the right wing for Brendan Rodgers, marking a remarkable comeback from his early-season status as a dispensable member of the squad.
From being told he could leave Anfield a few months ago, he now looks likely to stay on as a squad member, but if Liverpool are to continue their push for a top-four place, Downing might lack the required quality on the wing to start week in, week out.
Step up Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who has made waves across Europe with his electrifying performances from attacking midfield for Shakhtar Donetsk this season.
With 24 goals in 34 matches this year for the Ukranian outfit, he will be hot property this summer, but if reports like this one from Metro are to be believed, he might just be interested in Anfield as well.
Raheem Sterling might have started the season in explosive form and forced his way into the full England setup, but there is no disputing the current first-team status of January signing Philippe Coutinho.
To say that Coutinho has lit up Anfield would be more than accurate, if not already an understatement. He has proved a breath of fresh air, with his direct running and dribbling wreaking havoc on Premier League defences, and his through balls are a true delight.
In the event that he is rotated out to preserve his long-term fitness, Sterling would be ready to stand in and further develop.
Such is Luis Suarez’s standing as a player among the Liverpool fans, squad and management team, the main concern will be whether he stays at Anfield this summer.
If he does stay at Liverpool, he will walk straight back into the starting XI, presumably reprising his role behind the main striker.
Another attacking strategy worth exploring would be the swapping of positions between Suarez and Coutinho: Both are equally capable in each other’s position and would combine to form an effective attacking unit.
Since his second-half appearance against previous club Chelsea, Daniel Sturridge has looked a totally different player compared with his early post-injury performances and recently crowned his hot streak with a hat-trick against Fulham.
His attitude and attributes appear to have convinced Brendan Rodgers that he is ready for a sustained period leading the Liverpool attack, and he might finally get the break that he has longed for at the top level.
Expect Sturridge to cement his position as one of the Premier League’s top forwards and in the England starting lineup in the 2013-2014 season.