Liverpool's preseason campaign will move into its final phase after the completion of their summer tour, and on the face of results, everything looks as though it's going swimmingly for the Reds.
Four games, four wins and four clean sheets—there's not much more that manager Brendan Rodgers could have asked from his team so far, but within the matches themselves, some worrying trends continue to hold over from last season which the team must improve upon to progress.
The win over Thailand on Sunday provided another example of such, with Rodgers fielding what was more or less his strongest available side—one which could well start the Premier League opener against Stoke City on Aug. 17.
First and foremost, the most disturbing problem that Liverpool encountered on a regular basis last season was the lack of protection afforded to the defence, by the midfield.
With Lucas Leiva struggling for fitness over the first half of last season, the Reds swapped around the deepest midfielder for a spell before a return from the Brazilian just prior to the new year. Lucas was far from his best, though, and was consistently overrun by opposition runners from deep areas.
This is a real problem area which Liverpool have made no move to solve in the summer transfer window thus far, and while Lucas himself is far from solely responsible, he does appear to be the main man for the role in Rodgers' eyes. That means far better is required in terms of his positional play, his ability to get back into an "anchor" position once play has bypassed him, and his all-round ability to direct his teammates in supporting him.
In wider areas of defence, much more needs to be done by the full-backs, at both ends of the pitch.
It's only preseason, yes, but at this point even the most rose-tinted of Liverpool fans must concede that Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique are simply not performing like top-four players at this point, and didn't for several months at the end of last term.
Against Thailand, specifically, both players were slack in possession, took too long to move the ball on—partly due to the conditions, no doubt, but something Jose Enrique is prone to anywhere and everywhere—and failed to really combine in too many positive instances in the final third.
Going backward—and this is a trait that only Martin Kelly has avoided of Liverpool's full-backs over the past two or three years—it is still far too easy to get a cross in against Liverpool.
Two vs. one in favour of the opposition is a regular disappointing feature of Liverpool's anxieties at the back. Should the defensive midfielder be covering? The near-sided centre-back? The winger? This has to be made clear in team training but apparently either it isn't, or somebody isn't listening.
Stop the ball at source, don't try to defend it once it's in the danger area. It's a staple of aggressive defending, and something Liverpool aren't doing well enough at present.
Speculation persists of transfer market activity in this area of the pitch, but so far nothing concrete has materialised. Liverpool must improve in both the defensive midfield areas and the full-back areas if they genuinely have a shot at making the top four.
Brendan Rodgers has altered things just slightly over the past few months, shifting from an obvious 4-3-3 to a 4-2-1-3 and, most recently this summer, to an almost lopsided 4-2-2-2. A lack of width against Thailand wasn't really an issue, given the standard of opposition, as Iago Aspas got himself central and close to Fabio Borini up front, and Philippe Coutinho attacked centrally from deeper areas.
How are Liverpool actually looking to play?
Steven Gerrard has continued his role in a fairly deep midfield position, but with licence to get forward, while Joe Allen and Lucas both played centrally against Thailand as well. It wasn't 4-3-3, though, with Coutinho and Aspas merely cutting infield.
Fans await further reinforcements, but the players in the squad at present don't immediately fit into a clear and identifiable plan; in itself that's fine, as long as the manager and the players know what they're doing, but tactically Liverpool have looked all over the place at times in the past few months.
That hasn't become immediately clearer over the summer, and the hope has to be that one or two key signings are made who will fit in perfectly with Rodgers' ideas for the team going forward.
Final Third Worries
Luis Suarez has been missing, Daniel Sturridge is injured and Fabio Borini played during the summer at a youth tournament, so it's no real surprise that Liverpool haven't been firing on all cylinders yet.
Even so, for all the nice approach work and pretty exchanges of play as the Reds move through the middle and final thirds, once they get to the 20-metre-from-goal mark, there's a real lack of ingenuity and aggressive movement in the team.
That could change in a heartbeat once No.'s 7 and 15 return to the side, but for now there have only been two real outlets for Liverpool: the skill of Coutinho, or the pace of Raheem Sterling and Jordon Ibe.
The lack of shape in the team and the current failure of the full-backs to really impose themselves on the team have both contributed directly to that fact, true, but it's also not a magical remedy to simply put Suarez in the team and assume everything else is fine.
Liverpool need to get better, quickly. They've made four good signings, yet the strength of the starting XI hasn't significantly increased.
Right now, the team do not have a top-four midfield base, or a top-four defensive quartet with at least two replacements. They've got players up front who are more than capable of reaching that level, but they're not all showing it together.
Liverpool still have time.
Time in the transfer market, to see that adequate quality is brought in to the starting XI in at least two key areas.
Time on the training field to ensure that easily identifiable yet all-too-often repeated mistakes are eradicated from the team's play.
Four games, four wins, but four performances which show that Rodgers has still got an awful lot to do this summer in what is a hugely important year—both for himself as Liverpool manager and for the team to progress significantly.
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