Liverpool have made a terrific start to the 2013-14 Premier League season, with their latest victory over West Brom leaving them in third place after a quarter of the season, and with plenty of reason to hope they can achieve their season objective of finishing in the top four.
Should manager Brendan Rodgers go on to ensure the side does exactly that, he will have taken a big step toward getting the club where they want to be again—but a return to the Champions League is not the end-game for Liverpool.
Rodgers is tasked with returning Liverpool toward the very top of the domestic and European game, so there are still plenty of milestones and bridges to overcome along the way.
Balance in the Team
Unlike previous games this season, the Reds' most recent game saw them dominate the entire match, create plenty of chances and score the goals to take the points.
There was a chemistry in the team and a balance between attack and defence which was wonderful for watching fans to see and devastating in terms of getting the result.
The trick for the team will be to repeat that often enough to ensure rivals for the top-four place are overcome and a top-four finish is attainable. Finishing in the top four, again, is not the end result for Liverpool, but until they achieve it, there is nothing else they can hope to do to improve over the longer term.
Liverpool needs Champions League football.
Formation for the Long-Haul
Now that he has almost his entire first-team squad available again, Brendan Rodgers has a decision to make for the next few months, but also for the next few seasons—stick with the back three system, or alter to a variation of his old 4-3-3?
This needs to be done sooner rather than later for a number of reasons.
Of course, tactical changes in-game or on a week-to-week basis are acceptable and necessary, but the team needs a base system which is their preferred starting formation. Whether that be 3-5-2, 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 (or variations within each), the management needs to know now what his direction is going torward.
Not only will this affect his line-ups on a match-to-match basis, but it will also impact upon his plans for the transfer market in January, next summer and beyond.
It's no good switching back to 4-3-3 and buying a £20 million wide forward to cut in from the left flank if, two weeks into February, the team returns to the present system, which doesn't allow for a wide attacker. Similarly, playing a back three means Rodgers can't really raise funds by selling off a central defender at present—but only playing two most weeks means one is probably beyond requirement.
Depth in Key Areas
On that last point, the depth of the Liverpool squad is impressive in some areas, but rather unbalanced in others.
In the current system, Liverpool have just four senior players vying for three central midfield berths, with Joe Allen injured until recently. When Lucas was also missing, there was very little option for Rodgers other than to play players out of position or have no cover on the bench.
Centre-backs are well-stocked, full-backs are taken care of despite a recent dearth of them because of injury and there would be four forwards at the club if Fabio Borini wasn't out on loan—pretty much an important requirement if Liverpool persist with two up top.
As things stand, with Borini away and Iago Aspas injured, there are no natural replacements for Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, meaning either Philippe Coutinho would play as a one-behind-one or else Victor Moses could play up front.
Whatever the ideal formation is, though, Rodgers needs to address it in January—and that starts with the long-overdue signing of another player capable of operating in the holding role. For competition, depth, quality and progression, another midfield signing is key for the Reds.
Taking Out the Stars
A thorny issue at some moments, Rodgers has to be strong enough to take out the stars from the team when they are not performing.
Right now, it's not something that the manager can be accused of not doing.
Some have called for Lucas or Steven Gerrard to come out of the side, but numbers have dictated it hasn't been possible—and their most recent performance proves they can still cut it above and beyond the highest levels in the Premier League. Consistency is key there now.
Elsewhere though, Sturridge is scoring for fun but was taken out of the starting XI last season when his work-rate dropped; vice-captain Daniel Agger is a mere bystander at present—as his predecessor Jamie Carragher was for the first half of last season—and Pepe Reina has been usurped and shipped off on loan.
Rodgers has strength of character and appears to have good judgement often enough.
He will need, over the coming 20 months or so to begin with, to ensure that he retains that air of control, that he knows what he's doing when he leaves underperformers in the team—and that he has the capacity to take them out when he feels the moment is right.
Don't Abandon the Growth of Youth
While further signings are obviously necessary for Liverpool to genuinely challenge at the top of the table, as a club they have sought to invest in youth, something which began to really pay off last season.
The likes of Andre Wisdom and Raheem Sterling both played important roles in the team last term but have been marginalised after recent signings. While it is understandable, and some—Wisdom, Suso, Conor Coady—have sought to continue their development with loan spells, it's not a path that Rodgers must turn away from entirely.
These youngsters will still run through the fence, to paraphrase Rodgers himself, if he lets them at it.
He must keep them on board, continue their long-term development himself and integrate them into the team just as much as he seeks to spend big money on fancy names from around the globe.
A continued and visible pathway from the youth system to the first team is a sure-fire way of ensuring the cyclical nature of success in football continues for as long as possible at Anfield, and Brendan Rodgers should himself make sure that he remains the man who can make that happen.