Brendan Rodgers could give a video of Liverpool’s victory over Stoke City on Sunday to John Henry and say: "Look, this is why and where we need to improve in the January transfer window to be challenging for honours."
The 5-3 thriller at the Britannia Stadium was a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. Indeed, it was an unattractive Liverpool win disguised amongst 90 minutes of very entertaining Premier League football.
As Rodgers looks to the transfer market to improve both his first team and matchday squad, he will know the areas most urgently in need of an upgrade to keep the Reds in the title and top four conversation.
The slide in form of Glen Johnson is probably down to two things—age and lack of competition.
At 29 years old, Johnson carries bags of experience but has recently started to look slower, jaded and less like the ferocious right wing-back Rodgers envisioned he would be this season. Johnson has been unable to move smoothly from attack to defence as he once did. When in attacking positions, he has lost the confidence he once had in the final third of the pitch.
With Andre Wisdom having been loaned out to Derby County early on in the season, Johnson has faced no competition for his first-team place. Competition is healthy. It keeps players on their toes, desperate for football.
On the left side of defence, Liverpool have an unusual array of personnel. Jose Enrique and Jon Flanagan have both shown glimpses of being a reliable choice at left-back for Liverpool, but injury has hampered both their campaigns.
That has left Aly Cissokho to fill in—often looking clumsy, giving away cheap free-kicks and unable to read the game.
There is no doubt both full-back positions need a fix. The style of Liverpool’s football earlier in the season hinted that Rodgers’ intentions were to rely on strong performances from full-backs who had the athleticism to get forward and defend reliably when called upon.
Barcelona’s Martin Montoya looked to be the perfect solution when he was linked with Liverpool in December. Montoya is an emerging talent, in line with the club’s business model of buying young, who can play on either side of defence and contribute to swift attacks.
That speculation died down quickly; meanwhile, Liverpool have also been linked with Chelsea’s Ryan Bertrand and Southampton’s Luke Shaw, though either would only solve the left side of the defensive problems.
Rodgers revealed after the Stoke game that he sees Steven Gerrard playing a deeper, holding midfield role, explaining to BBC Sport that the Reds’ skipper has "the personality to play in that controlling role."
Whilst this may be Rodgers’ immediate intention, his quotes suggested a slight shift in the system he deploys. Actually creating that holding midfield role in his Liverpool side was the major news here.
A perfect position for Gerrard right now, given his decreasing lack of pace as he enters the final years of his career, Rodgers is most likely eyeing a new player to come in and take up the reigns in Gerrard’s new role.
A holding midfielder would allow Liverpool’s other central midfielder—currently Lucas Leiva—to sit further forward, but still deeper than Jordan Henderson, and be the catalyst between defence and attack.
Joe Allen may still be Rodgers’ No. 1 choice for that role, but injury continues to complicate the Welshman’s Liverpool career.
The holding midfield role also provides added protection to a central defence, which Rodgers is still shuffling around, trying to find his perfect back two.
The Reds have been linked with French international Yann M’Vila numerous times, whilst Liverpool are favourites to sign highly-rated Derby County midfielder Will Hughes, according to Gary Jones of the Daily Star.
It would therefore be unwise to think too many first-team players will walk through the door this January.
Mohamed Salah could be an addition to Liverpool’s attack, but that would simply be to bolster the rich options Rodgers has at his disposal.
A look at Liverpool’s performance at Stoke would suggest to the viewer that it is the defensive side of things Rodgers needs to figure out before adding luxury to his attack.
A centre-back, too, may eventually be on Rodgers’ shopping list, with Daniel Agger constantly injured and Tiago Ilori someway off being ready for the first team.
Should Liverpool tighten up the full-back and defensive midfield roles, they will have fixed the most leaky parts of their team.
Keeping hold of first-team players during this transfer window and the next may well prove as important as shrewd purchases.
Up front, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez—with 32 league goals between them already—as well as the in-form Raheem Sterling or Brazilian magician Philippe Coutinho could already be the attacking threat that takes Liverpool to the next level of success.
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