5 Things Liverpool Must Do to Mount Title Challenge Next Season
Liverpool’s heroic title challenge could not have fallen apart in a more gut-wrenching—or ironic—fashion. First, an error by Liverpool born-and-bred Steven Gerrard, the man who desires a Premier League title more than anyone else, gave rivals Chelsea a win at Anfield. Then, a nightmarish reversal of their famous 2005 Champions League victory over AC Milan saw them surrender a three-goal lead at Crystal Palace to effectively knock themselves out of the race.
With attentions already turning to next season, here are five crucial steps that the Reds must take to put themselves in the Premier League title race in August.
Recruit a Back-Up Striker
Spanish striker Iago Aspas’ Liverpool career was perfectly encapsulated by a corner he took in the dying seconds of the crucial match against Chelsea last month.
With the Anfield outfit needing one vital goal to draw level with Jose Mourinho’s charges, Aspas opted to pull the ball back, only to hopelessly miscalculate and relinquish possession instantly. It was a moment that neatly summed up his time in England since his £7.9m move from Celta de Vigo, a season where he has failed to register a single goal in the league.
At the other end of the spectrum are Aspas’ teammates Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, undeniably the best partnership in the country. While their form showed no signs of letting up at the end of the season, they can’t keep up their monumental pace—52 league goals in 62 appearances between them—forever.
For Liverpool to mount a serious challenge next term, signing a capable third striker—as Sunderland loanee Fabio Borini’s future looks uncertain—should be near the top of their shopping list.
Keep the Faith with Steven Gerrard
Club captain Steven Gerrard’s aforementioned catastrophic slip was the exception and not the rule of how his season has gone, with the England midfielder rejuvenated by his new deep-lying role.
Rodgers was quoted by the Liverpool Echo as saying: “It’s one where he has been brilliant for me as a captain and as a player this season and I would like that to continue...But for me Steven still has so much to offer and I really want him beside me here working on the field.”
While other players would have questions raised about their mental fortitude to get up and go again next season after coming so close, there’s little doubt that Gerrard will attack next season with the vigour that fans are used to seeing from the one-club man.
The skipper, while now 33, is still one of a few elite players in world football capable of playing the combination of defensive-midfield destroyer and regista roles with ease, something vital for Brendan Rodgers' short-passing system, particularly with the defensive frailties that an attacking mentality breeds.
Sign a Replacement Centre Back
Unlike the situation upfront, where it’s a case of reinforcements being needed, there’s a good case to be made that Liverpool need to invest in a world-class centre back. Injuries appear to be catching up with Liverpool’s long-term star defender Daniel Agger, reflecting in him making just 16 league starts this season despite being relatively injury-free, and while Martin Skrtel has forced himself back into consideration under Rodgers after initially being left out in the cold, there are still doubts over his abilities.
Both Liverpool’s main title-rivals last season boasted formidable defenses. Manchester City, while missing the hugely promising Matija Nastasic through injury, still had the ever-reliable (his errors in the 3-2 loss at Anfield aside) Vincent Kompany to captain his side through the good times and the bad. Chelsea had the best defense in the league by a 10-goal margin, thanks to the rock solid partnership between the evergreen John Terry and his countryman Gary Cahill, as well as a wealth of talent elsewhere across the back five.
The Reds have been heavily linked with Southampton’s Dejan Lovren, who played a crucial role in making the Saints’ defense the sixth best in the Premier League last season. Whether he would be capable of stepping up to become a truly world-beating presence at the heart of the Anfield defense should he make the switch remains to be seen.
Increase Squad Depth
The need for a new striker and centre-back is exacerbated by Liverpool making the monumental leap next season from no European involvement whatsoever to the continent’s elite competition, the Champions League.
Having automatically qualified for the group stages via their second-place finish in the league, Liverpool will play at least six extra fixtures next term against some of Europe’s top teams, with three away games that could well require lengthy travel.
Nobody will be truly expecting the team to challenge for the European crown next season. But the pressure of Liverpool’s storied history in the competition, combined with the fact they haven’t featured in it since 2009, will mean that fielding weakened teams and limping out at the group stages simply won’t be an option for Brendan Rodgers, who has no experience in European football as a manager.
Have the Belief
Faith an old cliche, but much like Arsenal until they finally broke their trophy hoodoo with the FA Cup this season, there’s something of a mental block for Liverpool when it comes to winning the league. Having now gone 24 years without winning it and seeing their status as the most successful English club ever usurped by Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United in the interval, it’s not surprising that nerves hit fever pitch during the final few games.
However, they have now shown everyone—not least of all themselves—that they can go the distance with this set of players and this manager, about whom some doubts lingered going into the campaign after an underwhelming first season in charge.
As with Arsenal, it may well be that Liverpool find getting over the final hurdle the toughest, with the weight of history on their shoulders. But ultimately there are only so many times you can fail before you succeed. With the core squad looking unlikely to change over the summer—unlike in 2009, Liverpool last second-place finish, when they sold Xabi Alonso and failed to adequately replace him—there is no reason that next season cannot be the one for the Anfield giants.