The 2010/11 season has been one of mixed emotions for Liverpool.
It began with the club owned by Tom Hicks and George Gillette, and with the team led by the hapless Roy Hodgson, there seemed little hope for the Reds.
But in October, Hicks and Gillett's reign of terror came to an end, replaced by Fenway Sports Group and John Henry. In January, the club's king, Kenny Dalglish, made his long-awaited return to management, steering the club on a steady climb up the league—remarkably, given Hodgson's disastrous tenure (the Reds were languishing in 12th place when Dalglish returned).
The club still was mathematically in with a shot of qualifying for the Europa League come the final day of the season.
Indeed, the improvement has been so remarkable that, only accounting for games played since Dalglish's appointment, Liverpool would be third in the league, just three points off the top. These stats may be slightly misleading—Chelsea played one less game in that time, and Manchester City played two less—but it still illustrates a remarkable improvement in fortunes.
To add to the context, despite being in charge for two less games, Dalglish's Liverpool still accumulated eight more points than Hodgson's. Of course, difficulty of the fixtures, injuries and other variables must be taken into account, but that Dalglish has dramatically reversed the Reds' fortunes is undeniable. There have been blips along the way, most notably defeats to West Brom and Blackpool, but Dalglish deserves the permanent position he has now been awarded.
This leads on to an examination of the club's players themselves, and exactly where improvement is needed if the club is to have any chance of mounting their long-awaited title challenge.
In goal, Pepe Reina has been ever present in the league, and has managed to keep 14 clean sheets—this is four less than Golden Gloves winner Joe Hart, but just one behind Petr Cech and equal with Edwin van der Sar, the goalkeepers of the top two teams in the league.
Perhaps this has not been Reina's finest season for the Reds, but he is a top quality goalkeeper and there is clearly no need for the Reds to even consider signing another goalkeeper—unless, of course, disaster strikes and Reina decides to leave.
Brad Jones, a somewhat peculiar signing by Hodgson, managed just two appearances in cup competitions, and it is doubtful whether few Liverpool fans are particularly bothered whether he remains at Anfield beyond this summer.
In defence is another ever-present, Martin Skrtel. Somewhat shaky during the Hodgson era, he has improved greatly since the arrival of Dalglish and is more than worthy of a place in the Liverpool squad next season.
His usual central defensive partner was Jamie Carragher, who has also had a solid season—though perhaps now would be the time to look at a long-term replacement for Carragher, now 33.
This is not a suggestion that Carragher be dropped; simply that another centre back be brought in to learn from Carragher and take his place when Carragher is in need of a rest, as his ageing body, which has been put on the line so often over the years, will surely begin to feel it sooner or later.
With Martin Kelly and Danny Wilson emerging, the need for a new centre back is not the most urgent issue for Dalglish to address. However, Phil Jones has been linked and could fit the role perfectly; he has great potential but is just 19, meaning he may be willing to serve as an understudy to Carragher for a couple of years without his career suffering greatly before coming into the team regularly when Carragher retires or reaches a level where he is no longer first-team quality.
This is why Jones, or someone of a similar age, may be better than the likes of Gary Cahill, who will be expecting to go into the first team immediately.
When fit, Daniel Agger is an excellent defender, but that is the problem: Agger is very rarely fit, having managed just 12 starts in the league this season. As a big fan of Agger, it is difficult to say this, but it may be best to move him on in the summer.
Meanwhile, Soti Kyrgiakos was actually one of the few positives of Hodgson's reign, but since his departure, the Greek has been increasingly marginalised. Though a strong combatant in the air, Kyrgiakos' deficiencies on the ground are obvious, and it would not be surprising to see him moved on in order to accommodate a new centre back in the squad.
Left back has remained a problem position for Liverpool, with a number of players tried there throughout the season. Paul Koncheskey was the original choice, but was shown to be far from Liverpool quality and ended the season struggling to make the team at Championship side Nottingham Forest; he will rightfully be moved on in the summer, presuming a buyer can be found.
Fabio Aurelio is good enough, but has once again suffered from injuries, limiting him to just seven league starts. As he has another year on his contract it is likely he will be at Anfield next season, and is a useful player to have around when fit.
Other solutions have involved playing Glen Johnson out of position and using youngster Jack Robinson (given a runout in the home victory against Manchester City), but it is clear that a new, permanent left back is needed for next season. Jose Enrique has been strongly rumoured, and seems an obvious answer to the problem, whilst Celtic's attacking left back Emilio Izaguirre is another possibility.
Meanwhile, on the other flank, Liverpool find themselves with almost too many options. Martin Kelly established himself with some impressive performances before suffering an injury, and though he is seen as more of a centre back in the long term, it seems likely he will continue his development at right back.
But as Kelly was injured, another player emerged from the youth team. John Flanagan showed his promise and raises the possibility of an intriguing battle between two academy players for the right back slot next season.
This is before even taking into account Glen Johnson, the England international right back, whose form has improved as the season has progressed. Though his defensive weaknesses are at times overstated, there is no doubt that it is the attacking side of the game which he truly relishes. Though Johnson has at times struggled during his Anfield career, he has suffered from arriving at a particularly tricky period for the Reds.
Indeed, if Johnson were playing in a top quality side—which is what Liverpool have to aim to become—he could be a very effective attacking fullback, with his overlaps, pace and trickery adding an extra dimension to the side's play.
Of course this is purely hypothetical, but my personal belief is that Johnson would have been much more effective in the Liverpool side of 2008/09, fitting in with the high-pressure, high-tempo football played by Liverpool that season. It is likely Kelly and Johnson will be fighting it out for a place in the team, but it is a problem Dalglish will be happy to have.
In central midfield, Lucas has finally emerged as one of the side's finest players, and his award of Fans Player of the Season shows that the Anfield faithful now widely acknowledge him as such. Lucas has improved every year since his signing, and has often been brilliant in big games; as far back as 2009, he featured in the 4-1 demolition of Manchester United at Old Trafford.
But this season he has added consistency to his game, proving himself capable of performing against almost any team. His passing has come on leaps and bounds, and whilst not quite Alonso-esque, he deserves to be a first-teamer next season.
Credit must also go to Rafa Benitez for persisting with Lucas despite all the criticism aimed at the Brazillian; Lucas' performances this season have seen the Spaniard vindicated.
Steven Gerrard has not had his best year in a Liverpool shirt, as his season has been broken up by injuries. But if Liverpool are to mount a title challenge, Gerrard will surely be a vital part of that, just as he was in 2008/09. It is difficult to deliver a true assessment of Gerrard this season, and his goals tally (just four in the league) has surely suffered from missing much of the teams resurgence under Dalglish.
As for Danish midfielder Christian Poulsen, the less said, the better. Let's just say he's unlikely to be on the Reds' books next season, and few will mourn his departure.
Following on from Hodgson's worst signing comes surely his best: Raul Meireles. He has been used in a variety of positions throughout the season, but his best form came when he was employed as an attacking midfielder, sparking an explosive run of goals, including the winner at Stamford Bridge and a spectacular volley against Wolves.
His goal-scoring prowess has been calmed since that burst and he spent a lot of time as a wide midfielder in the season run-in, but Meireles has proven himself to be a good player and will certainly be with the Reds next season.
Jay Spearing has found some form, and is proving that he may in fact have what it takes to play for Liverpool after all, establishing a solid central midfield partnership with Lucas. Spearing will hopefully become a squad player, stepping in to provide extra bite for the midfield in bigger games.
Though he has played well, the idea of him and Lucas as the first-choice midfield partnership lacks attacking spark, or goals; the pair don't have a single league strike between them this season, and as Lucas is the better player, it is Spearing who should make way.
Whether a new central midfielder is needed depends largely on the fate of Alberto Aquilani. If he departs and Dalglish does intend to use a 4-3-3 formation, Liverpool will have Gerrard, Lucas, Meireles, Spearing and Shelvey for the three positions (assuming Poulsen's departure). With Shelvey's inexperience, a new central midfielder will be needed.
But if Aquilani returns from his loan spell or Dalglish decides to play 4-4-2, then the current batch of central midfielders should be fine. If a midfielder is needed, Charlie Adam could be an interesting addition, with his high-quality passing and set pieces, though whether he would thrive at a club where he is not the star of the show is debatable.
Next are the wingers, though that term can only be applied very loosely to them, as they rarely provide any actual width and so perhaps the term wide midfielders would be more appropriate.
Whatever they are, it is clear that some of them are not up to the standard required. Joe Cole is earning ridiculous wages for a player who appears so little, and when he does, is so anonymous. Offloading Cole should be a priority for Liverpool this summer. They cannot afford to keep a player on such high wages who will be getting nowhere near the first team.
Milan Jovanovic is another who needs offloading. Frozen out under Dalglish, he has managed just five league starts and will hopefully be following Cole out the exit door in the summer. Removing the pair of them from the wage bill will make a massive saving for the club.
Maxi Rodriquez made a poor start to the season, and in some games it would be forgivable not even to notice that he was on the pitch. But he is another who has improved dramatically since Dalglish's arrival, and he capped off this improvement with a marvelous run of goals at the end of the season, scoring seven in just three games, including two hat-tricks.
Maxi is another who should be used as a squad player next season, and his versatility means he should be kept ahead of both Jovanovic and Cole.
Then there is Dirk Kuyt, who has managed 13 league goals this season, making him the side's top scorer. Like Maxi, Kuyt is a versatile player, capable of playing on either wing or as a striker. If the Reds are to adopt a 4-3-3 next season, it seems likely that Kuyt will be dropped, with the signing of another wide player to play in the front three looking likely, with Carroll and Suarez likely to take up the other two positions.
But Kuyt should be kept around, used as an impact substitute, a versatile player capable of taking up any of the positions in the front three if circumstances demand, and a big-game player who will run himself into the ground in matches where Liverpool have less of the possession. If a 4-4-2 is used, Kuyt may still find himself as a first-team regular out on the right.
It seems rather clear that a winger, or a "wide forward," is needed over the summer; numerous links have appeared, but once again, who should be signed comes down to the formation.
If 4-4-2 is to be employed, the likes of Stewart Downing—heavily linked—could be useful, playing out wide and hugging the touchline. But in a 4-3-3, where there is generally a demand for greater fluidity from the front three, perhaps the likes of Ashley Young or Juan Manuel Mata would be more useful.
Finally—and there is some crossover with Kuyt here, as many would still consider him to be one—are the strikers.
Luis Suarez was only signed in January, but Liverpool supporters have already taken him into their hearts. His subtle skills and runs have tormented opposition defences since he arrived, and he has already become almost the creative hub of the Liverpool team.
Perhaps his finest performance so far came in a game when he didn't even score, the 3-1 victory over Manchester United. Suarez was rampant that day, and though Kuyt netted a hat-trick, enormous credit for the victory must go to Suarez. If Liverpool are to win their 19th league title anytime soon, Suarez will surely be pivotal.
Then there is Andy Carroll, the controversial 35 million pound signing in January. There is no doubt Liverpool overpaid for Carroll, and he has seemed somewhat sluggish in some of his appearances so far. However, it must be remembered Carroll is not fully fit. With a proper preseason under his belt, he could be a vital component of this Liverpool team.
Glimpses of his ability can be seen in the quality of his two strikes against Manchester City, and though the Carroll fee is over the top, he could still very well turn out to a good signing.
David N'Gog got his season off to a flier with a thunderous opening-day strike against Arsenal, but has somewhat stagnated since then, managing just one more league goal. Dalglish does not seem to be a particularly big fan. It would not be a surprise to see N'Gog offloaded in the summer, though if Damien Comolli is serious about the 8 million pound price tag he has placed on his head, it may be difficult finding a buyer willing to match that.
If N'Gog does depart, another striker will be needed to add depth to the squad, as three is not enough, especially given Kuyt if often deployed out wide and Suarez has a tendency to drop deep. Exactly who this striker could be is difficult to decide; preferably a young, hungry player who will not sulk if not selected every week.
Overall, this Liverpool squad is in need of something of an overhaul. A left back and a creative wide player are needed desperately. After this, the search for a new striker should begin, and then, if funds remain, a centre back and a centre midfielder.
Their good form in the closing months of the season should not hide the deficiencies of this team, and improvement is necessary now more than ever. Manchester United are rumoured to spend big in the summer, and Chelsea are likely to invest after the appointment of a new manager.
At Manchester City, "the Blue Moon is rising," and they are likely to improve even further as they now have the added appeal of the Champions League. Meanwhile, in North London, Arsene Wenger's side should continue their development from last season, and if Tottenham can add a top-class forward to their team and hang onto their stars, they will also be looking strong.
In short, competition at the top has never been tougher, and so this is a vital summer for Liverpool Football Club. Perhaps in the future, the 2010/11 season will be looked back on as a turning point in the history of Liverpool, with the arrival of FSG and Kenny Dalglish. Though the league table suggests a rather average season, the off-the-pitch events were vital.
Hopefully, the focus will be returned to the pitch throughout next season as Liverpool return to the peak of the English game.
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