Liverpool FC: 5 Bold Predictions for Liverpool's 2011-12 Season
The upcoming 2011-12 season promises to be a crucial one for Liverpool FC.
With Hicks and Gillette's ownership of the club ending abruptly, and with the Roy Hodgson era never really getting started, this will be the first full season under the ownership of John W. Henry, with Kenny Dalglish as manager.
Dalglish's influence seemed to liberate Liverpool in the latter part of last season. Players like Raul Meireles, Lucas Leiva and Maxi Rodríguez, who had been less convincing under Hodgson, began to find form, while academy graduates Jay Spearing, Jack Robinson and John Flanagan made visible progress.
Whether he can sustain this improvement remains to be seen; he has the faith of the fans but the honeymoon will be over very quickly if the good form of the spring turns out to be a result of the "new manager effect".
Although big signings were made in January, they were funded by the departures of Fernando Torres and Ryan Babel. The close season has really shown the part that Henry has to play in the club's future.
Considerable investment has been made to sign Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson, three midfielders who were in great form last season. Eyebrows have been raised however about where and how often they will feature and who may leave to accommodate them.
Can King Kenny bring back the glory days? How will the new signings fit in to his plans? Is it "our year"?
Here are five predictions for the upcoming season.
1. A Breakthrough Year for Martin Kelly
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Martin Kelly watched the last three months of the season from the sidelines after suffering a hamstring injury in late February. The injury was a blow as he had made 24 first team appearances, more than in any previous season, and might well have held onto his first team place.
Such was the impression he made in the games he did play, that despite making his England under 21 bow just last summer, some journalists tipped him for an England call up in January. In the end, he was ruled out and fellow England Under-21 right back Kyle Walker got the call.
In his absence the young full backs John Flanagan and Jack Robinson gained valuable experience, the faith shown in Kelly by Benitez, Hodgson and then Dalglish over the last two years should serve as evidence that he is strong enough to see off the competition.
At the start of last season, Liverpool fans would have been concerned by a lack of cover for Glen Johnson at right back. By the end of the season, the form of Kelly and Flanagan, coupled with the failings of Paul Konchesky and injury record of Fabio Aurelio meant that worries focused on our lack of a regular starter at left back.
Thanks to the versatility shown by Johnson during 2011, it's possible that Kelly could stake his claim on either spot.
Although often played at centre back for the reserves and at the academy, Kelly has shown no reluctance to get forward, making his name in the first team as a right back.
He delivered a man of the match performance when he made his début in that position against Lyon in the Champions League in 2009, and featured in both full back roles during the 2010-11 season.
With Carragher, Škrtel, Agger, Kyrgiakos and Wilson vying for central defensive positions, playing at full back would certainly seem to be his best chance of holding down a place.
He'll need to play 30 games in the Premier League this season to really make the transition from bit part player to first team regular.
I predict that barring injury he'll do this with ease and should cement his reputation as one of the country's emerging defensive talents.
2. A Challenging Season for Steven Gerrard
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Steven Gerrard has been Liverpool's talisman for the best part of a decade, but the 2011-12 season promises to be one of his most challenging.
Despite, or perhaps because of his ability, he's often been forced to play in positions other than his favoured central midfield slot: on the left for England, on the right under Benítez, and as second striker for both.
With the acquisition of Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson, Liverpool's central midfield is more crowded than ever, and it could once again be Gerrard who is marginalised.
Gerrard formed a formidable partnership with Fernando Torres during the Spanish striker's time at the club. However, with Luis Suarez impressing alongside Dirk Kuyt, and with suggestions that Dalglish may pair him alongside Andy Carroll for the classic big/little combination, it's hard to see where Gerrard fits in.
If Gerrard is to compete for one of the two or three central midfield positions, that will mean that at least two of Raul Meireles, Alberto Aquilani, Charlie Adam, Christian Poulsen and Jordan Henderson will miss out, and that's without mentioning the Lucas/Spearing partnership which performed unexpectedly well in Gerrard's absence towards the end of the season.
Rumours of departures for Aquilani and Meireles have yet to result in any transfer business, and even if they both left the club, that would still leave Liverpool overstaffed in this area.
There's a chance Meireles could end up playing a wider role to accommodate the wealth of talent Liverpool have centrally, but it remains to be seen whether Gerrard would be happy with being shifted out in the same way.
With Downing arriving, Maxi finding some form, and Dirk Kuyt increasingly vital, there may not even be room on the wings.
One other option remains: rotation.
It's been suggested that new signings Adam (set pieces) and Downing (crosses) will be used mainly for their specialities to change games alongside Andy Carroll.
Gerrard's shooting ability from range and cross field passing might be seen as just another weapon in Dalglish's arsenal, to be used only when appropriate. However it seems hard to imagine the manager leaving out the club captain, and a Gerrard-less Liverpool would be a much less threatening prospect.
Exactly where and how much Steven Gerrard will play this season remains to be seen, but I predict that he won't start more than two-thirds of Liverpool's games.
3. Carroll, Downing and Adam: A £62 Million "Plan B"?
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Signing Andy Carroll for £35 million could yet be a master stroke. The young forward has technique as well as presence and offers a physical dimension that Liverpool have lacked for some time.
He certainly shouldn't be starved of goal scoring chances should he have new signings Stewart Downing (£20 million) and Charlie Adam (£7 million) playing alongside him.
Downing is a prolific and accurate crosser of the ball, while Adam has great delivery from corners and free kicks. It's been noted elsewhere that Dalglish and Damien Comolli seem to have recruited these players specifically to provide the tall striker with these opportunities.
Despite these promising signings, Carroll must still have concerns having seen Luis Suarez and Dirk Kuyt link up with such ease while he was out injured last season.
Many initially predicted that Carroll and Suarez would be a good combination, but the two players from the Eredivisie showed a near telepathic understanding from the start, forming a dangerous partnership in attack that ran rings around Manchester United.
Should they start the season in the way they finished the last, Kenny Dalglish may be reluctant to alter a winning formula.
Looking beyond Carroll to the two new signings, the tricks and flicks of players like Maxi Rodriguez and Alberto Aquilani may well fit better alongside the total football that Suarez and Kuyt attempt. Neither striker is as renowned for their aerial prowess as Carroll is.
With that in mind, unless Dalglish finds a way to combine these differing talents into one formation, I predict that the anticipated Carroll, Downing and Adam combination may end up being an option rather than a regular fixture in the Liverpool side.
4. Finally, Stadium Progress at Anfield or Stanley Park
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In May 2012, it will have been 10 years since plans to replace Anfield were initiated.
Although in 2002, nobody could have predicted the financial crisis, nor the up and down fortunes of the club in the following decade, even in the worst case scenarios surely nobody involved would have expected so little to have happened since plans were set out.
The proposed site of the new stadium (Stanley Park) remains untouched, while restrictions around match day traffic and the housing surrounding the ground have been barriers to expansion so far at Anfield.
In the interim, Arsenal have moved to the Emirates and recorded record financials. The City of Manchester stadium exceeds the capacity of Anfield, while even the Stadium of Light in Sunderland has grown to leave Liverpool with the fifth biggest ground in the league.
For a club with such a broad and loyal fan base, with a great pedigree and lofty ambitions, this is disappointing.
For the club's financial future, it is essential that progress is made, whether on a new stadium or on the redevelopment of Anfield. Expensive signings have been made over the last year but it would seem unlikely that this trend could continue without growth in the club's revenue.
Thorny issues of leaving the club's home and the history that goes with it, of ground sharing, and of sponsorship have all been raised, but compromises may need to be reached. Fenway Sports Group seem to favour redevelopment of Anfield, and if this is feasible then a lot of fans would be relieved to stay.
So long as permission can be obtained quickly it would seem the most diplomatic and economical solution. John W. Henry hasn't let us down so far, so I predict that building work will be under way to increase capacity or build a new stadium before the 2012-13 season gets under way.
5. It's "Our Year"...but Probably Only in the Cups.
Before every Premier League season, it seems that there are always a group of Liverpool fans who say, "This is our year."
Whether it's a minority or a majority depends on how the club has fared on the pitch and during the transfer window.
Despite the upturn in fortunes Liverpool FC experienced in 2011, I suspect only a few brave fans will be making the boldest of predictions and suggesting that Liverpool will win the title next year, and unfortunately, I don't quite yet feel their confidence.
However, for a variety of reasons, I do not believe that Liverpool will end this season trophyless.
A club with Liverpool's traditions in European competition cannot and should not see finishing outside the qualification spots as a positive, even if it means avoiding some unglamorous ties against Europe's lesser lights.
It is undeniable though that the reduction in games and travel could mean a fitter squad, more equipped for a domestic cup run in addition to a gruelling Premier League season.
Fewer games could mean greater competition for places and greater focus on the chances to impress, particularly for fringe players more likely to get a start in the League and FA Cups.
Having seen more of the up and coming players on the fringes of the squad in the last few months of last season, there are more reasons to be confident.
With the manager's focus inevitably falling on Champions League qualification, progress in the earlier rounds of the cup competitions is still likely to rely on the performances of these younger or less vaunted players.
While Liverpool have been let down by a few embarrassing exits in the early rounds in recent years (the Reading game last year being the most recent example), this year the squad should be better equipped to make progress.
Finally, Kenny Dalglish won five domestic cups in 13 years as a player, plus two more in six years as a manager in his first spell.
Although the cups may have lost their lustre somewhat since Kenny last lifted one, he's a competitive individual and knows exactly what it means to bring a trophy back to Merseyside.
After five barren years, I predict Liverpool will lift at least one trophy during the 2011-12 season.