EPL: 5 Reasons Why Liverpool Can Break into the Top Four This Season
The 2013/14 Premier League season is about to start, and Liverpool fans could be forgiven for being just a little pessimistic about the year ahead, having witnessed the departure of long-time first-choice goalkeeper Pepe Reina and now going through the unwanted distraction of the Luis Suarez transfer saga.
These two events have overshadowed the celebrations that should be happening at Anfield: the early confirmation of four early signings back in June that improved the overall quality of the squad, and the well-deserved testimonial for long-serving club captain Steven Gerrard, who looks to lead his teammates into the new season in full fitness.
As the Suarez controversy rumbles on, it will inevitably provide a huge distraction for those concerned with Liverpool, so the recent 4-1 win against Norwegian side Valerenga, the Reds’ sixth victory out of six preseason friendlies this summer, will have provided much encouragement regarding the players’ focus on the pitch.
The mood around Anfield shouldn’t be doom and gloom; by contrast, there is every reason that Liverpool fans should look forward to the coming campaign, as they look to build on a strong first half of 2013 and aim for higher achievements—the most important of which may well be qualifying for the Champions League once again.
Here are five reasons why Liverpool can break into the Premier League top four this season. Enjoy and let us know your thoughts.
Brendan Rodgers’ First Year Has Passed
On June 1 this year, Brendan Rodgers celebrated his one-year anniversary in charge of Liverpool Football Club.
In this past year and two months, Rodgers has overseen a change in personnel drastic enough to be called a revolution: His ruthless dispensation of the favorite former chargers of predecessor Kenny Dalglish and the impressive acquisitions of Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge have all contributed to an evolving unit at Anfield.
Besides the evolution clearly seen from the possession-heavy, cautious and non-clinical first half season last year to the swashbuckling, dynamic and counterattacking Liverpool in the second half, Rodgers has also clearly started to grow into his role as manager of an iconic club.
His handling of the Suarez controversies—including the Uruguayan’s admission of diving against Stoke City last year and up till the current transfer chaos—has been along a harder line than previously adopted and a much more welcome tone given the negative public relations they have generated for the club.
So, for Rodgers, it has been an evolution both on and off the pitch, which bodes well going into his second season.
Because now, Rodgers will have had a full year to acclimatize and become familiar with the way Liverpool work as a club, and this solid foundation will play a central role in the season to come, with both his man management (regardless of Suarez’s eventual destination) and his footballing philosophy coming under ever stronger scrutiny.
A top-four fight was always realistically out of reach for the Reds last season—despite what Rodgers had to say to Sky Sports—but with the manager more comfortable in his role and surroundings now, the mentality and approach are set for a real run at the elite.
An Uncertain Top of the Table
It’s been well documented that the Premier League will have experienced a host of significant changes by the time the first ball is kicked on Saturday, August 17, and the uncertainty that this brings to the top is fascinating.
Providing that Chelsea, with Jose Mourinho returning, and Manchester City, with Manuel Pellegrini strengthening impressively this summer, will be shoo-ins for the top two, there are few other interesting scenarios unfolding at Liverpool’s main challengers.
Take Manchester United. Having missed out on Thiago Alcantara and apparently close to calling defeat on their chase for Cesc Fabregas, they have reportedly turned to Marouane Fellaini to strengthen their midfield, according to the Independent. David Moyes goes into the Old Trafford job much like Rodgers did in his first season and may well require the same acclimatization period.
Arsene Wenger has been widely mocked for his signing of Yaya Sanogo despite having been linked strongly with the likes of Gonzalo Higuain, Cesc Fabregas and Wayne Rooney, and he is now locked in a fierce tussle with Liverpool over Luis Suarez. But this isn’t a team that is fit to compete on all fronts—and even though Arsenal have a curious stranglehold on the top four, it is clear they need to strengthen still.
Tottenham Hotspur are currently preoccupied by the ongoing Gareth Bale saga, despite having added well to their forward line this summer. On paper, the additions of Paulinho, Nacer Chadli and Roberto Soldado will add goals, but any potential loss of Bale would be cataclysmic for the club.
All of which may just open a door for Liverpool, especially if they remain ambitious and consistent.
The Strengthening Isn’t over Yet
The heartening thing for Liverpool fans should be that the club doesn’t seem to have ended its transfer activity yet.
Sure, the protracted move for Henrikh Mkhitaryan ended in the Armenian attacker moving to Borussia Dortmund, but according to Rodgers on Sky Sports, Liverpool retain interest in both attackers and left-backs: Their reported interest in Valencia’s Aly Cissokho (Express) and Atletico Madrid’s Diego Costa (Independent) is evidence.
If the two signings are secured, and the reported interest (Daily Mail) in Schalke 04’s defensive prodigy Kyriakos Papadopoulos comes to fruition, Liverpool would have three quality players to strengthen their team, bringing the whole summer influx to seven and drastically raising the overall bar.
Equally important is the trimming of the financial fat that has been occurring. The departure of Pepe Reina and the imminent transfer of Stewart Downing to Newcastle United, according to the Express, will save the club an estimated total of £9.5 million off the annual wage bill (as calculated roughly from figures provided by the Mirror and the Express), which can then go towards a January transfer budget.
And Liverpool fans will know all about the wonders that a January transfer window can do: Coutinho and Sturridge provided unanimously one of the more triumphant midseason windows in many a season.
Add to these the solid acquisitions of Simon Mignolet, Kolo Toure, Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto—all four of whom have impressed this preseason—and Brendan Rodgers suddenly has a much more capable and balanced squad at his disposal, equipped for a run at the top four without the added burden of European football.
The Team Has Evolved and Matured
If we needed any proof that January provided the strongest injection of confidence and ability in a Liverpool squad in many years, perhaps Coutinho’s presence in the top two of Liverpool shirt sales and Sturridge’s in the top four, as reported by the Daily Mail, provides just that.
It’s a sign of the times and a clear reflection that Liverpool have evolved over the course of the past year with Brendan Rodgers at the helm.
This is a team that ventured from a testy and hesitant passing setup, with not much variability and sense of adventure, to a dynamic, interchangeable and efficient counterattacking unit only in the space of a few months.
This is a team that went from relying on Luis Suarez’s goals, especially in the wake of Andy Carroll’s last-minute departure without a replacement secured, to goals shared across the team and goals galore, only in the space of a few months.
This is a team whose fortunes and improvements can always be shown in the performances of Steven Gerrard, who transformed from a midfielder who seemed unfit for his new, withdrawn role to a metronomic midfield orchestrator who also chipped in with 10 goals and 11 assists in all competitions only in the space of a few months.
And the most encouraging aspect is the way that the team has gone about its preseason fixtures: cleanly, professionally and efficiently, scoring 17 goals with just the one conceded.
So the excitement is that, after a summer without any major international tournaments and a full preseason with the entire team on board, Liverpool enter their first match of the new season full of confidence and firing on all cylinders.
Liverpool Play a Team Game Now
But most importantly, given the state of affairs currently surrounding Liverpool and their No. 7, the Reds have evolved from arguably a one-man team, when Luis Suarez dragged them over the line time and again, to a multifunctional unit.
As Coutinho and Sturridge came in and shared the goal-scoring and creative burden, so too did Gerrard start coming into form. Add the encouraging return of Raheem Sterling and the impressive performances of Jordon Ibe this preseason, as well as the exciting movement of Iago Aspas and the eager-to-impress duo of Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson, and Liverpool have a hardworking midfield and forward line that also possesses technical quality and goal-scoring acumen.
Which means that their previous overreliance on Luis Suarez has become just that—over.
To accommodate the arrival of Sturridge and his insertion into the starting lineup as lone striker, Suarez moved behind him in a support role, which was taken by Coutinho due to Suarez’s end-of-season ban for his bite on Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic.
Suarez’s unorthodox, improvisational and spontaneous way of playing, which might not fit seamlessly into a team functioning like an attacking machine, and inevitably his influence will be diminished and his responsibilities shared across his colleagues in the frontline.
Indeed, when Suarez returns to first-team action in September—if he does—it will have been Sturridge and Coutinho playing in his favored roles since the end of last season, which does not necessarily bode well for the Uruguayan.
And for a team like Liverpool wanting to push towards the Champions League spots, sharing goals, assists, creativity, pace, unpredictability and match-winning moments amongst a host of players equally drawn to a collective goal will be all the more effective.
Ultimately, it is about the team, and Brendan Rodgers has laid down the foundations for a fine team—a team that might just be able to capitalize on their improvements and gatecrash the top-four party.