So, it’s less than a week away. Hope and dread return in equal measure. Two players of undoubted quality (Johnson and Aquilani) have arrived to bolster the strongest XI, but one (Alonso) has left.
Also gone are Hyypia and Arbeloa, both of whom would have only been back-up players going into the new campaign, but very good ones at that. Hyypia’s perennial fitness and professionalism already looks a great loss, with injuries mounting.
Some young players will be a year older and wiser (particularly Insua and N’Gog), and no-one is in danger of disappearing off the other end of the age spectrum, now that Hyypia has moved on.
The oldest player in the squad is only 31 (Carragher), and no-one else will be in his 30s when the season starts, bar Voronin, who has only just recently had his 30th birthday.
The average age of the strongest XI is a near-perfect 27.3 (the average of the previous 17 Premiership champions is 27.5), and the squad overall averages out at a very healthy 26, excluding those youngsters who may force their way into Rafa’s plans.
Pre-season form hasn’t been great on the whole, but the players do so much intensive training at this time of year under Rafa it’s hard to know how much energy they have left come kick-off; often they’ll have trained hard the day of a game, and fitness is the main concern.
More confidence gained from impressive wins would have been nice, but pre-season can be so distorting – not least due to the range in fitness and determination of the various opposition sides – that successive strolls in pre-season can bring a rude awakening come the first league game.
Another centre-half seems to be a priority, with the risk of none being fit for the season opener at Spurs, and Liverpool facing Crouch, Carew and Stoke’s bombardment in the opening three fixtures. It certainly won’t be an easy start, especially if Liverpool have to call upon teenage reserve players. A defeat at Spurs wouldn’t surprise me, with Rafa starting a league campaign away for the 6th successive season, but from then until October, and the trip to Chelsea, I expect pretty much maximum points.
With Alonso gone, and Aquilani not fit until September, another early key could be Gerrard’s position; having said that I’d be loath to see him moved into central midfield, he opened up Atletico Madrid on Saturday several times in quick succession from that deeper position, with passes of great incision. (If Alonso was the better passer overall, his one weakness was not enough penetrating passes through the middle, in the way Gerrard can find.)
But the improvement of Lucas should enable Rafa to keep Gerrard and Torres in tandem up front.
According to some, Liverpool missed a good chance of winning the title last season, but I don’t buy that; to go from 4th place and 76 points to 1st place, and needing in excess of 90, is a massive ask. To do so without the experience of a previous title race only made it harder.
Yes, United and Chelsea had some problems last season, but Liverpool could only pair Torres and Gerrard together on 14 occasions. If that can be doubled this time around, with no injuries to other key men, than this really could be the year.
Anyway, preamble out of the way, this is my assessment of the squad as it currently stands, and of those players who needs to improve on last season’s showings to find that extra few percent to bring home #19.
Must Do Better
Okay, let’s start with a controversial inclusions. If anyone else had defended like Jamie Carragher last season, I’d have been delighted. But he had more of an 8/10 season than the 9/10 he’d been racking up since 2004.
I don’t subscribe to the opinion that he’s past his best now that he’s 31, as his experience and leadership qualities are vital, as is his local pride, but I just feel that he can be a fraction better than what we saw last season. And this is a season where Liverpool, one the whole, need to be just a fraction better.
Little wrong when he was fit enough to play, although the stop-start nature of the injuries meant that he often took to the field patently short of sharpness. But he scored more goals against the better teams than in his debut season, and maintained an excellent strike rate; so any improvement would simply need to be physical, and the psychological boost that comes with it.
Another top player who wasn’t quite at his best in 2008/09 – certainly so in the first half of the campaign, when he returned from the Olympics looking like he’d been hit with a stray javelin. A year on, he now needs to put ideas of Barcelona rather than Beijing behind him.
If anything, he currently looks meaner than ever before, tearing through opponents in pre-season with all the compassion of Roy Keane fronting up Alf-Inge Haaland, and looking nothing short of a grade-A psycho with his three-day stubble, glazed stare and crazy-toothed smile. Now that Alonso is gone it’s imperative that the Monster is at his best.
If it truly does take one to know one (and I can tell with authority that Piers Morgan is a wanker), John Barnes is to be taken seriously when it comes to Ryan Babel.
“Ryan is a fantastic player,” Barnes said. “If we can find the right blend and formation for him to show us what he can do I believe he can be one of the best players in the Premier League”
I’ve long shared this view, but also wonder if the player has the right temperament; then again, Barnes was seen as laid back, and certainly had little aggression, and he did okay, didn’t he? It’s worth noting that Babel, at 22, still isn’t even at the age Barnes was when he arrived in 1987. There’s so much more to come from the Dutchman, but I’m not certain if his game will come together in time, or in this team, or in this league.
It’s also not yet clear if Babel is good enough that his inclusion demands that the system must be built around him, and it might need that for him to succeed. However, I live in hope, albeit hope without breath held.
Here is a player who simply must improve on what Liverpool had before: Alvaro Arbeloa, who was a very good defender, and a willing forward runner, but not the cleverest on the ball. Johnson is quicker, stronger and far more accomplished from a technical point of view. Arbeloa was not a good crosser of the ball, and Johnson has the delivery of a top winger.
If the £17m full-back brings his Portsmouth and England form with him, he will improve on Arbeloa quite comfortably. If he suffers the same problems as he did at Chelsea, there will be concerns, although that was a very young man playing for a manager (Mourinho) who wanted his own player (Ferreira) in the role.
I like the Spaniard a lot, particularly the way he can give-and-go in passing moves better than most wingers, but his form fell away as he ran out of steam towards the end of the season; just as he ran out of steam towards the end of games.
He provides natural width, and that was vital with Xabi Alonso able to spray quick, long passes to the wing, but now that his compatriot has left for Real Madrid, a change of emphasis may be required. However, Riera has good skill in tight situations and can make it to the byline regularly, though his delivery can be improved.
Due mostly to injury, we didn’t get to see the best of what I believe to be an absolutely outstanding talent. That he is having more back trouble ahead of the new season is a worry, because a fully fit Agger is about as good as you get for an all-round defender. His creativity from the back will be important in turning more home draws into wins, and he can add goals from defence, which is always a handy bonus.
It’s unclear if the Italian has a future at the club, although he might be worth keeping due to Fabio Aurelio’s inability to last a whole season, and often, a whole month.
Emiliano Insua seems everyone’s natural choice at left-back, and rightly so, but young defenders can struggle to regain their form quickly if they lose it (it’s a new experience and they can’t draw on having already overcome such setbacks). Insua also has to prove he can last a season in the first team, having only dipped in and out thus far.
It may be worth keeping Dossena simply to help fellow Italian Aquilani settle in, as the new man could be more important to Liverpool’s success than anything a left-back does. Italians don’t have a great record of playing overseas (Zola being an exception), so settling into life off the pitch is vital (as Ian Rush found when making the reverse journey 22 years ago). In that sense, the Italian left-back could be of great use.
But I do like Dossena, and hope that it was just a case of adapting to life in the Premiership that made his first six months at the club so shaky, before he briefly shone on the left of midfield, where his crossing was particularly dangerous. I won’t lose sleep if he goes, but Aurelio’s latest injury might have delayed his exit, until January at least.
Must Sustain Form
At times utterly sensational, although he needs to pick his nights out with more care. The stress of an impending trial, and a few niggling injuries, mean that there is potential to improve further on a campaign that saw him crowned Footballer of the Year. A fit Fernando Torres alongside him for more than 14 games would also help him find more space, gain more assists, and probably get to take more penalties.
Supreme consistency, very few errors and an involvement in quite a few goals at the other end; there really is nothing to say about the most reliable keeper in the country other than: more of the same please, Señor.
A non-eventful first half of the season gave way to an outstanding final few months for the Israeli. Of course, it’s possible that he was only that sharp because he was merely a fringe player before February, which means he might not be the kind to sustain it for a whole season, or be able to excel at the start of the campaign when everyone else is equally fresh.
However, if he could have that kind of impact for even six of the nine/ten months, rather than three, it could make a world of difference. His ability to get the ball into the danger zone, either with a pass or a dribble, allied to his fine finishing skills, make him a great option, but he will not give width. With Insua and Johnson, that may be less essential.
The ‘problem’ is that Liverpool have four very good options for the wings, without any of them being undeniably world-class, and with each offering very contrasting qualities. They are all flawed, but when on form can offer something very special, so it’ll be interesting to see who stakes the strongest claim early on, and who can make the biggest impact as the season progresses. Or whether it will be a case of horses for courses, with selections based on opposition weaknesses.
The one wide-man guaranteed a game is Dirk Kuyt and rightly so. I’ve long defended the Dutchman, but even I didn’t think he could be as effective as he was last season, when he weighed in with 15 goals (many of them vital), and some lovely assists, not least with pin-point crosses in the run-in, one of which was even with his left peg.
I therefore suspect that he’ll struggle to be quite as effective this time out, although he’s always worth his place in the side for how he inspires those around him to greater efforts by setting a perfect example, and playing without ego.
I sincerely hope that last season was not a fluke, but rather a case of proving to himself that he belongs in the side, and that he has ‘cracked’ the Premiership (not in a way that leads to complacency, but one which leads to confidence). If Kuyt can be even 90% as good as last season, and Torres and Gerrard play the whole campaign, that will result in a lot of goals.
Had a poor start to last season, and a baying crowd booing his name only led to a further dip. But he pulled it together, and has returned looking stronger, with the aim to bulk up and no longer be bullied.
So while he could, and should do better overall, he ended last season in the kind of form I’d be happy to see him take into 2009/10. Anything beyond that will be a bonus, unless Aquilani fails to stay fit, or fails to adapt. The biggest problem the Brazilian faces are those fans who won’t be won over, no matter what he does.
Had a nightmare against Boro, and a few shaky moments thereafter, but on the whole can be pleased with his first full season at the club. Still young for a centre-back, with plenty of scope to improve, but already at a very high level. Offers height and aggression, a valuable combination for the English league.
Better on the ball than he’s given credit for, both he and Agger are the long-term future of Liverpool at the heart of the defence, and it’s just a question of how long Jamie Carragher can keep going – he’s not past it yet, but is the only Liverpool first-team player in his 30s.
I honestly don’t get the criticism of Voronin. While his workrate seems questionable at times (but looks excellent so far in pre-season), and he seems a right miserable sod, he is a clever, skilful player who will add options to those of last season, without the added burden of settling in to a new club.
He excelled in the first month of his initial season at Liverpool, and later on, against Besiktas, created five of the eight goals, in a performance I will never forget. But after injury he was admittedly iffy; then again, that’s not a first for any player, let alone one new to a country. He returns after an excellent season in Germany, and can add something different to the squad.
I’m not arguing that he’s world-class or going to win the league single-handedly, but if his attitude is right he can chip in with a few goals and assists, as a very capable and game-intelligent back-up striker.
Long-term I expect Nemeth, N’Gog and Pacheco to force him out of the equation, but this is a big season, and as Liverpool are still a fairly young side, he should not be seen as keeping those up-and-coming kids out of the side, but tiding the team over until they are ready.
However, like Lucas before him, maybe he just needs to crop the ponytail; yes, yes, I’m jealous of anyone with hair, but it seems to affect other people’s perceptions of him, and make him a bit of a joke figure. Let’s face it, even Steven Gerrard wouldn’t be taken as seriously as a footballer with a barnet like that.
As mentioned earlier, the left-back slot is his for the taking; but it’s time to step up to regular appearances and consistency over a whole campaign. Also needs to make a few more telling contributions in the final third, although it’s not necessarily his fault that he wasn’t involved in a single Liverpool goal, as chances created for others weren’t converted.
He seems bigger and sturdier than when he first arrived (he’s certainly solid, but not fat, as some suggest!), and gets forward with natural ability and knows what areas to hit with a cross. He also has a great shot, though it’s only really been seen in the reserves so far.
Finally last season the Brazilian convinced me that he could cut it, but in terms of luck, the ‘it’ he cut must have been a black cat.
His versatility and experience will keep him close to the first team when fit, and 30 games a season appears to be about as much as we can ever hope for. His free-kicks have become an important weapon in the Reds’ armoury. Even when fit he is rested for games in quick succession, but that could benefit Insua.
Heading for the ‘Must Do Better’ category until the spring, the young Frenchman could be excused a lack of impact due to the fact that he was not even used to first team football, let alone that of a superior league and a style of football he was unaccustomed to. I admit to having had my doubts.
But I’ve seen enough to now feel very optimistic, even if it might be another year or two before it all clicks into place for him.
He still looks a little lightweight at times, but has improved on his early showings, and shows some lovely deft touches.
His finishing needs a lot of work, and he’s not a natural like Nemeth (who reminds me so much of a right-footed Robbie Fowler), but is ahead of the Hungarian due to greater height and superior pace. I do expect Nemeth to make a great impact at some point in the next year or two, all the same.
N’Gog still only played 452 minutes of Premiership and Champions League football last season (the equivalent of just five games), but according to the Goal Involvement figures I calculated for Red Race (kind of like ‘assists’, but taking more of the move into account), only Gerrard was involved in more goals per-minute of action.
Part of this great figure is down to N’Gog featuring mostly against average opposition, but they were still top division sides from England and Europe, suggesting that he has a bright future.
Anything’s A Bonus
Going forward he can look quite pacy, if a little aimless, but I’m yet to see any defensive nous whatsoever. I really don’t know what to make of him, but in fairness so little has been seen of him in competitive action it’s hard to be too critical.
He’s in danger of being overtaken by Martin Kelly, who already appears to have moved past Stephen Darby in the pecking order. To me, Kelly looks easily the brightest defensive prospect at the club since Carra broke through 13 years ago. He has pace, strength, height and quality on the ball. Unlike Degen, he looks like a natural when he runs.
Anything Kelly does this season will be a bonus, and the same applies to Mikel San Jose. But as young defenders they will almost inevitably make costly mistakes.
I expect Ayala, who is even younger, to be behind these two, but he has shown in the reserves that he’s got talent, even if the Youth Cup final was a two-legged nightmare to forget.
Nabil El Zhar
Not sure why people complain about the young Moroccan, who seems like a handy option from the bench; I’d understand the disquiet if he was a regular starter week-in, week-out, but as things stand he’s a fairly skilful, pacy winger who puts in a lot of effort, too. A fine squad player, but he may do well this season to get on the bench if everyone is fit. But he has room to improve, and is already a decent player at Premiership level.
Definitely should do better than last season, when his bright promise seemed to fade upon returning to the reserves; beyond anything else, he’s fairly low down in the pecking order, so if he fails to build on his excellent debut then not too much is lost. The same applies to Jay Spearing, who has a lot of potential, but who is not a natural partner to Javier Mascherano, whose style he mirrors.
In the nicest possible sense, I hope that we don’t see too much of him. He looks like a fine keeper, but how he copes with the pressure of big games is a test I hope we don’t have to discover. As has been seen with someone like Scott Carson, it’s all very well having talent, but nerves on the big occasion can undo a keeper’s career in seconds.
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