LFC Season Preview – Time To Go Fourth?

LFC Season Preview – Time To Go Fourth?
August 9, 2011 Paul Tomkins

My previous look at the season ahead revolved around the work we had done on the Transfer Price Index, and how the cost of a club’s XI (called its ‘£XI’, as inflation is taken into account) over the course of the season correlates fairly accurately with where they will finish in the table; and the higher up the division you go, the more predictable it gets. No team’s chances are chained to conclusions taken from retrospective analysis, but they do set a benchmark – a starting point – for what is probable.

The cost of the squad (again, when inflation is taken into account) is a little less accurate, but of course, any weekly XI has to come from that collection of players. So if keeping a very high £XI is important, then unless you are blessed with an unnatural amount of youth prodigies, having expensive substitutes and squad players helps. And as you can’t foretell the cost of a side over the coming ten months, the cost of the squad is a good place to start.

Right now, these are the costs of the Premier League squads (minus promoted teams, who will almost certainly rank 18th, 19th and 20th), adjusted for inflation:

2011/12 SQ£ (so far)
Chelsea £463,364,980
Man City £429,249,525
Man Utd £400,273,930
Liverpool £231,741,856
Spurs £227,373,672
Arsenal £165,881,468
Aston Villa £115,112,914
Everton £106,825,203
Sunderland £105,658,666
Newcastle £78,851,457
Fulham £72,550,959
Wolves £53,234,212
Wigan £48,782,767
Stoke £46,417,927
Blackburn £44,657,002
Bolton £40,861,401
West Brom £27,804,342

There are clearly two specifics bands of three within the top six: last season’s Premier League ‘big three’, followed by Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal well over £100m behind. Therefore, it’s most probable that the top three will be the same again, although perhaps in a different order, with 4th, 5th and 6th coming from Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal.

Comparison

For all those fearing that Liverpool have spent a lot of money this summer without introducing any wow-factor players – and therefore, somehow, not improving the side – it’s worth considering where we are compared with the last few seasons. The last time Liverpool had a particularly strong squad – a top four squad – was 2008/09.

To make a comparison, I looked at the squads from 2008/09, last season and the current collection as the new season looms large. While far from scientific, I divided the players up into categories relating to how happy I’d be to see them in the starting XI. Admittedly there is a leap of faith with the new players, as well as the value of hindsight in looking back on previous campaigns, but it still provides some interesting results.

Going into last season – i.e. before the arrival of Carroll and Suarez, but before the departure of Torres and Babel – I’d say that there were just twelve players whose inclusion (obviously not all at once) gave the look of a strong side. Now, admittedly this includes Joe Cole, who in practice did not live up to the theory; not that I was ever despondent if he was in the XI, but the excitement of him being a match-winner quickly abated.

Of the 12, I’d say that nine were hugely reliable, top-class Premier League players, if not necessarily world-class (whatever your definition may be). The three I removed from the 12 were Maxi, Skrtel and Cole, who – to my mind at least – fell at least a little short in certain areas.

Go back to 2008/09, and I’d say that there were 16 players who could make the XI look strong. Twelve of these were proven performers, while four – Riera, Babel, Keane and Skrtel – didn’t always deliver as expected, but were at least capable of good games.

(Even though Riera and Keane did not have good careers at Liverpool, they did add to the first half of that campaign; and perhaps I’m being a little harsh on Skrtel who, at that stage, had yet to experience the wobbles that, even though I still like him, make me a little uneasy at times. He’s one of those players you have to judge on the day.)

What about now?

Well, I currently make it 17 players who’d give the line-up a strong feel, five more than this time last year. Right now, and assuming that two of the three new boys carrying on in the form they displayed at their old clubs (by no means a given), there are only two whom I consider slightly inferior to the others: Skrtel (yet again) and Henderson, who has a very bright future, but who is perhaps not at quite the level of the others, and whose relative youth means that it might take him longer than Adam and Downing to adapt.

Maxi, whom I ranked in the same as Henderson 12 months ago, I now move up to the top bracket with his form in the second half of last season, which turned him from a slightly fading experienced international into the player who shone for Argentina and in La Liga, and who is capable of scoring Premier League hat-tricks.

So anyway, the main point is that during the first half of last season, if the strongest XI wasn’t out there, there was little left in reserve; in turn, this led to a weak substitutes bench. My preseason hunch was 6th, but of course, it took some intervention to make that happen.

Going into that campaign, there were four other players whom, I felt, either a) wouldn’t let the team down, or b) were capable of some magic, but weren’t the kind you’d be hoping to see in the XI: Spearing, Ngog, Babel and Kyrgiakos. These were decent squad players, who could do a job, but not regular starting material. Spearing has since improved, and at times last autumn I’d hanker for Babel’s pace and unpredictability, but all in all, they had the air of damaged or inferior goods.

However, it turned out that there were five players who, if all was well, you wouldn’t want anywhere near the XI: Konchesky, Poulsen and Jovanovic, plus Shelvey and Wilson on account of their inexperience. For me, Shelvey has moved up to the neutral category: still a lot to learn, but given his talent I wouldn’t be at all unhappy to at least see him on the bench. The squad looked weak because, with six new signings failing to add anything of note, Benayoun and Mascherano sold, and Alberto Aquilani loaned out, quality was thin on the ground.

For the coming season, if Aquilani stays, and no other major names depart, I make it 15 players capable of being well above average in the Premier League – more than when the Reds racked up 86 points three seasons ago.

A slight flaw is that five of the 15 (and six of the aforementioned 17) are central midfielders, which means that the spread of talent is a little unbalanced. But of these, only Lucas is nothing more than a central midfielder. Gerrard can play almost anywhere, Meireles had several positions last season, Adam can play on the left, Henderson on the right, and Aquilani off the striker.

Indeed, you could argue that the best positions of Aquilani, Gerrard and Meireles are possibly ahead of the standard central midfielders. (Not included is Jay Spearing, who has improved in the past 12 months, but to my mind is a neutral selection. He’s now a very good squad player, but not someone I’d be happy to see in the starting XI if everyone was fit, unless his future form makes it deservedly so.)

So the depth there is far from a problem. However, it does highlight the lack of depth in other areas: only one left-back is by my reckoning of top Premier League standard, and he – Fabio Aurelio – misses the majority of most seasons.

Only slightly more durable is the sublime Daniel Agger, but hopefully crossing our fingers will work this time. I still rate Jamie Carragher as top Premier League quality, but he’s obviously not quite the player he was, and time isn’t going to get kinder. As mentioned earlier, Skrtel isn’t a player I’m unhappy to see in the XI, but, at this stage, I’d categorise him as a good back-up.

Up front the problem is the same: two shoo-ins (Suarez, Carroll) and only one reserve striker (Ngog), who isn’t bad but isn’t great. But again, versatility is the key: Kuyt showed last season that he’s more than just a last resort for his old position. If the Reds are going to play two strikers all season, then you’d probably want one more option in the squad, but as just mentioned, there’s a plethora of players who can operate in the hole behind one of Carroll, Suarez, Ngog or Kuyt.

Right-back is well covered, with Johnson, Kelly and Flanagan (in that order) providing the top three choices. Left-back has some decent cover in Insua and the very young Robinson, but adding Jose Enrique would allow Insua to be sold, Robinson to remain third choice and Aurelio to nestle in between. Without a new signing, it’s a little understrength; unlike the goalkeeping position, which now has strong cover for Reina in Brazilian international Doni.

That just leaves the wide areas. Downing has really impressed in preseason with his pace, passing and crossing, and he makes for a very natural counterbalance to Kuyt on the right. Maxi can cover for either, and Henderson is an option as Kuyt’s understudy. With strong cover at right-back, Johnson could always be pushed further forward, and while they’re not ideal out wide, Adam and Meireles have experience in those areas. Few sides play with wingers on both flanks, especially if they have two attacking full-backs, but of course, there’s no like-for-like replacement for Downing in reserve.

Then and Now

So if we take 2008/09 as a benchmark for what can be achieved – even if, by our TPI analysis, it was overachievement – you’d have to say that the Reds are in similar shape right now. After all, if Benítez was as hapless as his critics insisted, and the squad was as full of holes and bad buys as they often claimed, you’d have to wonder how they won 25 of 38 games, and lost only two.

If 2nd place seems a stretch right now – and to some degree it is, although a lot depends on the strength and form of the Reds’ rivals – then it’s worth considering what has changed in the meantime.

Whether or not you think Rafa is better than Kenny, or vice versa, you’d have to say that Dalglish and Steve Clarke are surely no worse than Benítez and the likable but apparently unremarkable Sammy Lee. Both managers have their unique strengths and like anyone else, neither is without his flaws, but as a pairing, the current manager and his assistant have to be capable of matching what was achieved back then; not least because you’d take Comolli, Ayre and FSG over Parry, Gillett and Hicks behind the scenes any day of the week. Stability as a club can only help.

What Liverpool have lost since 2008/09 is three stars who weren’t just proven Premier League players, but at the time, among the very best at what they did: Torres, Mascherano and Alonso. (Hyypia has also gone, but he was a bit-part player by the end.)

That said, Torres missed a lot of that season, and in Suarez the Reds have an even better footballer, with a superior fitness record; it’s hard to see the Uruguayan match the Spaniard’s goal output – although he is certainly capable of scoring plenty of goals (certainly matching the 14 Torres posted that season if his form for Uruguay and in Holland is anything to go by) – but Suarez creates much more for others.

Lucas has evolved into a player who isn’t that far removed from Mascherano; a claim made possible by his superb tackling and passing stats last season, and his Player of the Year status at the club. Charlie Adam is perhaps capable of being an “80% Alonso”, Meireles offers a lot of positives, and Aquilani has an immense amount of ability to go with those well-publicised question marks; so although Liverpool are weaker in what was their strongest area three years ago, it’s still a fine collection of central midfielders, with what is lost in first-team quality compensated for with extra depth.

The comparison between the seasons falls apart somewhat if Gerrard doesn’t get close to where he was back then, when he scored 24 goals and won the national Footballer of the Year award. I’m basing this on the assumption that he will get close to his best, at least for another year or two. If not, then obviously that weakens Kenny’s hand. However, Suarez can match Gerrard in that role, and that frees up the captain to be an influence in other areas.

Some more good players have been lost. Yossi Benayoun is another important player no longer at the club, though not a vital one. Alvaro Arbeloa, now at Real Madrid, was a very reliable right-back. So we’ve seen quite a lot of change in a short space of time.

From 2008/09, just Reina, Gerrard, Carragher and Kuyt remain as regular starters, plus there’s Skrtel, Aurelio and Lucas, who each featured in 21-25 league games three seasons ago. And of course, had Agger been fit, he’d have played more than 18 times three seasons ago. Including Agger, five of the best XI in ’08/09 remain, though a couple are perhaps diminished slightly.

Plus there’s Ngog, who has improved a lot since he arrived in 2008, even if he’s still nothing more than back-up. (Is he any worse than the Liverpool version of Robbie Keane who worked hard, scored a handful of goals, but failed to live up to the billing?)

So, what’s been added?

Well, for starters there’s Andy Carroll, who seems to have been written off by a lot of people after his half-fit displays when finally in the team from March onwards. He’s a strange one, as he looks awkward when he runs, and can suffer Crouchitis – the long ball punted up to him in hope. But he’s quicker than he looks, has a lovely left foot, and will hold the ball up better than Torres, as well as providing more of an aerial threat. He’s looking in great shape right now, and has been scoring some well-taken goals in preseason. He’s unlikely to hit 30 goals a season in the way that Torres once did, but he could reach 20.

(It’s worth recalling that even though Suarez took no time to hit his stride, it’s not easy for players joining in January. Both Vidic and Evra struggled at United in their first five months, while at Liverpool, Maxi and Agger were much better in their second season. If you are not fit at the time, and are playing to find your sharpness rather than starting with it, it just adds pressure.)

As for Luis Suarez, he speaks for himself. (Or should that be, he lets his feet do the talking?)

Stewart Downing appears another shrewd acquisition. He should be able to match Benayoun’s goal and assist output from ’08/09, and if not quite as jinking in his runs, he has a lot more pace and is better in wider areas. If you’d rather compare him with Albert Riera (with Maxi replacing Benayoun fairly evenly based on his end of season form), then Downing can give the width and shape that the Spanish winger provided, but deliver better crosses and not vanish after five months.

If Downing seems overpriced, then you have to take into account the fairly low risk factor in terms of his future performances: he has enough experience with England (for whom he’s improved with age) to not be overawed, and has been both consistently fit and consistently good in the Premier League. While no signing is ever guaranteed, he has a lot going in his favour. It’s a deal with little chance of later recouping a big fee, given that he’s just turned 27, but he should add something valuable straightaway to the way to the team plays.

As already noted, Adam can replicate a good proportion of Alonso’s passing skills. However, if you’d rather, you can instead compare the former no.14 with Meireles, an international-class midfielder. Neither are as good as Alonso, of course, but there’s not a gulf in class.

In some ways it should be easier for Adam to control games in a far better side, but there’s always the worry that certain players need the team to revolve around them; at Blackpool he was vital, whereas at Liverpool he’s another cog. I can just as easily see him being sensational as I can disappearing.

Meanwhile, Henderson could be seen as the new Lucas, if not in playing style then at least in development: a young midfielder who, within a couple of years, could be a first-team regular, but who, right now, is possibly at the level (in terms of Premier League capability) that Lucas was aged 21.

So if Lucas is the new Mascherano, then Henderson can replace the old Lucas. (Or maybe Spearing is the new Lucas … )

I remain a big fan of Glen Johnson, whose defending, while not perfect, is better than he’s given credit for, and whose overlapping runs are the best the club has had since Rob Jones. I still think he’s an upgrade on Arbeloa, but could do with avoiding the niggling injuries that have stopped him being as good as he could, particularly in terms of his pace. One player who wasn’t around then is Martin Kelly, and he’s a big improvement on Philipp Degen, the reserve right-back of 2008/09.

Then of course there’s Aquilani, the cause of many a debate amongst Liverpool fans. Like Carroll, he was always going to struggle to hit the ground running when arriving injured. I always felt he’d be better in his second season – even though he’d grabbed six assists and a couple of goals in the final five months of his first – and it was a shame that Poulsen was his replacement; a double-whammy if ever there was one. (Comparison based on the notion that Meireles replaced Mascherano.)

While I’d love to see the Italian stay (but only if his heart is in it), you can at least see that Liverpool are a lot stronger in the position than 12 months ago, and could more easily absorb his exit. And like many other Reds, I certainly wouldn’t miss the daily views of his agent.

And in theory, Joe Cole, as someone of proven Premier League quality, could still be a handy player to have, having at least looked in better physical shape this preseason; but in all likelihood it seems he’ll be sold. In a sense he’s another Ryan Babel: talented, but as yet unable to deliver what was hoped for, albeit for different reasons.

From 2008 to 2011

So, Alonso, Torres, Arbeloa, Mascherano, Benayoun, Riera, Hyypia (who was 35 anyway), Babel, Keane and Dossena have been replaced with Suarez, Carroll, Downing, Meireles, Johnson, Henderson, Adam, Maxi, Cole, Kygriakos and Aquilani, with Enrique another potential addition. (I’m doing my best to ignore Poulsen.)

In doing so, roughly £149m has been spent on these new players, but £136m was recouped on the old ones. In other words, in terms of transfer fees, it cost £13m to change from one set of players to the other.

(I’m not sure how this affects the wage bill, but a lot of high earners have been replaced with those on non-‘superstar’ wages; for instance, I doubt Carroll is on anywhere near what Torres was earning.)

If you think the collection of players who were sold were better, you might be dismayed at the club paying 9% more than they received to replace them. However, the average age of those sold is now 29 – if they were still at the club that would make for a lot of players in the twilight of their careers; Hyypia’s, at 37, is now over. (Add that two continuing stalwarts – Gerrard and Carragher – are 31 and 33 respectively, and you’d have to accept that some of those players will have had to have been sold by now anyway.)

The good news is that the average age of their replacements is just 26, suggesting more time to improve and more years ahead of them. (The average age of the FSG purchases – excluding the reserve goalkeeper – is just 23.8.)

If 9% seems a lot to pay to replace a dozen-or-so players, some of whom were world-class, it’s worth noting that the average fee for a 29-year-old is 25% less than that of a 26-year-old. While the players weren’t averaging 29 when sold, there’d be a shortfall of income if selling them now. Players were sold for good fees at their peak, rather than small fees once they were on the decline.

A lot of the players were sold by – or because of disaffection with – the previous regime, but the new owners have redressed the balance in less than a year. If the winter window was about reinvesting the Torres and Babel money, this has been about investing new money. Unwanted players may need to be sold to get them off the wage bill, but the transfer fees are less of an issue.

Of course, perhaps Liverpool would still be in the Champions League if the sales hadn’t occurred in 2009 and 2010. But they did occur. We can’t change that. The good thing is that, out of the ashes, Liverpool have now assembled a collection of players who can stand comparison with the 2008/09 squad; paying just a fraction over what the club has received since the sales started two summers ago, and lowering the average age by three years.

Also of great importance, given new legislation, the English quotient has increased; none of those sold would qualify as home-grown, but five of the new additions do.

That leaves Shelvey, Wilson, Flanagan and Robinson as teenage prospects already with meaningful first team experience under their belts, and with Coady, Suso, Sterling, Sama, Wisdom and others bubbling under the surface.

After all, one really good thing happened in 2009: the Academy was overhauled by Rafa Benítez, and in the process, Kenny Dalglish was brought back to the club. Although what was going on at the club felt like an end at the time, it was also, looking back, the birth of the current Liverpool.

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