Premiership Preview (Part II)

On Friday we looked at how the league will shape up this year and analyzed Manchester United’s chances of repeating as champions. Tomorrow, we will finish out the Big Four with previews of Chelsea and Arsenal. Wednesday Everton and Aston Villa are on tap. Thursday we look at the other two clubs looking to break into the top four, Manchester City and Tottenham. But today, we take an in depth look at Liverpool and whether they can win the league for the first time since 1990.

Liverpool

2008-09 Finish: Runners-up

Major Transactions: Ins: Glen Johnson (Portsmouth), Alberto Aquilani (Roma); Outs: Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid), Alvaro Arbeloa (Real Madrid), Sami Hyypia (Beyer Leverkusen)

Coming of their first genuine title push of the Premier League era, Liverpool looked poised to finally end their 20 year title drought and win the league in 2009-10. They had built a solid core of world class players, with Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard providing the goals and Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso anchoring the midfield in front of a very reliable defense making up a formidable 4-2-3-1 formation. They lost only twice and did the double over both Man U and Chelsea. Liverpool finally looked like real title hopefuls.

But the flaw in the Liverpool approach was evident throughout the season: too many dropped points against weaker sides. A flurry of home draws (seven in all), and matches like the 2-1 defeat at ultimately relegated Middlesborough, cost the Reds the title. Liverpool may have dropped only four points from their six games against the other Big Four sides, but they dropped the same number in two games versus Stoke.

With the deep-lying Alonso pulling the strings in the 4-2-3-1, Liverpool could control the pace of the game against the league and world’s best teams. But what was such a clear advantage against strong teams was unnecessary when playing lesser opponents that basically conceded possession to the superior side. So against teams like Wigan and Hull that packed it in, Liverpool were restricted to just four attacking players and were far too easily stifled when their opponents parked the bus in front of the goal.

Liverpool certainly didn’t need to make major changes in the off season. But it was vital that Manager Raphael Benitez adopt more tactical flexibility against weaker opponents, add more weapons to spice up the attack, and importantly bring in cover for Torres who can lead then line when called upon but would be content to be behind the Spaniard in the pecking order.

Obviously, losing Alonso to Real Madrid’s Galacticos Part II was not part of the plan. My feelings about his departure are mixed. Alonso clearly is a great player and had a fantastic season, and while he can dictate the pace of a game as well or better than anyone in the world, he just plays too deep and offers too few goals in a squad that is too reliant on Torres and Gerrard to put the ball in the back of the net. Alonso’s value was against the better teams that could play against Liverpool. Its always fun to beat Man U and Chelsea, but those three points count exactly the same as three points against Stoke and Middlesborough.

It did not mean that Liverpool needed to sell Alonso—I would have preferred to compensate for his style with tactical adjustments. But £30 million is a great price and the purchase of Alberto Aquilani to replace him brings exactly the kind of more attacking flair to the position that could help break down stubborn defenses.

The addition of Glen Johnson also fills a need—more attacking options on the right. Ironically, while Dirk Kuyt was at his high-energy best harassing opponents up and down the right wing, the team was at its best when he was more active offensively. Kuyt is clearly one of Benitez’s favorite players and is unlikely to be dropped under any scenario. The attacking skills of full back Johnson solves the riddle of how to get more from the right side with Kuyt still in the lineup.

But the transfer window closed without any further additions. Liverpool’s front four remain the same. No reserve striker was brought in to deputize for Torres. No goal threat was added to the left wing to push Albert Riera. No other central midfielder was bought to add depth should either Aquilani or Mascherano go down to injury.

The lack of any real depth puts enormous pressure on Torres and Gerrard to stay healthy and score goals in bunches. They only started 14 out of 38 Premier League games last season, so there is cause for concern.

But the real gamble is on Aquilani. He has a history of injury problems—he will miss the first four to six weeks of the season already—and has rarely made 20 appearances a season for Roma. Injury questions aside, Liverpool are counting on him to settle quickly and take over as the creative fulcrum of a team right out of the gate. Its not unheard of for players to come into the BPL and get off to a flying start, but it is certainly not the norm. He moves from the sedate pace of Serie A to the frenetic Premiership into the pressure-cooker at Anfield when the fans wont accept anything but the title.

But even the scrutiny on Aquilani pales in comparison to the pressure Benitez will be under. After five years on the sideline and finally winning control of the club’s transfer policy, another good showing without the title won’t mollify Liverpool fans desperate for the Reds’ 20th league title. Hopefully, Benitez has learned from his first genuine battle with Man U’s Fergusson that getting SAF is the master of mind games and the only way to win is not to get drawn in.

If Liverpool is to win the title this year the most important thing they have to do get their manager to shed his cautious ways and go for the jugular. The obviously moment to identify when Liverpool lost the title was the defeat at Middlesborough that gave United room to stumble down the stretch (which they promptly did). But for me, the real moment when I feared Liverpool would not dethrone the defending champions was the first game against Arsenal.

It was December and Liverpool were at the top of the table. Arsenal were eight points adrift and teetering on the verge of collapse. Cesc Fabregas had to be taken off with what looked a rather serious knee injury. And the Gunners had just gone a man down after two rather weak yellow cards against Emmanuel Adebayor. It was the time when Liverpool could have taken out Arsenal and taken a huge psychological victory over their other pursuers by scoring a big victory. In stead, Benitez retreated into a defensive shell, made negative substitutions, and predictably Arsenal took the lead on a brillian strike from Robin Van Persie. It took Robbie Keane’s only big contribution to Liverpool to rescue a point. Two points, a chance to eliminate one of their main rivals, and a big psychological boost dropped.

Liverpool’s early start to the season has not inspired confidence. With Aquilani still out injured, Lucas Lieva has taken over from Alonso and he has been a poor replacement as Liverpool has lost two of their first four matches. But the most shocking aspect of the slow start has been the shambolic defending on set pieces, looking like conceding from virtually every corner or free kick. While Liverpool have struggled using Benitez’s preferred zonal marking before, it seems that this early problem is an aberration and can be corrected with a bit of extra practice. Let’s hope.

This is the best first team Liverpool have fielded in the Premier League era. But everything would have to go right for them to win the league.

Prediction: Runners-up – too many questions to overcome to let my heart rule my head and pick them to win

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4 Responses

  1. […] finally here, the last of my Premiership Preview columns. Previously, I have examined Man U, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, and Everton and Villa. Today, we predict the progress of two clubs that […]

  2. […] I discussed in my Premiership preview of Liverpool, Alonso was a deep-lying midfielder that orchestrated the attack at a deliberate pace and rarely […]

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