Liverpool opens the 2013-14 Premier League season – and Brendan Rodgers’ second season in charge – on Saturday when they host Stoke City.
After finishing in seventh place last season, the Reds are going on their fourth consecutive season without Champions League football, something that once seemed unfathomable for a club that is synonymous with European football.
The thought of returning to Europe seems far away, especially when you consider that when we last left Liverpool, they were finishing off a Premier League season that saw the team bring home just one win (Tottenham Hotspur) and one clean sheet (Everton) in 12 meetings against the six teams ahead of them in the standings – Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton.
Following his debut season in charge of the club, Rodgers called the task of bringing the Reds back to prominence a “monumental challenge.”
“I have needed this year to learn the real depths of this club, everything that needs to be done, and I think, come the summer, we will be in a much better place to put in a sustainable challenge at the top of the table,” Rodgers told The Independent.
Despite their troubles against the top teams, Liverpool finished with its highest point total in three years.
So the question now becomes, did the club do enough over the summer to pull off the sustainable challenge that Rodgers is looking for?
At least early on in the season, Liverpool will be more conspicuous by who is not on the pitch than who is. For the first time since 2004-05, Pepe Reina will not be in goal for Liverpool. Reina is off to Napoli on loan and in his place is Simon Mignolet, who comes over from Sunderland in a £9million transfer.
While it may not have been his best year in a Liverpool kit, Reina was still good enough to play 31 Premier League games and post 14 clean sheets. Mignolet, who is five years younger than Reina, posted 11 clean sheets for Sunderland and while his goals against average was slightly higher than Reina’s (1.42 vs. 1.10), it is worth noting that he faced almost 100 more shots on goal than Reina.
The club will also start the first six games of the season without striker Luis Suárez, who will serve out the remaining six games of his suspension for biting Branislav Ivanovic. Suárez also spent the majority of the summer clamoring for a transfer out of Anfield.
Rodgers and team owner John Henry maintained that Suárez is not for sale and stuck to their guns. Suárez remains on the club even if his is not available for the opening stretch of the season.
While it is hard to see how Liverpool would replace the 23 goals that Suárez scored in 33 league games last season (Daniel Sturridge was the only other player to hit double-figures in goals and he only had 10), in the four games the Reds played without the suspended Suárez at the end of the season, the club was 3-0-1.
Liverpool may have caught a break with the schedule. In addition to the game against Stoke, the six fixtures that Suárez will not be available for include Aston Villa (15th place last year), League One-side Notts County in the Capital One Cup, Swansea City (ninth place) and Southampton (14th place). The only real test comes on Sept. 1 when they host Manchester United, but the defending champs will still be getting used to new manager David Moyes, so catching them early is not a bad idea.
There is always the risk, though, that the absence of Suárez could lead to the club dropping what looks like, on paper, a winnable game.
The bigger challenge is going to be how Rodgers works Suárez back into the team once his suspension is over.
“There’s too much good work gone on here for it to be overtaken by anything else,” Rodgers told The Guardian. “The players have worked so hard, their concentration has been brilliant and we are all very determined this year. I can’t let anything detract from that. Nothing can sabotage what we are trying to do. I don’t really want to go on about it. It’s just something we cannot afford to happen.”
Earlier this week Rodgers put a moratorium on Suárez talk until his suspension is over, basically taking the Norman Dale approach of “I would hope you would support who we are. Not, who we are not.”
“There’s nothing to be said that hasn’t already been said,” Rodgers told The Daily Mail. “I’m sure people are fed up listening and reading about it. My only concentration is the players who are available. They’ve worked tirelessly and purely out of respect for them and the work that has gone on, I only want to talk about them.”
To help take some of the goal-scoring pressure off Suárez and Sturridge, Liverpool brought in striker Iago Aspas from Celta Vigo. Aspas may fill in for the hot-headed Suárez in more ways than one, as Aspas served his own four-game ban last season for head butting an opposing player, has received four red cards in four years, and was suspended for almost a third of his final season with Celta’s youth club.
“Sometimes he’s not always easy on the eye, but when you actually monitor how efficient Iago is, he’s an incredibly effective player,” Rodgers said in published reports. “The idea was that Aspas would give another dimension to our attacking play, and he’s done that. He creates goals and scores goals … we now have some outstanding talent who can make a difference in the final third – and that has been the most encouraging thing, that we have real quality in that final third where it matters.”
In the midfield, Luis Alberto, a member of Spain’s Under-21 squad, comes over from Barcelona’s B team where he spent the year on loan from Sevilla. Alberto scored 11 goals and added 17 assists in 38 games and will provide support for 33-year-old Steven Gerrard (and Gerrard’s 80-year-old groin). According to Goal.com, Alberto’s “technical ability and creative flair make him an ideal fit for (the) Reds and his versatility will also be a big boost.”
Hmm, maybe that Champions League slot is not so far out of reach after all. (OK, let’s take a deep breath and calm down.)
On the backline, 32-year-old Kolo Touré takes over the veteran defender role from the retired Jamie Carragher (who the team is going to miss in the locker room more than on the pitch). Liverpool picked up Touré on a free from Manchester City, which is either a savvy financial move or a sign that something may be amiss if Manchester City was willing to just let him walk away.
If nothing else, Touré will provide competition for Martin Skrtel, who lost his starting spot in the second half of last season to Carragher, and competition is never a bad thing.
Liverpool was able to bring in the new players thanks in part to the transfer fees they received for Andy Carroll, now permanently moved to West Ham, and Jonjo Shelvey to Swansea.
So what will this season bring for Liverpool?
At this time a year ago Rodgers was preaching patience as he was just starting to rebuild the club. Plus, it takes time to install the type of football that Rodgers wants the team to play, a style that emphasizes the passing game and fluid movement among the players.
The club improved during the second half of the season (33 points in the season’s final 18 games) and we finally saw the team play the Rodgers way in the final four matches of the campaign.
It should not be unreasonable to expect the squad to pick up where it left off when the season opens on Saturday. Rather than spending the summer installing his system, Rodgers and the players should have been able to spend their time building on what they learned last year. That should help the team start the season in better form than they did last year.
Is that enough to make up the 12 points that separated Liverpool from fourth-place Arsenal at the end of last season? If Suárez grows up and accepts that he is a member of the squad for the rest of the season, and if the new arrivals all hit their potential, then maybe.
But how often in sports does everything break right for a team?
Fourth-place and a Champions League spot may be too much to ask of this team this year. But if they can somehow find a way to pick up an additional six points from that 12 games against the teams in front of them, then the Reds would at least be able to put a little more pressure on the front runners and make them take notice.
It may not be the level of glory that the club and its fans once assumed was their birthright, but for this year it may not be all that bad.
Let the games begin.