They have spent all right and the investment is about as good as it was going to get without Champions league football. Nevertheless, Liverpool has gone into the new season with a significantly lower weight of expectations than last season. Maybe it’s because it has become patently obvious how much of an influence Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge really had on their near title winning season and how hard pressed Brendan Rodgers would be to replicate such a season with his current squad. Maybe it’s because of what Liverpool’s rivals have done while Liverpool have replaced Champions league level talent with something closer to Europa league level that makes them decided underdogs for a top four place. Maybe it’s a bit of both.
Regardless of the circumstances, Rodgers remains under threat. Why? Because he has tried to be too genius for his own good and believed his hype a bit too much. Sure, he’s a very good manager but he’s also a manager blinded by his own successes and that threatens to be his undoing at Liverpool. He must know Jürgen Klopp waits in the shadows and he must feel that pressure of inevitability. A club the stature of Liverpool must be very close to the top and he might be tasked with the unlikely end goal of a Champions league berth to save his job.
One factor in his favour is how little everybody believes in this Lverpool. It was perhaps this element of surprise in 2013-14 that nearly saw them over the line until their own limitations proved too heavy a burden to bear. Nobody really thought they could no matter how devastating SAS was and how bemused Suárez and Sturridge left just about every defender in the league by their skill, pace, and movement. That may have been the best single season partnership the league has ever known. They were two men at the top of the English game well aided by an inspired captain, and an up and coming star.
Suarez’s departure and Sturridge’s subsequent injury troubles have exposed how fragile their title charge was and Rodgers has done himself little good with his choices both on and off the field. His constant tinkering with formations and playing players out of position has not endeared him to fans at all. When was Emre Can a defender? Why was Glen Johnson playing at left back when he wasn’t even a good right back? Why did Rickie Lambert and Mario Balotelli play as lone strikers? These choices made his life much harder than it should have been. The result was an appalling goal tally from the front men. Eight goals and four assists between Sturridge, Borini, Lambert, and Balotelli from 27 starts and 33 substitute appearances was the dismal return that condemned Liverpool to a sixth place finish and left Rodgers sweating over his future. Worse is that when you remove Sturridge and his four goals and one assist in seven starts and five sub appearances (747 minutes total) then it becomes four goals and three assists in 20 starts and 28 substitute appearances. That means that a Liverpool striker not named Sturridge scored a goal once every 12 games. Not good at all. The isolation up front partly caused that but the craziness that was Mario Balotelli didn’t help either.
His interviews have become a caricature purely for their repetitiveness and the naivety displayed each time he makes excuses or regurgitates the same adjectives to either praise or admonish his team. Rodgers in that sense has become a man hurting his cause as much as the media or fans do.
Liverpool, however, have bolstered their attack acquiring the services of the big Belgian Christian Benteke and the Brazilian Roberto Firmino. This is weighed against losing Raheem Sterling to Manchester City and the departure of club legend Steven Gerrard to MLS. At best, most have them down for a fifth place finish and comparing their squad to the rest that seems most likely. However, there is some vulnerability in Arsenal and Manchester United that, if the new signings click, could be exploited. What seems clear is that Benteke needs help and the best source would be a fit Sturridge. Rodgers would hope that he does recover fitness and that he is still the same player that looked not so inferior to a rampaging Suarez in that almost magical season.
Where Liverpool is light is in leadership. Can Jordan Henderson step up and take the mantle? Can Skrtel lead from the back? Apart from his status as a top player, Gerrard will be missed as an inspired leader and grooming Henderson into his successor will be a challenge that Rodgers must take on and succeed at if Liverpool is to have any chance of a top four place.
The facts are that very few expect them to seriously push the top four, and drab displays or maulings at the hands of Stoke and West Ham don’t inspire much confidence. Nobody expected SAS to emerge in such prominence either and Liverpool will be hoping that the element of surprise will work in their favour while the big boys’ focus is shifted. Many points can be gained from complacency and underestimating the opponent has influenced many a result in the past.
Rodgers wouldn’t mind United not regarding them as being equals on Saturday. His job might just depend on how much they can slip under the radar…given that he buffers his ego and penchant for the unconventional just enough.