Last week, Brendan Rodgers announced his ambitions for the season. I don’t know too many Liverpool fans, but I was surprised to say the least when the Northern Irishman told reporters that he is aiming for a top two Premier League finish. Perhaps it’s a case of “reach for the stars and you’ll hit the moon”, some Rodgers Rhetoric to spur on his players, but either way I think challenging Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs to a place in the top three is a rather overzealous prediction.
Before the defeat to Aston Villa at the weekend, there was a general rallying cry from the Liverpool players, most notably Steven Gerrard, Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique, stating that they still intend to be a part of the Champions League race despite their poor start to the season. But is a top four, let alone a top two finish really achievable at Anfield?
Looking at the table, The Reds are currently in 12th place, although they were 10th before their home defeat to Aston Villa on Saturday. As Alan Hansen often says, “The table doesn’t lie”, and that couldn’t be truer at any given moment for Liverpool than right now. Presently seven points off fourth place and seven points safe from the relegation zone, with a goal difference of exactly zero, the club’s average start to the season is fairly represented in the league table. The fact that Liverpool are yet to spend any time in the top six speaks also speaks volumes.
But it has been a difficult start to the year for Liverpool, with a great change behind the scenes, not to mention a vast amount of deadwood being shifted out of the back door in the summer. Damien Comolli has unbelievably defended the signings he made whilst serving as the club’s Director of Football, despite the fact the vast majority of them have been moved on or are well known at Anfield as constant underachievers, such as Stewart “no goals and no assists” Downing, who has now been told he can leave just 18 months after being bought from Aston Villa for £20million. Rodgers has been suffering from Liverpool’s spending binge hangover, and has Jordan Henderson and Joe Cole weighing the club down in addition to the soon-to-be-axed Downing.
But January could change all that, should money be available as Rodgers has insinuated throughout the course of the season. There’s a chance one of the clubs in dire straits at the bottom of the table could pick up some of the Anfield rejects – Rodgers probably goes to bed dreaming that Harry Redknapp will take Joe Cole off his hands, and has written to Santa begging him for a solution to the Andy Carroll situation for Christmas, perhaps by taking him to the north pole and retrain him as an elf – but if Liverpool stand any chance of getting into the top four they desperately need a striker.
Some of the names in the hat include Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Daniel Sturridge and Theo Walcott, then again any transfer rumour involving a striker and a fee lower than £12million tends to throw in Liverpool as a club that has “shown an interest”. But the most important factor should be ability to score goals. Although Luis Suarez is a formidable footballer who shows moments of genius on the pitch, and his efforts have carried the team at times, his finishing is by far the weakest part to his game. According to OPTA, the Uruguayan international has a shot accuracy of just 39%, and has missed eight clear cut chances already this season – two more than he’s scored. The fact that Liverpool have failed to score twice or more in all but three of their Premier League fixtures this year is no coincidence.
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But a striker alone is by far the least of Liverpool’s problems in challenging the likes of Tottenham, Arsenal and Everton for the final Champions League position. Rodgers is bringing a lot of youth prospects through to the first team and perhaps the team’s inability to push over the finish is in some part due to their lack of experience. The Reds have drawn seven times, often impressing for the first twenty minutes before letting the game slip from their early domination. Drawing was regarded as a problem last year, but considering Kenny Dalgish finished the season with ten draws, many of them being at home, Liverpool look set to exceed that record.
Down the other end of the pitch, Jose Reina’s lapse in form has been well documented. Youtube is now filled with videos dedicated to the Spaniard’s howlers, and his save ratio of 76% is less than you’d expect from a Goalkeeper regarded as one of the best in the league. Similarly, especially at the start of the season, the backline have struggled with Rodgers’ passing philosophy, and although the Reds now have an average of 59% possession per game, their defenders have often been caught trying to play cute balls instead of clearing into row Z.
So, are these problems Liverpool can overcome? Can they make it into the Champions League? My simple answer is… No. Quite honestly, the team hasn’t improved since last season when they finished eighth in the table. However, I believe Rodgers (although he may appear a tad dim-witted at times) is pushing the club in the right direction. The club’s transition cannot be completed in such a short space of time, and it is clear that Roy Hodgson’s and Damien Comolli’s transfer mishaps have still not been fully overcome. The sheer number of talented youngsters in the Liverpool team suggest the club has a bright future should they be able to bring in enough quality to supplement the development process, but achieving anything this season is a tall ask.
Not only do the players have a lot of natural progression to go through – the manager does as well. It is one thing turning a club like Swansea into a decent Premier League outfit, but it is a whole different ball game driving a club like Liverpool, who are on the whole going through a period of decline, back into a Champions League team. For those of you unconvinced, I have a final thought, a litmus test if you will. Apart from Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez, would any of the Liverpool squad instantly command a place in any of the top four teams?