A realistic ambition for Liverpool FC

Under the guidance of a new manager, expectations are always likely to be higher than under the previous boss as the hope of a new era spreads, but even so, they have to be tempered by a realistic assessment of the squad’s chances next season. Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard has declared that he is confident of a top four finish this coming campaign, but is he setting his sights too high?

First and foremost, let’s get it out of the way that the side were almost ridiculously unfortunate last season with concerns as to how many times that they hit the woodwork – 29 times in the league to be exact. There does come a point, though, where misfortune gives way to profligacy. Sure, some of those may have been unlucky, but when there’s that many examples, it’s surely part of a systemic, wider problem.

Gerrard stated: “I do think we will get in the top four. I think we will get it. I am confident we will get it. I am not being unrealistic. If we can play like we did in a lot of games last season, be clinical and take our chances, I think we will be high up in the table. I do. We have got to be clinical. We have got to get the points we should get. I don’t think it’s ever happened that a team has gone from eighth to first, but there are still other big targets for us to achieve short term. Getting in that top four again is certainly the priority.”

The club have looked to address this issue this summer with the purchase of Fabio Borini, who comes with a hefty £10.5m fee despite only completing 46 first-team appearances in his fledgling career to date. The 21-year-old Italy international is known for his clinical ability in front of goal, though, and it’s an acknowledgement of sorts from Brendan Rodgers that in order for the club to improve, they need to have more cutting edge up top and out wide.

Yet there is still a concern about the squad’s strength in depth on the flanks, with Dirk Kuyt and Maxi Rodriguez both being allowed to leave. A great degree of stock has been placed on the emergence of both Suso and Raheem Sterling, but they are still far too raw to become anything more than impact substitutes this year, consigned to the odd run-out in the earlier stages of cup competitions. They may have talent, but there’s a huge difference between potential and being a relied upon first-team member of the team.

You may have noticed that I haven’t flagged any defensive concerns as being a major stumbling block to any top four hopes that the club may harbour. While Pepe Reina’s form the past year or so is certainly worrying, a return to a more ball-playing sweeper role that he occupied under Rafa Benitez is likely to occur, which should benefit him in the long-run.

The back four in front of him, of Glen Johnson, Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel and Jose Enrique, stands up to comparison with any other currently operating in the Premier League. If Liverpool fail to finish in the top four next season, it won’t be because of their defensive quality, or rather lack thereof.

In midfield, it looks as if Alberto Aquilani is going to be moved on to help raise funds for Swansea’s Joe Allen, which would give the side a likely trio of Lucas Leiva, Steven Gerrard and Allen. The captain aside, there’s not a lot of goal threat from the midfield there, so the emphasis on Rodgers’ preferred 4-3-3 formation will be for the two out wide and central front-man to provide the lion’s share of the goals.

If Andy Carroll does end up moving on, which at the moment with both Newcastle and West Ham seriously interested, is to be quite frank, anybody’s guess, the onus will fall on to Luis Suarez, who falls into the category of a great player who happens to be far from a great finisher.

Without even factoring in the fact that Swansea, with their clearly defined style, scored just 44 goals last season in the Premier League, this current Liverpool side does look a tad short of goals. While the overall ethos is certainly transferable to a better calibre of player, the same hindrances apply and Rodgers has been keen to make clear that without penetration, the system doesn’t work anywhere near as well.

At the moment, it’s just difficult to see quite where that penetration is going to come from, certainly not Stewart Downing or Jordan Henderson and while I’d like to see Rodgers keep hold of Craig Bellamy this summer, there are still doubts over his ability to withstand two games in quick succession.

When you compare the current squad to their rivals for a top four position, it’s clear that the club is in a period of transition and it lacks both the pace and depth required for a sustained challenge. Putting their eighth-place finish down to bad luck, as Gerrard reasonably stated in the above interview, isn’t a position which the club should ever be put in, but there are clearly issues to look at.

Manchester City and Manchester United will both be battling for the title again, while Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham all have strong squads with more options available to their respective managers. Even if there is still a cloud hanging over the future of Robin van Persie and the fact that Chelsea have bought big on potential rather than ability and Tottenham have a new manager, they should still have enough to see off Liverpool.

Finishing in the top six is a realistic option for the club next season, but any talk of a top four push should be dampened. The problems that existed last season are still present and will take more than the band-aid of a new manager to fix. Many of the club’s fans will realise that the club are currently operating in a tier just below the top four alongside the likes of Everton, Newcastle and Fulham.

That is not to say that the club doesn’t have the potential to finish in the top four again the future, just that next season, an immediate return does seem a bit far-fetched.

You can follow me on Twitter @JamesMcManus1