After Liverpool ended the 2008/09 season with their highest points tally since the Premier League began, finishing second to Manchester United, many fans believed the men in red had their best chance in years to finally end their title hiatus last season.
In reality, it could not have been much worse for the 18 time league champions. Reports of rising debts, in-fighting between the manager and owners and a failure to find fresh investment provided a tumultuous backdrop for a side struggling for both form and fitness.
The only thing more dire than the club’s performance off the pitch was their performances on it. Former Valencia charge Rafael Benitez knew his time was up following a season which included the club’s worst run in 22 years, a group stage exit from the Champions League, bust-ups with players and an abysmal seventh placed finish. After six years of mixed results on Merseyside, Benitez and Liverpool parted company, as the appointment of Roy Hodgson signalled the start of a new era for The Reds.
Elder statesman of the game Hodgson ticked all the right boxes for a club crying out for stability and a calm hand to steer them through increasingly choppy waters. As opposed to the often stubborn, remote and negative Benitez, South Londoner Hodgson represented a diplomatic and approachable change. The 62-year-old is a football idealist and prides his sides on playing the free-flowing attacking football Anfield season ticket holders have been crying out for following the reigns of Benitez and Frenchman Gérard Houllier. Hodgson is also unlikely to use the media to air any grievances towards the owners, which became common practice under Benitez in his final dreadful months at the club.
Hodgson certainly has his work cut out if he is to turn Liverpool into regular title contenders, something which Benitez failed to do and which ultimately cost him his job. The Premier League is now more competitive than it has ever been, with up to seven teams fighting for the top four Champions League places. The landscape of English football has changed and there is no longer a level playing field at the top. Manchester City and Chelsea have inflated the transfer market and can afford to lavish millions each season on the best players available on the market. Liverpool are £350 million in debt and desperately trying to find a buyer and can simply not compete in the current transfer market. Hodgson has to attempt to build a competitive side on a minimal budget.
Hodgson may be an excellent manager with an impressive CV, but until the club is sold and new investment found then Hodgson will have to continue working with one hand tied behind his back. Liverpool need to start work on a new stadium and increase the club’s revenue to compete at the top. Manchester United create huge income from their 76,000 seater Old Trafford stadium, while Arsenal have 60,000 capacity at the Emirates, compared to Anfield’s 45,000. The club’s ownership problems and the issues surrounding a new stadium, which was initially due for opening in 2011, are likely to rumble on in the background well into the new season and will continue to serve as an unwelcome distraction.
The new manager faces a baptism of fire in the Anfield hot seat, facing Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United in the club’s opening five games of the new league season. Failure to grab some valuable points out of the three fixtures would increase the pressure on Hodgson from the start and give those supporters who have doubted his appointment some welcome ammunition. Although picking up some points from these tough fixtures would fortify the squad in the important early stages of the season.
Liverpool and Hodgson still have a great deal of work to do in the transfer market ahead of the opening game of the season against Arsenal in less than two weeks time. After adding to the squad with the intelligent signings and attacking talents of winger Joe Cole and Serbian forward Milan Jovanovic on free transfers, Hodgson has confirmed he aims to make several more signings before the start of the season.
Argentine skipper Javier Mascherano is expected to depart in the coming weeks and wheeler dealer Hodgson needs to find his replacement. A move for Standard Liege’s highly-rated Belgium star Steven Defour is expected. It also appears Liverpool are in the market for cover at right-back following the collapse of Luke Young’s transfer from Aston Villa. While the re-signing of Fabio Aurelio has added depth at left-back, Hodgson is expected to sign a first-choice defender, with a reported £6m deal for Wigan’s Maynor Figueroa 90% done. Hodgson faces a race against time to add the finishing touches to his squad and will want to conclude his business before the season kicks off.
The season ahead looks set to be a tough one for Liverpool and its supporters. Success in cup competitions could see Liverpool play up to 60 competitive games, after entering the Europa League at such an early stage, and a marathon season would provide a huge test for the newly assembled squad. Hodgson experienced a similar situation during Fulham’s marathon 63 games last season and coped admirably, prioritising his side’s cup run and league priorities in impressive fashion.
With the club still searching for a new owner and a limited budget in the transfer market, Hodgson finds himself in a similar position to his predecessor Benitez. One win in four games in pre-season, does not give supporters great confidence heading into the new season, however Hodgson has yet to welcome back his World Cup stars after an extended break. The fact club captain Steven Gerrard has committed his future to the club and Fernando Torres expected to do the same this week, shows Hodgson has convinced his star players he can to take the club forward.
Success this season for Liverpool would be to break back into the top four, while a cup triumph would be an added bonus. A new owner and stadium should be the club’s main priority however, giving Hodgson a fighting chance of turning Liverpool back into a force in English football once more.