A bridge too far for Liverpool?

Brendan Rodgers

If nothing else, it has been a season of consolidation and mild yet crucial improvements for Liverpool. During his inaugural campaign, Brendan Rodgers has lead the club 7th in the Premier League, a place higher than under Kenny Dalgish from the season previous, and even if there is no silverware  this year, the Northern Irishman has at least halted the Anfield club’s continual malaise.

Upon his appointment the problems at the club were rife on the Red side of Stanley Park, with a number of big money transfers such as Stewart Downing, Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson yet to deliver performances anywhere near the expectations of their financial investments, and a squad overall imbalanced in terms of depth, quality and age. Yet Rodgers has emerged over the course of the season as a competent manager, successfully holding the club together during a difficult transition period and bringing along with him a berth of talented youngsters that could well underpin future successes at Anfield in the years to come.

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But the slow and steady pace of change appears to not be enough for the players, the club and fans, whom are all desperate for Champions League qualification next season. Considering the current situation on Merseyside however, is the aim actually achievable or more wishful thinking from an ever-optimistic manager who has announced his ultimate objective for next season is to win the title, according to the Daily Mail.

Just as at the start of Rodgers’ Liverpool tenure, he will have to weave his way past a number of summer obstacles should he continue to improve the club’s position on and off the pitch from the year previous. The Andy Carroll issue has been dealt with swiftly and with minimal fuss, without too much mention of the Reds’ ridiculous £35million investment in the lanky Geordie, however, even with the £12million in additional funds from the striker’s agreed transfer to West Ham on a permanent basis, the budget for the coming transfer window will be incredibly tight at Anfield, with the majority of newspapers reporting a summer kitty of between £20million and £30million.

It will be a transfer period of scrimping and saving for Rodgers whenever possible, considering a number of key departments in the first team need addressing. Although the Reds have an array of central midfielders, and have reportedly signed another in Manuel Iturra, the squad is seriously lacking in quality out wide, with Stewart Downing yet to prove his worth, recording seven goals and 11 assists in 91 Liverpool performances, and the likes of Raheem Sterling, Suso and Oussama Assaidi yet to find any level of consistency to their game.

Similarly, at the back, the Liverpool gaffer faces a serious challenge in finding an adequate replacement for the retiring Jamie Carragher, with the most likely candidate being Swansea’s Ashley Williams at a rather costly fee of around £10million, but furthermore there are question marks lingering over the heads of the roster’s other three senior centre-backs, with rumours that Martin Skrtel and Sebastien Coates could both be sold for scrap in the summer. Furthermore, should the speculation be true surrounding Pepe Reina moving to Barcelona, Rodgers will have to find a talented goalkeeper to fill the void between the sticks.

With the majority of Rodgers’ future purchases being out of obligation and necessity rather than any particular personal preference or attempt to tailor the Liverpool squad in his own vision, and furthermore being restricted in terms of outgoings by the need for senior players and a lack of potential suitors, the former Swansea boss will on the most part have to operate next season with what he’s already got at his disposal.

One the one hand, you’d argue that on paper at least, what Liverpool have is overall not good enough. Players like Stewart Downing, Lucas Leiva, Jose Enrique and Daniel Agger – experienced mainstays in the first team- are of decent quality and exceptional upon occasion, but would any of them feature regularly should they ply their trade with Arsenal, Chelsea, or the two Manchester clubs? Similarly, Jordan Henderson, Fabio Borini, Jonjo Shelvey and Joe Allen are all promising youngsters but yet to fully shine, with all excluding the former proving to be rather ineffectual over the course of the season, and the squad’s back up players, Brad Jones, Assaidi and Coates, are overall below the standard you’d expect at a European club.

Having said that, if there’s one area of the Liverpool roster blessed with strength, it’s in attack. Luis Suarez’s infamous bite of Branislav Ivanovic’s arm may well prove to have a silver lining, as it appears to have turned away potential suitors for the controversial Uruguayan. He’s been a talismanic force for the Reds this season, with 23 goals and five assists in 33 Premier League appearances, making him directly responsible for 35% of Liverpool’s 71 domestic goals, and will no doubt have a similar level of impact during their next campaign.

Similarly, the January purchases of Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho were a masterstroke, with the former recording 10 goals and 3 assists in 14 appearances during the business end of the season, whilst the latter’s performances in attacking midfield have been equally as crucial in Liverpool’s late flurry of form, recording just one defeat in their last 12 fixtures, including a 6-0 romping of Newcastle.

It will be Liverpool’s attack, along with the consistent form of Steven Gerrard, that will make the difference between victory and defeat and success and failure next season, but is it enough to push them into the top four? The managerial merry-go-round at the Premier League’s summit will undoubtedly be a factor, with Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United all bringing in new figures at the helm, and the consistency Rodgers provides from the current season to the next can only work in their favour.

Yet with all devoted to serious financial investment in summer purchases following a rather dismal one-horse title race and the dawning of a new era at all three clubs, in addition to Arsene Wenger’s pledge to get the Gunners out of their current malaise, it will be a difficult year for Liverpool to compete with them in the transfer market as well as on the pitch.

The Reds finished 12 points off Champions League qualification this season, and next year I expect them to close that gap, at the expense of their local rivals Everton, but in terms of quality, depth, financial backing and experience, they are still a long way off this season’s top four, in addition to Tottenham, who will also look to improve further over the course of the summer. Brendan Rodgers has put the foundations in place this season, but the club still has a long way to go before it comes close to returning to its past glories.