Liverpool are in for a tough time come mid-August. The Reds have some tricky away fixtures in the opening months and also have the Europa League to contend with, and as if that wasn’t enough, after a disappointing end to last season’s campaign Brendan Rodgers will find himself under pressure to deliver results. If things start going badly early doors then Liverpool might be in trouble.
But they’ve been doing something right at least. Although the lack of Champions League football at Anfield next season will stop Rodgers from bringing in players of the very highest quality, he has been able to lure in some of his targets, and he’s done some good business already this summer.
Amongst other impressive signings, James Milner has joined from Manchester City and Roberto Firmino from Hoffenheim. Milner will make Liverpool stronger – he’ll give them a greater work rate and he’ll bring all-round quality. The Englishman can do a bit of everything, and that’s why he’s not widely seen as a top player. His versatility has been his downfall.
Firmino, however, is a bit of an unknown quality to most English fans, and to be honest he’s a bit of an unknown quantity to everyone, really. No one seems to know his best position – is he a striker who plays ‘up top’? Is he a wide player? An attacking midfielder? A playmaker? He certainly has skill and talent in abundance, and the mere fact that he be deployed in all of those positions is impressive. Albeit his infamous recent miss in the Copa America was not…
But now Firmino needs to find a position. Rodgers has taken a chance on the young Brazilian, and it’ll be up to him to decide on a role. Firmino’s talent and versatility means that he risks ending up like Milner if he doesn’t find a niche – undervalued and underrated.
What Firmino will give Liverpool, aside from his talent, is his willingness to run and track back. Last season’s Premier League often demonstrated the values of defence over those of attack. Manchester City were yet again top scorers in the league, but they managed a good 20 goals fewer than they did the season previous. In an age where Jose Mourinho can get rid of players like Kevin De Bruyne and Juan Mata because they don’t possess sufficient defensive work rate, building from the back is being vindicated. After all, the Blues won the league at a canter. Rodgers seems to be picking up on the argument, perhaps, a season too late. On the evidence of the Chelsea and Crystal Palace games of 2013/14 that all but cost Liverpool the title, maybe Rodgers is actually a whole two years too late.
With the signings of Milner and Firmino, it might be time to forget that Rodgers has come late to the party and embrace the fact that he’s showed up at all.
Rodgers has bought two players who don’t know their best positions, but he’s bought two versatile players who will give a lot to the team as a whole. The likes of Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho already don’t mind getting stuck into a tackle, but players like Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling are often passengers carried along by the defence when Liverpool are on the back foot. In some ways that’s fine, you you need players who are happy to track back if you’re going to have them in your team.
Perhaps what Liverpool need is not extra flair and guile on the pitch – they have some good players already – but rather some players who will do the not so glamorous jobs. The Premier League is getting less about how you attack and more about how you defend. Rodgers – or Liverpool’s transfer committee – may have to change some of his world view in order to adapt to that, but with these two signings it looks as if he’s trying.