I have been impressed with Brendan Rodgers’ inaugural campaign at Anfield. The Liverpool boss looks set to exceed mid-season expectations, having spent the latter part of 2012 failing to escape the bottom half of the Premier League table, and with the race for fourth spot hotting up between two sets of local rivals, the Reds stand an outside chance of eclipsing Everton, Tottenham and Arsenal by taking advantage of the sticky situation regarding qualifying for the Champions League, despite being nine points adrift from Spurs with just eight games to go.
Whether the Northern Irishman can get the Merseyside club back into Europe’s most prestigious club competition or not should not be a litmus test for his successes; he’s got the Anfield house in order, brought in some rather astute signings in Daniel Sturridge and Phillipe Coutinho, and made some considerable foundations in building a team for the future, despite being incredibly limited in terms of resources compared to his predecessor Kenny Dalglish. Furthermore, and perhaps his most impressive feat of his managerial career to date, he’s got Stewart Downing playing well.
Yet, soon will come that difficult second album as they call it in the music business. It is not that the honeymoon period is over – in fact I’d argue that Brendan Rodgers was unlucky enough not to have one considering he didn’t claim all three points in a match until his sixth Premier League fixture at the Anfield helm – but upon a manager’s second season, problems tend to arise that before didn’t require too much thinking about, and even if they did, it would be preferred not to.
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One of those issues that has no doubt been lingering in Rodgers’ mind, as it could severely affect his succeeding campaign, is the future of Luis Suarez. Liverpool have escaped the undesirable title of being labelled as a one-man team due to the presence of Steven Gerrard, yet Spurs have been criticised for being too reliant on Gareth Bale for results, despite having a first team that is richer in quality, depth and consistency in comparison to The Reds.
Perhaps the term ‘two-man team’ is better fitting, as Gerrard’s influence on the football pitch will always be instrumental to his team’s successes, but there is little doubt that Rodgers would be finding life much more difficult at Anfield without the Uruguayan international at his disposal. Suarez’s 22 goals and four assists this season has made him directly responsible for nearly half of Liverpool’s total of 57 Premier League goals this year, yet that hardly tells the whole story of just how talismanic and integral the 26-year-old has been for Liverpool this year.
Just as the Reds’ midfield is controlled by Steven Gerrard, everything progressive and forward thinking for Liverpool goes through Suarez. According to OPTA, he’s the Premier League’s third most creative player, having made 79 opportunities to score; that’s 14 more chances created than Gareth Bale, seven more than Juan Mata, six more than Santi Cazorla and three more than Gerrard. But unlike the names just mentioned, as well as David Silva and Leighton Baines whom are positioned above him in second and first place respectively on OPTA’s creativity table, 94% of the Liverpool forward’s created opportunities have come in open play, whereas the rest have the privilege of being given set piece duties for their clubs.
I am a stern believer that Suarez would have broken double figures for assists had Daniel Sturridge started the season at Anfield, and considering the Uruguayan’s contribution to the Liverpool attack in terms of creating chances as well as currently being the Premier League’s top scorer, he firmly has my vote for player of the year.
Which is exactly why Suarez’s potential summer departure could spell disaster for Liverpool. Although I don’t doubt his loyalty to the club, every player in modern football has to be a careerist, and should the Reds fail to qualify for the Champions League for another year, the controversial striker will almost certainly be on his way in the next transfer window. The tabloids have linked Suarez with moves to Manchester City, Chelsea and Bayern Munich, with estimates ranging from £40million to £50million regarding his future transfer fee.
But is that enough to replace a man who has quite frankly been a priceless asset to Brendan Rodgers this season? Whereas in the past, Liverpool were able to replace the outgoing Fernando Torres with Luis Suarez, they will find repeating the process much harder this time around without the carrot of Champions League football to wave in front of the faces of Europe’s top strikers.
Furthermore, there are other issues that need to be immediately addressed in the coming transfer market; most importantly replacements for the retiring Jamie Carragher as well as Pepe Reina, who looks set for a departure back to Spain. I’m sure there are more personnel that Rodgers would like to see the back of, such as Stewart Downing, Sebastian Coates and Martin Skrtel, who’ve had mediocre seasons, but he may well have his hands tied by the lack of senior players in the first team squad.
Of course, it will all depend upon whom Brendan Rodgers is capable of bringing in. Liverpool have been heavily linked with Japanese midfielder Keisuke Honda, who would provide some added creativity, and signing the CSKA Moscow man on a free transfer would definitely be somewhat of a coup. Meanwhile, up front Christian Benteke, Darren Bent, Mauro Icardi and Wilfried Bony are all reported to be on the Anfield gaffer’s summer shortlist.
But this in many ways is exactly the problem; it will take at least two players to successfully replace the influence of Suarez. Not only do the Reds need to find a twenty goal per season striker, they also need an attacking midfielder who can take on a role of being the source of the majority of Liverpool’s creativity, and furthermore, a player who can provide a considerable outlet on the counter-attack and a player who can be the first port of call when moving forward.
The Uruguayan is irreplaceable as an individual. Liverpool have a long history of prolific strikers as an underpinning element of the club’s successes, but I believe Rodgers will use the Suarez fund to install quality throughout the team, rather than tying up a large investment in one key signing in an attempt to find a player who can equal the Liverpool forward’s influence. It would be a smart move, and provide some stability at Anfield, however next season it may result in an inevitable step backwards.
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