After coming so close to winning the Premier League last season, you could be forgiven for wondering just what has happened to Liverpool this year. With the campaign nearing its halfway point, Brendan Rodgers’ men currently find themselves all-but-out of the title race as well as facing the prospect of an early exit from the Champions League.
While the loss of Luis Suarez was always going to have a negative impact on Liverpool’s chances this season, Liverpool fans probably won’t have expected their team to look so far off the pace at this stage of the year.
From a lack of goals from the strikers, to the clear issues going on with the defence; there are plenty of problems currently going on Anfield, and it’s no surprise to see Liverpool way down the Betfair odds in the Premier League title race.
The departure of Luis Suarez this summer meant Rodgers had to try and do all he could to replace 30-plus goals from his squad, and it’s fair to say the Liverpool boss hasn’t really managed to do that. The loss of Suarez has been made worse by the fact Daniel Sturridge has spent so much of this season injured. On the back of a season in which he scored 21 league goals, Sturridge has been in the treatment room more than he has out on the pitch, and goals have been hard to come by without the England man in the side. While Raheem Sterling has done well when asked to play as a striker, the youngster does his best work when given more of a free role and Liverpool will be well aware of the importance of getting Sturridge back on field and Sterling back in his preferred position.
The departure of Suarez was briefly forgotten about when Liverpool went out and signed Mario Balotelli from AC Milan. The enigmatic and often erratic Italian’s arrival was followed up by a goal in the Champions League victory over Ludogorets, but Balotelli’s only other goal in a Liverpool shirt has come in the League Cup and the former Manchester City man has looked underwhelming so far in the league. With Rickie Lambert and Fabio Borini as the only other recognised strikers in the squad, a lack of goals has really cost Liverpool this season. Attacking midfielder Lazar Markovic has provided even less than Balotelli in terms of goals despite his big money transfer fee, and signing a goalscorer will be high on Rodgers’ list when the January transfer window opens.
Despite spending significant transfer fees in order to bolster the defence, Brendan Rodgers hasn’t been lucky when it comes to signing defenders. The likes of Mamadou Sakho, Alberto Moreno and Dejan Lovren have all cost sizeable transfer fees but not one of them have truly convinced any Liverpool fans they can be relied upon. With Glen Johnson continuing to regress from the player he was 18-months ago and question marks still surrounding just how good Jose Enrique is; this expensively-assembled defence suddenly looks very weak if something happens to Martin Skrtel.
The decision to sell Daniel Agger in the summer raised a few eyebrows on Merseyside when it happened, even more so when looking at the performances of Sakho and Lovren this season. While Sakho appears to have an average of three howlers in him in any 45 minutes of football he plays, Lovren spends more time shouting at his team-mates than he does tracking his man at corners or chasing down strikers. While Lovren has tried to be the leader Agger was in defence, at the moment the former Southampton man has been all bark and no bite.
Competition for Mignolet
After a decent start to life at Anfield following his move from Sunderland, Simon Mignolet has moved backwards in terms of performance this season and the Belgian’s form has come under the microscope from some in the media. The 26-year-old may have had to handle playing behind a struggling defence this year, but a number of costly mistakes in recent weeks have highlighted the need for cover and competition for the goalkeeping spot. While Brad Jones might wear the number-one jersey, not even the Australian’s biggest fan would genuinely view the former Middlesbrough stopper as a realistic challenge to Mignolet’s starting spot.
There had been talk linking former Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes with a move to Anfield in recent weeks only for the Spain international’s agent to refute the claims. But Liverpool may yet move for Valdes in the run-up to Christmas, knowing the Spaniard could sign right away due to his free agent status. Manchester United are rumoured to be in the race to sign the 32-year-old, however, although the presence of David De Gea would mean Valdes would have to settle for a place as back-up – something the keeper wouldn’t be happy with. That might not be the case if he signed for Liverpool, though, with plenty of fans believing Valdes would replace Mignolet as the number-one if he did sign. Even if Rodgers is going to keep faith with the Belgium international as his first choice keeper, he really does need to go out and add another top goalkeeper to his squad in Janaury.
Paying over the odds
Liverpool’s habit of paying over the odds for players isn’t something that started with Brendan Rodgers. The club has paid over £15 million for the likes of Robbie Keane, Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson, Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani in recent years, and not forgetting the £35 million paid for Andy Carroll. The blame for those signings might lay with former managers and decision-makers, but Rodgers needs to take responsibility for paying £25 million for Adam Lallana, £20 million for Dejan Lovren, £19.8 million for Lazar Markovic and £15 million apiece for Joe Allen and Mamadou Sakho. While it might be too early to write off a lot of those players, it’s hard to defend the price paid by Liverpool for the majority on signings made by Rodgers during his time in charge.
To say Lovren, Markovic and Sakho have failed to justify their price tags would be to do a disservice to the term. If Lovren has looked out of his depth playing for a top Premier League club, Sakho has often looked out of his depth simply by walking on the football field. Liverpool fans would have wanted a lot more for a combined total of £35 million worth of defenders, and their fragile defence this season has a lot to do with the presence of Sakho and Lovren. And if not many people knew about Lazar Markovic when he arrived in the summer, there is an argument that even less know about him now. Despite his £20 million price tag, the Serbia international has been nondescript during the first part of the season and only further fuelled the theory that Liverpool get more transfers wrong than right.
You could have been forgiven for thinking you’d never see Steven Gerrard playing for another club than Liverpool, but there is a growing feeling that this could well be the last season the 34-year-old pulls on the famous red jersey. With his current contract expiring in June, talks have opened up between the Liverpool captain and the club to discuss an extension, but some feel Gerrard could be tempted by a big-money move to the MLS should he want to try playing abroad before hanging up his boots. Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini even popped up recently to admit he would love the chance to work with Gerrard at the Etihad if the midfielder did decide to leave Liverpool. City’s link-up with MLS franchise New York City saw Frank Lampard link up with the club this season and Pellegrini has made it clear he would love to have Gerrard in his squad, even a 35-year-old version.
There are some who claim Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea last season cost Liverpool the chance to win their first league title since 1990, and there’s certainly a case to suggest the midfielder’s form has suffered ever since that game. While blaming Gerrard for the club’s recent poor form is ridiculous, it’s not too much to suggest without their inspirational captain firing on all cylinders, this Liverpool team doesn’t have enough about itself to be able to take up the slack. It remains to be seen whether Gerrard is merely going through a blip or whether his game is no longer what it was, but his departure would be a real hammer blow to these Liverpool fans.
One problem for Liverpool fans might be if the club’s owners feel a 35-year-old Gerrard doesn’t deserve a contract similar to the one he’s currently on. The Liverpool captain has been the subject of some criticism this season following a number of below-par performances, and there is an increasing call from some that Gerrard is a shadow of his former self. If the club don’t feel he is worth as much as an ambitious MLS side – or Manchester City – the summer could well see Liverpool and Gerrard part ways after a near-30-year association.