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So, it’s less than a week away. Hope and dread return in equal measure. Two players of undoubted quality (Johnson and Aquilani) have arrived to bolster the strongest XI, but one (Alonso) has left.
Also gone are Hyypia and Arbeloa, both of whom would have only been back-up players going into the new campaign, but very good ones at that. Hyypia’s perennial fitness and professionalism already looks a great loss, with injuries mounting.
Some young players will be a year older and wiser (particularly Insua and N’Gog), and no-one is in danger of disappearing off the other end of the age spectrum, now that Hyypia has moved on.
The oldest player in the squad is only 31 (Carragher), and no-one else will be in his 30s when the season starts, bar Voronin, who has only just recently had his 30th birthday.
The average age of the strongest XI is a near-perfect 27.3 (the average of the previous 17 Premiership champions is 27.5), and the squad overall averages out at a very healthy 26, excluding those youngsters who may force their way into Rafa’s plans.
Pre-season form hasn’t been great on the whole, but the players do so much intensive training at this time of year under Rafa it’s hard to know how much energy they have left come kick-off; often they’ll have trained hard the day of a game, and fitness is the main concern.
More confidence gained from impressive wins would have been nice, but pre-season can be so distorting – not least due to the range in fitness and determination of the various opposition sides – that successive strolls in pre-season can bring a rude awakening come the first league game.
Another centre-half seems to be a priority, with the risk of none being fit for the season opener at Spurs, and Liverpool facing Crouch, Carew and Stoke’s bombardment in the opening three fixtures. It certainly won’t be an easy start, especially if Liverpool have to call upon teenage reserve players. A defeat at Spurs wouldn’t surprise me, with Rafa starting a league campaign away for the 6th successive season, but from then until October, and the trip to Chelsea, I expect pretty much maximum points.
With Alonso gone, and Aquilani not fit until September, another early key could be Gerrard’s position; having said that I’d be loath to see him moved into central midfield, he opened up Atletico Madrid on Saturday several times in quick succession from that deeper position, with passes of great incision. (If Alonso was the better passer overall, his one weakness was not enough penetrating passes through the middle, in the way Gerrard can find.)
But the improvement of Lucas should enable Rafa to keep Gerrard and Torres in tandem up front.
According to some, Liverpool missed a good chance of winning the title last season, but I don’t buy that; to go from 4th place and 76 points to 1st place, and needing in excess of 90, is a massive ask. To do so without the experience of a previous title race only made it harder.
Yes, United and Chelsea had some problems last season, but Liverpool could only pair Torres and Gerrard together on 14 occasions. If that can be doubled this time around, with no injuries to other key men, than this really could be the year.
Anyway, preamble out of the way, this is my assessment of the squad as it currently stands, and of those players who needs to improve on last season’s showings to find that extra few percent to bring home #19.
** Must Do Better **
Okay, let’s start with a controversial inclusions. If anyone else had defended like Jamie Carragher last season, I’d have been delighted. But he had more of an 8/10 season than the 9/10 he’d been racking up since 2004.
I don’t subscribe to the opinion that he’s past his best now that he’s 31, as his experience and leadership qualities are vital, as is his local pride, but I just feel that he can be a fraction better than what we saw last season. And this is a season where Liverpool, one the whole, need to be just a fraction better.
Little wrong when he was fit enough to play, although the stop-start nature of the injuries meant that he often took to the field patently short of sharpness. But he scored more goals against the better teams than in his debut season, and maintained an excellent strike rate; so any improvement would simply need to be physical, and the psychological boost that comes with it.
Another top player who wasn’t quite at his best in 2008/09 – certainly so in the first half of the campaign, when he returned from the Olympics looking like he’d been hit with a stray javelin. A year on, he now needs to put ideas of Barcelona rather than Beijing behind him.
If anything, he currently looks meaner than ever before, tearing through opponents in pre-season with all the compassion of Roy Keane fronting up Alf-Inge Haaland, and looking nothing short of a grade-A psycho with his three-day stubble, glazed stare and crazy-toothed smile. Now that Alonso is gone it’s imperative that the Monster is at his best.
If it truly does take one to know one, John Barnes is to be taken seriously when it comes to Ryan Babel.
"Ryan is a fantastic player," Barnes said. "If we can find the right blend and formation for him to show us what he can do I believe he can be one of the best players in the Premier League”
I’ve long shared this view, but also wonder if the player has the right temperament; then again, Barnes was seen as laid back, and certainly had little aggression, and he did okay, didn’t he? It’s worth noting that Babel, at 22, still isn’t even at the age Barnes was when he arrived in 1987. There’s so much more to come from the Dutchman, but I’m not certain if his game will come together in time, or in this team, or in this league.
It’s also not yet clear if Babel is good enough that his inclusion demands that the system must be built around him, and it might need that for him to succeed. However, I live in hope, albeit hope without breath held.
Here is a player who simply must improve on what Liverpool had before: Alvaro Arbeloa, who was a very good defender, and a willing forward runner, but not the cleverest on the ball. Johnson is quicker, stronger and far more accomplished from a technical point of view. Arbeloa was not a good crosser of the ball, and Johnson has the delivery of a top winger.
If the £17m full-back brings his Portsmouth and England form with him, he will improve on Arbeloa quite comfortably. If he suffers the same problems as he did at Chelsea, there will be concerns, although that was a very young man playing for a manager (Mourinho) who wanted his own player (Ferreira) in the role.
I like the Spaniard a lot, particularly the way he can give-and-go in passing moves better than most wingers, but his form fell away as he ran out of steam towards the end of the season; just as he ran out of steam towards the end of games.
He provides natural width, and that was vital with Xabi Alonso able to spray quick, long passes to the wing, but now that his compatriot has left for Real Madrid, a change of emphasis may be required. However, Riera has good skill in tight situations and can make it to the byline regularly, though his delivery can be improved.
Due mostly to injury, we didn’t get to see the best of what I believe to be an absolutely outstanding talent. That he is having more back trouble ahead of the new season is a worry, because a fully fit Agger is about as good as you get for an all-round defender. His creativity from the back will be important in turning more home draws into wins, and he can add goals from defence, which is always a handy bonus.
It’s unclear if the Italian has a future at the club, although he might be worth keeping due to Fabio Aurelio’s inability to last a whole season, and often, a whole month.
Emiliano Insua seems everyone’s natural choice at left-back, and rightly so, but young defenders can struggle to regain their form quickly if they lose it (it’s a new experience and they can’t draw on having already overcome such setbacks). Insua also has to prove he can last a season in the first team, having only dipped in and out thus far.
It may be worth keeping Dossena simply to help fellow Italian Aquilani settle in, as the new man could be more important to Liverpool’s success than anything a left-back does. Italians don’t have a great record of playing overseas (Zola being an exception), so settling into life off the pitch is vital (as Ian Rush found when making the reverse journey 22 years ago). In that sense, the Italian left-back could be of great use.
But I do like Dossena, and hope that it was just a case of adapting to life in the Premiership that made his first six months at the club so shaky, before he briefly shone on the left of midfield, where his crossing was particularly dangerous. I won’t lose sleep if he goes, but Aurelio’s latest injury might have delayed his exit, until January at least.