The atmosphere around Selhurst Park escalated quickly.
Brendan Rodgers stood emotionless on the touchline, with his hands in his pockets, mystified at the scenes that transpired before his eyes.
Liverpool’s season spiraled downwards in 10 minutes, as the Reds conceded a three-goal lead against Crystal Palace. Scenes that may never leave the minds of some of the most confident players in world football. Daniel Sturridge stared blankly into the sky, while Luis Suarez was on the floor hiding his face under his shirt in a pool of tears, as captain Steven Gerrard –– who committed an inexcusable error by slipping on the ball, which gift-wrapped a goal for Demba Ba a week prior, in another monumental game against Chelsea –– consoled the Uruguayan star down the tunnel.
“The players are devastated, really,” Rodgers said. “The last 12 minutes we did not defend at all with any cohesion. It was a crazy spell where we’ll need to be better in the future.”
Liverpool squandered a golden opportunity to claim their first Premier League title, and they may not receive a second chance in the upcoming years. The luxury of missing out on European football played a factor as the Reds played a minimum of 10 games less than the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City. There was also a hint of overachievement following the extraordinary partnership of Suarez and Sturridge.
Rodgers, however, will have to cope without the Uruguayan star after he completed a move to Barcelona this summer. Although, at times, Suarez’s actions were deplorable, his production on the field transformed the striker into a cult hero. Suarez tallied 82 goals in three and a half seasons at Anfield, with the final two years being his most impressive, hitting the 30 goal mark twice.
The loss of a genuine world-class player would hamper any side, and Suarez’s departure is no different. And while it’s considerably easy to make comparisons with Spurs after the sale of Gareth Bale, it’s unlikely that Rodgers’ side will capitulate in the same manner as the North London club.
Liverpool is a cohesive unit that didn’t solely rely on Suarez’s individual brilliance, and they have spent close to £90m on personnel that should cover their lack of depth. Rodgers’ starting XI may be weaker than last year, but there’s a sense of familiarity whereas Spurs shoved several new signings into their squad with no initial plan.
Frankly, under Andre Villas-Boas’ first season at White Hart Lane, Spurs lacked a genuine game plan as they relied heavily on Bale’s brilliance in a free role.
Rodgers, however, is an intelligent young manager that showcased his tactical flexibility last season, as he risked the natural balance of the side to fit Suarez and Sturridge into his XI. It’s unlikely that he will encounter similar issues with the players brought in this summer, and it also appears that Liverpool will predominantly operate in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1.
The arrival of Adam Lallana offers Liverpool a legitimate play-maker, capable of operating in the no.10 role, or drifting laterally into space between the lines from the flanks. Likewise, Lazar Markovic’s pace, power, and tactical discipline can see the Serbian winger develop into a key player for the Reds as the season progresses.
Rodgers’ experiment with a 4-4-2 diamond against Manchester City in preseason failed, as Liverpool’s fullbacks were consistently isolated, and they lacked natural width going forward. This further exemplifies that the likelihood of a Rickie Lambert and Sturridge partnership is unlikely to occur on a consistent basis.
One of the glaring issues involving Liverpool’s preseason campaign was the difficulty they encountered in the final third. While Liverpool only lost once in their opening seven games last season during Suarez’s suspension –– which in fairness is an extremely small sample size –– it must be noted that the Reds averaged 1.5 goals per game.
Now there is insurmountable pressure surrounding Sturridge to replicate last year’s form and tally 20 Premier League goals as the sole striker upfront. The 24-year-old who prefers to operate in the channels and off the shoulder of the last defender may struggle to replicate last year’s success, and there’s fear that the options available may not suffice.
Loic Remy’s failed medical leaves Rodgers with Rickie Lambert and Fabio Borini at his disposal, with the latter expected to seal a permanent move with Sunderland. Lambert’s move was fairly logical considering his familiarity with Lallana and several English teammates within the squad. Lambert is a proven goalscorer in England, but more importantly he links play well and can guide runners such as Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson –– players Rodgers hopes will add goals to their arsenal –– into goal-scoring positions.
Both players scored fantastic goals in their preseason friendly against Manchester City, and Rodgers stated the importance of Henderson improving in front of goal.
“That’s the objective for Jordan [to get more goals],” Rodgers offered.
“The finish he produced to get the equalizer, he does that day in, day out in training. He’s a player that is so fit and strong, and he’s such a team player – he does a lot of unselfish work. This year we’re asking him to get more into the box.”
However, despite the additions of Dejan Lovren and young powerful midfielder Emre Can, there are still a few concerns within the squad. Who will step up to the plate to score goals? Gerrard’s defensive deficiencies as the sole-pivot are still an issue, while the back four still lacks leadership despite Lovren’s arrival.
Rodgers has provided depth at the full-back position, but Liverpool struggled to close out games last season, often dropping deep into their box and relying on poor finishing from the opposition and Simon Mignolet’s heroics. Only Spurs conceded more goals than Liverpool in the top eight, and with the Reds’ woes in front of goal, Rodgers will hope Lovren is the missing piece to a sturdy back-line.
With little under a month remaining in the transfer window, Liverpool have done a great job in using the funds from Suarez’s sale to revamp their squad.
The improvement of Henderson, Philippe Coutinho and Sterling, along with Gerrard’s rotation, and the adaptation of the newcomers will define Liverpool’s season, but Rodgers is certainly ahead of schedule.
Liverpool will find it difficult to challenge for the title with the inclusion of the Champions League, while title rivals Chelsea and Manchester City have improved significantly.
Rodgers may need a year or two to relive the heights of last season, but he’s made the right moves that should see Liverpool battle for a spot in the top four, as the Reds prepare to go again.