Wasn't expecting that. Wasn't expecting that at all. We collected 36 points from the latter 19 games of the 2012-13 season- top 4 form by most seasons' standards- and had recorded some very impressive victories along the way. I was optimistic about the season ahead, but even so, did not expect that. The vast spending of Tottenham scared me (and don't lie, it scared you too). I struggled to see Man Utd falling from 1st to as low as 5th, let alone 7th- David Moyes or no David Moyes. Chelsea and Man City were the immovable superpowers, and Arsene '4th place' Wenger had just acquired a £42m worldie. I was optimistic, but wouldn't this season prove to be just too difficult to finally reach the promised land- the platform of Europe's elite? 5th was my bet, a valiant attempt doomed to fail at the last by three or four points.
Indeed, for some time it looked like my prediction might have carried some weight. Sat in 5th place going into January, it was touch and go. However even then, few Liverpool fans had any major concerns that we weren't going to make it. Much was troubling Spurs and Utd, and we still had fresh memories of being top at Christmas. And so it was, that Brendan Rodgers would do some things and we suddenly accelerated away. After toing and froing for a few laps, jostling neck and neck with the rest, we hit the turbo boost. The juggernaut came to life, and left everyone else in the dust.
Well, almost everyone. Jose and Manuel, having invested in the finer things in life, kept pace and alas the plucky man from Chile crossed the line first. No matter, for our boys to finish the campaign able to look down upon Mr. Mourinho, Lord Arsene and the Desolation of Moyes was remarkable. It was a result beyond prediction, and so nearly English football's fairytale story of the Century.
Liverpool were better than they were supposed to have been, and with it, their short-term aims have required a re-evaluation. If they had squeezed into 4th place, as would have been more in line with expectation, the club will have entered the summer knowing that they "simply" needed to develop a squad capable of competing with dignity in the Champions League, whilst resisting the pull of the also-rans attempting to usurp it's place in the Premier League's stellar string quartet.
Now Liverpool must do all these things, whilst also building for a title win. Not challenge, win. The club came so close to it, it simply cannot look to achieve anything else now. Most people when assessing this team of nearly men reach the same conclusion: defence and depth. This is what they lack, and this is why they fell two points and 13 goals short.
The case for the defence is scant. 50 conceded goals cannot be swept under any carpet, no matter how big. Rodgers believes much of this tally is down to poor concentration. He has a point- Martin Skrtel conceded four own goals and Glen Johnson conceded two. Kolo Toure, for a brief moment, saw the promised land that is West Bromwich and took his chance to stake his claim for a seat in their grand halls. But these were isolated incidents in a 38 game season in which three goals were conceded on six separate occasions, and two goals conceded a further ten times. That's 2+ goals conceded in nearly half of our games. Poor concentration is one cause, but also of importance was a midfield that could not offer near enough protection, full backs (or, should I say, a full back) who was incapable of shutting down his flank, and the fact that some of our defenders are just not that good.
On that last point, the not so good are pretty much limited to GlenJo and Skittles, when he's having a Mr. Hyde moment. But the case of Skrtel really is a strange one. His Dr. Jekyll can be excellent, and if he could only find a way to eliminate his darker side, he and Mamadou could be very adequate. Very adequate indeed. And worth persisting with. But I just don't have faith in Skrtel to find consistency. Certainly, I viciously reject all suggestion that Sakho is the one who is not good enough. We would be foolish to build our defence around anyone else, no matter how much we all love Daniel. So the question is- stick or twist? Replace Skrtel or not? I suspect Brendan has made up his mind, and will twist. Lovren or Caulker, I hear you say? Are they any more reliable than Skrtel, I retort? It goes back to that re-evaluation of the club's aims. Now aiming for the title itself, Liverpool must reflect that in it's transfer work. Lovren or Caulker would have been OK if our goals were a little more modest. Not so now. If the Skrtel is to be replaced, it HAS to be with someone who is undisputedly, very, very clearly better.
The full back seems easier to fix with a plethora of exciting left backs on the market (no, Ryan Bertrand, I am not looking at you). We can move Flanagan back to the right, bring back Wisdom, give Kelly a go and yes, even keep Johnson... as fourth choice. It might seem a little scatterbrained, and even at odds with the assertions I made over the centre back issue, alluding to the need for clear top quality to continue with a further title challenge. But I like the three young guns, defensively-speaking anyway. They will shut down the opposition's left flank in a manner that Glen could only dream of. That is surely the priority in attempting to cut out some of the 50 conceded goals. And truth be told, none of them will contribute any less to the attack than Johnson did this past season.
So that's that, then. Defence is sorted. One more step to the title. So, next up- the midfield. Yes, I did criticise the midfield a little before, didn't I? It seems unlikely anything is to change much there though, personell-wise anyway, so I'll not dwell too much on this. Gerrard won't be removed from his playmaker role- and credit where it's due, he has played it to distinction. Neither is Henderson going anywhere anytime soon, and Allen will always be in and around the team. And this is the right thing to do, as both players are terrific. Something needs to improve however when the team as a whole transitions from attack to defence. I'm looking at you, Brendan. Work your magic. Get the off-the-ball coaching right, and that's a few more clean sheets right there, and yet another step towards the title.
Depth, then. More depth, lots and lots of depth. In fairness, we have attempted to add depth in every summer transfer window since the dawn of man. It's just that we keep making the same mistake. Quantity, not quality. You see, Liverpool, you're not *really* adding depth at all if what you bring in is too embarrassing to ever use. Three or four players worthy of the club is all we need. It may cost a penny or two more than rounding up a rag tag band of Aspas's and Cissokhos, but you'll benefit in the long run. Adam Lallana? Sure. Dani Parejo? Sure. I'm not too fussy, as long as the bench looks nice and pretty come September, I'll be content.
You see, aside from the positions already spoken about, our starting XI is already good enough- any players brought in this summer are going to struggle to just waltz their way into the team ahead of one of our current starters, unless of course Ian Ayre can suddenly pull a Cristiano Ronaldo out of his bag of mystery and wonder. So when people cry into their keyboards, proclaiming that there are slightly better players than St. Albans' finest out there, I really can't empathise too much. If he's a good player, and plays like a good player, then that is all Liverpool needs. And for Fowler's sake people, stop talking about transfer fees. You are not the Chairman, you have no idea whatsoever what the club's finances are, you do not understand the transfer process, you do not know the costs involved, the structure of any deals, you have no knowledge at all to justify your Football Manager-fueled rages, when you so arbitrarily cry "BUT ADAM LALLANA IS NOT WORTH MORE THAN £18M!?!?"
Top centre back. Top full back. Enough players of sufficient ability to swell the number of useful Liverpool players from the current tally of 14 to somewhere around 18. Title win? Might begin to expect that.