Liverpool must buy wisely this summer, with Adam Lallana their top target, but also stick with youth and learn from errors
Brendan Rodgers has seen his side take a giant leap forward this season, but their are improvements to be made
The exit route for the away team at Selhurst Park takes the players out of a side door through a gate and on to a coach parked yards from where the supporters are held back by barriers. On Monday night, the Liverpool team were applauded out one by one by their waiting fans, but the players themselves left in silence – with one exception.
Kolo Touré did not play any part in the 3-3 draw with Crystal Palace, other than to lead Luis Suarez off at the end with the Liverpool striker’s face hidden in his shirt, but he is affable to a fault and has seen his own fair share of triumph and disaster. “The only way to learn things is to make mistakes,” Touré said. “That’s what we are going to learn: see what went wrong and try to do better next year.”
Touré should know, having become increasingly error-prone the longer his career has gone on. But this time it was not him at the centre of a Liverpool defence that was so comprehensively unpicked by Palace in the closing stages of the game, exposed by the pace of Yannick Bolasie and the ice-cool finishing of Dwight Gayle, whose contribution was lost in the drama.
Liverpool’s defensive collapse on Monday, and the subsequent criticism from the manager, Brendan Rodgers and Jamie Carragher, a former player, has overshadowed all else. They have now conceded 45 goals this season, 18 more than they did on the occasion of their best finish of recent times, that second place in 2008-09 (although their plus-50 goal difference is identical to that season). Failure to beat Palace also meant that they would not reach the points tally of 86 from that year under Rafa Benitez.
Of course, there is much more to losing a game on the counter-attack than the opposition simply picking holes in the back four. Liverpool missed the presence of Jordan Henderson, a tireless worker in breaking up the counter-attacking threat of opposing teams. But even so, one would have expected more from a defence led by Martin Skrtel, a veteran of 2009, who was alongside Carragher for most of that season, and Glen Johnson, a former Premier League winner himself.
If it does turn out to be the end of Liverpool’s hopes of a first league title in 24 years then talk inevitably turns to the summer, and who Rodgers can acquire with a budget fattened by Champions League income. There is no reason that Liverpool, if they fail to win the title this week, should view their chance lost for a generation, providing they can build sensibly again this summer.
In the close season of 2009, and having come so close, Benitez, beset by the ownership problems at the top of the club, failed to sign Gareth Barry, sold Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa and made a £17m investment in the catastrophic Alberto Aquilani. Within a year of finishing second in the Premier League by one point to Manchester United, his team were seventh in 2009-10 and he was out the door that summer.
Of course, after five years at the club and with much energy wasted on the turmoil around Liverpool’s owners at the time, Benitez was in a very different place to Rodgers now. But then the challenges that Rodgers faced, and overcame when he took over the club in 2012, are very different to those he will face taking a team into the Champions League next season and with the expectation of another title challenge.
His signings last summer of Luis Alberto and Iago Aspas, for example, for a combined total of £14m in transfer fees, have not been a success. But in the modern transfer market they were a moderate gamble. Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet has been a good acquisition and Rodgers has excelled in the deployment of younger players such as Raheem Sterling and Jon Flanagan as well as his signings Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho.
Adam Lallana will be a target for numerous clubs this summer
That is one reason why all the indications are that Adam Lallana has made Liverpool his first choice when, as seems likely, Southampton listen to offers for their England international forward this summer. Lallana shares a management agency with Chelsea’s Ashley Cole, another potential Liverpool target, although signing him presents problems of its own.
Bringing in such an experienced player who desperately wants to continue playing as a first-choice left-back would potentially block the immediate progress of Flanagan, who has switched from the right of late to make that position his own. As Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger has decided at times over the years, that immediate uplift of a new signing is not always worth taking for the long-term effect on the young player it blocks.
Over the season, Liverpool have shown themselves to be a club which, like Arsenal, gives young players a chance – and a chance beyond those afforded to the likes of Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair at Manchester City or the long list of teenagers acquired by Chelsea’s academy.
Liverpool have cultivated a long-term interest in the Derby County midfielder Will Hughes, and Dele Alli, of MK Dons, an 18-year-old midfielder who has never played above League One. It will be intriguing to see which route Rodgers takes. Naturally he will want to show he is capable of competing with other Champions League clubs for big names, but the success of Sterling, above all, shows what can be accomplished with young players.
As his team-mates walked out of Selhurst Park behind him, Touré put Liverpool’s draw with Palace in perspective.
“At the start of the season nobody was expecting to be where we are right now. I think everybody is surprised how we have been coping with the pressure and with the big teams. We have been putting on the pressure until the last game of the season. For us it’s great. This is a really young team. We’re going to take some experience from that.”
Easy for him to say, with his two Premier League winners’ medals won at Arsenal and Manchester City – more than the rest of the Liverpool squad combined, in terms of the English league title. But he has a point. There is no reason why Liverpool could not have another crack next season, and it would be a shame to lose the emphasis on youth that has marked this season out from any other.
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