Can reshaped Liverpool and shorn Saints deliver change for the better?
Anfield manager Brendan Rodgers denies doing a 'Spurs' by squandering Luis Suarez money
Sunday 17 August 2014
The red sign outside The Albert warns of a demolition zone. Although the pub will survive, if plans to redevelop Anfield are executed as promised the surroundings will have transformed by 2016. The brooding terraced houses on Tinsley Street and Gilman Street will disappear. Those on Lothair Road have already gone. The cranes are moving in. There is no access through Rockfield Road.
Inside Anfield today, there too will be a sense of unfamiliarity. Only five of Liverpool's starting XI which lost this fixture against Southampton last September are likely to feature from the beginning. Meanwhile, the Saints' new manager Ronald Koeman is able to name only four but is likely to go with three. The changes this summer have been swift and unprecedented.
When Alberto Moreno was pictured glancing at the bronze bust of Bill Shankly that stands inside the foyer of Liverpool's Melwood training ground ahead of his medical on Wednesday afternoon, he became the eighth new signing to complete the routine with club photographers.
Never has a recruitment campaign been as bold with eight new arrivals at a total coast of nearly £100m. "Frighteningly shallow," was Brendan Rodgers' assessment when asked on Thursday about his squad depth last season. It was not just Steven Gerrard's slip against Chelsea that cost Liverpool the title in May. It was also the physical and mental fatigue that crept into the players. It was the absence of options from the bench.
Rodgers dismissed the suggestion that Liverpool, having sold Luis Suarez for a record fee, are following the same rock-strewn path as Tottenham Hotspur when they sold Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for £80m and squandered the lot. "It's an evolving team," said the Liverpool manager. "It's a totally different scenario [compared with Spurs]. We are clear in our identity of how we play and how we work. The guys from last year will be here and we've added some exciting talents."
Although Adam Lallana is ruled out because of injury, Rodgers will start with Dejan Lovren in the centre of his defence while Rickie Lambert might appear later from the substitutes' bench. All three were Southampton players at the start of June and each targeted because of the similarities in style between the teams. "They understand the pressing, the intensity and the possession," explained Rodgers, who believes Southampton's owners could have held on to the trio if the determination was really there. "They don't have to sell. You have a choice. Maybe Southampton's objectives have changed."
Rodgers suggested, however, that Southampton's shedding of its best players is a natural order. "It has always been like that," he responded to a question about why it is difficult for clubs like Southampton to build any sustained momentum. "You fight hard against it but it's how football works." He could have cited a period in the 1980s when the same thing happened. Southampton had accomplished players: Tim Flowers, Mark Wright, Andy Townsend, Alan Shearer and the Wallace brothers. The core was there. Yet all were sold before a team could emerge.
Liverpool's Rickie Lambert in action during a pre-season friendly soccer match between Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund
No club, perhaps, is imprisoned by its past as much as Liverpool, although inspiration can be found in history. They have been here before. Finishing second in the top flight, a young manager approaching his third season in charge, the team losing its best striker. In 1987 Ian Rush left for Juventus having never featured on the losing side whenever he'd registered a goal. He would soon be back, becoming the club's greatest scorer.
Kenny Dalglish took the decision to alter the way Liverpool attacked. It would cost a lot of money, roughly £350,000 more than the £3.2m received to make Rush the subject of a British-record transfer. John Aldridge may have borne a physical resemblance to Rush but the two forwards were very different. Dalglish signed John Barnes, the team's first natural winger in a decade, as well as Peter Beardsley to replace himself. On the pitch the team clicked immediately – no longer was any player greater than the sum of its parts – and with that, the old First Division title was wrested from Everton.
The player departing this time is Suarez. Unlike Rush he will not be returning to Merseyside. Liverpool's transfer committee involves Rodgers, chief executive Ian Ayre, head of recruitment Dave Fallows, chief scout Barry Hunter, and head of analysis Michael Edwards. The group would surely have appreciated the Uruguayan might leave when it was would be inserted into a fresh contract he signed last December. An oversight not to plan without him would be at best naïve or at worst negligent.
Rodgers reminded everyone that even with Suarez's 31 League goals last season, Liverpool managed another 70 from other areas. He says that although he would still like to add another striker – with Samuel Eto'o only considered an option if other targets like Wilfried Bony aren't available for a reasonable value – it is impossible to replace a striker of Suarez's quality directly. "We've had to piece the team together to get goals," he admitted.
Southampton’s on-loan Saphir Taider
It is detectable that even with all of the new additions, Rodgers is most excited about the prospect of other players already there stepping forward in Suarez's absence. He envisages that Raheem Sterling will become a key performer, "a kid forming his own identity," someone who will be offered an improved contract soon, providing his astonishing rise continues.
"We just have to be careful because when you reward young players too quickly – he's still 19 – you give them too much and too early, then that will be their downfall," he warned. Rodgers considers this as the reason why so many young British players have not developed as expected. "They buy a new Range Rover Sports before they have even got their driving licence or passed their test."
Philippe Coutinho, a Brazilian, has not apparently been contaminated by this and soon contract negotiations will begin with him as well. Time seemingly stood still when he assisted Daniel Sturridge for Liverpool's opener in the dismantling of Borussia Dortmund last weekend. Sturridge already calls Coutinho "David Blaine" after the illusionist, and Sturridge was never quite as forthcoming with praise for Suarez. Rodgers will be hoping the relationship does the trick this season.
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