Liverpool were always going to find this season relatively hard going. That was inevitable given their near miss in winning the title, the ageing legs of Steven Gerrard and the loss of Luis Suarez.
The squad was widely considered to be sub-standard, lacking real depth and the twin challenge of the EPL and Champions League was always going to be tricky.
Liverpool last season benefited greatly from fresh players after Christmas. This season, however, looks to be heading in the wrong direction, possibly further than anyone had anticipated.
So what is the real crux of the issue?
The Suarez effect
Losing a player of such quality invariably produces a negative outcome for the team even if the money is reinvested. While you can improve your squad, unless you buy a player of equal ability you invariably weaken your first 11.
Suarez and his able sidekick Daniel Sturridge scored a fantastic 53 league goals between them last season. Remove Suarez and the injured Sturridge from the picture and it is simple to say that the answer is staring you in the face. Any team would obviously struggle losing those two.
It is however, overly simplifying things to suggest that this is the entire reason. Other players take their places and have opportunities to score goals. A good example is when Manchester United lost Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid. Ronaldo was not yet the stats phenomenon he is now but United lost a potent weapon.
The following season they scored nine more goals (scoring five less points however) as Wayne Rooney’s total dramatically improved. Alex Ferguson proved yet again that you can lose a top player yet carry on challenging at the top.
Sturridge’s injury has exacerbated the issue but it is not the sole reason for the current malaise.
Brendan Rodgers’ transfer policy
Rodgers received a huge amount of plaudits last season and looks a fine manager in the making. The Liverpool board were patient with him in his first season and were repaid with a genuine title challenge.
But one area where Rodgers faces criticism is in the transfer market.
Liverpool completely reinvested the Suarez money and in fairness to Rodgers, replacing the Uruguayan was a nigh on impossible task. Rodgers was also aware that the squad needed quality additions throughout the team in an assortment of positions. Both quality and quantity were required.
Rodgers has certainly bought quantity but whether he has brought true quality or improved Liverpool in the departments they required is up for debate.
Rodgers’ main larder to be raided belonged to Southampton where he plundered Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren and Adam Lallana. Taking the Lambert transfer to one side, the acquisitions of Lovren and Lallana have hardly appeared stellar.
Lallana cost about five million less than Chelsea paid for Cesc Fabregas and the transfer of Lovren looks an expensive one if held up against the bizarrely cheap sale of Daniel Agger.
Southampton were expected to flounder due to losing so many players (Callum Chambers and Luke Shaw also) but they have hardly batted an eyelid. Was it really their best players that they sold after all?
Roy Hodgson was pilloried for several of his signings and for a lack of ambition during his time at Anfield, being accused of trying to turn Liverpool into Fulham. Add in Rodgers’ expensive addition of the underwhelming Joe Allen and you could possibly argue that Rodgers is also yearning for his days at Swansea.
It is true that some players are late bloomers, but if players such as Lallana at 26 and Lovren at 25 are still playing for Southampton there is generally a reason for it. They are not of the very highest calibre or they would have been snapped up earlier.
Harsh, I hear you say, but a quick glance at Real Madrid running rings around the Liverpool midfield will tell you that the likes of Lallana and Jordan Henderson (not signed by Rodgers) are not of the highest calibre.
Madrid are a wonderful team but the likes of Chelsea would at least have competed even if they had ultimately been beaten. Liverpool have signed good players but not great ones.
The goalkeeping situation is also a curious one. Pepe Reina had not had a good season for Liverpool prior to his going to Napoli but losing him and bringing in Simon Mignolet for a net transfer loss of about seven million pounds looks slightly curious.
And so too Mario Balotelli, the return of the enfant terrible to the North West of England he so professed to loathe on departing City. The 16 million pounds forked out didn’t look a bad price. Rodgers is a good man manager and players do grow up – Nicolas Anelka and Eric Cantona – so it was definitely worth a gamble.
What does look odd however, is that Rodgers appears to have simply no idea how to integrate him in to the Liverpool system of tactics and play.
We have seen the likes of Fernando Torres and Andriy Shevchenko endure similar toils at Chelsea but they were the whims of a rich owner rather than a supposedly shrewd managerial tactician. Which brings us to our next point.
Liverpool were like a juggernaut in the second half of last season, destroying teams with abandon with their rapier attacking football. They played some blistering football in a seemingly relentless march towards the title. Except they came up short.
Rodgers received huge praise for last season and was awarded the Manager of the Year award ahead of Tony Pulis (so he must have done many things right I concede). However, there was and is a suspicion that Liverpool have no Plan B and there is a reality that their defence is terrible.
Rodgers has employed Gerrard in a deep lying playmaker role, the quarterback role the in vogue name. Roy Hodgson attempted something similar at the World Cup with England and was found wanting badly as Gerrard was exposed time and time again.
Liverpool simply blew teams away with their attacking might as Arsenal found out to their terrible cost when they visited Anfield.
There was a huge waive of emotion. Here in Singapore we were treated to ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in all its glory before every Liverpool home game on TV, it was Hillsborough’s 25-year anniversary and it seemed like destiny.
Stevie G’s ‘this does not f*cking slip’ speech. It had to happen.
Which all reminds me very much of Brazil’s World Cup adventure, players crying during anthems, Neymar shirts aloft and David Luiz charging around everywhere. Of course when they met a highly organised side and suddenly realised that destiny doesn’t play a part in defending and the invincibility bubble was burst, they imploded.
When Liverpool met the brick wall of Chelsea’s defence they came up horribly short and Gerrard made the horrendous slip in his holding role which defined and ultimately ruined his season. With their own air of invincibility gone, Liverpool had their own implosion blowing a three-goal lead against Palace in the last 11 minutes as panic set in and the title was gone.
So where to from here?
This article may read as unduly negative towards Liverpool and Rodgers but it is not meant in such a way. It is merely trying to balance this season versus last and where Liverpool actually sit in the grand scheme of things.
Last season was almost certainly a huge overachievement on the back of raw emotion, Luis Suarez and some undoubtedly fine football. After going so close to the title last season, missing out on the top four and not qualifying for the Champions League this time around would be a severe blow.
With Chelsea and City seemingly a level above, Arsenal seasoned in making the top four and a United team that will improve and benefit from the lack of European football, it may be a tough ask for Liverpool this time around.
It is time for Rodgers to earn his money.