By Craig Rimmer
OKAY, so the above title may have been undermined somewhat by recent defeats away to Manchester City and Chelsea. But, on reflection those results have done little to alter the overall complexion. In fact, they may actually have gone some way toward reaffirming the point. Liverpool are a club who has rediscovered a winning tendency over the past year. They head into 2014 a team whose pre-season ambitions remain firmly within sight, despite those recent set-backs.
If the 5-0 humbling of Tottenham Hotspur and the hugely positive performance in defeat away to Manchester City had announced Liverpool as genuine title contenders, then defeat at Stamford Bridge had made that reality far less likely – or so we were told – such is the unusually competitive nature of the current Premier League.
As Liverpool fans, following multiple seasons of underwhelming frustration, we have belatedly been reminded of what it feels like to head into the second half of a league season with something to play; that is to say, something more than an outside shot of Europa League qualification.
So, where do we go from here?
What is now essential is that Liverpool sustain the positive momentum which has been accumulated during the first half of the season and, more broadly, over the past 12 months or so if they are to convert progress into Champions League qualification, and potentially more.
So, now is the ideal moment to invest in the progress which Brendan Rodgers and the team have made to date. The upcoming transfer windows – both the winter window and the summer – may hold the key to the short-term future of the football club in terms of its ability to once again compete regularly with the top teams and in top-level European competition. It is, therefore, crucial that Liverpool are both active and astute in both windows.
In order to achieve that aim, Liverpool need a squad which can match, or at least compete with, their main rivals over the course of a full season. That is probably not currently the case. The squad remains a work in progress; improved but limited. It is the factor which is most likely to prevent Rodgers from achieving something tangible in the near future.
Liverpool have failed to capitalise in similar moments in the past. Errors which, in hindsight, were followed by periods characterised by stagnation and missed opportunity.
In the summer of 2002, following a second place Premier League finish – achieved off back of a cup treble the previous year – Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool failed to take advantage of their progression into a genuine title contender. The “final piece of the jigsaw” was never located, and instead, 2000-2002 proved to be the peak years of the Frenchman’s Anfield reign, rather than the start of something greater.
The less said about Bruno Cheyrou, El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao the better. However, ultimately, a lack of investment – or, more accurately, misguided investment – halted the clubs progress and Liverpool failed to mount a genuine challenge for the league title in either of the subsequent 2 seasons – a run which brought to an end Houllier’s stint in charge.
Likewise, in 2009, following another second place finish, then Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez – hamstrung by the catastrophic Hicks and Gillett administration – was not afforded the necessary funds to supplement a squad of players which was high in talent but small in number with any genuine quality.
Instead, Benitez was forced to operate on a budget; signing the likes of Sotorios Kyrgiakos and Philip Degen; whilst Xabi Alonso departed to be replaced by the inferior and injury-plagued Alberto Aquilani. That summer signalled the beginning of the end of Benitez-era Liverpool and would be proceeded by 3 to 4 years of decline, upheaval and Premier League underachievement.
There is plenty to suggest that the club is in a much more stable position today than in either 2002 or 2009 to ensure that past errors are not repeated. The current ownership, whilst far from universally acclaimed, have shown a willingness to make cash available in the past and have also afforded full backing to the manager. Whilst the recent track record of both Rodgers and the transfer committee in the transfer market is at least encouraging.
Of course, FSG have recently shown their intent by securing Luis Suarez’s future at the club with a lucrative contract extension. That new contract achieved the dual benefits of securing the club’s future position in relation to Suarez and signalling their intent to both the fans and the rest of the Premier League.
FSG now have the opportunity to back up those intentions. Investing in Rodgers and the team now has the potential to have a significant impact both this season and in the long term. Whilst, also, going some way toward building some form of long-term legacy for themselves at Anfield; to win over any doubters once and for all.
So, why wait until next summer? Shrewd business in January – perhaps supplemented by the sale of a couple of fringe players (e.g. Kelly or Aspas) – could significantly improve the squad in key areas and gift Liverpool the competitive edge they need to get over the line in terms of Champions League qualification.
Liverpool have proven on a number of occasions in the past, not least in January 2013, that there is value to be had in the winter transfer window, despite a relatively small pool of players willing or able to move clubs mid-season. The January signings of Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho last season were a resounding success. Whilst, in previous years, Javier Mascherano, Alvaro Arbeloa, Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger, Nicolas Anelka and Robbie Fowler have all been signed during the January window and gone on to make positive contributions of varying degrees in the red shirt.
Recent injuries have highlighted the obvious limitations of the resources available to Rodgers. Perhaps best exemplified by the inclusion of teenagers Brad Smith and Jordan Rossiter in the match day squad against Chelsea. There is no doubt that the squad is short of a full-back, probably two. A case could also be made for strengthening in other areas, including central midfield.
But, personally, I would look to prioritise an impact player; probably another forward player. Another goal-scorer or creator. Another match-winner. The kind of player who could make a genuine difference to the points haul between now and May.
The goals return of both Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge has been remarkable. The latter’s recent injury problems had minimal impact on Liverpool’s results or performances pre-Christmas – largely owing to Suarez’s irrepressible genius. But it does highlight a potential vulnerability in relying on just 2 players to win football matches on a regular basis.
Supplementing what we already have with genuine attacking quality could still, with the Premier League in its current guise, be enough to transform that challenge for Champions League qualification into an actuality and potentially more aside.
Qualify for the Champions League and Liverpool would be in a much stronger position come the summer, both in terms of their status and finances, to reinforce the squad further and ensure that Suarez and others are satisfied to remain at the club for the longer-term.
This January window has the makings of a crucial one for the football club. The owners have an opportunity to show real intent and invest in the progress being made on the pitch. Of course, if would then be up to those responsible to identify the players who can make the difference. Either way, this transfer window is an opportunity for Liverpool, an opportunity which they simply cannot afford to miss.