Liverpool’s recent comprehensive 3-0 defeat at Watford, in which they were totally outplayed, made me chuckle. Not because I have anything against the club, but because of how silly it looks to have been talking them up as title contenders just a few weeks ago. It also showed how much work there is to do to even get back into the Champions League places.
If ever there was a perfect example of the footballing world’s knee-jerk nature, this was it. A squad of players ridiculed as mediocre suddenly becoming potential title winners. Such predictions have a nature of making you look silly (as this one may do too, I’m aware), and a mini-slump of 2 points in 3 games put paid to that attempt at a prophecy.
People harp on about the world-class manager effect — I get that. But there are some very good teams in the Premier League, and Liverpool’s team just isn’t of the standard to challenge for a top four slot. Apart from two seasons ago when they were aided by the world’s most in-form striker, they’ve been miles away for years. When looking at the club’s other finishes since 2010 — 6th, 8th, 7th, 6th — and considering the ability of each squad, I think to myself “yep, that’s about right.”
Funnily enough, if the squad wasn’t in such a poor state, this would be a great year for Liverpool to punch above their weight because so many top sides have been off-colour. That may sound overcooked, but poor is exactly the state of Liverpool’s squad right now. Not talent-wise, but in terms of being a balanced side with the right blend.
It becomes very hard for a team to achieve something with such a high player turnover, which has been the case at Anfield for a while now. Too many signings which haven’t worked out for various reasons caused something of a revolving door. And the make-up of the squad looks different year on year.
Of the 8 players signed last season for a total of £117 million, five of those (Lambert, Marković, Lovren, Origi, Balotelli) — £70 million of that — have either left, are on their way out, or not fancied and therefore just bit-part players. Going all the way back to 2010, each year produces a similar or worse hit rate, and the group signed last summer hardly looks inspiring either.
For players who do play regularly, it’s frustrating seeing different faces at training every year, not having much idea of who will be playing alongside you, or who you’d prefer to line up alongside you. This will have to be rectified in the summer if the Reds are to realise their ambitions.
Simply put, a team can’t expect any kind of progress with a sub-50% success rate on signings over an extended period. If players in key positions constantly need to be replaced, the mainstays have fewer passes they can play without thinking or end up out of position after wrongly anticipating what the man next to him or in front of him will do, as that understanding isn’t there. That’s why unstable teams who have to use 35 players per season tend to struggle.
Moreover, bar one or two, the squad is packed full of players you wouldn’t expect to see as regulars in a title-winning side. If there’s one thing that strikes you about the Reds’ recent transfer policy, it’s investing too much in players who have excelled at middling or lower Premier League clubs.
It’s often the case that these players hit their ceiling with these clubs, and aren’t quite good enough to propel a team with greater aspirations into the upper echelons of the table. Plenty of Liverpool signings in the last few years fit that bill — Rickie Lambert, Charlie Adam and Andy Carroll are just a few. Some make the step-up, and in moderation it’s a gamble worth taking, but players generally play for mid-table Premier League clubs because that’s their level of ability.
All this will take far longer to sort out than 3/4 of a season, which is roughly what Klopp will have had by the time 2015/16 ends. And if he gets the rebuilding of the squad right, the time could eventually come to talk about them as title contenders.
I certainly think we’ll see Liverpool abandon their search for players in the mid to lower reaches of the Premier League, for a start. And we can count on Klopp attracting some talented players in the Bundesliga to Anfield, who are way ahead of the English youngsters Liverpool have been signing.
Getting back to reality for the time being, though, it’ll be next season, if not the following one, when we should begin to talk about Liverpool as a threat to the top four. But not now.
by Louis Bacon