Monday, May 25, 2015

Is the sun beginning to set on Liverpool FC?

Sunset over Anfield (c) Ruaraidh Gillies
Today marks exactly ten years since one of the most memorable Champions League finals of all time. But that night currently seems a long way away and the chances of seeing Liverpool in a Champions League final seem to be even further away. With the utter disarray of this season, questions need to be asked about where Liverpool goes from here...

On May 25th, 2005, after having been 3-0 down to AC Milan at half time, Liverpool somehow managed to draw level with their Italian counterparts in six crazy second-half minutes and then hung on through extra-time to win a penalty shoot-out that left AC Milan shattered and Liverpool exultant...

As a Liverpool fan I remember the night well; the abject misery of the first half when no amount of alcohol could take the edge off the pain of watching my beloved Reds being ruthlessly disassembled and dissected by a clinical Milan side. And I remember the roars of joy as first Gerrard, then Smicer, then Alonso put us right back in the mix; roars dwarfed by the one I made when Dudek dived to save Shevchenko's penalty and won the match for us. And that swell of pride in my chest when we lofted the cup and the feeling that, surely, this was the start of big things for us. A chance for the club to regain its place among the elite.

And the next few years hinted at that promise; an FA Cup win, another Champions League final against AC Milan (with a different conclusion) and in 2008-2009 a second place finish in the Premier League. And then everything fell apart. The ownership of Gillet and Hicks didn't do us any favours and the Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez, eventually left 'by mutual consent' after a season in which we finished 7th. Things only got worse under Roy Hodgson and the appointment of Kenny Dalglish, while initially lifting the mood of Liverpool supporters, also turned out to be a poor choice as we lost touch with the Champions League places for the third year running.

Step forward Brendan Rogers, a young manager who had got Swansea playing an attractive style of football and who promised to bring Liverpool a new era, an era in which they would return to the style of football that had won them so much during the late 1970s and 1980s. The first season was disappointing, as we again missed out on the Champions League, but his second season saw us challenging for the title until the very last day of the season when we finished second to a powerful Man City team.

Luis Suarez - hugely missed
However, there were nagging doubts over how much of that success was due to Roger's management and tactical skills and how much of it was due to the mercurial talents of Luis Suarez who ended the season as the top goal scorer in the Premier League (31 goals in only 33 games) and joint-top of the assists chart (13 assists) alongside Steven Gerrard. Not to mention the luck of having Daniel Sturridge fit all season. In total, Suarez and Sturridge scored 52 league goals for Liverpool. Surely this was a team that could move on to challenge again in the following year, thought the fans. Surely if we could build upon this team, if we could use the funds from Champions League qualification (and take advantage of the higher calibre player the Champions League attracts), then we could build a team that would be challenging for honours both domestically and in Europe.

Which is, of course, where it all began to go spectacularly wrong...

First of all, Suarez departed after yet another biting controversy, this time at the World Cup, and fled to the welcoming arms of Barcelona - leaving us with somewhere in the region of £70 million but a gaping hole in our team. And this is where it got even worse.

You see, the brilliance of both Sturridge and Coutinho in the 2013-2014 Premier League campaign had meant that Brendan Rodgers' (and Liverpool FC's) general ineffectiveness within the transfer market had flown slightly under the radar. It's important to remember that between his arrival as manager, and the end of the 2013-2014 season, Rodgers had brought in 15 players; two on loan, one on a free and 11 for a combined transfer of about £95 million. Now, of those players only two were unreserved successes (Sturridge and Countinho), three were mediocre (Allen, Sakho, and Mignolet), while the remaining ten failed to deliver. Meaning two thirds of the signings made, and almost 40% of the transfer spend, were a complete waste. But the second place finish glossed over this worrying statistic.

And so, with Suarez gone, and promises from Rodgers that he wouldn't be missed (and that Liverpool wouldn't repeat the mistakes Spurs had made a year earlier after selling Gareth Bale), Rodgers embarked on a massive raid on the transfer market, spending almost £117 million on eight new players, plus a loan signing. Unfortunately, it turned out to be money wasted as we ended up repeating the same quantity over quality mistakes made by Spurs the season earlier.

Of the new players, only Emre Can looked to be a good signing (although he was played out of position in defence), while Lallana and Moreno had the odd good game, they failed to deliver on their price tags and the less said about the contributions of Lambert, Markovic, Lovren, and Balotelli the better!

And at the end of the 2014-2015 Premier League season we find ourselves in the exact same place as Spurs were in the previous season (6th), having managed to accrue seven points less. Brendan Rogers' quote at the end of last season when he said "Look at Tottenham. If you spend more than £100 million, you expect to be challenging for the league." is surely about to come back and haunt him.

But, even if Rodgers is given the boot (and after yesterday's worst loss in over 50 years to Stoke City, that surely must be a good bet), what next for Liverpool? We need to completely overhaul our strike force (with Lambert, Borini and Balotelli surely set to leave this summer), while our midfield looks woefully inadequate for challenging for anything more than mid-table honours. This is coupled with a defence that was totally exposed by a rampant Stoke City side and, in Mignolet, a goalkeeper who often exudes the sort of confidence only seen before at Anfield in Djimi Traore (I often think Brendan Rogers may have been right when he said "We play with 11 men, other teams play with 10 men and a goalkeeper"). In total, it gives you an idea of the mammoth rebuilding task that lies ahead at Liverpool FC.

It is difficult to imagine that we can attract a true world class manager in these circumstances. Our best player of the last decade has just left, our most promising player wants only to leave and with an exodus of the dross undoubtedly due to occur over the summer we are going to need to bring in at least two strikers, a couple of midfielders, a couple of defenders and probably a new goalkeeper. And with neither Champions League football, nor the vast wages clubs such as Man Utd and Man City can offer, it's difficult to see us being able to attract the calibre of players we desperately need.

Will FSG spend big to get us back in the mix? It's hard to believe. My bet would be that whoever is managing next year will get £30 million to play with plus anything earned from selling players (which, based on their performance this year, is unlikely to add more than £8.63!). And that will only be enough to keep us where we are, to give us a chance to battle for one of the Europa League places while the clubs above move only further ahead of us and cement their place in the top four.

This season offered a lot of hope, but that hope has been dashed. And without substantial investment and a fair bit of luck, Liverpool might have to get used to the fact that the sun has set on our time as a major force in English football.

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