There are five very good reasons why Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool could struggle to mount another title bid after this season
By Jason Burt
Luis Suárez’s future
In an interview on Uruguayan television last week, Suárez insisted that there would be no repeat of the turbulent summer last year when he asked to leave Anfield.
“Nothing is going to happen,” he said.
The striker is armed with a £70 million contract, with four years left to run, which has a release clause that only kicks in should Liverpool fail to finish in the top four. The latter is clearly no longer an issue, so the club are in a far stronger position with Suárez on and off the pitch than before.
But things are rarely that straightforward and Suárez’s outstanding form has not gone unnoticed at Real Madrid.
The Spanish club may pursue Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero but Suárez is certainly in their thinking, with doubts swirling over the futures of Karim Benzema and Álvaro Morata. A bid of more than £70 million would be a problem for Liverpool and Suárez – who is well aware of his status as one of the world’s leading strikers – may well be swayed.
Last summer Liverpool handled the situation superbly as they fended off Arsenal’s bid of £40 million, plus £1, but Real are a different prospect – and that is before the possibility of interest from City and Bayern Munich.
Big four spending
The greatest threat Liverpool face is, undoubtedly, financial. While the club have a substantial budget, they are clearly well behind Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United in terms of transfer budget and wage bill.
United have signalled their intent to regain a top-four place – and regain the league title – by letting it be known that they will have up to £200 million to spend under their new manager.
The revenue streams and reserves at Arsenal are also impressive and having broken the club’s transfer record last year by signing Mesut Özil for £42.5 million, Arsène Wenger may top that this summer.
City will spend, despite the constraints of Financial Fair Play, and are believed to have deals in place for the Porto pair of Eliaquim Mangala and Fernando, for around £41 million, while Chelsea want to add two or three world-class players to their squad. They have secured a £31.5 million deal for Diego Costa and will also sign Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic. Atlético Madrid left-back Filipe Luis should also arrive for around £16 million.
Ian Ayre, the Liverpool managing director, has stated that returning to the Champions League would significantly improve the club’s ability to attract players and a budget in excess of £50 million has been mooted.Liverpool will need it but, even then, other clubs may spend substantially more.
The psychological impact
Dr Steve Peters, the psychiatrist employed with spectacular success by Liverpool, might have his work cut out. The target this season was to break into the top four and bring Champions League football back to Anfield. That was ambitious, given Liverpool finished only seventh last season, but it has been achieved.
But through the brilliant management of Brendan Rodgers and the superb football played by his team – and the dip endured by rivals – a far greater possibility opened up: winning the league title for the first time in 24 years.
Liverpool have been a highly-motivated, driven squad under the leadership of Steven Gerrard but missing out this season would inflict significant psychological damage.
Senior players such as Gerrard may come to believe he will never win the title, a fear he voiced in his recent interview with Telegraph Sport. “I’ve got to treat this like it’s the one shot,” he said. “Just because this league is so strong and there are no guarantees next year.”
Gerrard may well be haunted not just by his slip against Chelsea but also by the images being replayed time and again of his emotive team-talk on the pitch following the thrilling 3-2 victory against Manchester City.
Liverpool had considered complaining to Sky for placing their cameras so close to the captain, but decided to let the matter rest, partly because they were aware that if the title was won, that would emerge as a defining image. As it is, it could be the moment that haunts them.
Privately, Rodgers was admitting at the start of the season that not being in European competition was an advantage for Liverpool.
He had struggled with the demands of reshaping the squad, changing the style of play, getting his ideas across and dealing with the commitments of the Europa League – arguably more taxing than the Champions League, given the volume of matches.
Not being in Europe meant that not only did Rodgers’s squad play far fewer games this season – 43 compared, for example, to Chelsea’s 57 – but they have had far more training sessions on the pitches of Melwood.
The rhythm of the week was not defined by playing, travelling and recovery, but work on tactics, team formation, fitness and coaching during the campaign. The Liverpool players had greater rest times, and the revamping of the medical department bore fruit, with Rodgers suffering fewer injuries than his rivals.
Qualifying for Europe changes that. While the prospect of Champions League football is to be welcomed – being in Europe, whatever the contest, is a must for a club of Liverpool’s stature -the physical demands on Liverpool will be greater, the week-to-week rhythm more intense.
No longer the surprise package
Liverpool have certainly caught opponents by surprise this season: not just with their tactics but with their bold determination to maintain such an intense attacking approach and not compromise.
Until Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea arrived at Anfield, few teams have been able to resist their attacking style but Liverpool will not be able to shock their opponents next season. Rodgers has to look at variation and it is no surprise that he is targeting Southampton’s Adam Lallana to be the playmaker behind the strikers.
Rodgers has varied things through the course of the season to find a system to accommodate Suárez and Daniel Sturridge and has also varied how he has set up his midfield, especially with the deployment of Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho.
However, the basis of a high-intensity, explosive approach which is not dependent on huge amounts of possession has remained constant.
Players such as Coutinho and Sterling are established and so less of an unknown quantity and while some clubs have claimed, churlishly, that Liverpool have benefited from what one manager called Suárez’s “freakish form”, it is asking much for him to be as lethal for a second successive season.
Liverpool undoubtedly need to add more depth and variation to their squad.