Still more questions than answers for Liverpool FC as new season begins
John Henry barely paused for breath when, leaning forward to address the invited media at Liverpool’s Chapel Street offices, he gave the definitive view on the Luis Suarez situation.
“I’m unequivocal that we won’t sell to Arsenal, whatever the bid is,” said the club’s principal owner.
There could be no confusion over the matter.
But it was a rare moment of certainty during a pre-season that means Brendan Rodgers is still facing more questions than answers more than 12 months into his Anfield reign.
Now Liverpool head into a new campaign with supporters, players and even the manager wondering in which direction the club’s on-field fortunes are heading.
Everybody knows what the target is – the Champions League, with all the prestige and, more importantly, riches it brings.
The real debate, though, is how on earth Liverpool can get there.
As has been proven time and again in recent seasons, whether it be at Anfield or elsewhere, it is extremely difficult to break into the cherished top four.
Clubs need either to be bankrolled by a wealthy benefactor – such as Manchester City and Chelsea – benefit from long-term success and planning – like Manchester United and Arsenal – or just have the most hard-nosed, stubborn, difficult-to-negotiate-with chairman and a pot of collective cash – that’ll be Tottenham Hotspur.
While it may change over time, Liverpool enjoy none of these immediate benefits.
Instead, as Rodgers has known since assuming the reigns from Kenny Dalglish, they have to find another way, a more considered approach. One that City might refer to as being “holistic”.
Rafael Benitez regularly inferred the only way Liverpool could win the Premier League during his tenure was if everything was “perfect”.
Rodgers will understand that message. So too will Fenway Sports Group, especially given UEFA’s seemingly loose implementation of the Financial Fair Play initiative has further increased the pressure to raise revenue and cut costs.
Such an approach has influenced Liverpool’s movements in the transfer market.
Rodgers may have thought Pepe Reina had reached the end of the line after eight years at the club, but it didn’t hurt that one of the highest earners was off the wage bill, albeit temporarily at first.
Andy Carroll was finally given a permanent route out the club and was this week followed by Stewart Downing, another big earner, at West Ham United, with Liverpool happy to take a massive hit on their respective transfer fees.
It is another example of Rodgers dismantling the teams of his predecessors. Indeed, it’s conceivable the Liverpool team that lines up for their Premier League opener against Stoke City on Saturday will contain five of his signings and two youngsters to whom he had given a full debut.
Liverpool were determined to avoid a repeat of last summer’s difficult transfer window by doing much of their business early, bolstered by having a fully-fledged scouting department in situ.
But even so, the Anfield manager is still playing catch-up with less than three weeks until the window slams shut until January.
Kolo Toure is a direct replacement for the retired Jamie Carragher, but Liverpool still need another first-choice centre-back with ongoing uncertainty surrounding Barcelona target Daniel Agger and the out-of-favour Martin Skrtel, who is interesting Napoli.
A move for Schalke’s Greece international Kyriakos Papadopoulos has stalled, with Rodgers instead concentrating on pressurising left-back Jose Enrique with a bid for Granada’s Guilherme Siqueira.
Martin Kelly will provide an option at the heart of defence but, as Rodgers admits, it will be months before he recovers fully from the serious knee injury that wrecked his previous campaign.
New goalkeeper Simon Mignolet comes with great credentials but will find Liverpool a significant step up from Sunderland, while Iago Aspas, for all his tricks and promise, will take time to acclimatise to the Premier League hurly-burly and Luis Alberto is one for the future.
It leaves Liverpool short of firepower and, at least for the opening weeks, reliant on Daniel Sturridge’s fitness holding out after missing much of the summer with an ankle problem.
That’s why Rodgers is pursuing targets – Anzhi Makhachkala’s Brazilian left-winger Willian the latest name – but, with Liverpool unable to offer European football, may have to offer big money to lure players to join.
Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, made a priority earlier in the summer, admitted the Champions League was a main reason for instead choosing Borussia Dortmund.
And the last thing Rodgers will want is for September 3 to come with a wad of cash burning a hole in his pocket.
The Northern Irishman will look for further improvement from youngsters Andre Wisdom and – if he can stay out of trouble – Raheem Sterling, while Jordon Ibe will be given further chances having impressed during pre-season.
And while the brilliant Philippe Coutinho could emerge as one of the players of the season, skipper Steven Gerrard shows no signs of stopping and Lucas Leiva will benefit from a full pre-season, Rodgers remains unsure how to best utilise Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson in a busy midfield.
Oh, and then there’s Suarez.
Perhaps the penny has started to drop with the Uruguayan he will be going nowhere this season.
But while it will take more for the striker to be welcomed back into the first-team fold, there’s no doubt Liverpool will be far greater a threat with a fully-committed Suarez available.
Whether his absence is restricted to the final six games of his 10-match ban, though, only he can decide.
The impressive conclusion to last season – Liverpool losing only two of their final 16 Premier League games – has elevated expectations among the fanbase, even if they have been dampened slightly by subsequent transfer frustrations.
A welcoming opening fixture schedule, in stark contrast to last year, means there should be no excuse for not hitting the ground running, especially with Rodgers’ ideals now firmly embedded within the squad.
Supporters will also expect Rodgers to come good on his claim of taking both the Capital One Cup and FA Cup more seriously this season, although the former is likely to primarily provide opportunities for fringe players and youngsters.
Champions League qualification may prove beyond Liverpool this season. But at a time of uncertainty, the one guarantee is fans and Fenway Sports Group will demand a serious challenge for a top-four place.