Did Liverpool have a huge advantage this season? Jose Mourinho and Manuel Pellegrini would have you believe so. Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has undoubtedly benefited from more time on the training ground, which according to ex-Liverpool stars, is one of the Northern Irishman’s strengths. Rodgers had to contend with a hectic Europa League schedule during his first season in charge, hampering his ability to implement his ideas. The improvement of Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling (among others) this season is testament to that extra time spent coaching his squad. Mourinho and Pellegrini haven’t been afforded the same luxury. Of course the absence of European competition has also resulted in well-rested Liverpool squad. So Mourinho and Pellegrini have a point even if their squads are more suited to the rigours of domestic and European competitions. Manchester United club-record signing Juan Mata hopes the Red Devils can emulate Liverpool next season – but go one step better!
Liverpool were 1/6 to win the Premier League before facing Chelsea with three games remaining. Manchester City were the front-runners in the betting markets after a dramatic 90 minutes at Anfield. It is unforgivable to relinquish control at this stage of the season and if Manchester City beat West Ham United title and lift their second Premier League crown, the Reds will only have themselves to blame. Faced with a home game against a weakened Chelsea side, a trip to mid-table Palace and a clash against Newcastle United at Anfield with seven points needed was very doable. While accusations of Liverpool bottling the title are wide of the mark, Rodgers’s side lacked the merciless mentality of champions.
It is difficult, and frankly feels unfair, to criticise Rodgers after the 41-year-old exceeded expectations this season by securing an spot in next season’s Champions League group stage with three games to spare. Liverpool got the job done in terms of their target before the 2013-14 campaign. But targets change as the inevitable highs and lows of a season pan out. Rodgers’s attacking philosophy secured Liverpool a top-three finish, so it is difficult to criticise. The Reds manager has his style of play and wants to stick to it. But Liverpool have been naïve. Most managers, with the exception of Arsene Wenger, wouldn’t have been so open against Chelsea with just a point needed to retain control of the title race. Even against Palace, Rodgers opted to send Victor Moses on as Daniel Sturridge’s replacement with the Eagles pressing for a second when centre-half Daniel Agger would have added steel to a swaying Liverpool defence.
Should the PFA and FWA player of the year awards be selected on the criteria of the best overall player in the league or the best player in the league selected from the eventual winners? That is an argument for another day. But this season, there is little argument that Liverpool had the top performer in their ranks. Yaya Toure offers a challenge to Luis Suarez, but the Uruguayan’s sheer brilliance edges the Ivorian. The 27-year-old has scored 31 top-flight goals in 32 games after being banned for the opening five league outings of the season. Arsenal capitalised when Thierry Henry scored goals for fun, as did Manchester United with Cristiano Ronaldo. Suarez’s best season in England could well end up trophyless, and as Rob Jones told us earlier this month, Liverpool would be happy if Suarez could match the same heights next season. At 27, Suarez is hitting the prime age for a striker, so he could well better his performances next season. But if this does prove to be the South American’s peak in the Premier League, Liverpool will rue not claiming the title.
Liverpool’s deficiencies at the back have been covered up by the performances of their front-men this season – until their collapse at Crystal Palace, prompting Jamie Carragher to label the back four “mentally weak”. It is easy to forget Kolo Toure’s disastrous error which cost Liverpool three points at West Bromwich Albion before their winning run. Even two games into that 11-game winning streak, Martin Skrtel scored a calamitous own goal at Fulham – an injury-time penalty from Steven Gerrard spared Liverpool’s blushes on that occasion. West Ham United, Crystal Palace and Southampton are among the eight Premier League teams with a better defensive record this season. It is Liverpool’s most obvious Achilles’ heel. Rodgers’s attacking style means the Reds are susceptible to the counter-attack, but the Liverpool manager needs to find the right defenders to fulfill the defensive duties that his type of teams require. Conceding 49 goals in 37 games is simply too much.
The impact of Philippe Coutinho and Sturridge have masked over the club’s failings in the summer transfer window. The duo arrived in January 2012 and spurred Liverpool to a positive finish to the Premier League campaign after a slow start under Rodgers. The Reds manager’s summer acquisitions were not as inspired. Belgian goalkeeper Simon Mignolet has been the relative success story after arriving in a £9m deal from Sunderland. The 25-year-old needs to improve but he has filled the gloves of a Liverpool legend, Pepe Reina, well. Paris Saint-Germain product Mamadou Sakho has endured mixed form. The France defender, who cost £16m, has enjoyed good and bad patches, and most worryingly, always looks a mistake away from costing his side a goal. But in Sakho’s defence, Per Mertesacker took a season to adjust to the Premier League before forging one of the league’s best centre-half partnerships with Laurent Koscielny. Iago Aspas, Luis Alberto and Tiago Ilori have, for now at least, been failures. In particular, the former Celta Vigo man has been a disappointment – and not least for that woeful corner in injury time against Chelsea. Meanwhile, Aly Cissokho and Victor Moses will return to their parent clubs. If Rodgers is to spend heavily on five new signings this summer, the 41-year-old must succeed where Gerard Houllier and Rafael Benitez failed after the ex-Liverpool managers came close to winning the title.
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