Thursday, 30 July 2015

Liverpool's transfer strategy. What strategy?

Brendan Rodgers (cropped) 2
Both fans and media have praised Liverpool FC’s performance in the transfer window this summer, because its management team and owners are perceived to have acted quickly and decisively to sign players.  I don’t agree with this glowing assessment.  I’ve struggled to understand a recruitment policy which seems poorly thought out and haphazard.

I’m not querying necessarily the ability of the players Liverpool have bought.  Some of them are proven performers and others have the potential to do well, if they’re developed properly and given opportunities.  My question is whether the manager, Brendan Rodgers, identified where his team had problems last season and addressed them through the transfer market, or instead bought in volume, including for positions where his squad already has adequate cover.

Damien Comolli, the club’s former Director of Football Strategy, attracted fierce criticism last week when he suggested that Liverpool has taken a ‘massive risk’ by bringing in eight players in close season.  Comolli, who was in charge of recruiting talent to Anfield, was sacked from his post and he can’t be regarded as an impartial commentator, but he might have a point.

To field eight newcomers in the first match of the season - against Stoke - would mean incredible disruption, but, despite another significant investment by Liverpool, it’s almost inconceivable that Brendan Rodgers will make those changes.  Yet there are still positions where the squad has serious weaknesses.  So what was the strategy driving the summer spending spree?

At the end of last season, it seemed the ‘spine’ of Liverpool’s team was where its problems mainly lay. 

The goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet, recovered well from a dismal start to the campaign, but the consensus was that some proper competition for his position was needed.  The Croat defender, Dejan Lovren, was an unadulterated failure and the club clearly needed a much better option at centre-back.  In midfield, Steven Gerrard’s departure left a void of dynamism & leadership, while injuries had taken their toll on Liverpool’s first choice holding midfielder, Lucas Leiva.   

Most famously, Luis Suarez had not been replaced after Anfield to go to Barcelona the previous summer and Brendan Rodgers badly needed another goal-scorer, particularly with Daniel Sturridge spending more time on the treatment table than in training.

There were other frailties too.  Particularly in the full-back positions, where the Spaniards Moreno and Manquillo had fallen short of expectations for a Premier League club aspiring to be in the Champions League.

Admittedly, there have been signings for some of these problem areas.  For instance, securing James Milner’s services was a genuine coup for Liverpool.  The Yorkshireman is consistent, experienced and he’ll attack effectively from midfield positions.  It wasn’t possible to replace a player like Steven Gerrard, but signing Milner is a decent attempt.

At right back, Nathaniel Clyne, purchased from Southampton, looks like he will strengthen the team, adding an unfussy, competent attitude to defensive duties, allied with the ability to get forward.  He inspires more confidence than an ageing Glen Johnson.

Brendan Rodgers has bought an expensive striker too.  Christian Benteke wasn’t most fans first choice candidate to lead the attack, but he has an international reputation and scored goals for Aston Villa, in the Premier League.  We’ll find out whether choosing Benteke is the right decision, but, in theory at least, he’s ready to go straight into the Liverpool team and addresses a genuine weakness. 
In other areas, though, the strategy behind transfers has not been so obvious.

Rodgers bought a goalkeeper.  However, Adam Bogdan is 27 years old and spent the last eight years at Bolton Wanderers.  He’s unlikely to challenge Simon Mignolet for a first team place, unless the Belgian plays catastrophically badly.  A young defender, Joe Gomez, arrived from Charlton.  He’s played well in a number of pre-season friendlies, but his role is likely to be peripheral for the time being.

The other three signings were attacking players, but not centre-forwards.  Danny Ings and Roberto Firmino are play-makers who can play in and around the front three.  Divock Origi is another un-prolific forward, who can play up front or a little wider.  Liverpool already has the likes of Coutinho, Lallana, Markovic and Jordan Ibe, competing for these positions.  That’s not to mention more conventional midfielders like Can, Henderson and Allen, the first choice centre-forward, Daniel Sturridge, or younger hopefuls like Brannagan, Rossiter and Dunn.

The arrival of Firmino, who cost £21 million, caused quite a bit of excitement.  I can’t pretend to know very much about his abilities, but I question whether Liverpool’s priority this summer should have been signing a Brazilian play-maker, given that they’ve already got a tremendously good one in Phillipe Coutinho.  Meanwhile the weaknesses at centre-back, left back and defensive midfield have not been addressed.

From the friendly games so far you would assume that Liverpool intends to play four defenders this year.  James Milner and club captain Jordan Henderson are likely to be selected in midfield, presuming they stay fit.  Having cost £32.5 million, Christian Benteke is going to be picked, more often than not, as the team’s centre forward.

That leaves three empty spots for the plethora of tricksy playmakers stroke forwards stroke attacking midfielders stroke wingers who Brendan Rodgers likes to collect (and, actually, for a balanced line-up it would be best if one of those positions were occupied by a deeper midfielder).  Phillipe Coutinho was the club’s best player last season and Firmino cost a fortune, so, even allowing for injuries and the Europa League, it’s difficult to see why so many similar players are needed.               

Have Brendan Rodgers and his colleagues really evaluated carefully how they want Liverpool to play and bought what they need to realise that vision, or have they bought on the basis of availability?  What is the point of buying someone who might be very similar or no better than a player you’ve already got?  Should there not have been clearer priorities, based on a smaller number of problem positions?

I hope the answers will be clear as the season progresses but, for the time being, I’m sceptical.  

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