16 Aug 2014

Prem Prediction: £90m spent but will BR suffer the same fate as Houllier & Benitez?

Last season, Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers proved himself to be one of the Premier League's best managers, and guiding the Reds from 7th to 2nd in one year is a stunning achievement, for which he deserves great credit. Can lightning strike twice, though? Can Liverpool go one better this season and win the league title? It's a beautiful dream, but given the club's (arguably) underwhelming performance in the transfer market, I personally feel that the Reds will struggle to finish in the top four.

It's a testament to Rodgers' skill as a manager that he triumphed despite signing some dud players, and he deserves every accolade going for taking the Reds to the brink of the title. However - and I've made this point several times over the last year - history shows that LFC have a habit of sabotaging forward progress by failing to capitalise on league success, and two specific examples prove this point:

* 2002: Liverpool finished 2nd in the league. Optimism was extremely high, and the Reds were expected to go on and mount a serious challenge for the title in 2002-3. In the summer, Gerard Houllier got rid of Litmanen, McAllister, and Anelka, and signed Diouf, Diao, Cheyrou, and Diarra. Liverpool regressed big time, and finished 5th a year later.

* 2009: An awesome league season. Liverpool finished 2nd, just four points behind Man United. Optimism was off the charts. Alas, in the summer, Rafa Benitez lost Xabi Alonso (after alienating him during his pursuit of Gareth Barry); Sami Hyypia (also alienated due to being dropped from the CL squad), and brought in the *injured* Alberto Aquilani, and Sotiris Kyrgiakos, a pale imitation of Hyypia. He also needlessly spent £17m on Glen Johnson, a player LFC (arguably) didn't need. In 2010, LFC finished 7th.

2002 and 2009 should've been major platforms upon which to build, but Houllier and Benitez got it horribly wrong in the transfer market, and sabotaged the club's forward progress. Rodgers got away with it last season (mainly due to SAS papering over the cracks), but so far, he hasn't (IMO) significantly improved the team to the extent required.

* Lovren aside, is the first team any stronger than last season? Rodgers has improved the *squad* (in the sense that Lallana, Markovic, Manquillo, and Can appear to be better options than Moses, Aspas, Alberto and Cissokho), but the first team has (arguably) not improved.

* Lallana and Markovic are both currently injured, and neither had any significant pre-season preparation, which means it's going to take them quite a while to get up to speed. I don't see either player contributing significantly until at least October/November.

* At Man United, there's the Van Gaal effect to consider. The Dutchman is a fantastic manager, and he will almost certainly get an extra 20-30% out of his squad. As much as it pains me to say it, last season was an aberration for United, and due to the Moyes fiasco, the team massively under-performed. That won't happen under Van Gaal, who will ensure that United are a serious threat to Liverpool's top-four ambitions.

* Arsenal (Sanchez; Debuchy), and Chelsea (Costa; Fabregas; Luis) have made significant signings that instantly improve their first teams, and they will benefit from those signings straight away. For the most part, Liverpool will be relying on the same players as last season, with the notable exception of Luis Suarez.

* Players like Can, Markovic, Moreno, and Manquillo will need time to settle into the Premier League, and English football in general. What are the chances of all four hitting the ground running and making an immediate impact? Slim, IMO.

* Last season, Liverpool had the major advantage of being able to focus solely on the Premier League. The players had lots of recovery time after each game, and didn't have to endure endless travelling for European ties. That will change this season, and it will inevitably have a knock-on effect at some point.

* With Man City and Spurs in the first month of the new season, Liverpool have a tough start, and if things go awry, the club will be playing catch-up from very early on.

* Rickie Lambert is a good squad signing, but he's not going to push the Reds to the next level.

* I'm not convinced that Markovic and Can will make much difference this season. Those two players represent a £30m gamble, and for that cash outlay, Liverpool fans have the right to expect some kind of impact. At that price, it's not good enough to say 'they're players for the future'. They must deliver. Ditto Lallana and Lovren.

Don't get me wrong - Rodgers hasn't completely blown it like Houllier and Benitez did in 2002 and 2009 respectively, but, in my view, the Reds needed at least three top class signings (preferably with significant European experience) to go straight into the first team, and Rodgers has not delivered on that front.

As such, like Houllier's team in 2002-3, I predict a 5th place finish for Liverpool. I just can't see the Reds overcoming Man City, Chelsea, or Arsenal, and with Man United free of European distraction, they - like LFC last season - will be able to exclusively focus on the league.

Of course, two weeks of the transfer window remain, and if Liverpool sign Wilfried Bony, Ezequiel Lavezzi, or players of similar quality, then it's possible that LFC may have what it takes to really push on. Ideally, the club needs both of the aforementioned players, but it's unlikely that will happen.

If Liverpool struggle to push on from last season, most people will inevitably point to the absence of Luis Suarez as the reason, but for me, that's just an easy cop-out. Any underperformance in the league will be down to Rodgers' failure (again) to sign the right players. No one twisted the manager's arm to spend £40m on Markovic, Can, and Origi; no one forced him to spend £25m on Lallana.

Rodgers must live and die by his signings, and the current squad is now undoubtedly his.

As noted earlier, though, Rodgers proved himself to be a shrewd operator last season, and there's every chance he may get the best out of his new players - and the rest of the squad - so here's hoping that turns out to be the case. Like all fans, I want Liverpool to win the league, but unfortunately, my predilection for realism gets in the way of genuinely believing that to be a possibility.

Ultimately, I'll just be happy to see Liverpool play exciting football and finish in the top four. Maintaining Champions League football has to be the top priority, and if the Reds can do that, it will be a successful season.

EDIT - 20:30

To clarify, my prediction is:

* 5th place if no more signings come in.
* 4th place if a new striker arrives before the transfer deadline.

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