With all this talk about the Merseyside derby being the "real start to Liverpool's season," I started to get concerned that I'd have to write a season preview. In December. Because the rest of the league will certainly comply with selective amnesia. "All on zero points? Good then. Hey, we beat Everton, now we're tied on points at the top of the table!"
1) Staying Fit
Well no sh*t.
In the alternate reality that has been the first two and a half months of the season that didn't really happen, Liverpool have had nearly every player on the squad pick up a knock at some point. Offhand, I'd say that Pepe Reina, Jamie Carragher, and Dirk Kuyt are the only regular first-teamers that have avoided some sort injury. It's likely they've been hurt, but they haven't missed a match because of it. With this side, that's saying something.
Clearly the injuries to Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres have been the most high-profile, but I'd argue that the other knocks, particularly in defense, have done the most damage to Liverpool's hypothetical season. The recent partnership of Daniel Agger and Carra has begun to take shape (definitely buttressed by the superb play of Reina), but prior to the past few weeks the back line has been a major cause for concern. Stability to the back line is vital for a side that kept 26 clean sheets a season ago;they've conceded two or more goals eight times already in league, ten if you count an unnamed European competition.
2) Mix Things Up
It seems so long ago that every article about Liverpool contained some form of criticism about fanatical rotation. Recently, though, Rafa has begun to inject some stability into the starting eleven. Whether it's because of injuries, lack of personnel, or emotional sensitivity, there seems to have been movement away from constantly mixing things up. As I mentioned, stability is sorely needed in defense, but I'm not convinced that this is a good thing across the board.
My biggest concern is the central midfield partnership of Lucas and Javier Mascherano. They have featured in nearly all of Liverpool's league matches, with decidedly uneven returns. I'm certainly not the only person to bring this up, but they seem too similar to feature together on such a consistent basis. It's too often that the pair engage in a horizontal passing feedback loop with little forward movement. Stagnation in central midfield is not the way forward. Hopefully the attacking prowess of Masch is on the rise, because Lucas appears either too timid still or simply lacking in ability. He's put in good work at times, but the introduction of someone new, maybe an Italian that was bought for around twenty million pounds, would change things up a bit. Yeah, yeah, he's not fully fit yet, but for Christ's sake, who will replace the hole in my heart that Xabi Alonso left?
And while he scored his first goal in ten matches against Everton, Dirk Kuyt has struggled to produce much in the way of attack. This doesn't need to turn into a "but he works so hard" or a "so what, he's sh*t" discussion, but in order for Liverpool to recover, Rafa will need to at least consider the possibility that there are other solutions. When the side is sorely in need of creativity, it's hard to justify keeping Yossi Benayoun on the bench and Dirk Kuyt on the pitch.
3) Focus on Liverpool
It's a good thing the season started last weekend, because if it started in mid-August, Liverpool would have some ground to make up.
Chelsea are putting together an absolutely fantastic season thus far, and it looks like a season in which the fight for the Champions League spots could be very intriguing. There's at the very least three other legitimate threats to the traditional "Big Four"--Tottenham, Manchester City, and Aston Villa. We saw a bit of this last season, but eventually relative order was restored. This season could be entirely different, and it won't serve Liverpool well to constantly check the table. That's my job. Their only duty now is to churn out results week after week. At this point catching the top two is a pipe dream, and if that's the goal, everything else this season will be a disappointment. It's not to say that it would be impossible, but I get the sense that on their current form, a goal of catching Chelsea is self-sabotage.
4) Inject a Little Passion
This is something that typically would not be written about Liverpool--and I'd guess that it's not a very popular critique, considering that Liverpool traditionally are synonymous with passion. From the top row to the pitch, passion is a staple of Liverpool Football Club. Just not so much this season.
nate over at ohyoubeauty mentioned this a few weeks ago, and I think it holds true for the three months of preseason. The atmosphere at Anfield has been subdued (mentioned more times than I can remember on broadcasts), the players have appeared to lack any sort of killer instinct, and the somewhat expected air of confidence off the pitch has turned into "hopes" of getting a positive result. Granted, injuries are likely a major contributor to the lack of on-the-pitch aggression, and boardroom/managerial drama probably has an impact on the willingness of the supporters. But if Liverpool's going to start this season right, they'll need belief from grass to ass, a concept championed by the man whose legacy has been celebrated this week.
Sort of stating the obvious here, but given the turmoil of the first few months, it bears repeating. Often times the phrase, "reading your own press clippings" applies to when things are going well, but I think the same can apply to when things are not so hot.
You don't have to be Carnac the Magnificent to know that things are not completely turned around this season, and the next few months will likely bring its share of difficulties. The first few months have seen Liverpool struggle a bit with their backs up against the wall--something you don't always read about Liverpool sides. Again, whether it's due to injuries or not, Liverpool will have to respond in a more positive manner to go on a bit of a run.
So there it is, some idiot's thoughts on the keys to Liverpool's success this year. Away to Ewood Park on Saturday, which is never an easy fixture. Their physical/aggressive/homicidal style of football is not a great match for a side that's a bit fragile, but now's as good a time as any to start grinding it out.