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Weekend Guest Post: A Summer of Expectation

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**This week's guest post comes courtesy of Tony, who's been commenting regularly as Tropics Red. He discusses the impact that the surge of young talent might have on Liverpool's transfer strategy and the squad in general, as well as a look towards next season. You can get in touch with Tony through us at liverpooloffside@hotmail.com**

My main motivation for submitting a piece to the Liverpool Offside was to highlight that if our youngsters can become permanent reliable fixtures in the count for the Barclays Premiership Squad, then our transfer policy this season will be vastly different from that of previous years. In summers gone by we’ve not only tried to sign some top drawer players, but also a bunch of squad players either trading up in particular positions or taking a punt on a youngster or a free transfer. This year, we seem to have the squad in place, with our youth stepping up to the mark, which is also helpful particularly in light of the new “home grown” rules applying to squads.

There’s also a lot of hype around this crop of youngsters, and I wanted to discuss what qualifies as success for the up and comers. Likewise, after reading comments full of hope and expectation about our youth, based on their recent performances in the first team, I wanted to echo the ‘cautionary tale’ and provide a balanced view.

Finally, I wanted to review our tactics and formations used under Kenny Dalglish and see how the squad looks in light of that and where additions would likely be made based on fit rather than a ‘galacticos’ shopping list you see on many blogs.

A Different Type of Transfer Talk

With the new ‘home-grown’ rule clubs have to register a squad of up to 25 players, which must include at least eight 'home-grown' players, at the end of each transfer window. Now the kicker is that ‘home-grown’ players do not have to be English; they are defined as those who "irrespective of nationality or age, have been affiliated to the FA or Welsh FA for a period of three seasons or 36 months prior to 21st birthday" There is also the proviso that clubs can supplement their squads with an unlimited number of players under the age of 21. I believe that means Pacheco, Suso, Ayala and Saric would classify as ‘home-grown’.

So following on from this, what does that mean for Liverpool this year and will it affect our transfer policy?

youthLet's assume the following: Glen Johnson stays, Jamie Carragher sees out his contract. Andy Carroll is new and Jay Spearing has just re-signed. Martin Kelly returns to full fitness and Jonjo Shelvey continues in the squad. John Flanagan and Jack Robinson are fully promoted to the senior squad. That’s the 8 needed to fill, plus potentially up to 4 of our youth players of another nationality coming through. Add to that the likes of Conor Coady, Andre Wisdom and Raheem Sterling, who are all well thought of in varying degrees, and you potentially have 15 ‘home-grown’ players.

That leaves room to be able to sell off Paul Konchesky, Joe Cole and Stephen Darby without too much concern over the ‘home-grown’ rule. It also means that if the club receives an attractive offer for the skipper, it can be seriously looked at. I say this in the vein of selling off your best players before they reduce in value (see The Tomkins Times article re: players ‘melting’). I am happy for Steven Gerrard to play out his days until a ripe old age if he is happy to accept a squad role to elongate his career (e.g., Ryan Giggs) rather than being the focal point of the team for each and every game, but I am also happy to consider him leaving the club if it’s in the best interests of the club.

As such, and most importantly to our finances, any transfer dealings do not necessarily need to contain over priced overhyped English players. Steve Clarke and Dalglish must really see Jordan Henderson as a future “first name on the teamsheet” to spend that amount of money on him when perhaps more established yet still young players would be available on the continent for that price. Kelly, Flanagan and Robinson’s promotion and competent displays may prove to be an absolute blessing for a number of reasons.

Local Lads Forming the Nucleus of the Squad

There has lots of talk about our current crop of youth players being the best since Gerrard and Carragher graduated, but I’d hate for us to pile loads of pressure on these boys. It’s all very well breaking into the first team early and having a lot of playing time, but this can lead to too much pressure, too much focus (particularly with all the televised games – you can’t hide) and too much opportunity to have confidence shattered (see a Cautionary Tale by Noel).

The point I’m trying to make is that whilst we would love it, we don’t need our current crop of youth players to be as good as Gerrard and Carragher – everyone comments on United’s crop of players back in the mid 90’s, but only David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Giggs were standout. If we can have a crop of youngsters that turn out to be as good as John O’Shea, Wes Brown, Darren Fletcher, Nicky Butt, Phil Neville and Kieran Richardson then I’d be ecstatic, as it will mean we’ll either be able to keep them for a very long time as squad players counting towards our 'home-grown' quota, or be able to sell them off for a decent profit to fund better quality transfers.

Have They Got the ‘Liverpool’ Attitude?

As detailed in a post on A Liverpool Thing, under Bob Paisley each new player spent time playing for the reserves, time spent that helped determine “whether they were good enough to play for Liverpool but also whether they had the character to do so”.

We all know the story of Ian Rush’s transfer to the club and how long he spent in the reserves before knocking on Paisley’s door---to Paisley, Rush had been brought in with a set of talents that the club required and he passed a series of tests during his time in the reserves up until this point. He demonstrated the right attitude by getting his head down and responding to the feedback he’d received, so not only did he have the right technical capabilities, he also has the Liverpool attitude.

Whilst this scenario may not work for all young players, it certainly provides a balance to all those wanting to throw Dani Pacheco, Suso and Sterling into the first team just because they have a great deal of potential. They have to demonstrate the right aptitude across all facets, not just ones on the pitch before being given a chance.

hendersonThis not only applies to our talent in the youth set up but also applies to any transfers coming in. This summer we have the opportunity to sign the right players with the right character, winning mentality, football intelligence and ability to respond to feedback, rather than sign a player purely because of his on field attributes. The Liverpool Thing article references El Hadji Diouf as a signing that with a different attitude, may have been a much different player and a comment below the article also suggests that just because the player wants to play at the club, there’s no guarantee that it will work.

From the reports on the official website, Henderson has been signed with this attribute in mind:

Having spoken at length with Jordan, are you confident he's got the mentality to be a big player for Liverpool?

Definitely. It is very difficult to believe you are talking to a 20-year-old. You think you're talking to a 25-year-old. He's very passionate about football, very committed, a top professional. He's the type of player who'll stay behind after training and do extra work. When you talk to him it's not about money or anything related to off the pitch. Everything is on the pitch: where am I going to play, have I got a chance to play, where can I develop most as a player. Kenny and I were very impressed with that and his commitment and passion for the game.

Possible Formations and Transfer Policy

If our preferred formation continues to be 4-2-2-2 (or 4-2-2-1-1 as per Joel's blog), the key would be players comfortable in possession, moving the ball simply – Lucas, Maxi and Raul Meireles (I’ll leave out Alberto Aquilani as all the speculation suggests his future lies away from Anfield at this point in time) would suit this system in midfield. Carroll and Luis Suarez have been deployed in this system in differing roles as pointed out in Joel's article and Dirk Kuyt has provided an interesting option as an industrious poacher.

I suspect Meireles and Kuyt are square pegs in round holes when stationed in the attacking midfield position and that top drawer replacements will be sought to compliment Maxi, probably the only player naturally comfortable in this role. I suspect width will be provided from full backs, so attacking midfielders capable of roaming and looking to move inside to let the full backs overlap would be targeted. In that case, an attacking left back required, plus two attacking midfielders either comfortable drifting wide from an advanced more central position or wide men comfortable drifting inside are required.

A quick look at a few possible options:

4-3-3: Lucas, Gerrard, Meireles and Aquilani would be suited to this system of possession and movement. With our current squad I would expect Suarez (creator role) and Kuyt (poacher role) to provide movement from central positions or look to cut in from wide positions and I suspect Carroll would occupy a more central position in this type of formation. With width coming from the forward line and from the full backs, again an attacking left back would be required and there’s probably a need for genuine width in the final third similar to Pedro at Barcelona.

4-2-3-1: We have the forward options for this system, with Suarez as the lone forward with Gerrard in the hole or Carroll with Suarez in the hole. Maxi and Kuyt provide wide options, but particularly with Carroll up front, we’d realistically need two attacking wide men to provide quality delivery and support to the striker. A Meireles/Lucas combo in the double pivot has proved successful yet under Kenny, Gerrard has operated deeper with Meireles in the hole. With the acquisition of Henderson, it will be interesting to see whether this formation is used much.

3-6-1: An attacking left back and a quality centre back as Carragher, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger would work well, but the team would be exposed if one of them was unable to play.

The Squad and Its Needs:

Lastly, a look at who's here, and what's needed on the way in and out:

Goalkeeper: Whatever happens with Pepe Reina, Peter Gulacsi has been covering recently, but with talk of Brad Friedel and Doni, it looks like Gulacsi will be loaned out and a more experienced back up is being looked at. I would personally prefer to see Gulacsi given game time throughout the season in dead rubbers and cup games, meaning there’s no need to pay the high wages of an ‘experienced ‘keeper’ for back up. All the recent expectation is that Reina will stay, but in the event he leaves, we should be able to command a good price for him and therefore be able to replace him with one of the top young keepers making headlines.

Right Back: Johnson and Flanagan should be fine with Kelly able to provide cover. Phillipp Degen and Darby likely to be sold.

Left Back: No matter how good Fabio Aurelio is when fit, we have to move on from him and pick up a genuinely top drawer attacking left back, as the cover we have in place would be more defensive minded. Robinson is more of a traditional left back, Johnson a natural right back, and Agger/Wilson as natural centre backs doing a job covering. However, I’d also be interested to know what Kenny’s thoughts are on Emiliano Insua. I liked him as an attacking left back, but of course he had his critics and on the surface, not a particularly impressive time out on loan. If we were limited on cash, with the cover we now have here, I’d accept keeping Aurelio and rotate him, Insua and Robinson in this position if it meant funding a world class player elsewhere. Aurelio and Konchesky to be sold.

Centre Back: Skrtel and Agger to be first choice in order to look to the future. Carra providing experienced rotation with Kelly, Wilson and Ayala getting as many games a plausible. One or all of these may be loaned out, certainly Ayala has been and I’ve seen ‘paper talk’ of Danny Wilson heading back over the border for a loan period. This could decide the Greek’s fate with a year to go on his contract. A top drawer centre back to be brought in as a long term replacement for Carragher, given this season to settle in slowly. My pick would be a ball playing centre back as Agger makes such a difference when he’s in the team, but so injury prone too. Krgyiakos to be sold (or not according to conflicting reports in a single BBC Sport article http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/football/13801498.stm )

Centre Midfield: Gerrard, Lucas, Meireles as first choice centre midfielders. Spearing, Shelvey and Pacheco as the cover – both sets in the creator, passer & destroyer mould to varying degrees. It would be nice to have Aquilani added to that as a top class midfielder to throw into the mix particularly considering Gerrard’s age and recent injuries. If he is to be sold, then a pass and move young midfielder would be added to the shopping list as Shelvey and Pacheco are too young to have that burden thrust on them. Since writing this, we have purchased Henderson, so if I’m anywhere near Dalglish’s wavelength then it’s assumed Aquilani is leaving! Cole and Christian Poulsen to be sold.

Wings: Kuyt and Maxi are currently deployed, Kuyt more of a shoe in rather than his natural position. Maxi drifts inside which works well in a narrow 4-2-2-2. Both should be kept and rotated with two new top drawer signings. Milan Jovanovic and Nabil El Zhar to be sold.

Forward: Carroll, Suarez and Kuyt offer a nice balance of different styles. David Ngog? He looked promising under Rafa Benitez, but now looks Championship standard. My preference would be to sign two wide men capable of playing in the striker role the way Ronaldo has done. This way we get the wingers we’ve always wanted as well as additional cover up front. I’d hate to see Suarez pushed out to the wings because I feel he is so much more dangerous when he’s central and in front of goal.

This is the summer to put the pieces of the jigsaw together and not concern ourselves with shoehorning players into roles that are not their main strength. With the youth players coming through providing a good squad, it means the focus doesn’t have to be on quantity.