Liverpool have a tough opening three fixtures. Liverpool probably would be well served by winning the opening game and going for it in the other two games. Regardless of what happens, the start of September will see Liverpool with four trips to other members of the top seven for the rest of the season in the Premier League. Yet there are whispers of discontent and doubt. Some of those emanate from the Liverpool fan-base while many chins are stroked in unconvincing assessment from outside the shores of those who pledge allegiance to the Liverbird. Manchester United's impending revival is believed to be what Liverpool will succumb to but should Liverpool's storied rival be favoured so?
Since Liverpool finished above Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton, Tottenham, and Manchester United by the virtue of no European football then Manchester United should qualify for the top four. There's no European football and that's all there is to it. Good players, a positive footballing philosophy, team spirit, and a competent manager aren't the most important aspects of steering a club to the land of milk and honey. Evidently. Louis van Gaal is a respected manager who is not only vastly experienced but also understands the demands present at some of Europe's greatest clubs. If one is to take the "no Europe is the defining advantage" line of thinking then failing to qualify for the top four can only be characterised as an abject failure for the former Netherlands manager.
Naturally, reality holds far greater complexities as Manchester United were off the pace by some distance and that gap will need to be traversed in the space of a single season. It is more likely that it could be done over two seasons with a manager who will field a radically different tactical system to both of his predecessors in a squad that is unfamiliar with the 3412 formation that the Dark Lord's successor's successor seems to favour for an unholy war in English football. While Tottenham and Everton have promising managers who have proven to introduce enterprising football to Premier League teams, the spectre of Europa League football looms not insignificantly in the background.
When one delves into lay and expert opinion, Manchester City and Chelsea appear to be favourites for the title while Arsenal look to be certainties for a top four place with a title challenge contingent on avoiding injuries. Liverpool? Probably fifth but could be fourth. Maybe. A team that scored over 100 goals and finished with a goal difference of over half a century. Liverpool rank third in goals scored in a single season in the Premier League era and rank joint ninth in terms of goal difference over the course of one campaign. In fact, no team that has managed a plus fifty goal difference in one season has dropped out of the top four the following season. Sure, Liverpool conceded fifty goals and Luis Suárez is not here but are Liverpool really that vulnerable?
Liverpool's notable weaknesses last season were depth and defensive solidity, specifically avoiding maddening individual errors, protecting the defence, and holding onto leads instead of allowing them to swap hands throughout matches. The relentless attack that often ended with one of the three names beginning with "S" lost its most illustrious and talented member in the summer but with recent additions (even though one could reasonably subscribe to Jamie Carragher's thoughts on success ratios when signing a large number of players), Liverpool can still expect to at least match the 71 goals scored in Brendan Rodgers' first season. That number is the same number Chelsea managed last season and is still three more than Arsenal managed too.
The message? Liverpool's attack is still strong. Not as strong as it was but hopefully there'll be clear roles. A striker of the required quality to compete with or possibly supplement the dancing one would assuage fears of both overburdening and over-relying on the decent representation of depth in third spot, otherwise known as Rickie Lambert. If there's greater balance and a reduction in goals conceded then Liverpool should finish in the top four. Possibly even another title challenge. 80 odd goals scored and 40 odd conceded should be enough. Let's not forget Liverpool's high press forces defenders into mistakes (most notably witnessed at Old Trafford last season) and Steven Gerrard or Lambert should be on hand to blast them away. The trickery of Raheem Sterling, Lazar Marković, Daniel Sturridge, and Adam Lallana in the final third will continue to bring penalties for Liverpool to profit from.
A lot will depend on the striker Liverpool bring in because Liverpool will create chances and Sturridge will generally take them. That is not something that even his detractors will argue. Sterling and Lallana are good finishers. Jordan Henderson gets into good positions. Liverpool are excellent at attacking set pieces and have one of the best set piece takers in Europe in the captain. Lots of attacking options and Philippe Coutinho creates plenty of chances for others even if he isn't a reliable finisher. Both he and Henderson will score some goals, whether they'll get close to double figures in the league is another question.
Over the course of last season, there were three significant tactical repositioning of players in midfield. Henderson was often shunted around by Rodgers in the Antrim man's first season but was used predominantly in a central midfield spot. Steven Gerrard was shifted to the single pivot for the variety of passes he could play to speed up Liverpool's attack and start counter attacks. Philippe Coutinho was finally used in a more central midfield spot over the course of the season as opposed to cutting in from the left onto his right foot. His vision, tenacity, passing range, guile, and technique make him a perfect middle to final third player like Luka Modrić and Andrés Iniesta. He doesn't have to score a lot of goals but will often score important ones while regularly slicing open the opposition defence repeatedly with through balls. The development of his tackling was a particular highlight and when one adds Emre Can to the mix, it looks like Liverpool could have quite a dynamic midfield ahead of the more physically prosaic Steven Gerrard.
A word on Steven Gerrard, he's 34 and is not the player he used to be but one shouldn't underestimate the vital role he can play with the right amount of rotation that will benefit both captain and team. He is increasingly seen as the figure who holds the midfield back but for those who doubt his continued influence as a force for good should be perhaps be reminded of what he has done and continues to do for the side. For him, the desire and hunger should be even fiercer after the most convincing title challenge of his Liverpool career. He has a year or two left as a regular starter and captains a side that is only going to get better. Both Gerrard and his colleagues will be stronger for their experiences last season.
What's the experience of a title challenge worth? What about the continual growth of young players? Is a stronger squad and bench worth any points at all? What of a manager who is still learning and will experience Champions League football for the first time in his managerial career? All of these are either underestimated, disregarded, or overlooked in assessing Liverpool's squad in relation to the competition. Look at the ages of Manchester City's key players and think of how many will still be at their peak after the next European Championship. There's more to come from this set of players and if one subscribes to the notion that Gerrard's eventual marginalisation as a starting player will improve the midfield considerably, there are even more forward strides for Brendan Rodgers' to make in years to come.
Liverpool's biggest results that made rivals and neutrals were more than just about the performances of Liverpool's former number seven even if he was heavily involved in the best parts of most of those results. Don't forget the options Liverpool had last season. An underwhelming Victor Moses, a non-starting Iago Aspas, an inexperienced Luis Alberto, a stop-gap Aly Cissokho, and a past-his-best-but-still-decent-for-depth Kolo Touré. ETW commented on the frailty of hope when the dream finally died at Selhurst Park, proudly declared that ETW could never be usurped when there were seventy five million reasons for fear and loathing, and cautioned against a season of horses and cookie monsters. Yet this time, there is no reason to fear.
Liverpool could go the way of Tottenham, the citizens proclaim. The parallels are undeniable, according to those who have studied ancient inscriptions. However. How fucking ever. Tottenham didn't have another player in their side who got over 20 league goals in the same season as the departing deity who could never be replaced. Tottenham didn't finish in the top four. Tottenham didn't break eighty points. Tottenham didn't finish above Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester United. Tottenham didn't score over one hundred goals. One hundred goals! Tottenham didn't have a goal difference that was quite staggering in plus 51. Tottenham didn't have a goalscoring dancer, a magical unicorn (yes, there are unicorns and magical unicorns), and the in-form young winger in Europe to call upon.
If it was too long and you didn't read it, seek answers in the next life or sentence. Misery begone. For a limited time only, of course.