Liverpool as a side may not be as bad as they’ve looked over the past two months while reverting to both the form and tactics of the start of the season and look set to end as they began in disappointment. On the other hand, though, they probably aren’t as good as they looked during a resurgent stretch in the middle of the season.
Certain personnel and tactical choices seen over the winter months—Lucas in midfield and Mamadou Sakho in defence; fewer minutes for early-season liabilities like Steven Gerrard and Dejan Lovren—may be telling and hint at a way forward, but many of the problems that marred the start of the season for Liverpool were still lurking in the background, even when the results were coming.
It adds up to a side in need of a rebuild, even if at this time last season fans thought the club had laid the foundations for a bright future. There will be surprise departures. There always are. But a number of the changes to be made and players to be replaced are already clear, including at right back, where veteran Glen Johnson expects to be one of those overhauled in a few weeks.
"Of course," was the 30-year-old right back's straightforward response when asked if he expected not to be a Liverpool player following this summer’s various transfer dealings. "I have no contract, [and] I don’t think that will change, but we will have to wait and see. I have always been a professional, all season. I’ve always wanted to play, and that’s what I’m still doing."
Turnover is a simple fact of life for football clubs and players, and for a player like Johnson, who sadly simply appears no longer able to perform at the highest level, it’s been fairly clear he’s been moving on for some time. It’s also been clear that, after thinking they’d sorted out the right back position last summer, Liverpool head into this one knowing it’s a problem position.
Jon Flanagan’s contract is about to expire and he’s been on the injury list all season. Despite an impressive run to end last season, few expect Liverpool to start next year with his name top of the depth chart. Javi Manquillo, meanwhile, has struggled to get a minute in the second half of the season despite being one of the club’s few promising performers in the early going.
It’s led to manager Brendan Rodgers having to resort to the ineffective Johnson along with a rotating cast of midfielders and wingers at the position. Some, like Lazar Markovic and Jordon Ibe, have looked borderline capable when the rest of the team is set up to cover their deficiencies at the position. Others, like Emre Can and Jordan Henderson, have been liabilities.
And in any case, none are long-term solutions for the position that, along with striker, has given fans and the club the most headaches over a frustrating 2014-15 campaign. While the club will have no choice but to sign a ready to start player at each position, elsewhere things are more promising, and despite the struggles, the club may already have its foundation in place.
Still, a year after looking as though they were ready to push on, to reestablish themselves as a top four regular and maybe even set up for future title challenges, Liverpool once again look a side adrift. In five of the last six seasons now, this is the way things have ended—in stumbling uncertainty and with little realistic hope for next year, at least without major signings.
"There need to be changes," said Johnson. "It’s the same every year and every team is going to try and do their business to try and make themselves stronger. The club need to do that, too. We have some fantastic young players, but we say the same every year—we always have some good young players coming through. The club has got some business to do."