It wasn’t really that bad for Liverpool last season, was it? Best players injured a lot of the time, a shocking group stage exit in the Champions League, turmoil behind the scenes, and finally, an embarrassing seventh-place finish in the final table that – at least temporarily – takes them out of the “Big Four”. And all a season after Liverpool finished in second, just four points behind Manchester United.
So, yeah, I guess it was.
About the only thing that didn’t happen to the Reds last season was a beach ball being thrown by one of its supporters somehow making it in front of the net and an opponent’s shot hitting it and going past Pepe Reina for the winning goal. What? That actually happened? Wow, it was a tough year for Liverpool.
There are still plenty of questions both on the Anfield stage and off it, but there’s a new man pulling the strings, and Liverpool could have done worse than to grab Roy Hodgson from Fulham. They’ll need to stay healthy, and they’ll need to answer some questions. Well, a lot of questions.
And despite my obvious sarcasm, it really wasn’t that bad for Liverpool. A break here or a break there, and they could have bridged the 7-point gap between them and Tottenham that kept them out of the Champions League for the first time since 2003-2004 (when Newcastle beat them out for the spot). I think Hodgson – along with some healthy players – is good enough to make that up:
2009-10 standing: 7th
Gaffer: Roy Hodgson (1st season)
Best new signing: Joe Cole – Well, Joe, here’s your first-team football. What do you have for us? In truth, Cole has been a regular before, making 33 league appearances for Chelsea in 2007-2008, scoring 7 times (and posting 6 assists). But he’s never scored more than 8 goals in a Premiership season, scoring only 2 in each of the last two seasons (and he did appear in 26 league games last season). He turns 29 in November, and this is surely his last shot at glory, at least at this level. He’ll have a lot of pressure on him if he stumbles, especially if Yossi Benayoun – who went the other way to Chelsea – performs better than he does. It’s a big risk for Liverpool.
Biggest loss: Yossi Benayoun – There’s not much to say here, because Cole is Benayoun’s direct replacement. His stats are remarkably similar over the course of his career, and he’s almost exactly the same age. Talk about like for like. For now, Javier Mascherano is still around, and he may end up staying, even though I’m not so sure Hodgson wants him or knows what to do with him, so I expect him to go. But how cheaply? Something to keep an eye on in the next couple of weeks.
Key player: Fernando Torres – You were expecting someone else? Torres scored 18 goals last season (tied for sixth in the league) despite seemingly never being healthy and starting only 20 of 38 league games. Unfortunately, health is not one of Torres’ strong suits, he only made 20 starts in the 2008-2009 season, scoring 14 times. He had 24 goals the season before, when he was largely on the field (29 starts).
So you can see where I’m going here. When Torres is on the field, Liverpool is dangerous and among the best teams in the league. When he’s not? Well, you know the rest. The physio can get a raise if Torres makes 30 league starts this season.
Random stat: Mascherano, Lucas, and Jamie Carragher started a combined 100 games last season, and none of them recorded a single goal. In fact, neither Carragher nor Mascherano even picked up any assists, but Lucas and Mascherano did combine for 131 fouls, 18 yellow cards (9 each), and a pair of red cards (both Mascherano’s). It will be fascinating to see what Hodgson does with those guys (remember, Fulham had the best disciplinary record in the Premiership last season).
The roster hasn’t changed all that much from the one that couldn’t seem to get out of its own way last season, and the chances of Torres and Steven Gerrard stay healthy for a long period of time may not be something I’d bet on tomorrow. Along the same lines, the squad depth – at least compared with the title contenders – just isn’t there, and if one of those guys goes down, it may look a lot like last season.
Hodgson wasn’t really a master of road form at Fulham, and Liverpool’s was horrible last season as they just picked up only 21 points away from Anfield (one more than Stoke City), losing a whopping 8 times and scoring only 18 goals (one less than Wolves). Needless to say, it must get better.
I joked about it, but Liverpool really did run into a ton of bad luck last season, with the beach ball being the most prominent example. Their goal differential (+26) was the same as Spurs and 13 better than Aston Villa, who finished ahead of them. Their 43 home goals were fourth, behind only the “Big Three”.
Pepe Reina might be the Premiership’s best goalkeeper and played well through Liverpool’s misery last season, and players like Glen Johnson and Dirk Kuyt played consistently for the most part. Other than Torres, the key player may be Alberto Aquilani, who finally started to look more comfortable toward the end of last season. Now with Hodgson on board, he should have some more freedom to do what he does best, be a playmaker, and he could work well with Gerrard.
Liverpool should be an interesting tactical experiment under Hodgson. Obviously, in the World Cup, the holding destructive midfielders were all the rage, and were – for the most part – successful. But Hodgson hasn’t played that way in the past, and it will be interesting to see how he handles Mascherano (if he stays) and Lucas. I can’t imagine him playing both at the expense of someone like Aquilani.
But, last year notwithstanding, that type of thing worked for Rafa Benitez (he did win a European championship for crying out loud). Hodgson has proven he can play pretty good defensive soccer without resorting to mugging, but whether he can keep his team healthy is another question.
Just looking at last season, you could argue that Liverpool might be do a little luck. But look a little further back? Maybe not.