2011/12 Season Preview: Liverpool FC and the 25-man Squad “Dilemma”?

With less than two weeks to go before the first round of fixtures for the Barclays Premier League 2011/12 season gets underway, one question on the lips of most Liverpool fans seems to be how the team will line up when they take on Sunderland at Anfield on 13 August 2011. Considering that three of the four players signed so far this summer transfer window are midfielders (Henderson, Adam and Downing), debates have been rife – both in pubs and on online forums – over how Kenny Dalglish will be able to get them all onto the pitch at the same time.

While the point being raised is valid – fielding all three together inevitably means others will miss out (but who?) – what is being overlooked, however, is that instead of merely bringing in players who will go straight into the starting XI, Dalglish is actually trying to build a squad with sufficient depth to handle the taxing demands of a full campaign.

That said, with the Premier League introducing the 25-man squad ruling since last season, how exactly will Liverpool’s squad list look like come the end of this transfer window? Will it be overloaded in certain areas (as seems to be the case in central midfield), whilst yet too lightweight in others?

Premier League 25-man Squad Ruling

In order to have a clearer picture of the possible constraints placed on clubs as a result of its introduction, it may be worth the time taking a closer look at the said ruling:

  • Each club must submit a squad containing no more than 17 players who do not fulfill the Home Grown (HG) player criteria. The remainder of the squad, up to a total of 25 players, must be HG.
  • A HG player means a player who, irrespective of his nationality or age, has been registered with any club affiliated to the Football Association or the Football Association of Wales for a period, continuous or not, of three entire seasons or 36 months prior to his 21st birthday (or the end of the season during which he turns 21).
  • Changes to the squad list of 25 may be made during the period of a transfer window.
  • Under 21 (U21) players are eligible over and above the limit of 25 players/squad.
  • For the 2011/12 campaign, U21 players will have been born on or after 1st January 1990.

At the time of writing, Liverpool have a total of 27 non-U21 players – 9 HG and 18 non-HG – on their books, which means that at least two players will be omitted from the squad of 25. The 27 players are:

Goalkeepers

  • Reina
  • Doni
  • Jones *

Defenders

  • Carragher *
  • Agger
  • Aurelio
  • Johnson *
  • Kyrgiakos
  • Skrtel
  • Degen
  • Insua *

Midfielders

  • Gerrard *
  • Meireles
  • Cole *
  • Maxi
  • Downing *
  • Spearing *
  • Lucas
  • Adam
  • Poulsen
  • Aquilani

Forwards

  • Suarez
  • Carroll *
  • Kuyt
  • Ngog
  • Jovanovic
  • El Zhar

[Note: HG players are marked with '*'.]

Looking at the players above, it does indeed appear that there are too many midfielders at the moment. Add to that the fact that Kuyt, Jovanovic and El Zhar are usually deployed in midfield (the latter two if – and when – selected), and it becomes all the more obvious that competition in this particular area of the team is much fiercer than others.

However, while it is true that – as of now – two players will miss the cut for the final list, it is by no means certain that both of them will be midfielders. In fact, with still slightly less than a month to go before the transfer window closes, it is safe to assume that there will be further changes to the playing staff; with a few departures looking highly likely (and probably one or two additions), we may even end up with a situation whereby we do not have enough players to hit the 25-man quota – which, of course, is not against the ruling.

What really needs to be analysed though, is how well-covered exactly are we in each of the positions; which areas should we look at bolstering, and which need to be trimmed? With the squad assembled thus far, which players can realistically look forward to being involved on a more regular basis than others, and which may need to look elsewhere in search of more playing time?

[Note: While certain players can be deployed in more than one position, they will be discussed below in the role which they are most likely to feature playing for the team.]

Goalkeeper

Having signed Alexander Doni  from AS Roma last month – presumably as understudy to first choice Pepe Reina – and with it being the norm for three keepers to be named in a squad, who will occupy the last available slot?

Peter Gulacsi, the Hungarian U21 custodian, joined Hull City on a season-long loan in a bid to gain more first team experience; Martin Hansen, another youngster, will be keeping goal for Bradford City on a 28-day emergency loan deal; Brad Jones, whilst the most experienced amongst the three, may not be too enamoured with the prospect of playing third fiddle (if there is such a phrase to begin with).

The way things stand, it may not be such a bad idea to cash in on Jones while he still has resale value. Besides, it frees up a spot in the 25-man squad for an outfield player (who is, honestly speaking, more likely to get some game time as compared to a third-choice keeper). If need be, Martin Hansen, who is eligible to be registered as a U21 player, can take up the role of the understudy’s understudy without occupying a precious spot in the squad.

Verdict: Sufficient cover. Sell Jones, and “promote” Hansen to third-choice.

Left-back

Left-back is a position with genuine cause for concern in recent years; with Fabio Aurelio and Emiliano Insua being the two natural left-backs in the squad – and with the former being prone to injury – it is no wonder the transfer mills are working overtime rolling out story after story linking us with countless left-backs. Clichy (who has since joined Manchester City), Enrique, Izaguirre, Pereira, Konchesky (just kidding!) – you name it, they have it.

While Jack Robinson has done an admirable job filling in at times last season, it is not unthinkable that a more experienced left-back will be brought in to provide further competition down this flank. If so, it will not be a surprise to see Aurelio move on to another club; though a class act on the pitch when fit, with his current contract due to expire in 2012, the club may decide to listen to any offers for the hugely likable Brazilian, who will be turning 32 in September.

(It appears that Newcastle and Liverpool are close to agreeing a fee – believed to be around £5-6m - for Jose Enrique. If personal terms can be thrashed out, the Spaniard will be expected to take to the field in the opening match at Anfield.)

Verdict: Needs strengthening. One addition welcomed.

Right-back

Glen Johnson is undoubtedly the first choice for this position, though based on what we’ve seen last season, highly-rated U21 stars Martin Kelly and John Flanagan are definitely more than capable of doing a job if – and when – called upon.

Though Philipp Degen is the other recognised right-back in the squad, with the Swiss entering the final year of his contract, and having only played 13 matches since joining the Reds in 2008, chances are he will be allowed to leave if the right offer – for both the club and player – arrives.

Verdict: Sufficient cover. Sell Degen.

Centre-half

With four players jostling for two positions, competition in this department appears healthy…on first sight. Now that Jamie Carragher is entering the twilight years of an illustrious career – he will be turning 34 next January – there cannot be a more suitable time to bring in his long-term successor.

It can be argued that in Martin Skrtel, we have a ready-made replacement for Carragher – brave, tough-tackling, with a “no-nonsense” approach to the game. While that may be a valid point, it does not disguise the fact that cover in this area is lacking. Like Carragher, Sotirios Kyrgiakos is on the wrong side of thirty and, though a decent enough player who cannot be faulted for effort, is surely no more than a back-up to the heart of the defence on a short-term basis. Add to that the fact that Daniel Agger has been plagued by niggling injuries throughout his time on Merseyside, and it becomes all the more pressing that reinforcements are earmarked for this area.

Although there are a few U21 players whose natural position is centre-half (Wilson, Coady, Ayala, and Wisdom), mistakes made by players in this section of the pitch tend to lead to goal-scoring chances (or even goals themselves), and are almost always gleefully pounced upon by the media. That is where a more experienced centre-half – with more games under his belt – has an advantage over his younger peers; whilst more established players are not immune to slipping up, the experience gained over the years do allow them to read the game better, as well as taking up better positions when defending.

Detractors may point out that the only way for youngsters to gain experience is by playing, which is a valid argument to be fair, but it is also worth noting that players have been unfairly murdered by the press in the past when they committed mistakes while still in their fledgling years – Carragher is the closest example to home which springs to mind. Whilst learning to handle the pressure that comes along with the game is part and parcel of being a footballer, not all youngsters are able to adapt to the demands as well as others, and exposing them to undue pressure too early in their career is akin to throwing beginner swimmers into the deep end of the pool before they have even learnt to tread water.

Verdict: Needs strengthening. One addition welcomed.

Left Winger

Perhaps the one position in our midfield which has been found wanting in recent years; Mark Gonzalez, Sebastien Leto, Yossi Benayoun, Ryan Babel, Albert Riera, Maxi Rodriguez and Joe Cole have all come and gone (except Maxi and Cole who are still on the club’s books), each with varying levels of success, yet none has really been able to lay claim to that left midfield spot being his own during their time at the club.

Having signed Stewart Downing in a deal reportedly worth up to £20m, reactions amongst fans have been mixed, not least because of the expectations that come along with the relatively huge price tag. The key phrase, however, is “reportedly worth up to”; which means the £20m most probably includes other add-on fees (usually dependent on either the number of appearances made by the player, or success attained by the club during the player’s time there); and which also means the actual fee itself could be a few million quid lesser. Nobody knows the exact figure, except those who are working directly on the deal themselves.

Yet, this has not deterred the glass-half-empty fans and critics from using the transfer fee as a stick with which to beat the player. Over-rated, they say. Over-priced, they moan. My personal opinion? For what it’s worth, I would much rather we spend £20m on a player who can actually contribute to the team on the pitch, as compared to paying £20m in interest fees annually to the bank. Does the latter scenario ring a bell? Exactly what I thought as well.

So with Downing seemingly the first-choice for this position, Maxi and Cole are “reduced” to providing cover for the England international. What works in their favour though, is that they are versatile enough to be deployed in a number of other positions across midfield, hence they may still feature prominently in Dalglish’s plans next season. The same cannot be said of Milan Jovanovic, who appears to be on his way out of the club after arriving only in the summer of 2010 on a Bosman free, with the club announcing earlier yesterday that an agreement has been reached with Anderlecht for the Serbian international’s transfer.

That said, with Maxi turning thirty earlier in the year, and with Cole following suit in a couple of months, it may be a good time to start planning for the future by blooding in one or two of the U21 players. Raheem Sterling, still only 16, is highly-rated amongst the Liverpool coaching staff, and it will be interesting to see if he will be able to make the step up in the next few years.

Verdict: Sufficient cover. Sell Jovanovic.

Central Midfield

The position drawing widespread debate with regards to it being over-staffed at this moment in time, and quite rightly so. With Steven Gerrard, Raul Meireles, Lucas Leiva, Jay Spearing, Alberto Aquilani, Charlie Adam and *cough* Christian Poulsen fighting for the two central midfield berths, it will be interesting to see the different permutations Dalglish comes up with in order to bring the best out of them. Of course, as mentioned earlier in this article, what King Kenny is doing is building a squad as compared to just a strong starting XI alone, hence the different options available in central midfield can only present him with a welcomed headache. What makes it all the more intriguing, is the fact that we have yet to include U21 players such as Jonjo Shelvey and Jordan Henderson, both of whom were important players for their previous clubs.

Before we get too carried away, it is also worth noting that the futures of some players here are far from certain to be at Anfield; Poulsen has been nothing more than a bit-part player since his arrival from Juventus last summer, whilst Aquilani – no doubt a quality player who fits into the pass-and-move philosophy – seems to be undecided over where his future lies. Meireles is another who has been linked with an Anfield exit, though the fact the player himself wants to stay, coupled with him having a pretty good first season, may yet see him having a role to play in the next few seasons.

(Word has it that Juventus, Milan and Fiorentina have all tabled offers for Aquilani. If true, it will not be surprising to see him leave, but only if the move makes sense for both club and player. His departure should also increase the likelihood of seeing Meireles donning the red jersey come the new season.)

With the news over the weekend that Gerrard will be ruled out of action til September, it perhaps is a relief that we are so well-covered in this position (though to be fair, Gerrard is probably more of an attacking midfielder/second striker). I personally am very curious as to how the central midfield partnership(s) will look like next season.

Verdict: Sufficient cover. Sell Poulsen and maybe loan Spearing out.

Right Winger

A position which I personally feel needs strengthening; Dirk Kuyt has been an epitome of consistency down the right flank ever since Benitez started playing him there and has featured in no less than 30 league games in each of his five seasons with us. Ironically, it may actually be his consistent showings which draws us into a false sense of security, mistakenly assuming that this area of the pitch is well-covered. While Maxi can be deployed here, he – like Kuyt – is in his early thirties, and it would be good if a new signing can be brought in before the transfer window closes to provide more competition for the flying Dutchman.

Nabil El Zhar is a possibility, but with his contract expiring in 2012 and with him not making much of an impact on Merseyside, chances are the Moroccan looks set to leave – if not this summer, then next.

Verdict: Needs strengthening. One addition welcomed. Sell El Zhar.

Second Striker

Initially brought in with the intention of partnering Torres, Luis Suarez has since gone on to take over the Spaniard’s mantle as the Kop’s darling, with the latter moving to Chelsea for reportedly £50m – a new British transfer record.

At £22.8m, many eyebrows were raised when Dalglish decided to sign the former Ajax captain, with questions being asked about the Uruguayan’s temperament following his infamous “Cannibal of Ajax” incident, as well as his own rendition of Maradona’s “Hand of God”  after he handled a goal-bound shot in the last minute of extra-time during the World Cup 2010 quarter-final match between Uruguay and Ghana, and his subsequent outburst of unbridled joy on the sidelines when Asamoah Gyan missed the ensuing penalty. All those doubts were quickly dispelled as El Pistolero – as he is affectionately known – made the seamless transition from the Eredivisie to the Premier League, and El Nino’s departure for Chelsea was soon forgotten.

Not many January purchases have been able to make the kind of impact Suarez has since joining the Reds as they usually need time to get used to the pace and intensity of the English game. Add to that the fact Suarez missed a whole month of league action in December  due to his seven-match suspension for biting PSV’s Otman Bakkal, and it makes his contributions in his first half-season on Merseyside all the more remarkable.

While Steven Gerrard is no stranger to this role – his telepathic understanding with Torres was, at times, simply breathtaking – he has lost a bit of pace and that sudden explosiveness which makes him such a danger when bursting into the opposition’s penalty area. With that in mind, he may eventually take up a deeper-lying position in midfield from where he can pull the strings. Being such an inspirational figure for both his teammates and fans also means that it is almost unthinkable for him to be dropped from the starting XI. Truth be told, Liverpool will need all their best players on the pitch in order to achieve success, and both the skipper and our number 7 definitely fall into that category. Hence, it is much more likely to see them working together in tandem as opposed to one missing out because of the other.

Verdict: Needs strengthening. One addition welcomed.

Centre Forward

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist – in fact, it doesn’t even take a wannabe-rocket scientist – to figure out that Andy Carroll has got his name stamped all over this position. You simply do not pay £35m for a player, only to then leave him out of the starting XI (even allowing for the simple matter of his fee being covered by Torres’ sale) – which also explains in part our transfer strategy this summer: buying players who are more than capable of providing the ammunition for our prized weapon.

Based on statistics provided by the excellent OptaJoe on Twitter, Downing, Adam & Henderson created 239 chances in the league last season, which is equivalent to 56% of Liverpool’s 2010/11 total (429). Looking at it now, if you are going to bring the best out of your prized asset, it makes perfect sense to try and build the team around Carroll and play to his strengths, one of which is his heading ability. The below info is again obtained from OptaJoe’s Twitter timeline:

135 - Stewart Downing has completed more crosses in open play than any other player in the Premier League over the last three seasons. Whip.”

5 - Five of Charlie Adam’s eight assists in the Premier League last season came from crosses. Delivery.”

82 – Only four players created more goalscoring chances in the 2010/11 PL season than Sunderland’s Jordan Henderson (82). Target.”

Back-up for Big Andy comes in the form of David Ngog, who may appear to be a tad lightweight when you put him next to our number 9. What surprises me though – if the club’s official website is accurate – is that the Frenchman is only 1cm shorter than his colleague (and they actually weigh the same!).

Fans’ opinions have been divided on the former PSG striker; though his holding up of the ball has improved considerably and he has also worked on beefing up his physique, Ngog’s inability to be clinical in front of goal remains their main grouse. Having started only two games since Dalglish took over – both against Sparta Prague in the Europa League – it remains to be seen whether Ngog can break through into the first team on a more regular basis. However, with only one year left on his current contract, he will need to really prove his worth to the team if he is to earn a new deal.

Verdict: Needs strengthening. One addition welcomed.

Conclusion

Having run through each of the positions in the team, it seems pretty obvious that there are a couple of areas which require bolstering. If players who are expected to leave do indeed make their way out of Anfield, and signings are made for the few said positions, Liverpool should just about hit the 25-man quota without anyone missing out.

Since FSG took over last October, they have given Dalglish full backing in the transfer market. Having spent just over £40m this transfer window alone, it is no wonder fans are feeling optimistic for the season ahead. However, while optimism is much welcomed following the doom and gloom of the past few seasons under the Hicks and Gillett regime, a reality check should also be in place; expecting the Reds to launch a genuine title charge in 2011/12 may be a bit too idealistic, especially when taking into account the fact that no club has ever won the title after finishing sixth the season before.

What Dalglish has shown since taking over the managerial reins in January, however, is that the main core of the squad is not as poor as some make it out to be. With another couple of signings, the Reds will be well-placed to get back into the Champions League by finishing in the top four, hence providing the ideal springboard for them to have a go at the coveted league title in the years ahead.

Under-promise and over-deliver. That, is FSG’s mantra. And Liverpool fans all over the world will do well to bear that in mind.

Now bring on the new season.

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