I figured this would be the midseason report, even if we're not there quite yet. We've hit the Christmas break and are about to hit the January transfer window, so I feel it's appropriate to address the team where it is and where it's going. It's been a fairly tough first half, honestly. This team has been hard to watch, particularly on the road, but has produced some pretty solid performances.
We entered this season with a great deal of turmoil. Not only had we gotten rid of one of the more successful managers in the Premiere league, we were in pretty deep trouble in terms of finances and ownership. There were rumors of players leaving or transferring, and some fears that the club might go into administration. We were unsettled at left back, striker, defensive midfield, winger, and the middle chain, crucial in Benitez's 4-2-3-1 (well, that's pretty much everywhere then). We had finished 7th the year before, leaving us out of Champions League soccer for the first time in ages (and one season off a brilliant 86 point year, good enough to tie Chelsea the next year and probably win this year as well). We were in trouble heading into the preseason, but had reasons to be optimistic.
Well, first, the management decided to hire Roy Hodgson, who had performed a minor miracle at Fulham in getting them into the top half of the league and staying there. Not considered particularly innovative, he was known for getting results at home and producing a squad that was more than the sum of its parts and played like it. There were a couple of worrying factors- one, he wasn't known for rotating his squad very much or being particularly deep, but many thought he was a victim of circumstance in that he wasn't as free to spend as his Europa league rivals (these included, perversely, Liverpool and Manchester City). Two, his formation of choice, the 4-4-2, was primarily defensive and tended to turtle in away matches.
The first thing Hodgson did upon arriving was quickly rubber stamp the free transfer of Joe Cole to Liverpool (apparently, he didn't feel like he had much to say about it). The next thing he did was bring in Paul Konchesky from Fulham and a number of smaller, bit players like Milan Jovanovic and Christian Poulsen. One thing he had to deal with almost immediately was Javier Mascherano's leaving the club, and he did this by signing Raul Meireles from Porto. Mostly, these were pretty cheap signings, and reflected the lack of funds that drove Gillett and Hicks to put the team up for sale. I think Hodgson handled this phase as best he could- besides Mascherano, he managed to avoid losing any of the truly important pieces of the team, but he failed to build up any of the depth required to compete at the highest level of the league. I think he was hamstrung a bit by lack of funds, but he surely could have picked up a young striker at Poulsen or Jovanovic's price.
In a move that will surely bear fruit as time goes on, he helped revamp the academies at Melwood and made sure that many of Liverpool's promising youth were playing meaningful matches, particularly Thomas Ince, Steven Darby (both to Notts county under Paul Ince), and Daniel Ayala (Hull City). Something needs to be said for this, because Liverpool has made a strong commitment to the academy system (by raiding Barcelona, a smart move), which will be increasingly important as FIFA's financial fair play rules come into effect. Hopefully, this shapes our team and England's national team in a similar manner to Barcelona. People talk about Keegan coming back to manage at some point, but we need to keep an eye on Ince, who after a few years will be well ready for a job like Liverpool.
So, even before the season started there were momentous changes at the club. A new formation, some new personnel, and TRULY poor preseason led to a lot of consternation, not at all helped by the real danger that the club might go into administration. This was well borne out in the early season. There's no excuse for it, Liverpool was awful. You can break it down in terms of possession and shots and so on, but the real telling statistic is that Liverpool had one win in its first 8 premier league matches (one of which was a loss to Blackpool. At home.). Turns out Paul Konchesky is a complete disaster at left back (in all fairness, our Left wingers haven't been any help, and even Maicon looked sorry without any help), and that Daniel Agger, while quite good when on the pitch, just can't seem to stay there (Fabio Aurelio too). Sure, there were a lot of injuries, but the key to winning the Premier League is winning the matches where your best don't play that way, or don't play at all and winning the matches you are supposed to win. A great example of this is Man U versus Arsenal, where they had to run a limited side out and still got a result. Liverpool didn't seem to rotate personnel in any way to start, and crucial pieces of the team weren't holding up their end (even if too much was being asked of them. Did I mention we lost to Blackpool at home?). So we were simply awful to start the season.
However, things began to turn a bit towards the second quarter. We came out top of our Europa league group, and pulled together a string of good wins. It seems like Hodgson is beginning to trust his squad rotation. I think that the win against Villa points to how good the squad players can be- for instance, Torres did not play, but we still had a great, pressing attack, scored a lot of goals, and generally looked like a top team going forward. Contrast that with the next week, where most of the prime pieces played (for better or for worse) against Newcastle, but with a far more timid approach, and you start to see an argument for a younger, more fluid squad that presses high up the pitch. Hopefully Hodgson realizes that a rested Babel (honestly, my candidate for a guy who needs to see more of the field) might work just a bit better than a nicked up Torres. Lucas has been quite good, and Meireles and Maxi have stepped up in a serious way, particularly recently. Ngog has been our top scorer, and a genuinely effective partner to whomever we put up front. Glen Johnson has shown some ability in tackling, something that he had no idea how to do last year, and a fairly important talent for a defender.This second quartile has given us some hope and encouragement for the months ahead. We need to be one of the top two sides in the second half to make the Champions League, but teams have been dropping points like mad and we can get there.
We still have some issues. First off, we have shown that we are better when we take the game to the other team, when we see less of the ball (Chelsea, Arsenal) or more (Villa, WBA). The high press has been very good to Liverpool, and so we need to use it. Locking the door just hasn't worked (Newcastle, and some team by the seaside, starts with a B, might have mentioned it before). Hodgson needs to keep players accountable- which he seems to be doing, particularly recently. Part of the whole lying back thing has been the poor play of the left side. We could be a more defensive team if we didn't give so many goals away starting on the left. I'd love to put it all at Konchesky's feet, but the left wing and left forward need to realize that they have defensive obligations in a 4-4-2. This really leads into what we need in the January window.
I think these are our January and offseason targets: We need a left winger, first and foremost, who tracks back. Rodriguez has been pretty good, but one player does not a rotation make. We might need some more help at left back, and we certainly need more pace across the back line. It looks like we might lose a few players to the summer... frankly, Glen Johnson is probably leaving, so Aurelio will have to step in but we need more for a proper rotation. Torres would like to stay I think, but needs to be comfortable with the idea of a rotation (playing every match, particularly when returning from injury, is not a good idea). The Guardian thinks we'll add a striker, but they also think Man City is going to buy Torres, so take it with a grain of salt.
This has been a pretty poor first half. We're going to need to be very, very good to make it to Europe this year. However, given how poor the league has been in general and our recent form, I think we just might make it. I'd like to see a better rotation and more pressing (and a 3-4-3, but that's just me fantasizing at this point). I'd like to see us play well on the road. I'd like to see us beat a top half team convincingly. It's been encouraging that guys who hadn't really played well or developed much under Benitez are playing much better under Hodgson, and that the one year breaking in period has been bypassed for Meireies (it's all too common for continental players to have a rough first year in the Premiership). At heart, this is a quality squad and it's time to start playing like it. I think this next stretch is when this season will be won or lost, culminating in a major test at Manchester United on the 9th in the FA cup, and will determine whether or not Hodgson is a 1 year manager. I hope he gets a fair shake and gets this team to Europe.
Midseason grade: D+. Highest possible: A- ("twist" for making ECL) Lowest: F (bottom half) Most Likely: C (just out of fifth)
Happy Holidays folks, and have a good one.