The Current Squad
I'm sure I'm not the only one who actually thinks the current squad of Liverpool players is pretty good. One of the worst, most sickening aspects of Hodgson's reign was his constant endeavour to lower expectations and exaggerate the need for a complete overhaul of the team. Since this Summer, when he took over, the core first-team squad hasn't really changed all that much - Meireles, Suarez and Carroll have replaced Mascherano, Babel and Torres. His other signings (excepting Fabio Aurelio who he re-signed on a free transfer, Jonjo Shelvey who looks promising, and Meireles who has been a genuine success) are entirely expendable. Joe Cole, Milan Jovanovic, Christian Poulsen, Brad Jones and Paul Konchesky don't offer anything to the squad and will hopefully move on in July.
Of course, it has, at times, felt like we've had a handful of new players on our hands - the rise to prominence (made necessary by injuries to key players) of academy-graduates John Flanagan and Jack Robinson has been encouraging for Liverpool fans, and Martin Kelly (21) and Jay Spearing (22) have cemented their places in the first-team squad this season.
But the point is that the current Liverpool side - even one which has had to endure varyingly lengthy injuries to the likes of Steven Gerrard, Glen Johnson, Andy Carroll, Martin Kelly, Daniel Agger and Fabio Aurelio - is prospering under Kenny Dalglish's tutelage. Our occasionally makeshift side has, since January, recorded convincing home victories against Man City and Man United, as well as picking up points at Stamford Bridge and the Emirates. In fact, our form against the best teams has been so good that we are top of the top-six head-to-head mini-league. And, although we have suffered from inconsistent results (defeats to West Brom, West Ham and Blackpool, for example), we are still second in the Premier League form table, and we're second (behind Chelsea) in terms of points gained since Christmas.
I also hope I'm not the only one who thinks we have some genuinely excellent players in our current squad - we're not greatly overperforming at the moment. Reina, Agger, Lucas, Gerrard, and Suarez are top quality, and Johnson, Kelly, Skrtel, Meireles, Kuyt, Carroll and Carragher aren't far behind. Other members of the first-team squad - Maxi, Aurelio, Ngog and Spearing - are undoubtedly useful, and we also have promising young players like Jonjo Shelvey and Danny Wilson who may make more of a contribution next season.
Talking of promising young players, our strength in youth is something to be genuinely optimistic about. In fact, it's one of the reasons that I really hope we qualify for the Europa League next season - fairly inconsequential Thursday night group games will be a great chance to introduce some of them to competitive football, á la the Carling Cup.
I had the pleasure of watching Liverpool's academy teams play against Sheffield United on Saturday. A few players were off with the England U19s, and it wasn't one of the kids' better days, but there was clearly some promising talent on show. The 18 year old forward Michael Ngoo won and converted a late penalty for the U18s to clinch a draw late on, for example - he looks worth a runout for the first-team next season.
We also have the likes of Conor Coady, Fernandez Suso, Thomas Ince, Andre Wisdom, and Raheem Sterling waiting to break through at senior level, and Daniel Ayala and Dani Pacheco have been impressing on loan in the Championship, at Derby and Norwich respectively. That's not to say we can rely on them taking first-team places next season, but it does give us confidence that we have a great deal of depth in youth, which should mean we won't need to sign dozens of new players to fill the squad after the aforementioned dead-wood has moved on. (We have been linked with a great number of players, and it's hard to tell how many are serious targets, but it would surely be lamentable if average players like Charlie Adam pushed the likes of Jay Spearing further down the pecking order.)
FSG and Damien Comolli have indicated that their policy will be to avoid signing players in positions were there is already a talented youngster at the club (presumably within reason), so as not to hinder their development. Our strength in youth should give us cause for optimism that we'll see some more Spearing/Kelly-style academy successes coming through in the near future, maybe even one or two who could follow in the footsteps of Gerrard and Carragher. (Coady in particular looks to have good leadership skills, and is immensely mature for his age.)
As Liverpool fans, we will have high expectations for next season. Maybe a title-challenge can only be a best-case-scenario, if we get a little luck early in the season, but we should be hoping to reclaim a Champions League place. This won't be easy. It's worth noting that, although there are no exceptional teams at the top of the Premier League table this season, all of the top six boast some genuine quality. Tottenham, the side who it now looks increasingly possible we'll finish above, had an impressive Champions League run this year, eventually being knocked out by Europe's second-best team after recording victories over the reigning European Champions Inter and the newly-crowned Serie A winners AC Milan.
In order to finish in the top four, we will certainly have to strengthen, and our owners have indicated a keen willingness to invest where necessary. But where would their money best be spent? Well, let me finally come round to the point. Let's have a look at who should be remaining at the club next season. I am assuming that Konchesky, Poulsen, Cole, Jovanovic and Kyrgiakos will have moved on. If any of the others leave, for whatever reason, then they will probably need to be replaced. And I am also assuming that Aquilani will return from his loan, but if he doesn't, a central midfielder should probably also be sought. The first-choices are listed first, followed by backups - those in brackets feature in more than one position:
Goalkeepers: Reina, Gulacsi.
Right-backs: (Johnson), (Kelly), Flanagan, (Carragher).
Left-backs: Aurelio, (Johnson), Robinson, (Wilson).
Centre-backs: Agger, Skrtel, (Carragher), (Kelly), Wilson, Ayala, Coady, Wisdom.
Defensive (holding) midfielders: Lucas, (Gerrard), (Meireles), Spearing.
Advanced (creative) midfielders: (Gerrard), (Aquilani), (Meireles), (Shelvey).
Versatile attacking players (wingers, deep-lying forwards etc): (Suarez), (Gerrard), (Kuyt), Maxi, (Shelvey), Pacheco, Suso, Sterling.
Advanced forwards (traditional Number Nines): Carroll, (Kuyt), (Suarez), Ngog,
For me, all this adds up to our best team being something like this:
Assuming the central midfield issue is sorted out satisfactorily (particularly re: Aquilani, who I sincerely hope will return, though I fear he may not), I think it's fair to say this would be more or less our best team with that crop of players. Dalglish may prefer to stick with the fluid 4-4-2 that he has favoured in recent weeks, which would mean that Gerrard or Meireles would take up that ostensibly left-sided midfield role, but the personnel would surely be the same.
The biggest weakness is, in my opinion, glaringly clear. Fabio Aurelio is not a workable option as our first-choice left-back. Although he is technically good, and could be useful as a squad player, he is far too injury prone to be relied upon, and he has rarely if ever shown that he can deliver top-quality performances, week in week out. That's why we must sign an adventurous, world-class (or potentially world-class) left-back. More than any number of squad players, a pacey, attack-minded but defensively sound left-back would sincerely increase the effectiveness of our team.
I think it would be worth spending the majority of our budget on one if necessary, and if the right player was available (remember, when we had a similar problem at right-back, Benitez had supposedly wrapped up a deal for Dani Alves, a title-winning, world-class right-back, only for Hicks and Gillett to deny him the mere £8m he needed to complete the signing). Full-backs are, indeed, one of the most important players in a modern football team, as they are generally afforded more space than any other position. Note how important Alves is for Barcelona, ditto Marcelo for Real Madrid, Evra for Man United, Cole for Chelsea, Maicon for Inter (especially last season).
I also think that, as much as I love Dirk Kuyt - especially as he has been in exceptional form these past few months - he's not always going to be as useful for us in the near future. I would absolutely still keep him on the books, as second-choice for Andy Carroll, and to feature in his old right-wing position in particularly tough games (making the most of his defensive qualities, as Man United use Park Ji-Sung in important Champions League games but generally favour Nani and Valencia for ordinary home league games). But, it cannot be denied, his first-touch is often poor, and his technique has always been his main weakness. He often loses possession, and can sometimes looks a bit frantic and desperate with the ball at his feet. He rarely beats his man, nor does he possess a particularly frightening cross. Essentially, him and Carroll might not be best suited to playing together.
If we can sign a skilful, speedy winger with bags of technical ability we might finally be able to cut out the inconsistency which has blighted us for years (even during Benitez's best season, 2008-09, we lost out on the title not because we couldn't get results against the best teams, but because we failed to beat smaller teams like Wigan, Hull, Fulham and West Ham). Obviously, we are not necessarily building a title-winning side this season, but we do want to have the strongest squad possible. Although Suarez has bags of technical ability, and has wowed Anfield with his ability to dribble into the box, seemingly against the odds, from the wide-spaces, we should be allowing him to take up central attacking positions, rather than forcing him to stick wide and simply deliver crosses for Carroll (a good cross would be another useful attribute for a new left-back, incidentally).
We have been linked with a number of these kinds of wingers - most prominently, Ashley Young. I would have no problem with signing him - he has shown himself to be an excellent creator over recent seasons, and his versatility is a real asset, as this article by 5 Added Minutes points out. However, if Villa demand an exorbitant transfer fee, I would favour looking towards the continent, particularly at Udinese's Alexis Sanchez who dazzled at the world cup, Lille's Eden Hazard who is demanding a lot of attention with his exuberant performances, or, perhaps more realistically, Ezequiel Lavezzi who has been excelling as a wide-forward in Napoli's title-challenging side this season.
There's no point in second guessing exactly who Liverpool will sign this Summer. We have been linked with a great number of players, some of them undeniably top-quality, others showing a great deal of promise, and some - frankly average. My hope is that we don't devote too much money to expanding and filling the squad with "depth" and "competition" which might choke the opportunities of some of our promising youngsters, especially as we're not going to be in the Champions League next season. Rather, I hope our transfer strategy specifically targets our two key problem areas, and makes sure that our first eleven is capable of claiming a top-four finish next May.
This could be our first 11, for home league games etc. (Coentrao and Sanchez used as examples) - in my opinion, it looks pretty unstoppable:
And we'd still have a back-up team of reasonable enough quality for a team not playing in the Champions League:
As well as a full team of youngsters who would be desperate for opportunities in easier Carling Cup or Europa League games: