Here is a team who have enjoyed a strange season. It feels deflating, but as Kenny Dalglish points out, they have qualified for Europe again, won a cup and reached a final. It is also true to say they have enjoyed horrendous luck at times, striking the woodwork more than most, despite creating a similar number of chances to their Champions League rivals. Yet with the departure of Ian Cotton, their press chief, Liverpool have fired three administrators this season as the owners look to make the team competitive at the top of the table again.
Whichever way you look at it, going into the final day of the season with the best they can hope for seventh place ahead of local rivals Everton, will not be what they had in mind. Everton are famously cash starved, whilst Liverpool have spent huge sums on over priced English players, such as Andy Carroll. And it will be galling to see Newcastle so far ahead, when they spent less than a half of the Carroll money on Demba Ba, Yohan Cabaye and Papiss Cisse. Liverpool would surely swap them for Carroll, Downing and Henderson.
It is fair to say though that the quality of Liverpool’s play has often been good. When watching them this season, they have shown that they can dominate games against the best. They had Manchester City on the run at times at Anfield in both the league and cup. The same can be said of Manchester United, whilst Arsenal were destroyed in football terms by Liverpool, yet escaped with all three points. Chelsea too were taken apart three times by Liverpool, who can consider themselves unlucky to have lost the FA Cup final to them. When Dalglish’s men woke up after half time in that game, they were the better side.
Yet there is one notable change that occurred half way through the season. It is true to say that Liverpool were not looking set for the Champions League when Lucas got injured, but they were in the hunt and the battle for fourth. Since his injury, and the return of Steven Gerrard, they have fallen away decisively.
The main problem in the second half of the season has been defensively. Early in the season, Liverpool could get away with missing a lot of chances, because one goal or two were usually enough, with their defence one of the best in the league. Yet they have missed sorely the absence of Lucas, injured in defeat at Fulham. The 3-1 reverse at Bolton would probably not have happened with him in the side to monitor the central areas from which their opponents scored twice.
Lucas is an important screen and shield for Liverpool, which is why he is rated so highly in Brazil. In his place though, has been Jay Spearing, a youngster who whilst promising, is inexperienced and insufficient as a first choice in a Premier League as strong as this. With a Premier League in which Arsenal and Chelsea can go into the final day with a realistic chance of both finishing outside the top four, there is no room for a first choice defensive midfielder like Spearing.
And that position is particularly vital. It was the lack of such a player that has arguably cost Manchester United in both league games against Man City. It is the loss of Mikel Arteta and his screening in front of the defence which has blighted Arsenal’s end of season run for third. Often in the Premier League, leaky defences are not caused by a poor back four and goalkeeper, but by a defensive midfielder who is not of the required calibre. Their shielding abilities are crucial at this level.
Gerrard meanwhile, appears past his best and unable to capture the glories of old. Yet his reputation is such that other players seem intimidated by him and look to give him the ball where possible, as Arsenal used to with Thierry Henry before he left. That has meant that Charlie Adam, so effective early in the campaign, has been stifled, whilst Craig Bellamy has been less effective.
Whilst it is true that Carroll, Henderson and Downing were all over priced and probably a waste of money, they are all good players. Bought for less, they would be worthwhile additions to the Liverpool squad. As it is, they are at Anfield now, and it is better to get the most out of them. Carroll should develop into a good forward, if not a £35 million one, whilst Downing is a useful squad player and Henderson has the ability to develop well.
So Liverpool should consider these lessons. They need to finish better, take more of their chances. But they also need protection for their defence, and to reduce the influence of Gerrard, who can no longer do what he once was able to for Liverpool. Failure to learn these lessons and Liverpool will be set for more disappointment in future years.