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Liverpool 2015-16 season preview

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Things are looking fairly different at Liverpool heading into the 2015/16 season.

This time last year there was a monumental amount of optimism heading into the new campaign. Liverpool had just finished second in the Premier League and, despite the sale of Luis Suarez to Barcelona, spent over £100 million on new recruits that added plenty of depth to the squad in all areas.

Fast forward 12 months and that confidence has turned into fans becoming extremely sceptical . After the potential of genuine title hopes once again, Brendan Rodgers' men truly and utterly flopped.

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Liverpool finished a lacklustre sixth in the league and crashed out of the Champions League in the group stages as well as failing to add a piece of silverware to the Anfield trophy cabined. Liverpool's season was summed up in their final Premier League fixture; they were thrashed 6-1 away at Stoke City and left Kopites embarrassed.

Rodgers has again splashed the cash this summer bringing seven new faces to Anfield including £32.5 million Christian Benteke from Aston Villa.

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However, Liverpool will be without Raheem Sterling who, after months of creating back-page headlines, finally forced his move to Manchester City for £49 million.

There's no doubt club owners Fenway Sports Group will be desperate for a top-four finish this season and they'll want to see the Merseyside outfit reach a final - at least. The financial benefits of qualifying for the Champions League give team's such a significant edge over their rivals to attract the world's best players.

Manager Focus

This is now Rodgers' fourth season in charge at Anfield and his time hasn't been the most inspiring.

His first year in charge was a transaction stage for the Northern Irishman; he was mopping up the mess left by Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish and he needed that period to develop his fresh philosophy to his squad.

The 2013/14 campaign was of course encouraging; however, some made Rodgers out to be the best thing since sliced bread. Liverpool played lucrative football that was superb to watch with Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho all lighting up the Premier League.

In hindsight, however, the effort was not all down to Rodgers. In fact, it was a mixture of having no other competition distractions (after crashing out of the FA Cup and League Cup early) and the magic of Suarez. The Uruguayan never failed to sparkle and his individual performances dropped jaws and finished the campaign on 31 league goals.

Last season, Rodgers was brought down to reality. He opted for quantity over quality and ultimately paid the price for not replacing Suarez. The ex-Swansea City manager placed his eggs in the basket of Sturridge instead of spending a significant amount of cash on a new goalscorer.

The England international had indeed been top-class after scoring 21 league goals when playing second-fiddle to Suarez; however, he's always had injury problems and last term was no different and spent most of the season side-lined with knee and hip injuries.

This could be last-chance saloon for Rodgers. He's the first Liverpool manager since the 1950's not to win a trophy within his first three season's in charge and Fenway Sports Group will expect results after giving him more cash this summer. Rodgers almost lost his job at the end of last term, with his assistant manager Colin Pascoe and head coach Mike Marsh being handed their P45's.

Having now been able to reshape his back-room set-up there will be no excuse if Rodgers fails. Everything is on his terms and he has to take full responsibility if things don't go to plan.

What he must improve is his ability to change tactics if his side are being outplayed. The FA Cup semi-final against Aston Villa was bemusing to watch; at least three different formations were employed within the first 45 minutes. His substitutes too rarely take effect and he is rarely able to make subtle changes that work to perfection.

What Rodgers is yet to achieve is gaining perfect harmony between attack and defence. Over the past two season's the Reds have conceded 102 league goals. This, for a so called 'top club' is a tally that is far too saturated. Liverpool made 30 defensive errors last term and he must get the ying-yang effect nailed on.

Fenway and supporters will be keeping a watchful eye over Rodgers and his fate could be decided by Christmas. Jurgen Klopp is currently sitting in the unemployed lounge and he's expressed his interest to mange in the Premier League; if Rodgers does not get immediate results there is a more than worthy replacement available.

Who Must Improve

There are a host of players who have to show they are much better than their efforts last campaign.

One of those is Lazar Markovic who's maiden season at Anfield was bitterly disappointing. Makrovic arrived at the Reds for £20 million from Benfica; that price-tag had some shirking given he was just 20 but he had proven himself over the previous year.

The past season he'd inspired Benfica to league success in Portugal and helped them into the final of the Europa League and won a place in the competition's Team of the Year. Markovic was suspended for the final against Sevilla and some argue if he'd have played his side would have won instead of losing on penalties.

Comments surrounding him were extremely positive; fellow countryman Nemanja Matic said Markovic could be one of the best player's in Europa if he continued to progress.

However, his debut year was very underwhelming. He was renowned for ferocious pace and his ability to skip past defenders through aggression but that was rarely witnessed.

Markovic had a short cameo in the Champions League against Basel coming off the bench when Liverpool were 1-0 down at Anfield. Rodgers told Markovic to attack defenders with venom, giving him the freedom do what he wanted. The Serbia international was a bright spark in the second-half before he was sent-off and Kopites believed Markovic had finally come good.

Further encouraging performances against Sunderland away, were he scored his first league goal in the 1-0 win, and 2-2 draw against Arsenal at home again made fans feel that Markovic had a prosperous future at Liverpool.

That was to be short lived. Markovic was utilised as a wing-back by Rodgers, a role he was not suited to. It meant that he had to defend and could never rarely commit himself to an attack as he knew he had defensive duties to fulfil. The likelihood is that prior to his move to Liverpool he was never asked to defend once in his life.

Alas, when he was played in an attacking role he rarely made an impact. He started out wide away against Arsenal in April and had a glorious chance when the score was 0-0 in the first-half. Instead of taking responsibility like a £20 million signing should and shooting, he opted to play in Sterling however overplayed his pass and the ball went out for a goal kick. 

Another who must prove himself is Dejan Lovren. He cost £20 million from Southampton last summer and Rodgers intended him to replace Jamie Carragher and lead Liverpool's defence.

Unfortunately the opposite occurred. Lovren did not settle in the early stages of his Anfield career and was always making up lost ground. The Croatia international looked desperate to impress and tried too hard. Instead of playing an easy pass he'd instead look to bring the ball out which would get himself and his team-mates into trouble.

In his first 15 league games Lovren made six defensive errors and made more mistakes than any other play at the end of the season. 

The 26-year-old looks set to partner Martin Skrtel for Liverpool's first game against Stoke on Sunday. He has a chance to impress his manager with a bold performance and will have no easy task marking the physical Potters team. If he fails to fire Rodgers has Mamadou Sakho, Kolo Toure, Tiago Illori and Joe Gomez all ready for replace Lovren.

Key Player

Coutinho dominated at Liverpool's 2014/15 end of season awards and scooped four prizes including Players' Player of the Year and was voted in the PFA Team of the Year.

He dazzled the Premier League last term and made himself a menace to the opposition. His balance and ability to darts past defenders with the shimmy of a shoulder drop was magnificent to watch and his through balls weren't all that bad, either.

The former Inter Milan man totted up just five assists last season; however, that low number was down to poor finishing from his team-mates. He created 58 chances throughout the campaign and, had there been a sufficient striker who knew were the goal was playing alongside him, Coutinho's assist tally would have neared double figures.

Coutinho has competition from Adam Lallana and £29.5 million signing Roberto Firmino but he will be Rodgers' main man and slot in just behind the striker.

All Eyes Will Be On

New-boys Benteke and Firmino.

Liverpool paid a whopping £32.5 million for the former, becoming the club's second highest record signing. 

Benteke no doubt has talent and can find the net - he scored 42 goals from 89 league appearances for Aston Villa whilst fighting relegation for the three season's he was there.

He is supposedly Rodgers' answer to Liverpool's goalscoring problem. The Reds were distinctly toothless in front of goal last term and scored just 52 in the top flight. Sturridge cannot be relied on given his injury history and fellow new arrivals Danny Ings and Divock Origi are still young and learning and will likely play their part from the bench.

There are questions whether Benteke will fit in at Anfield. He's been dubbed as a 'big target-man' for all of his career. Under Rodgers' reign at Liverpo those with a similar reputation have failed. Andy Carroll was instantly dismissed as unworthy when Rodgers first took the helm at the five-time European Cup winners and both Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert both failed to adapt to the quick, attacking style encouraged that requires precise movement.

If Benteke can adapt there's no doubt he will thrive at the Reds. If he does not, he cannot be blamed and the finger must be pointed at the manager.

Firmino was relatively unheard of when his £29.5 million move from Hoffenheim was announced. Club executive Ian Ayre immediately flew to Chile to tie-up the deal whilst the 23-year-old was representing Brazil in the Copa America. That price-tag for a stranger has made fans slightly worried about if Liverpool had once again overpaid for a player.

What's so impressive about Firmino is his ability to keep the ball close to his body and drag more than one defender around him which creates space for his team-mates.

His versatility too is something that Rodgers will be pleased about. Firmino is able to play out wide, as a number ten or as a striker if need be. Given the money, Kopites will be expected results in the first few weeks of the season.

Don't Forget About

Sturridge may be out injured until October but, providing he stays fit following that, will look to hit the ground running.

It must have been frustrating for the former Chelsea man to watch Coutinho flourish from the side-lines and see team-mates fluff their lines in front of goal.

Sturridge's goalscoring record at Liverpool is prolific; he boasts a tally of 40 goals from just 67 games. He has serious quality and Rodgers will be praying to the divine he can remain fit when he comes back.

New Captain

Liverpool will be without Steven Gerrard for the first time in almost two decades. After making his senior debut 18 years ago and carried the Reds through thick and thin during that time, he has finally left the club for Los Angeles Galaxy.

Jordan Henderson takes the armband and, although he will never be able to emulate Gerrard's success, he has to step up to the plate.

Henderson has the chance of lifting silverware for the first time since 2012 and lead his side to Champions League qualification. 

The former Sunderland man has significantly improved in recent season's; however, there is going to be a lot more expected from him this term. Whereas he'd often allow Gerrard to do the creative aspect, Henderson will now have to take that role. He'll have a very able deputy playing alongside him in the centre-of-midfield in James Milner and Henderson must become the heartbeat of the team.

There are still some doubts that surround the 25-year-old and he'll be hoping to quickly answer any critics.

Tactics

It will be intriguing what sysetm Rodgers employs this season.

Liverpool were so successful playing 4-3-3 during the 2013/14 campaign with the forward men hitting teams on the counter-attack within a blink of an eye.

That formation did not work last term and Rodgers switched to 3-5-2. Temporarily it worked but team's soon discovered Liverpool's weakness down the flanks and exposed them that way.

It looks certain Rodgers will go back to playing four in defence. Nathaniel Clyne is a very solid addition at right-back after signing from Southampton for £12.5 million. He's arguably been the league's best in that position in the past two years and adds much more clarity defending and attacking.

Left-back is still up for grabs. Alberto Moreno's debut campaign wasn't the greatest and he has to improve defensively as he tends to give wingers far too much space to cross the ball and rashly dives into challenges. Gomez could well start against Stoke on Sunday. He cost £3.5 million from Charlton Athletic and is just 18 but has shown he's experienced beyond his age in pre-season.

It is likely Rodgers will try 4-3-3 for the first game. Henderson and Milner will offer incredible work-rate in the centre of the park with both taking turns to attack in the appropriate situations. They'll likely be joined by Coutinho who will play ahead of them and look to thread the ball through to the attackers.

Let's not forget about Emre Can who will offer a formidable challenge to those three. He was Germany's stand-out player during the summer's U21s European Championship and has a massive future ahead of him.

Benteke displayed at Villa he can play as a lone striker. He'll have to adapt and thrust into space more often than he did at the Birmingham outfit. 

On the right-hand side of the attack, we could see either Markovic or Jordan Ibe start. Ibe has been heavily favoured by Rodgers in pre-season and during the 2-0 pre-season win against HJK Helsinki last Saturday a lot of play came through him. Liverpool fans were not all that disheartened when Sterling left as Ibe has offered plenty of encouragement and many feel he has a better future.

On the left-hand side will see either Firmino or Adam Lallana play there. In previous seasons Rodgers allows the man on the left more freedom to cut inside and shoot at goal. Lallana has a lot to prove this campaign; his maiden campaign was riddled with a series of injury and he never got to really hit the ground running. He cost £25 million from Southampton last summer and the jury is still out on him.

Where will Liverpool finish?

Top-four may be the aim but it is going to be an incredibly difficult task to achieve.

Chelsea will be as strong as last season and Jose Mourinho's incredible tactics will always make them difficult to stop. Sometimes it may not be the most attractive football but the Blues get the job done.

Manchester City now have Sterling at their deployment and they're summer spending is likely to increase. Kevin De Bruyne is Manuel Pellegrini's top target and his form for Wolfsburg was incredible last term and he could be a huge hit at the Etihad.

Arsene Wenger has assembled a very strong squad at Arsenal and the addition of Petr Cech means they have a world-class goalkeeper; something they've lacked down the years.

Manchester United look like genuine title challengers this term with Louis van Gaal working hard over the summer. He's added World Cup winner Bastian Schweinstager to his side who will work wonders in the midfield with Ander Herrara and fellow newcomer Morgan Schneiderlin. 

What could be the downfall of Rodgers is that he may struggle to fins his best team. Liverpool have such a vast squad with seven new faces arriving this summer as well as Origi and Illori arriving back on loan.

That is what happened last season; the Reds picked up just 14 points from their first ten games as Rodgers played around with his starting XI.

What Liverpool lack that Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United have is genuine world-class players who can waltz into any team in the world and win matches. Apart from Coutinho and maybe Clyne who what Liverpool player would genuinely get a game week in, week out in last season's top-four?

Prediction: 5th. 

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Topics:
Philippe Coutinho
Christian Benteke
Liverpool
Premier League
Daniel Sturridge
Adam Lallana
Brendan Rodgers
Football

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