Whilst this weekend’s loss to Chelsea has left Liverpool despondent and robbed them of their commanding position in the title race, there are still many positives to take from their revival under Brendan Rodgers this season.
Upon taking the reigns, Rodgers warned that restoring Liverpool to greatness was a long-term project, and that he should be judged on progress after four years. Two years in and, at the very least, Champions League qualification has finally been achieved again, whilst the league is still not entirely lost.
In his time at the helm, Rodgers has drawn consistently world-class performances from Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard, despite the latter's advancing years, whilst Jordan Henderson, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling have revitalised their careers following the Northern Irishman’s input and advice.
However, as much as last season's 7th place finish can be seen as part of the rebuilding process Rodgers has undertaken, this year’s guaranteed top-four position cannot be considered the end of the journey.
Rodgers must sustain the momentum and continue developing his young side in his vision; the breathtaking, exhilarating nature of their attacking play has won plaudits, but this must be taken to the next level in order for the manager to achieve legendary status at this famous club.
Liverpool’s transfer activity will be intriguing to watch as the summer unfolds. Sunday’s defeat at Chelsea exposed the lack of depth in the squad, with the defensively minded Lucas proving to be a poor replacement for Jordan Henderson's effervescent energy and creativity, whilst only a half-fit Sturridge and the much-maligned Iago Aspas emerged from the bench in an attempt to affect the game.
Arguably, the team needs at least one top-class addition in each position, but will still be hampered by a budget considerably less than Chelsea, Manchester City and even Manchester United will be afforded.
Mistakes of previous windows, such as the underused Oussama Assaidi and injury-stricken Fabio Borini, must be avoided as the stakes are raised even higher. Indeed, Borini, who has improved gradually at Sunderland this season, could yet become a useful squad member with Champions League exertions likely to tell on a wafer-thin squad throughout next season.
Similarly, a top-class understudy, or even replacement, for Gerrard must be recruited at a reasonable fee - at 33, he is unlikely to manage an entire calendar, despite remaining a crucial cog in Rodgers’ system from his deep-lying midfield role.
John Flanagan has been excellent as a makeshift left-back, but can’t be considered as the long-term solution to this position, whilst Jose Enrique and Aly Cissokho have been less than convincing. Whilst they are unlikely to be able to afford the likes of Luke Shaw, the manager’s record of developing youth players suggests that Jack Robinson could yet emerge as a first teamer.
Defence as a whole appears in need of not only reinforcement, but also refinement; at centre back Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger, Mamadou Sakho, Tiago Llori, Sebastien Coates, Kolo Toure, Martin Kelly and Andre Wisdom are all on the books, but it is hard to argue that a Champions League standard partnership exists amongst all those players.
Skrtel has been the only real mainstay this season, whilst Sakho still appears to be adjusting and Agger has again been afflicted by injury, with Wisdom and Llori still developing. The rest could be dispensed with if one high-quality alternative, such as Cardiff’s Steven Caulker, can be purchased.
Etracting more from his younger players may help Rodgers next season - Luis Alberto was clearly signed with the future in mind, but could clearly benefit from greater first-team involvement.
Suso will return from a mixed spell at Almeria this summer, and will surely have an active role to play if Liverpool are to fight on four fronts for silverware. The impressive Flanagan may also be seen as a long-term replacement for Glen Johnson, who at the age of 30, appears to already be in decline.
With many challenges ahead, watching Rodgers take this young, exciting team on to higher peaks will prove to be hugely intriguing. Having secured Champions League football and the security that brings, it now waits to be seen just how far this side can go.
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