Liverpool FC have undoubtedly made great strides this season yet there are definite signs that next year the going will be hard and they will find challenging for the Premier League a much more difficult prospect.
Here are the six main reasons I see for this scenario:
They were lucky last season in that they had no European distractions and exited both domestic cups early, so they could concentrate on the Premier League (EPL). They played only 43 competitive matches; little more than an old Division 1 season. Next season they have the Champions League at least to contend with; a very different set of problems. The team went through the entire season without major injuries to any key players; Suarez played every EPL game he was eligible for, Steven Gerrard played in 34 of 38 games, Raheem Sterling in 33, Jordan Henderson in 35, Daniel Sturridge in 29 and Philippe Coutinho in 33 also. These players were the backbone of Liverpool's attacking style; even Martin Skrtel, their most effective offensive defender played 36 (though Liverpool fans might point to the number of own goals and chances he gave away as proof that he wasn't a key player!).
2. Luis Suarez
It might seem strange to suggest that Luis Suarez is one of the problems given his recent scintillating form and his (relatively) good behaviour this year. But I cannot see how he can possibly have another season as good as this. Perhaps a little indicator of this might be the fact that he only managed two goals in his last six games, after scoring 29 in the previous 27. Most great strikers have one fabulous season; look at Wayne Rooney and Didier Drogba, who both peaked in the same season a few years ago. Fernando Torres had a blistering season for Liverpool in 2007/08. I would put a lot of money on us never seeing Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge share over 50 EPL goals in a season again.
3. Weight of expectation
Liverpool went through a good portion of the season without anyone really believing they could win it. When it came to the crunch games they did blow up slightly and it remains to be seen if they have the nerve to go on and win the title. The Palace draw was an almost unbelievable capitulation and they were even fortunate to win the last game against Newcastle.
4. Refereeing decisions
Liverpool got an incredible amount of penalties and free kicks in critical areas last season. 12 penalties included three in one game against Manchester United, and this extended even up to the last game where they converted two Gerrard free kicks to snatch a largely undeserved victory. At various stages in the season Suarez, Sturridge, Sterling and Coutinho were criticised for 'going down too easily. Obviously a lot of these were genuine fouls deserving of the punishment but some (notably the disgraceful dive by Sturridge that got Vidic dismissed against Manchester United) were not. It was not obvious that referees were being any more discerning when it came to these decisions as the team still got a lot of decisions in their favour in the run-in; but it is unlikely that sort of volume will repeat itself next year.
5. Transfer dealings
While Brendan Rodgers has established himself as a first-class man-manager and a shrewd and attack-minded coach and tactician, the jury is still definitely out on his transfer dealings. For Liverpool to have any genuine chance of competing on all the fronts required next season they will need five or six effective signings who all contribute significantly to the team. So far Rodgers has only signed two players in this category in two full seasons - Sturridge and Coutinho. Of the eight players signed at the beginning of last season at a total cost of £45m only Mignolet made a significant number of appearances and many fans might question his contribution as he was responsible for conceding more chances and goals than any other keeper in the EPL. Rodgers has spent around £93million on 12 permanent signings; apart from the two mentioned above, only Joe Allen has established himself in the squad. That means nine permanent signings plus two further loans have all been failures. Not a good sign when the budget will probably only allow for the six signings required so selection will have to be pretty well perfect.
Finally, history indicates that clubs competing for the title who haven't won it for some time, show a significant improvement but narrowly fail, take something of a hit the next season. Liverpool themselves experienced this in 2009; after faltering in the final stages of the campaign they went backwards rapidly the next season and manager Rafa Benitez was gone by the season-end. Going back to the 1980s, Ipswich (with Bobby Robson at the helm) and Manchester United (with Ron Atkins) both experienced similar fates, as did Kevin Keegan's Newcastle in 1997. Interestingly, all these managers were, like Benitez, gone within a couple of seasons. For the sake of balance, Manchester United (with Sir Alex Ferguson in charge) failed in 1992 and then came back to win in 1993. But that was Man Utd and SAF! It is not impossible then - just historically unlikely.
I am not all suggesting that Brendan Rodgers' job is at risk or that he hasn't done fantastically well for the club. But his greatest challenges could well be in front of him as expectation and investment - and pressure - increase and test all of his management skills to the limits.
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