Premier League Season Preview: Life after Luis Suarez begins for Liverpool
What would represent a good season for Liverpool? After coming so close to the title last year, would not winning the Premier League be a disappointment? Or was last season an over-achievement, and is consolidation in the top four the priority?
It's hard to know what coach Brendan Rodgers really thinks, given the on-message soundbytes in which he specializes (at least he has stopped the pompous utterances that peppered his first season, aside from last February's classic: "My life's work has been trying to show that British players can play").
That either eventuality is an option for Liverpool fans is huge credit to Rodgers, who in two years has revitalized the team and shaken up the Premier League with Liverpool's attacking football, which comes with an English heart. Rodgers has made Liverpool popular again, which was no easy feat given the disastrous ownership of the George Gillett-Tom Hicks era; the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra racism row, Suarez's biting incident with Branislav Ivanovic and subsequent damaging, and blinkered, support from within the club.
So how does Liverpool cope without Suarez? He scored a league-record 31 league goals last season (out of the club's 101) and 23 (out of 71) the season before. In all competitions, 61 goals in 81 games are stunning figures. Impossible to replace, right? Well, that's the point. Liverpool has not tried to replace him; instead, it has brought in players to improve the squad's depth, and competition for places.
Comparisons with Spurs' failed efforts to replace Gareth Bale one year ago have been rubbished by Rodgers, who spoke of his team's "strategy behind what we're doing" in barbed tones. He has a point, as he has not bought seven players all expecting to start. Instead, as Rory Smith points out in FourFourTwo, the better comparison is with Atletico Madrid after it sold Radamel Falcao to Monaco.
Atletico signed David Villa as support for Diego Costa, strengthened the squad, and ended up winning the title. The replacement for Falcao was already there: Costa. In a similar way, perhaps Raheem Sterling, whose game intelligence and eye for goal improved hugely as last season went on, could step up.
Rodgers has sought to improve his defense by signing Dejan Lovren from Southampton (from whom he also signed Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert) and his natural authority has already impressed in pre-season. But £20 million seems a large sum: was Lovren not on the Liverpool radar one year ago, when he cost the Saints an estimated £8.5 million? And were his performances really so good last season as to command such a high fee?
Rodgers still has issues to deal with, notably at fullback, where Javier Manquillo and Alberto Moreno should challenge for starting places, and goalkeeper, where Simon Mignolet did not win universal acclaim with his debut-season performances while the advent of Champions League football will require him to dip into his now-deeper squad.
Rodgers may have switched formations more than any other coach last season, but he rarely rotated the spine of his team. Suarez, not fatigued by midweek European games, played all 33 league matches after his ban expired. The likelihood this season is that Liverpool will be less gung-ho and more controlled, which might mean fewer goals (after all, Liverpool did concede three goals and still didn¹t lose in five games last season).
In all of this, it's easy to forget about one of the major reasons for Liverpool's superb season last year; that all of its rivals, for different reasons, were in transition. Chelsea and Manchester City had coaches in their first year at the club, Arsenal was distracted by speculation over Arsene Wenger's future and Manchester United, well, it had David Moyes in charge. All four teams will be better this season.
The question is, will Liverpool? That remains to be seen, and it's why finishing in the top four again would be just as impressive a return as last year's heroics.