Will it be the Liverpool which fights through any kind of pressure in Cup matches, the Liverpool which helped put English football on the European map — or the Liverpool which struggled through so many league games last season that you wondered if the wrong guys got off the bus?
That’s the huge question hanging over the Reds, and it’s not a question that will be answered easily or quickly for that matter.
Liverpool is a club in transition, and given recent history it’s no wonder. It was only two years ago that another pair of North American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr., went to the wall, nearly taking the storied team with them. John Henry and the Fenway Sports Group provided a bailout, purchasing the club at what many think was a bargain price. Liverpool, after all, is a global franchise and arguably is rivaled only by Manchester United for the loyalty of its supporters.
While Henry was welcomed with open arms, it’s not been smooth sailing. The choice of Roy Hodgson as manager may be a smart one for England but it was a disaster in Liverpool where the Englishman’s attempt to build a defense-first club washed out in six months.
Kenny Dalglish took over and initially saved the sinking ship, but his tenure last season was brutally off-key. Yes, Dalglish won a trophy for Liverpool — the League Cup — but his team finished so far behind United and champion Manchester City in the league they were much closer to relegation (16 points away from the drop zone) than a championship (37 points behind the leaders.)
More troubling was that Dalglish — not without some help — made a complete hash of the Luis Suarez situation, a toxic incident which continues to stain the club. Dalglish backed his player with a tone-deaf display and utterly failed to grasp the significance when Suarez and Patrice Evra did not shake hands before the next match involving the two antagonists.
King Kenny was dispatched this May, a move that will again test one of Liverpool’s ancient strength/weakness: Dalglish was a heroic player and manager with a following that will not forget what he did for the club. You can fire him, but you cannot remove him from Anfield, nor can you escape his huge shadow still hangs over the club.
And that’s the history confronting Brendan Rodgers as he takes over as the third Liverpool manager in only three years.
And that’s not all: Rodgers arrives from Swansea with a reputation for teaching a possession, pass-and-run style of football that looks nothing at all like the smash-and-grab game Liverpool has successfully employed when playing at its best. Rodgers not only must convince the players on hand that his style works, he must also actively search for new talent to rebuild a side short on overall proven quality.
Liverpool’s fighting spirit has masked some of the gaps in the past decade, but last season’s utter collapse in the league was not hidden by successful Cup campaigns. Indeed, even the most ardent Liverpool supporters seem to be finally getting the message: the only trophies that matter in England any longer are the Barclays championship title or a top four finish.
Rodgers’ task is to make a team that sometimes couldn’t compete with average sides into one that can qualify for the Champions League. He has to do it while trying to figure out to keep Steven Gerrard on the field and directly involved in the new-look style of play. That won’t be easy, either: Gerrard has become injury prone, and as he showed in Euro 2012 he is still the archetypal definition of an English midfielder, a fine long-passer, an excellent free kick taker and about two steps slower than he used to be.
The other main challenge is making something of an attack that often caused more danger to the supporters behind the goal than to anyone standing between the two white posts.
Suarez, after a fine debut season, was remarkably erratic, even allowing for the nearly two-months off for suspension. Andy Carroll has not delivered anything like what was expected when Liverpool bought him from Newcastle and it appears that Rodgers is actively looking for a way to rid himself of the big, lumbering attacker.
Charlie Adam is back healthy, but nobody will confuse him with Luka Modric, Eden Hazard or even Paul Scholes as a midfield general. Pepe Reina had an unimpressive year in goal and the defense, at times, looked lost.
Does this sound like a championship contender?
Now there, are some bright spots: Roma’s Fabio Borini is the latest import, still developing at 21, but coming off a decent Euro 2012 campaign. Lucas is back healthy and he is a critical part of Liverpool’s attack; when he went out with a torn ACL, he took a good deal of the Reds’ creativity with him.
And rumors continue to swirl about Clint Dempsey. The American attacker is coming off a career year at Fulham, but the Reds were left red-faced when Fenway Sports Group’s home page erroneously announced the capture of the national teamer. Several sources have told FOX Soccer the sides are very far apart in their valuation of Dempsey and talk of an imminent move is wide of the mark.
But a good start in America could be just the tonic Rodgers needs. Like it or not – and Liverpool fans will not – this is could be an agonizing transition.