This trip to North America offers Brendan Rodgers a chance to take stock. His Liverpool reign started here two years ago. He watched his team cope with the philosophical changes in his first year and sustain a surprising title challenge in his second. His enterprising approach propelled the team forward ahead of schedule.
By nearly every measure, it is a job well done so far. The lessons and the missed opportunities during the denouement of last season may linger for some time if things unravel from here, but encouragement and hope surround Liverpool now. It is down to Rodgers and his players to build upon it as they prepare for the Champions League and Premier League commitments ahead.
"We’ve made great progress," Rodgers said before his side lost 1-0 to A.S. Roma at Fenway Park on Wednesday. "There is still a lot of work for us to do and a lot of progress to be made. As long as that is the case, we will continue to work hard as a club and as a staff to keep it moving forward."
The departure of Luis Suarez to Barcelona provides an evident obstacle to those ambitions. His exit this summer always loomed after the drama a year ago and the release clause inserted when he extended his contract in December. The reality of entering the season without the highly controversial and vastly talented Uruguayan leaves Liverpool with a nine-figure fee to spend and a gaping void to fill.
"Obviously, it’s a shame he’s not here, but the club is bigger than any individual," Rodgers said. "He’s a fantastic player, but we’ll move forward. It’s really exciting to go into this season. We’ve qualified for the Champions League. We went close on the title. I’m really excited with the players we’ve brought in, young players with great profiles who can play how we want to play."
Suarez’s exit — and the associated failure to entice Alexis Sanchez to Merseyside in part exchange — left Liverpool to focus once again on the collective instead of individual brilliance. This group banded together to thrive during Suarez’s ban early last season, but his permanent departure leaves a more lasting mark given the lack of a top-class replacement.
Liverpool followed the path charted by Tottenham after the Gareth Bale sale last summer and plumped for quantity to compensate for the departure of a star. No one will confuse Rickie Lambert for Suarez in the final third, but he supplies a direct element useful as an alternative off the bench or as a complement to Daniel Sturridge. Adam Lallana provides some imagination in midfield to reduce the burden on Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling. Lazar Markovic represents more of a play for the future, but his undeniable talent could accelerate the time frame if he settles well.
The onus does not fall on any one player to replace Suarez’s 31 goals from last season, though. The reinforcements — including the versatile Emre Can and the inevitable defender or two to follow him — and the returning players must instead share the load to survive without him.
"You can’t replace him like-for-like, but there will be other players which we can bring in who can bring other things to the game, other facets to it," Rodgers said. "But the core principles won’t change."
Liverpool remain firmly committed to the swashbuckling fare that produced 101 goals a year ago, but they must ally it with more pragmatism to mount a challenge on both fronts. Suarez’s absence reduces the margin for error considerably. They cannot rely on a talisman to engineer salvation at the right moment or win a match by himself. The corresponding adjustments must reflect the increased scrutiny ahead and the revised reality of life without Suarez without sacrificing the core of the side.
Rodgers will spend much of Liverpool’s American sojourn plotting ways to coax this team back to the standards established once again last season. The task will not prove easy with Suarez gone. It is further complicated by the improvements made by Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United after last term. There is a genuine danger of taking a step or two back as this vibrant and youthful squad adjusts to the exacting demands placed upon it.
The measures to prevent such fallout start here. They will continue through the next few weeks as several players return from extended World Cup breaks and the squad takes its final shape. This is the perfect time to assess where things stand and ponder where they might go. And it is not an opportunity Rodgers or his players plan to squander.