Liverpool’s first XI was certainly good enough to push for the Premier League title last season, but when they were chasing a game, such as the home match against Chelsea two weeks before the final day, Brendan Rodgers was sorely lacking in game-changers on the substitutes’ bench.
The sale of Luis Suarez to Barcelona gave the Irishman a sizeable transfer kitty and, with the Reds facing at least six additional games in 2014/15 due to their welcome return to the Champions League, Rodgers was not slow to boost the numbers in his squad.
While the departure of Suarez leaves a massive void in terms of Liverpool’s striking options, the manager now has the enviable problem of trying to find his strongest starting XI, with several players guaranteed to be hugely disappointed to be left relying on seeing their number appear in green on the fourth official’s electronic board.
If I was in Rodgers’ shoes, what starting team would I pick, assuming a squad free of injury and suspension? The Liverpool manager has often shown a liking for 4-3-3, but with a wealth of midfield options to choose from and proportionately few strikers, my preferred Reds XI would line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with the firm possibility of shuffling the deck if the situation so required.
Goalkeeper: Simon Mignolet
No surprises here as the Belgian earns my trust as Liverpool’s last line of defence. Despite the concession of 50-plus league goals last season, only a handful of those could be attributed to preventable errors on Mignolet’s part. There are understandable doubts over his competency to deal with aerial balls, but the former Sunderland netminder showed his shot-stopping prowess with a couple of spectacular saves in Sunday’s win over Southampton. Without his crucial interventions, last year’s runners-up would not have begun the 2014-15 campaign with a win. Brad Jones is certainly an able deputy, but for now there’s no displacing Mignolet.
Right-back: Javier Manquillo
The young Spaniard has only played two matches in Liverpool red, but his performances against Borussia Dortmund and Southampton offer encouragement for the months ahead. Despite his tender years, he has shown an excellent ability to time his tackles, even though the Saints had some joy on his flank on Sunday. As the season progresses, Manquillo should become further accustomed to the 100mph rigours of the Premier League.
Centre-backs: Dejan Lovren and Martin Skrtel
Since the departure of Sami Hyypia in 2009, Liverpool have been crying out for a truly dominant man at the heart of their defence. Rodgers has invested £20million in the hope that Lovren might finally be that commanding, no-nonsense centre-back. As with Manquillo, it is very early yet to definitively judge whether the Croatia international will be a smash hit at Anfield, but his year with Southampton has educated him on the demands of this league and he has also tasted Champions League action during his Lyon days. Comfortable on the ball, dangerous at set pieces and composing at the back, Lovren should go a long way towards remedying what was a gaping problem area for Liverpool in their futile pursuit of a first Premier League title.
There are signs that Lovren could form an imposing centre-back partnership with Skrtel, who is also adept at plundering a few goals when he goes up for a corner or free kick. The Slovakian has an unfortunate tendency to appear on scoresheets with the letters ‘o.g.’ after his name, though, and in six years at Anfield he has never quite grown into a Hyypia or Carragher that can effortlessly thwart the best strikers in the game. Skrtel is courageous, throwing his head into challenges fearlessly in unwavering pursuit of stifling his opponent, and has the experience necessary to develop into a leader for this team. He represents a safer option than the wantaway Daniel Agger or the unconvincing Mamadou Sakho.
Left-back: Alberto Moreno
Moreno has yet to set foot on a pitch as a Liverpool player, but even the sporadic glimpses I had of him in action for Sevilla in their march to Europa League glory last term convince me that he is a more dependable full-back than Glen Johnson. In fact, I would even put Jon Flanagan as my second choice left-back behind the Spaniard, such is my lack of faith in Johnson’s defensive ability. In the same manner that the Reds haven’t had a top-class centre-back since Hyypia, the left side of defence has been a problem position from the time that John Arne Riise upped sticks in 2008. Moreno could well succeed where Emiliano Insua and Paul Konchesky failed miserably, although Jose Enrique had been performing adequately in the role prior to his long-term injury.
Deep-lying midfielders: Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson
Dare you drop your 34-year-old captain and deified club icon, albeit one who is demonstrably in the winter of his illustrious career? It takes a quite ruthless manager to implement such a course of action, and while Rodgers has not been afraid to stamp his authority, he realises that it would appall the Kop if Gerrard was told to be content with a place on the bench. The skipper owes nothing to Liverpool and still possesses that special ability to emerge from the shadows to conjure a match-winning moment, but there are occasions when he strangely goes missing just as his team needs him to come to the fore. His importance to the side makes him deserving of a starting place for now, but the time is drawing ever closer when he will need to be gradually phased out of the team with an eye to the future, something that will not be lost on Joe Allen.
Beside him in the midfield engine room, Henderson did not enjoy the easiest of starts in a Liverpool shirt but he has commendably worked tirelessly to prove himself worthy of employment at Anfield. When filling the role that Gerrard would normally play in last season’s 5-0 drubbing of Tottenham, the Geordie had a superb evening and chipped in with one of the goals. His deftness of touch was in evidence against Southampton last weekend; he will hardly play a better pass all season than the one which provided Raheem Sterling with the opportunity to open the scoring. Henderson is also capable of doing the donkey work in midfield; look back at the seconds preceding that exquisite ball to Sterling and you will see how he battled tigerishly to win possession and then retain it under pressure before launching that sensational 30-yarder.
Right attacking midfielder: Raheem Sterling
Reports of the teenager’s early foraying into fatherhood and his backchat to Rodgers in the Irishman’s first few weeks at Anfield (anyone who has seen the castigated ‘Being Liverpool’ documentary will know what I mean) suggested that Sterling could end up being more trouble than he was worth. Since that summer of 2012, though, the youngster has grown immensely as a player, showing a maturity and a composure which belie his age of 19. He excelled in the Reds’ unexpected push for the title last season and, while he still has an occasional tendency to shoot for goal when there is a better-placed team-mate a simple pass away, he has long since won Rodgers over following their pre-season tiff in Canada two years ago. In Sterling, Liverpool also have a player who will run himself into the ground in a feverish desire to get on the ball and make effective use of it.
Central attacking midfielder: Philippe Coutinho
The Brazilian slipped almost unnoticed into Anfield in January 2013 when he signed from Inter Milan for £8million, with only observers of Serie A aware of just what he could bring to Liverpool. Unlike the extensive roll call of imports who need time to settle into English football, Coutinho hit the ground running and his contribution was a significant factor behind the Reds’ improvement in the latter weeks of 2012-13. Throughout the course of last season he successfully proved that his initial impact on the Premier League was no flash in the plan, his majestic ability with the ball at his feet sparking many a smile among Liverpool fans. His understated nature indirectly resulted in him being scandalously overlooked for Brazil’s World Cup squad, an omission that came back to haunt Luiz Felipe Scolari, and Dunga has wisely called him up for the five-time world champions. If Liverpool are to enjoy a positive season, you can be sure that the dazzling skills of Coutinho will be a recurring characteristic when looking back at it.
Left attacking midfielder: Adam Lallana
The 26-year-old was denied the opportunity to make his competitive Liverpool bow against the club with whom he made his name, injury ruling him out of the 2-1 win over Southampton. Not to blow my own trumpet here, but I recall seeing Lallana in League One for the Saints in 2009 and I believed he had the potential to become an England international. It took five years for that prophecy to come true, although it came as no real surprise when he did get his country’s call. Lallana is wholehearted, a superb passer of the ball, an astute reader of the game when not in possession and able to chip in with his share of goals. Once he is fit enough to take his place in the Liverpool team, I am fully confident that the £25million spent on him will be well worth it.
Striker: Daniel Sturridge
After failing to make the grade at Man City and Chelsea, I was rather apprehensive about Sturridge when he came to Merseyside in January 2013, but I soon realised the folly of my ways. In no time he had linked up effectively with Luis Suarez, with the Reds racking up some comprehensive wins in the concluding weeks of a league season that had admittedly left them with little to play for. As well as operating effectively in tandem with Suarez, Sturridge would go on to show in the first few games of 2013-14 that he could be prolific without the Uruguayan alongside him up front. He is one of those players that instinctively knows when and how to shoot for goal, as well as getting himself into positions to apply the finishing touch to a carefully-crafted move. His stock has risen immeasurably under the tutelage of Rodgers to the point where now he is arguably Liverpool’s most important player. If Sturridge was, God forbid, to fall victim to a lengthy injury this season, the Reds could be in severe trouble. Should he stay injury-free, I have no doubt he can break the 20-goal mark in the Premier League once again.
Is this Brendan Rodgers’ strongest starting-eleven at Anfield? Join the discussion in the comment section below or on Twitter @TBRFootball.