Bill Shankly once said: “If you are first you are first. If you are second, you are nothing.” A more contemporary saying captures the point even better – when you finish second, you are the first loser.
But football and the Premier League is a different universe where finish second (or third, or fourth) is still considered a success, with Champions League qualification and associated TV and matchday income a game-changer and the prestige helping the clubs attract top talent from around the world.
Liverpool finished second last season and were agonisingly close to claiming their maiden title in the Premier League era. It was heartbreak and tears in the end for Steven Gerrard and co but it also gave the Reds a new hope. A new desire. A new challenge.
“What it has done with this team and this group, it has made us even more unified and stronger to be more successful in the future. I’m super hungry to be a champion and succeed and we have shown we have the credentials to do that,” said Reds manager Brendan Rodgers.
Every new season brings a new challenge with it. Rodgers has set the bar high enough where even failing to encore last season’s performance would be seen as a step back by some. However, having spoken to many Liverpool season ticket holders one can assume that a top four finish along with any domestic cup triumph and a good run in the Champions League (round of 16 or quarterfinals) should be the minimum level of success for Liverpool this season.
Getting the best out of new players
This has been a ground-breaking summer for Liverpool, with the Reds having spent over £100m in the transfer window signing nine new players. It could be 10, should they manage to land Victor Valdes from Barcelona on a free transfer.
The major challenge for Rodgers now is to get the best out of all his new signings (except Origi, who has been sent on loan to Lille). Foreign players understandably take time to adjust to a new league but the sooner they grasp the philosophy of their manager, the better it is for the club. Last season, it was clear how Tottenham Hotspur failed to accommodate all the star players they had purchased into a fine unit. Liverpool must be patient in their approach.
Dual challenge of Premier League and Europe
While most Liverpool players (new and old) have experience of playing in European competitions, this is the first time Liverpool as a team are participating in Europe after a long time, and that too with a completely revamped squad. Like other ‘returnees’ to Europe, Liverpool will also face the same challenge of balancing European and Premier League games participation. The Tuesday-Saturday regular fixtures can be tiresome while Liverpool’s squad depth will be seriously tested this season.
Sorting out the defence
Liverpool conceded 50 goals in the league last season, the most by any team in the top eight. Their adherence to playing attractive, expansive and attacking football often left the defence exposed. This season they will need to step up in defence (as well as in defensive midfield) otherwise they will suffer in Europe with strong oppositions ready to exploit their defensive frailties through sharp counter attacks.
Fringe & under-performing players
Liverpool are expected to be competing in all the major competitions where the whole squad will be asked to step up and make necessary contributions.
The likes of Lucas Leiva, Fabio Borini, Glen Johnson, Kolo Toure et al should make every opportunity count when they would be asked to fill in gaps, in case Rodgers needs to rest some of his key players, especially ahead of big games.
Handling Mario Balotelli
Balotelli is undoubtedly a supremely talented footballer but he is enigmatic and his temperamental problems make him a difficult character to deal with. It’s a pity that a player of his class and quality manages to grab headlines mostly for wrong reasons. Liverpool will need him firing all cylinders, and the club expect him to fulfil his vast potential, but whether can he stay free from controversies remains to be seen.