2008/09 – Liverpool finished second under Rafael Benitez.
Despite losing Xabi Alonso the following season, no body, yes no body, thought Liverpool would finish outside top four.
Liverpool finished 7th. Rafa was sacked. Champions League kissed goodbye and the club stared at dark and bleak future waiting to grasp.
What was supposed to be a season of hope and expectation turned out to be a season of massive catastrophe and mayhem. Injury was averted but the wound threatened to linger for years.
New owners bought a new lease of life at Anfield, but the club needed a hero. For a while, an attempt was made to bring back the old ethos at the club. Soon it became clear such sentiments would wash away with the changing tides of modern football. The club cried for someone with whom fans could dare to dream – ‘anything is possible for those who believe’.
Brendan Rodgers in his short tenure at the club has quickly become an adorable figure – a true hero.
Critics were not wholly convinced with him and neither are they now. As if taking a seventh placed team to title challenge till the final day wasn’t enough and that finishing second in the league was just a glorious one-off.
Yet, under Rodgers, Liverpool have made a habit of upsetting the odds and there’s no reason why they can’t repeat it again.
Rodgers is left with an onerous task as Luis Suarez’ exit has left a gaping void. The flawed genius was the real inspiration behind Liverpool’s resurgence last season as his 31 league goals took Liverpool agonizingly close to landing the elusive Premier League title.
It was not just about his goals and assists that make him a truly world class player, the sheer inherent ability brings the best out of those surrounding him.
Liverpool tried the best to hold on to him, but were helpless against his lofty ambitions. He wanted a different challenge and was desperate to join Barcelona, with family matters playing a key part in taking his decision.
Liverpool simply had no options left once Barcelona met his £75m buy-out clause. But, unlike Fernando Torres, whose acrimonious departure to Chelsea left a bad taste in the mouth, Suarez’s exit leaves a melancholy tune, bereft of any hard feelings.
It was never going to be an easy task to find a like-for-like replacement of Suarez. To be honest, it is impossible. So, Rodgers used that influx of cash to provide necessary depth in the squad that were so lacking for some years now.
Till date it has been the biggest summer spending spree in Liverpool’s history. The club have spent over £100m to land players like Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Divock Origi, Lazar Markovic, Dejan Lovren, Emre Can, Javier Manquillo and Alberto Moreno and who knows there could be one or two additions before the transfer window closes down.
While Liverpool scored goals for fun last season, it was the leaky defence (51 goals conceded) that stood out as their major Achilles heel.
It is often argued that Liverpool’s system of playing an attacking brand of football is often their own downfall, as it often leaves the defence exposed.
Rodgers, who holds a strong footballing philosophy, feels that Liverpool lacks a leader at the back. Lovren, the £20m signing from Southampton, not only has a strong physical presence but also comfortable with ball at feet, an ideal Rodgers-type-player that ticks all the right boxes.
Manquillo, on loan from Atletico Madrid will give an added option on the right hand side, while Sevilla’s Alberto Moreno, definitely an upgrade over Jose Enrique, would add an extra dimension to this team.
Likewise, Lambert gives Liverpool a plan B option that was never there last season, while Lallana and Can would add creativity and discipline in the middle of the park.
But Liverpool’s biggest strength lies in the hidden potentials of young talents like Henderson, Sterling and Coutinho. Add raw talent of Markovic to it and you get a bunch of uncut-stones that promises to shine like a diamond, if properly polished.
“Something we said to Raheem when he first broke into the team, and something we’ve reiterated, is that you have to have an identity as a player,” said Rodgers, while giving a candid verdict on Sterling.
“The identity he has is to score goals and create goals. That’s what the job is. He scored 10 goals last year and this kid is only going to get better. When you’re so young, it’s important to understand exactly what your role is. Not just look good, you have to be efficient and effective. His development has gone to a new level. He’s way above the level from when he first came in.
“Tactically, technically, and what has been beautiful to watch with Raheem has been his maturity. He’s turning into a beautiful young man, with all the responsibility. He’s taking it all in his stride and now he’s in a good place with every part of his game. It’s just about maintaining that commitment to his work. He’s still only 19, but in big games he’s performed and he’s a wonderful talent.”
Many critics have brought the reference of Tottenham last season while commenting on Liverpool’s summer spending spree. Spurs spent most of their fortune gained on selling Gareth Bale to Real Madrid by signing seven new players. Liverpool have followed a similar philosophy by signing too many players using Suarez’ money.
The North Londoners still finished outside top four which suggests that buying too many players sometimes do not yield the right output. However, Spurs didn’t finish in top four either with Bale during his outstanding campaign for them the previous season before he left.
Of course, rival teams have strengthened simultaneously But, Liverpool can hardly afford to pay too much heed to it. You can only look up at others, only if you’re below or at par with them. At the top, it’s you and you only.
Instead of treating it as a psychological barrier, that is the failure of landing the title from a winning position, Liverpool must take great confidence of finishing second, as nobody expected them to even go that far before the season started.
“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 Rodgers.
In the Premier League era, Liverpool have finished second before but they couldn’t replicate that performance, not to talk about bettering it, the following season. It’s time for Rodgers and his team to bury that Ghost of the Past.