By James McManus
The cagey stalemate on show at the Liberty Stadium on Sunday afternoon, which saw Brendan Rodgers make his first return to his former club, perfectly encapsulated the next step that the manager has to take from his past project and onto his new one at Liverpool, with January presenting a golden opportunity to strengthen the squad in several key areas.
With the club currently in 11th place in the league table after the draw against Michael Laudrup’s side, it is worth putting into context that the Reds are just four points behind Arsenal in sixth place. Taking into account that they have a relatively threadbare squad which is relying on youngsters to pad it out at the moment, a run of eight games unbeaten is not to be sniffed at, even if that run has included five draws.
Progress has been slow and it is clear that the side requires investment, particularly off the back of the fiasco that was transfer deadline day in the summer. After missing out on both Clint Dempsey and Daniel Sturridge, the club was left with just Luis Suarez to carry the weight of providing the team’s strongest goal threat over the course of the next few months, with Andy Carroll sent packing on loan to West Ham and Fabio Borini sidelined through injury.
This meant that after trimming the wage bill by approximately £8m-a-year in the final few days of the window, while also bringing another £4m from the sale of Charlie Adam, the only return Rodgers received from a chaotic hierarchy was the overwhelming sense of panic felt whenever Suarez goes down under a challenge between now and January.
The 39-year-old has already spoken of ‘operational issues’ which needed to be cleared up in the aftermath of that debacle, and the squad has needed to be managed and rotated at every given opportunity, with even Jonjo Shelvey given a run out as a makeshift striker against Young Boys during their midweek Europa League draw.
The weaknesses within the squad are as clear as day, and having failed to find the back of the net in four of their 13 league games so far and with just 17 goals to their name, the problem has become systemic from which there is no quick fix, with more depth sorely required up top and out wide.
The Uruguayan forward has performed admirably this term, and has been directly involved in 12 of those 17 goals on his way to becoming the top scorer in the league, but he cannot carry the team forever on his own and they are dangerously over-reliant on him at the moment – a point emphasised by team-mate Jon Flanagan in an exclusive interview with Goal.com.
Rodgers addressed the need to provide Suarez with more support after the Swansea draw, telling reporters: “You can see that once we can get that quality in to support what we already have, we have enough to keep moving forward. We’ll look to do some business in January. The owners trust me to grow it over time.”
Having been seriously let down by the dithering ‘leadership’ of Fenway Sports Group during their time together so far, there is a sense that they ‘owe’ Rodgers for robbing him of significant replacements for the likes of Andy Carroll, Dirk Kuyt and Craig Bellamy during the summer.
The mandate has always been to reduce the club’s hefty wage bill while primarily focusing on integrating promising youngsters into the first-team set-up. Nevertheless, the extent to which this has been made a priority has been somewhat foisted upon Rodgers and he has had to adjust his plans to accomodate the situation, even if the subsequent success stories of Raheem Sterling, Suso, Jonjo Shelvey and Andre Wisdom have helped to supplement a small squad along the way.
The transfer window cannot come soon enough for the club, particularly given that they may still be competing in Europe well into the New Year, with them just having to avoid defeat away at Udinese to qualify from their Europa League group.
Experimentation is clearly the order of the hour, with various systems ranging from 3-5-2, 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 used in recent weeks, while the sight of Stewart Downing at left-back and Jose Enrique on the left wing against Swansea just further symbolises that Rodgers is trying to think of fresh ways to use what he already has, which it has to be said, is not much.
With the fans, manager and players alike all buying into the long-term nature of the rebuilding project at Anfield this season, unless the club’s owners back up their principles with serious money soon, then Liverpool will remain a frustrating side to watch, shorn of consistency and end product.
Rodgers has been dealt a difficult hand to start his career on Merseyside with, due to the ruinous excesses of the previous regime. In order for him to truly help push the team on in the coming months, the squad needs adding to, otherwise they will continue to resemble a side permanently in transition rather than one with a coherent objective in mind.
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