Anfield is again awash with hope as Liverpool look to improve on last season’s disappointment.
Manager: Roy Hodgson
Position last season: 7th
Transfers in: Joe Cole (Chelsea, free), Milan Jovanovic (Standard Liege, free), Jonjo Shelvey (Charlton, £1.7m), Danny Wilson (Rangers, £2m)
Transfers out: Yossi Benayoun (Chelsea, £5m), Mikel San Jose (Athletic Bilbao, undisc), Albert Riera (Olympiakos, £3,3m), Robbie Threlfall (Bradford City, free)
The era of Rafael Benitez at Liverpool is over.
The red half of Merseyside still reserves the majority of its anger for the American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillette, but after their stellar 2008-2009 season it is difficult not to feel that the last campaign was anything but one of underachievement.
Liverpool reached the UEFA Champions League final twice under Benitez, winning the first in 2005 by coming from three goals down against AC Milan. You might have heard Clive Tyldesley mention “that night in Istanbul” once or twice.
The notoriously conservative Benitez was also the man at the helm two seasons ago, when Liverpool thrashed Manchester United and Real Madrid, and were the highest scoring team in the league playing exciting attacking football.
Last season was a disappointment though. A lack of funds, consistent injury problems to key players and poor squad depth beyond the first eleven were exposed, while fans grew frustrated with Benitez’s reluctance to risk throwing players forward. Liverpool limped into seventh.
Martin O’Neill once said that investment is needed just to stand still in a rapidly improving Premier League, and Liverpool’s stagnation last season is illustration of that. However, Roy Hodgson – and news of a potential takeover – have brought about a refreshing wave of optimism.
It is in fact Benitez who deserves credit for some of the new signings: deals for Danny Wilson, Jonjo Shelvey and Milan Jovanovic were in place before Hodgson arrived. However, the capture of Joe Cole has lifted the club, and in convincing Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres to stay, Liverpool’s starting XI rivals any in the league.
It is not unfair to say that Hodgson is much more media savvy than Benitez. The Spaniard’s press conferences in which he repeated answers such as “I am focused on training and coaching my team,” did not win him many friends in the press. Whether he should have to is a matter for another day, but Hodgson will keep the heat off of his players through being likeable. Harry Redknapp at Tottenham is scarcely criticised with the scrutiny a manager of a Champions League team usually receives because he is so friendly with the press and soundbites reel off of his tongue.
In footballing matters too though, Hodgson looks to have made a positive mark on the team.
In his first competitive match, he was without most of his international players, but was able to win away in Europe with a very young team. We often hear the mantra that there are no easy games in football, and to bring the best out of what was available against Rabotnicki Skopje was laudable.
In the home leg, Joe Cole was let off the leash that so often tamed him at Chelsea and ran the show from the middle of the park. Gerrard appears to currently be penned in for a central midfield spot – though that may change upon the signing of Christian Poulsen, and Hodgson might deem his understanding with Torres worth advancing him for upon the Spain striker’s return from injury.
At present though, Jovanovic looks a handy option on the left, and both Wilson and Shelvey look strong options for the future. Wilson offers an option in both central defence and at left back, while Shelvey harks back to Gerrard himself at a similar age.
With youngsters such as Pacheco finally being given a chance to shine, and David Ngog proving prolific in the early part of the season, there is an optimistic air around Anfield. The London-born manager might be the man to bring out the best in Ryan Babel and Alberto Aquilani.
Roy Hodgson’s plans so far have not been with the money from a potential takeover, and he has done rather well indeed. Imagine what he could do with the resources of a wealthy club.