With Liverpool’s season ending in a little bit of a limp, why not look forward to next season? Manager Brendan Rodgers looks set to remain at the helm, so what better time to compare his best prospective first eleven for next season, considering only players on the books right now, with the best teams of two previous managers, Rafa Benitez and Kenny Dalglish (Roy Hodgson’s six month tenure discounts his side from this).
The Pepe Reina in Benitez’s title-challenging 2009 side was one of the best at that time. Unfortunately, Reina declined ever since and was a poor shadow of himself in the second and final season of Dalglish’s second coming in 2012, and his poor form continued into Rodgers’ debut season, leading to his sale at the end of that season. Simon Mignolet will most certainly keep his place in goal next year, with a possible back-up to replace Brad Jones and finally give him some proper competition. Hopefully that will inspire him to build upon an impressive second half of this season, and with a second full pre-season mastering Rodgers’ preference for accurate goal kicks, the Belgian can no doubt reach the standard of Benitez’s Reina.
Reina of 2009 (grade: 8), Reina ’12 (7), Mignolet (7)
The steady Alvaro Arbeloa of Benitez’s reign added much stability to the right side of Liverpool’s defence, while Glen Johnson of 2012 marauded well down the right flank, with a little bit to be desired defensively. Andre Wisdom returns from his West Bromwich Albion loan next season, and indications are he will fill in the right back slot to allow Rodgers to spend elsewhere. Wisdom looked solid in his appearances at the Hawthorns, but is still relatively unproven at Anfield and will hope next season can be his breakthrough.
Arbeloa (7), Johnson (7), Wisdom (5)
A relatively younger Martin Skrtel of 2009 looked decent alongside Jamie Carragher, who was at the top of his game in that title challenge. Dalglish’s Carragher will always edge the younger Skrtel, however, the Slovakian can eclipse Carragher’s 2012 campaign should he continues his form from this campaign and adds his leadership to the backline and the team, especially with Steven Gerrard gone now.
Skrtel ’09 (6), Carragher ’12 (7), Skrtel ’16 (8)
As mentioned, Carragher in that 2009 title challenging season was simply at his best, marshalling the backline and complementing all his centre back partners, Sami Hyypia and Daniel Agger included. The Agger that Dalglish had in 2012 was probably the Dane at his peak, unfortunately, as injuries meant Agger never became the world class ball-playing defender he should have been. Mamadou Sakho’s second season at Anfield has been another stop-start one, with injuries preventing him from completing either first or second half of the campaign, however the Frenchman’s fine form during that amazing run from February to March gives Reds fans hope he will finally come good next campaign.
Carragher ’09 (8), Agger (7), Sakho (6)
A somewhat perennial weak spot for successive Liverpool managers. Dalglish thought he had that sorted out with the signing of Jose Enrique, who looked very good at the start of his Liverpool career, before injury hit. Benitez’s first choice was Fabio Aurelio, with his brilliant left-foot, though injuries to him also meant the Brazilian somewhat shared duties with Andrea Dossena during the 2009 campaign. Alberto Moreno, signed last summer, has had a below-par first season, but his potential and season’s worth of experience should make him wiser next season.
Aurelio (6), Enrique (6), Moreno (5)
Benitez’s midfield orchestrator was none other than Xabi Alonso, who hit his best season in a Reds shirt, conducting midfield duties and freeing Gerrard further afield. The 2012 Henderson only just signed the previous summer, and seemed shaky in his new surroundings with that heavy price tag hanging over his neck. Last summer’s best signing Emre Can has looked very good as part of a back three, and will undoubtedly get more opportunities in midfield with Gerrard gone. From this season’s evidence, the young German has the potential to do very well in midfield next year.
Alonso (9), Henderson ’12 (5), Can (7)
Along with Alonso, Javier Mascherano was the other half of a midfield duo that dominated the Premier League that season. Gerrard of 2012 was, as always, one of Liverpool’s best players, driving from midfield and pushing his team forward. Henderson has improved leap and bounds in recent seasons, with his passing range much wider and his scoring touch improving as well. With the captaincy likely to be handed to him for next season, Henderson might just take his game to the next level, the way Gerrard did when he was handed the armband back in 2003.
Mascherano (9), Gerrard ‘12 (9), Henderson ’16 (8)
Dirk Kuyt was the model of consistency, even under different managers, and his 2008 self just edges the 2012 version due to the fact he scored more from a slightly deeper role. Adam Lallana, who arrived last season, has chipped in with a decent number of goals this year. With Lallana’s natural talent alone, he simply needs to stay as fit as possible to rank alongside the 2008 Kuyt, and should the Englishman continue to improve his strike and assist rate, he will surpass Kuyt’s 2012 self.
Kuyt ’08 (8), Kuyt ’11 (7), Lallana (7)
Yossi Benayoun shared most of his left midfield spot in 2009 with Albert Riera and Ryan Babel, and was always a good and reliable option for Benitez. Stewart Downing, signed by Dalglish the summer before, never lived up to his price tag, though not one for trying. Raheem Sterling has been one of the shining, though stubborn, light of Liverpool’s poor campaign, and if he signs his new contract, buckle down and continue to work on several areas of his game, the Englishman can light up the Premier League even more again next year.
Benayoun (7), Downing (5), Sterling (8)
The 2008/09 campaign was arguably Gerrard’s best in a Reds jersey, as he compensated for the constant loss of Fernando Torres to almost drive Benitez’s Liverpool to the title. Andy Carroll was and still is Liverpool’s most expensive signing, and failed to live up to expectations, failing to overcome his injury problems and was never as dominating as during his Newcastle days. Philippe Coutinho has been the Reds’ best player this season, and a successful Copa America combined with continued improvement by the Brazilian could see him dominate the league next campaign. And his quality is something Liverpool need.
Gerrard ’09 (10), Carroll (6), Coutinho (9)
Fernando Torres had an injury-plagued campaign in 2009, but still managed a good return of 14 league goals. His dovetailing with Gerrard was one key reason why Benitez’s side did so well, and it was also his absence that ultimately saw Liverpool fall short of the title. 2012 was Luis Suarez’s first full season at Anfield, and he still managed to score 11 league goals. It would take another two campaigns before the world saw Suarez’s best form. Injury-plagued all year, Daniel Sturridge will have to work his way back to full fitness in September (or November) and hopefully he can get back to the type of form of 2013/14, and try to reach the inferior 2012 version of Suarez first.
Torres (8), Suarez (7), Sturridge (6)
With the current Liverpool squad, Rodgers’ best first eleven for next season should exceed that of Dalglish’s 2012 8th-placed side. This should come as no surprise, as Rodgers’ current team will finish higher than Dalglish’s side. A few quality additions in the summer, notably a proper striker and central midfielder, coupled with some of last summer’s signings coming good, the Reds do have a good chance of climbing back into the top four. However, an overall improvement of the whole team is required should they desire to reach the standard of Benitez’s title-challenging team of 2009, or even Rodgers’ own exciting side of 2014 and mount a surprising title challenge again next season.
Benitez ’09 (86 out of 110), Dalglish ’12 (73), Rodgers ’16 (76)