Kudos to Neal for his fantastic post, Season Wrap-up and a Look Ahead: Liverpool. I wanted to offer my two-cents on some of the points - which is probably the highest praise I can offer to my colleague. He made me think. (Damn him!)
I've re-read the piece, and looked over the comments. I think there are some good questions and points raised there. Namely...
Liverpool were average in possession, and lousy in attack. I think the former has a lot to do with the injuries they had in midfield. They did not have Charlie Adam, Steven Gerrard, or Lucas Leiva for chunks of the season. Combine that with the poor form of Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing, who were just bedding in to a new club with all the expectations that I large transfer fee places on a player, and you have a sluggish, uninspired core of your team.
Now granted, it could be argued that Adam et al aren't any less sluggish themselves. But I think Liverpool expected to play a certain way this season, and for a variety of reasons it just never worked out for them.
With Gerrard and Adam in midfield, and Downing and ??? (Henderson?, Kuyt?) out wide, you would expect a lot of diagonal balls played out to the flanks. Quick, accurate, long-range passing that would in turn lead to a quick cross into the box for.. oh, I don't know... say... Andy Carroll to attack. It is what worked so well for Newcastle United when Carroll and Joey Barton were combining to great effect.
But a depleted midfield, and players like Carroll and Downing being out of sorts, made a mockery of that strategy.
That was plan A. Plan B was Suarez playing between the lines, creating chances on passes either from the central midfielders or on cut-backs from the wide players. Either route stretches the defence and gives him the room to do his Suarez thing.
Well, that didn't work out either. It almost did. Suarez started the season so brightly, scoring in each of Liverpool first two matches (and the subsequent League Cup match). In fact, he scored four goals in Liverpool's first seven Premier League matches. But that eighth fixture was against Manchester United and Suarez (and Liverpool) spent the remainder of the season under a cloud due to the ugly, and unforgivable, racist abuse he hurled at Patrice Evra.
In theory, Liverpool had the squad to deal with these incidents. But again, things didn't pan out. Dirk Kuyt was a non-factor this season. Craig Bellamy was incredibly productive in spells (and probably deserves a lot of credit for keeping the team afloat for stretches) but limited by age and injury, and Maxi Rodriguez wasn't brought out until spring. But in practice, they failed to score in 13 of their 38 league matches and only scored more than one goal in a match 14 times.
That puts a lot of pressure on the defence. And in aggregate, Liverpool were pretty good defensively. They only allowed 40 goals all season, and as Neal showed in his stats, they were "solidly above league average at nearly every stop along the way." However, from a different angle it's not so flattering a record. Liverpool only kept twelve clean sheets this season, mid-table, and way off the mark for a team with players of the caliber, and reputation, of Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel, Jose Enrique, etc. There were injury issues across the back-line as well with Glen Johnson, Martin Kelly, and Agger missing long spells. And while Enrique was almost ever-present, his was a season of two halves. One of the best players in the league early in the campaign, he flamed out badly towards the end of it.
So while Liverpool weren't scoring many goals, they were conceding just enough of them to turn wins into draws and draws into losses.
Like Neal mentioned, having Lucas coming back into the team after injury will help. The emergence of Martin Kelly, and hopefully an injury-free run for him, could shore up the defence further. That latter point might be even more influential for the team on the other side of the ball, however.
Earlier in the post I wondered who Liverpool right winger was. I can't recall anyone playing there regularly, or excelling when played. So why not turn Glen Johnson, the classic "fullback who is great going forward but has a lot to learn about defending" into a right wing? That gets Kelly on the pitch and gives Liverpool width and speed that they didn't have this season.
Alternatively, and this is my own pet theory, Liverpool need to look to Italy - Milan, particulary - to learn how to set up their team for success. AC Milan had a good, if not excellent, season getting to the Champions League knock-out stages and finishing second in Serie A behind the "invincible" Juventus. I think Liverpool can copy Milan's formula, and formation.
While no one will put Andy Carroll on Zlatan Ibrahimovic's level, both are big men who can trouble the opposition's defence. Maybe his encouraging run of form at the end of the season, coupled with a successful summer with England at Euro2012, will bring the best (back?) out of Carroll. If he can start scoring goals regularly a lot of the past will be forgiven, if not forgotten, by the Liverpool faithful.
Behind/around them you have a tricky forward and an attacking midfielder playing wider and deeper and creating chances for themselves and others. For Robinho and Kevin Prince-Boateng, read Luis Suarez and...
Okay, there's no one Liverpool player that can play the Prince role. Maxi, Bellamy, Kuyt... all three are too old, too slow, and/or play too wide. The one player that could fit in this spot would be Jonjo Shelvey. I don't think he's the complete article yet, but he certainly has the potential. A run of games next season could do him, and Liverpool, a world of good.
Behind this front three Liverpool could play Adam, Lucas, and Gerrard. Gerrard is my Clarence Seedorf here with the most license to get forward. But Adam, like Nocerino for the Italians is going to be asked to attack and defend in equal measure. Lucas will hold things together, in the mold of a Van Bommel, Ambrosini or Flamini.
The back five pick themselves, and hopefully this season was just a blip for what should be a very solid outfit.
That's my new Plan A for Liverpool. Plan B is a full-English 4-4-2 with Johnson and Downing in the wide roles. Plan B, of course, is the old Plan A but with the balance that was missing thanks to Johnson's promotion up the pitch.
Now, I'm not in Miami meeting with John W Henry today. If anyone can make that happen, I'm available. I'm not sure Roberto Martinez is the man for this job. I would still like to see him settle in at Aston Villa and turn that club around. There's too much pressure at Liverpool and I don't know if Martinez shines under the spotlight. When all is lost and there's no pressure of expectation he can shine, but there's a reason he was able to pull off the great escape at Wigan -- they were in the shit for three-quarters of the season.
Rather, I would like to see and old head come to Anfield. One with experience at big jobs and one who knows his role in a continental football management structure. And someone who is evidently interviewing for the West Brom job.
That's right, I think Claudio Ranieri would be a great appointment for Liverpool. Maybe not one for the long-term future, but someone to manage the club for the now - to get the best out of an aging, but quality side. Perhaps even getting them into the Champions League while the new Director of Football goes about rebuilding the squad, however slowly due to financial considerations.
With my hypothetical management and tactics in place, I think Liverpool have a real chance to push the top clubs next season. For fantasy purposes, I am looking forward to Jose Reina being available for cheap after a rough year. And if the new manager gets a little money to spend, there could be other inexpensive players available in the fantasy games next season.
Of course it could all go very wrong again. There are very fine margins at the mid-to-upper reaches of the Premier League and Liverpool are at a point where they could tip in either direction.