Nearly all of the media coverage attributed to Liverpool this season has been devoted--rightly so--to the goalscoring prowess of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez. SAS, as they have come to be known, have been lauded for their wonderful play at the head of the Reds attack, both individually and as a strike partnership. Just how much of a difference they've made this season is astounding.
However, the impact of the strikers has effectively masked many of Liverpool's shortcomings as they attempt to reclaim a place in the Top 4 of the Premier League. Liverpool has scored 51 goals in the first 21 weeks of the 2013/14 league campaign, an incredible 17 more than at this point last season.
The stat that sticks out, though, is goals conceded. While Liverpool have been converting more of their chances, they're not keeping any more out than they were last season when they finished in 7th place. Conceding 26 goals in 21 games may not seem like too poor a statistic, but when you consider each of the three teams above AND below Liverpool in the current league table have conceded fewer, the issue with Liverpool's game becomes clear.
While Simon Mignolet has proven an astute replacement for Pepe Reina, the Belgian keeper has been forced into 68 saves so far, good for third most in the league. Liverpool is simply allowing their opponents too much freedom in their defensive third. For a shocking example, Stoke City recorded a season-high number of crosses in a league match this past weekend against the Reds. Frankly, without the form of SAS, the Reds would be languishing in mid-table and Brendan Rodgers would be the subject of much of the same talk David Moyes has been privy to thus far.
Granted, injuries have played a major role in Liverpool's inability to keep their opponents at bay. When the squad was fully fit at the beginning of the season, Mignolet and company kept three consecutive clean sheets. However, injuries to Jose Enrique, Daniel Agger, Kolo Toure, Mamadou Sakho and Jon Flanagan have left Liverpool light at the back. Combine injuries with the poor form of Glen Johnson, Aly Cissokho and Martin Kelly and Brendan Rodgers can count himself very lucky he made the decision to give Martin Skrtel another chance instead of offloading him at the beginning of the season.
Obviously, Rodgers will be looking to repeat last season's incredible winter window that saw the arrival of Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho for a combined outlay of about £20 million. It's obvious that the defensive side of the team needs to be strengthened, but which positions within the Liverpool squad are in the most desperate need of being improved? If recent trends are to be a guide, FSG will likely only fund two moves in the January transfer window, with a very slight possibility of a third coming in if the price is right. With that in mind, the top three areas Liverpool should be focused on are:
Fullback - This is the obvious one. With Enrique and Flanagan out, Liverpool's left side is easily the weakest spot on the pitch right now. Cissokho hasn't lived up to his potential and neither Daniel Agger or Mamadou Sakho are at their best when shunted out wide. Glen Johnson could potentially play on the left, so a player from either side of the pitch could be a good addition, especially with rumors suggesting Johnson could be on his way out of the club in the summer if he doesn't take a wage cut.
Holding Mid - The defensive midfield position is one that has been sorely lacking in depth since current first-choice Lucas Leiva was playing second fiddle to Javier Mascherano. With Joe Allen out and Lucas still not back to the form he was in before his injury, Rodgers has even experimented with Steven Gerrard sitting deepest. Shipping three goals to Stoke should be proof enough that some fresher legs are needed to protect the back four.
Winger - Sturridge's return has come at a good time for the squad, but it remains to be seen how Rodgers will send out his squad with SAS fit. Raheem Sterling has been a revelation on the flanks, but Victor Moses has been extremely disappointing on loan from Chelsea. Looking to the Reds' bench in recent weeks reveals the need for a wide player who can consistently provide an attacking threat. If Rodgers switches back to the 3-5-2, a winger with solid defensive qualities would be ideal.
Who can fill the roles, and who would Liverpool realistically be able to bring to Anfield for the second half of the season? Let's take a look at some of the candidates who could arrive and make a difference. As a disclaimer, some of these players haven't been linked with moves to Liverpool, but represent options I would love to have at the club without breaking from realistic expectations in terms of cost.
Nathaniel Clyne - Southampton began the season in amazing defensive form, and the right back is often overlooked in favor of his counterpart, Luke Shaw. The Saints have had some success playing Callum Chambers in the right back role, and the possibility of improving his chances for a role in the England World Cup squad could entice Clyne to come to a club challenging for a place in the top 4. Of course, any move for Clyne will come with the standard English premium, so Liverpool may look elsewhere as prising a top choice fullback from a competitor will be costly.
Micah Richards - While the English premium will still accompany the young Manchester City fullback, Richards fits into the Sturridge/Coutinho mold of an incredibly talented player not getting his chances at a big club. The powerhouse fullback has had his injury issues, but when fit he is an intimidating character with the pace, power and technique to be a Premier League (and fantasy) star.
Jetro Willems - The Dutch teenager first hit the scene with the Netherlands in Euro 2012, and didn't look the part. However, he was barely 18 and has since grown into one of the most promising left backs in the Eredivisie for PSV Eindhoven. He would be a relatively expensive purchase, but a long-term investment that would be ready to start immediately for the Reds. The fact that he's not English would offset some of the cost, so he could be worth the expenditure.
Adam Matthews - A bit of an unknown, Matthews has been playing admirably for Celtic, and looks like he could be a bargain as a stop-gap until Enrique returns to fitness. The right back has the potential to challenge Johnson for the starting role, however, and would be a good long-term investment should a replacement need to be drafted in sooner rather than later.
Yann M'Vila - A supremely talented player, the French midfielder started attracting interest from the rumor mills when his friend and compatriot Mamadou Sakho invited him to a Liverpool game. It could be a case of media blowing things out of proportion, but M'Vila would fit right in to the Premier League with his strength and skill. He's run into some trouble with his attitude in the past, but if Brendan Rodgers can keep Suarez out of the negative headlines, he should have no problem with M'Vila.
Fernando Reges - I've been a huge fan of Fernando's since seeing him mark Cristiano Ronaldo out of the game a couple years ago in a Champions League match between Manchester United and Porto. The 26-year old would provide direct competition to Lucas for the starting role and could be a relative bargain with the Portuguese side dealing with some financial issues.
Mohamed Diame - Capable of playing as the holding midfielder or further up the pitch, Diame has been one of the few bright spots for West Ham this season. His experience in the league and his ability to contribute on both sides of the ball make him a very exciting option, though with survival on the line it's unlikely the Hammers would part with him for anything that could be considered a bargain. Still, Liverpool have sold the
amazing decidedly average Joe Cole, Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll to the London club recently...Surely the Hammers could send one player the other way, right?
Youssuf Mulumbu - Not a glamorous choice by any means, but what Liverpool truly need is depth at the position. Lucas is still capable of putting in excellent shifts for the Reds, so bringing in a bargain midfielder as cover could help Liverpool afford a more attractive defender or even a winger as a third capture in the window. Mulumbu is a bit of an unsung hero, quietly contributing with solid, if unspectacular, defensive displays.
Mohamed Salah - This rumor came out of nowhere, with speculation that a deal had been agreed before the window opened and that it was a matter of days until the Egyptian winger was announced as a Liverpool player. However, recent developments suggest the move could have stalled as Basle want more money than Rodgers and the Reds' owners are willing to part with. If a deal can be worked out, Salah will add pace and trickery to the wing play for the Merseyside club. However, with Oussama Assaidi and Fabio Borini both flourishing on loan, Salah seems too expensive to sit on the bench and not quite at the level necessary to be a nailed-on starter.
Cristian Tello - It's wishful thinking, mostly, but there is a chance Barcelona would be willing to part with their starlet on loan with a view to a permanent deal in order to improve their chances of signing Pepe Reina in the summer. It's easy to forget that Reina was loaned to Napoli rather than having been offloaded entirely. It could prove to be a great bargaining chip for the Reds to entice the Spanish giants to let Tello leave.
Georginio Wijnaldum - Rumors about this guy just won't go away, as he's been linked with a move to Liverpool for the past two or three years. I'd still be happy to have him, though, as the 23-year old is coming into his own for PSV. Quick and with some trickery in his arsenal, Wijnaldum would be an excellent addition to allow Raheem Sterling to become an impact player off the bench.
Hatem Ben Arfa - For some reason, Alan Pardew doesn't seem to rate the fan-favorite midfielder. The club would likely be up in arms on a level comparable to when Andy Carroll was offloaded, but if Liverpool could convince Mike Ashley to do business again, they could come up with the best transfer of the window. Ben Arfa is incredibly talented, but undervalued at his current club. This being a World Cup year means many players will be anxious to get as much playing time as possible, and Ben Arfa isn't getting it at Newcastle. He could perhaps look at Sakho for an example of how playing for Liverpool would be beneficial for his hopes of re-entering the conversation for the French national team.
Where do you think Liverpool needs to strengthen in January? Do you agree with any of the transfer options above, or is there someone else you'd like to see in a red kit? If Liverpool do strengthen with signings in at least two of these positions, how likely do you think a place in the top 4 is at the end of the season? Finally, who do you think would have the best fantasy impact at Liverpool?