Premier League runners-up may have lost strike talisman, but their manager expects an even better campaign this year.
Brendan Rodgers recalls the moment when the news broke that Luis Suárez had bitten the Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini during the World Cup.
“Like most people I was watching England play Costa Rica,” the Liverpool manager says. “I thought it was quite funny actually when [ITV summariser] Andy Townsend said ‘good night’ to everyone because he sensed they would be turning over.
“It came up that Luis had bitten someone. I didn’t switch over because we obviously had players who were playing [for England]. It was unfortunate. It was a shock.”
That the Liverpool manager did not switch channels shows where his priorities lay. That Rodgers can to any degree make light of the incident shows the good space he and his club are in now as they prepare for a new campaign, a campaign rich with Champions League football and the possibility of again overturning expectation.
But a campaign, also, in the PL – Post-Luis – era after the striker’s £75 million move to Barcelona. And Rodgers is adamant that not only are Liverpool more than just the Uruguayan but are in a far healthier position than, to draw an obvious parallel, Tottenham Hotspur last season when they sold Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for a world-record £85 million and used the money to recruit heavily.
“It’s totally different,” Rodgers insists. “You put into context the whole case because we’ve gone into the Champions League for the first time since 2009. We had a terrific season – but the depth of our squad, everyone here will know, was frighteningly shallow. So we needed to improve the quality but the net spend is very small. It was part of the vision and strategy of the club in terms of what we were trying to do.”
And neither have Liverpool overhauled their starting XI in the way Spurs attempted. “It’s not as if we’re bringing them straight into the team,” Rodgers says of the club’s eight new signings. “They’re young players – 20, 21, 22 – who we hope will be here for a long time.
“We’ll distribute quite a few of those into the team but it will be done over the course of a process and over quite a long time. We’ve still got our core. It’s not a new team, it’s an evolving team. It’s a totally different scenario [compared to Spurs]. We are clear in our identity of how we play and how we work. The guys from last year will be here and we’ve added some exciting talents.”
But, and here is the nub, will Suárez be missed? “No, not really,” Rodgers replies. “I think we had a star player who was part of the collective. Luis had a great talent but the team was the important thing for us and it had to be. We nearly won the league last year with 12 to 13 players. Obviously Luis contributed 31 of those goals but we still had 70 from elsewhere. It was very much about the team and the creativity and work-rate. But he is a fantastic player.”
Liverpool could not have done more for the controversial player – a man who, according to the Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore, English football is better off without – since his £22.8 million signing from Ajax in January 2011.
“We gave him everything in support,” Rodgers says. “Luis was a great servant for us in the period he was here. We propelled him from a player some people had never heard of when he came in into a world-class player. In the last two seasons in particular his game has been phenomenal. As a club, a city and as supporters we couldn’t have done any more.”
There will be a legacy with Suárez’s voracious desire to win having influenced several of Liverpool’s young players – not least the Brazilian Philippe Coutinho. “Look at players who were close to him like young Coutinho – I know he’s learned from him,” Rodgers says. “He wants to be out training every day. Never misses a day. Tries to be better every day. Looks after himself. I know Luis was a big influence on him. It was time for both to part and we will continue to grow and get stronger.”
The club would have spent big even if Suárez had stayed. “We were able to spend because we’ve arrived into the Champions League, which gives us an extra £30-40million to spend,” Rodgers says. “We were the most watched team on television last year, which gave us extra funds to spend on players and obviously the sale of Luis. So, all in all, the net spend means we’re in a really healthy position.
“We’ve not gone out and thrown it about. We knew we needed to get the players and obviously with a club like Liverpool there’s a premium. But we’re happy with the value. Look at what we paid for Coutinho [£8.5 million]. We paid £12 million for Daniel Sturridge, just over a year ago.”
Rodgers is still in the market for one more striker, ideally one with experience who will slot straight in, maybe even for just one campaign before he brings his new signing, the Belgium international Divock Origi, back from a season-long loan at Lille.
“It’s a chance for someone else to flourish and there’s nothing better for supporters when they see talent grow,” Rodgers says. “You look at Raheem Sterling’s growth in the last couple of years – nothing better.”
There are no concerns, either, over captain Steven Gerrard, whose slip against Chelsea proved so damaging to Liverpool’s title hopes.
“He’s been brilliant,” Rodgers says. “I haven’t seen any of that internal, gut-wrenching feelings that he’s had because I think Steven’s career’s been that – there have been lots of ups and downs and how he’s coped with that has been brilliant.
“And that tells you everything, because that’s how we’re defined. There’s many things that happen in our lives but we’re defined ultimately by our character. And that’s what Steven has got in abundance.
“And now we’ll see a player who won’t have international football, and just got the sole focus of Liverpool. I think that in the role that we asked him to play, he’s still got a few more years left in him yet.”
“And I think that there probably won’t have been too many who would have given it up with only a cap to go [to equal David Beckham’s record of 115 caps for an England outfield player],” Rodgers says. “That tells you everything about him. Because he could have easily played on another season or so and broken that record and still been an influence on the players there. But he’s obviously had time to think about it and realised at 34 where he wants to put his energy and focus which is into his family and into Liverpool.”
But what of Rodgers? Was it difficult for him to recover from last season’s disappointment having come so close to winning the title? “I’ll be totally honest, I’ve hardly given it a minute’s thought,” he says. “It was a wonderful campaign to be involved in. We were not expected to be in the top four. Likewise, I’ve read this year we are sixth or seventh favourites.
“So, for us, it’s a real challenge and it will be really competitive again. But no one has to pick me up. I was so proud of what we achieved last season. We want to be winners, we know we are on the way to challenging which is the most important thing.
“Eventually we will show that we can do that. I was proud of it. What I reflected on when I was away was thinking about people talking about the pressure we were under. But we won 12 of our last 14 games, and that told me can respond to the pressure.
“We had a slip which was unfortunate in the game that we lost. But I think there is so much growth left in this group because of the age of the players and how ambitious they are – hopefully I’ll have another 20-odd years [as a manager].
“People in football say that it might have been our best chance to win the league – but this year might be our best chance. We will have more belief. We will be stronger this season.”