Liverpool's Kenny Dalglish prepares to show-off this season's debutants
Summer's most prolific recruiters meet, with one signing standing out, Richard Jolly writes
Few stadiums have a closer connection to football's past than Anfield, but the antiquated, celebrated ground should have a sense of the new today. Liverpool versus Sunderland functions as reunion and introduction alike, a game in which debuts will abound.
Outside the north-east of England, Kenny Dalglish's summer spending has attracted the greater attention. Steve Bruce, however, has been the busiest manager of all, welcoming 10 players to the Stadium of Light and seeing as many depart.
The common denominator between the two clubs is Jordan Henderson, whose move to Anfield, for an initial £16 million (Dh94.9m), funded much of Bruce's recruitment drive.
Yet if it may seem simpler to name the Sunderland players not making their debuts today, Liverpool's smaller but costlier group of newcomers exert the greater fascination.
They are charged with defining a new era; indeed, they are symbolic of a renewed commitment to spending. While the reserve goalkeeper, Alexander Doni, did not command a fee, the £49m spent on Henderson, Jose Enrique, Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam could rise farther, depending on add-ons.
As all have been bought in a summer when Liverpool have recouped little, they provide proof that the owners, Fenway Sports Group, unlike their unlamented predecessors Tom Hicks and George Gillett, are willing to invest.
"We are delighted with who we have brought in," Dalglish said. "I think we've improved the squad and I think people would have been disappointed if we hadn't. We are happy with the business we have done."
Increased expenditure has led to greater ambition, with John W Henry, the owner, making it clear that a top-four finish is required. Whether it is achieved depends to no small degree upon the signings.
The belated arrival of a left-back, Enrique, after a pre-season campaign when Liverpool conceded three goals in five successive matches, may resolve a problem position after Paul Konchesky's struggles last season.
The identity of the other newcomers is no less intriguing.
Adam is the cheapest of the trio of midfielders at £7m, yet also appears the one Dalglish wanted most. After inspiring Blackpool to home-and-away wins over Liverpool last season, he almost arrived at Anfield in January.
The Scot's fondness for sweeping, cross-field passes mean some have drawn comparisons to Xabi Alonso, the last deep-lying playmaker the club boasted. A partnership with the more solid Lucas Leiva beckons in the 4-2-3-1 formation Dalglish has deployed throughout pre-season.
While it is harder to present Downing as the priority in his position - his Aston Villa teammate, Ashley Young, was targeted before signing for Manchester United - the rationale for his recruitment is more obvious.
While Maxi Rodriguez and Raul Meireles acquitted themselves reasonably last season, with Joe Cole rather less impressive, on the left flank last season, none is a bona fide winger, or left-footed. A blueprint of direct running along the touchline and accurate crossing is nothing revolutionary, but it plays to the strengths of Andy Carroll, the £35m target man.
The 21-year-old Henderson is the youngest, and has the most time to improve. In the short term, however, the £16m man is a costly dilemma: where does he play?
In Carroll's slipstream, if pre-season is a guide, but Alberto Aquilani, the 2009 version of an expensive attacking midfielder, offered more class in that role last week against Valencia. Henderson switched to the right then, but that is the furrow Dirk Kuyt ploughs assiduously.
Moreover, with Luis Suarez back in training after helping Uruguay win the Copa America, there is another name to add to the attacking equation. The Uruguayan could feature today, Dalglish said.
It is not often that the absence of Steven Gerrard can be described as easing Liverpool's selection problems, but the captain's groin injury postpones some decisions.
When he is fit again, Gerrard's versatility means he is a threat to Henderson and Adam alike. In the meantime, Anfield can revel in the novelty factor as the scrutiny of the spending starts.
Published: August 13, 2011 04:00 AM