Prior to the commencement of a new season, we all search for clues as to what we can expect. In essence, we're looking for things on which we can pin our hopes, writes Liverpoolfc.com columnist Paul Tomkins.
If your team has just had a good season, it's almost impossible not to see a continued upward trajectory. You feel you're on a roll. And if you've fallen below expectations, you're looking for things that signal you can get back on track.
Right now, I'm trying not to align all my expectations with the Anfield performance against FC Gomel, but it was precisely the kind of fast, incisive, pass-and-move football Brendan Rodgers' promised. While the opposition was modest, they were at least match-fit; and it has to be noted that home games against inferior opposition can sometimes result in the flattest performances, especially if there's a first-leg away win already in the bag. The pressure was off, of course, but it was encouraging to see such an effervescent display.
Bayer Leverkusen - managed by the modern legend that is Sami Hyypia - are obviously a far better side than Gomel, but after less than 72 hours, and as a mere friendly, Liverpool were never going to be as sparkling. Even so, a Liverpool team only at 70 per cent full-strength cruised into a 2-0 half-time lead, before the mass of substitutions, which resulted in a 3-1 win on the afternoon.
Some very good players have left this summer, mostly due to age, personal circumstances and contract situations. Liverpool have retained plenty of experience - Gerrard, Carragher and Reina in particular - but it looks like being a younger squad, as some evolution takes place. Only Arsenal had a younger average age for their starting XIs than Swansea last season (although Liverpool's was fairly young already), so clearly Rodgers likes to use youngsters. At the same time, you can't eschew all experience in the process.
Liverpool's players aged 23 or younger with Premier League experience include new boys Borini and Allen, plus Henderson, Coates, Carroll, Kelly, Spearing, Sterling, Shelvey, Robinson, Flanagan and Wilson. And of course, two of the star men, Suarez and Lucas, are only 25.
But even without making signings, new players naturally emerge from the edge of the squad. Coates has immense potential, but as I frequently note, young centre-backs tend to be punished for their mistakes (due to their proximity to goal leaving no leeway), and Coates isn't the pacy type who can easily atone for his own errors.
Indeed, the young Uruguayan is in the Sami Hyypia mould: very tall and intelligent, with good technique, but not the quickest. At Coates' age, Hyypia had been rejected by Newcastle and Oldham. At 21 he was still in Finland, and he didn't move to a big club until reaching Liverpool at 26. Hyypia spent four seasons in Holland, at Willem II, but Liverpool got him very cheaply, without any serious competition.
By contrast, Coates - a Copa América winner at just 20 - is miles ahead at the same stage of his career. Of course that doesn't mean he'll go on to emulate the great Finn; but it helps puts Coates' progress into context.
Jonjo Shelvey, signed in May 2010, has started to look the part over the past few months. His tackling can still be too aggressive for the modern game, but he plays like someone beyond his 20 years.
Raheem Sterling, signed around the same time, and who began making late substitute appearances towards the end of last season, really announced himself as a first-team player against Bayer Leverkusen. A televised prestige friendly, and within three minutes he'd scored a quite brilliant goal.
It is already a trademark type of goal: similar to a couple of the five he scored in one youth team game. He will frequently look to cut inside when stationed on the left, and once in the area, the curler into the far corner becomes the most obvious finish. But the way he used strength as well as pace to get in front of the full-back, the weighting of his touch taking him clear of the covering defender, and the inch-perfect execution of the shot, showed that even if teams know what he wants to do, it can be hard to stop. (Teams know that Lionel Messi will try and shoot left-footed if he can, but they can't stop it.)
But of course, Sterling is still very raw and has a lot to learn, and indeed, faded away after that amazing start. That said, his left-foot cross in the second half was the kind of thing I like to see, along with the times he tried to beat his man on the outside. Even though he (narrowly) failed to find Carroll's head, and lost the ball when dribbling, it's important to keep defenders guessing.
And of course, Lucas is fit again. Several external observers seem to note that he was only appreciated by Liverpool fans once he was seriously injured last autumn; but he had been voted the player of the season in 2010-11. He is, however, the epitome of the young, new recruit who struggles to adapt to a new club, country and system, but improves steadily for a while, and then dramatically.
It can also be about stepping out of the shadow of world-class players, with his best only coming once Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso had moved on. It can't be easy when you are still learning the game and are expected to step in as cover for such players, against whom you will inevitably be judged.
And hopefully Steven Gerrard, who missed so much football in the previous couple of seasons, can return to his devastating best. I'm pleased to see that Rodgers has returned him to a more advanced role, which is where I feel he can best influence games. As he gets older, he needs to rely on picking up clever positions to create and score goals, rather than being expected to go box-to-box, and tearing into tackles. He still has good stamina and a turn of pace, but he remains one of the best players around when it comes to making an decisive impact in the final third.
Joe Allen and Fabio Borini will both add new dimensions. Borini can offer Kuyt's goals and work-rate but with added pace, although he lacks the experience (but then a 21-year-old can represent the future in a way that a 32-year-old can't). The Italian is particularly good at hitting his shots on target, and that's an improvement the Reds need to make on 2011-12. And Allen is the kind of tempo-dictating player Liverpool haven't had since Alonso's departure (although Lucas is showing increasing capability at relentlessly retaining possession).
Will Stewart Downing perform better in a new role, as a left-footed right-sided attacker? He'll perhaps be under less scrutiny a year on from his transfer. That said, he started last season very impressively, but a failure to score or gain a league assist (despite creating several gilt-edged chances) seemed to dent his confidence; this season he already has a goal, so he's under less pressure already.
Andy Carroll showed against Leverkusen that he's lean and fit, and the cleverness of his turn when working space for his goal showed that he's no mere target-man. When he's confident his touch is good, and while Rodgers may favour exceptionally mobile strikers - and at times, with them dropping deep and wide to create space for midfielders, no strikers - I don't think you can say that the big No.9 cannot play fast-moving football kept on the deck. He has also shown a good work ethic.
The worry can be that defenders use him as a panic ball, and the fact that, as he's not a sprinter, he can't run in behind defences. The price tag has also never helped him, but he showed towards the end of last season that he was coming to terms with expectations.
Finally, Jordan Henderson seems to be underrated by a lot of people. His movement and first-time passing is very good, and though he didn't look too comfortable out on the right last season, that time spent in the team will have helped him progress as a player, just as Lucas had to endure some stick at the same age. It's all a learning process.
Sometimes when a manager changes things his team can struggle for cohesiveness and a shared wavelength. But equally, when things go well very quickly, it can have a surprise quality that diminishes with time. In football, the constant evolution of any side's play is countered by opposition knowledge. You can't stand still.
While some early season impacts may prove to be mere temporary highs, a passing style of football often relies on increased understanding, which comes with games and training sessions.
All in all, Liverpool look in pretty good shape for the season ahead, and if everything clicks, top four shouldn't be impossible. For me, top six, but racking up close to 70 points, should be a realistic aim; but overall, a sense of improvement - be it gradual or instant - and of heading in the right direction, has to be the main objective.